By Chandrea Serebro
They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but it took one woman with a passion for education and a mission to bettering the standard of Jewish teaching to partner with a veteran with a Master’s degree in education to challenge this. Now, the Judaic Studies instruction bar has been raised and there is no stopping them.
With over 13 years of teaching experience in formal Jewish education in the UK, USA, and South Africa, and a Master of Arts in Educational Leadership and Innovation, Ruhama Welcher is no stranger to what Jewish instruction should look like. Since she moved to South Africa in 2013, she has run teacher training workshops in several schools, and has done consultancy work, curriculum development, and teacher training. So when she noticed a gap in the level of Judaic instruction here, she knew just what needed to be done. She approached Suzanne Sackstein, who is herself committed to improving teaching as a profession, having been involved in tertiary education for the last 15 years and holding a Master’s in Education from Wits University. Together, they looked to develop a course to enhance Judaic instruction in SA’s Jewish day schools, a course that would ultimately change the way we see kodesh instruction and the way the teachers who teach Judaic Studies would see themselves. They founded the Teacher Training Academy (TTA), aimed at raising the level of Judaic Studies by providing limudei kodesh teachers in Jewish schools in South Africa with professional training in a “practical, hands on” course, which looks to help teachers understand what they are doing in the classroom, how they are going about it, and why. It’s a comprehensive training course for teachers, enabling these educators to critically evaluate themselves in the classroom and, by doing so, make their teaching better.
“Even the most experienced and capable teachers can improve their practice, and, in order to do so, one must be able to constantly self-reflect and self-evaluate,” says Ruhama. The course looks to give the teachers “a professional language” to use when looking at what they are doing and how the learners – each and every one in the classroom – are responding to it. Because, says Ruhama, the most important educational resource is a good teacher, and being a good teacher can be learned, despite what many may believe.
The course is heavily subsidised by the Pincus Fund for Jewish Education, and endorsed by The Lookstein Centre at Bar Ilan Universisy, as well as Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein. Teachers who successfully complete the programme will receive a teaching certificate from The Lookstein Centre at Bar Ilan University. It is largely practical, revolving around workshops and lesson observations, and addresses a variety of topics including setting appropriate learning outcomes, teaching models, and pedagogies, behaviour management, assessment for teaching and learning, and, perhaps most importantly for this generation, constructive use of technology in the classroom. It also looks at child protection laws in the schooling context. All these things are vital for the teachers to ensure that they give the learners not only their best, but also the best – which is no less than what the students deserve.
The TTA gives the participating teachers an intense mission, including workshops, written assignments, and a minimum of 12-20 hours of teacher observation. But the first cohort of eight teachers, including two principals, have just graduated from the TTA, and the new tricks that they have learned have set them apart. “In Hebrew, a Torah scholar is called a ‘talmid chacham’ – meaning ‘student of a wise one’. In Judaism, we believe that you have to constantly be studying and self-reflecting,” said Suzanne at the graduation, summing up the attitude of constant developing and evolving, of teaching and learning, which was the driving force behind the TTA in the first place. “I owe a huge hakaras hatov (debt of gratitude) to the Teacher Training Academy, to both Suzanne and Ruhama, for this incredibly worthwhile teacher training programme. I was so impressed with the comprehensiveness, professionalism, and quality of the programme,” says Rabbi Darryl Froom, principal of Hirsch Lyons Primary School. “They manage to identify the key areas for development of teachers, and I certainly have gained a tremendous amount of pedagogical knowledge and practical skills that have enabled me to grow professionally.”
The most powerful part of the programme for Rabbi Froom was when he got the chance to be observed teaching a class because the feedback that he received was extremely constructive and valuable. “I am privileged to have been part of the pilot project of this incredible course, and now that I have seen first-hand how powerful the course is, and what we can learn as teachers, we will be trying to send as many teachers on the course as is possible – as I believe it will make a positive impact on teaching and learning for all our students.” Because, he says, there is an immense need to send teachers on this course, as many Torah teachers may have “the passion, knowledge, and desire to pass on our greatest gift”, but “lack the understanding of teaching pedagogy”, which is vital for success in the classroom. And through the TTA, teachers now have a benchmark to show them just what that is. “The Teacher Training Academy is playing a very important role in our community by upgrading the training of our Torah teachers. Teaching Torah to the children of our community is the most noble of professions. As the Talmud says: the world exists for the breath of young children learning Torah. Teachers carry an awesome responsibility of giving our children the knowledge, skills, and love for Torah learning. The Teacher Training Academy is there to support and strengthen teachers in this holy mission. Therefore, the Academy is vital to the continued vibrancy of the Johannesburg Jewish community,” says Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein.
“The TTA, in its first year of existence, is clearly meeting its goals and providing a very important need within the community. It is an important initiative in the South African community, and I am sure it will only grow and develop further in the years to come,” said Rabbi Dr Eli Kohn from the Lookstein Center.
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