Saturday, March 06, 2021

Amidst the past year of the COVID-19 pandemic our educational system has been tested and challenged in ways never before imagined. We have been forced to consider different modalities and ways in which education can be provided for students. We have rethought goals and values, reimagined what was possible and necessarily had to make difficult choices. While undergoing this difficult yet essential task we have learned critical lessons about education and hopefully will emerge with a heightened sensitivity to things we heretofore took for granted. The following list of five core educational values represents essential educational philosophy and tools we have gained from the pandemic and will help us emerge strengthened from the challenges of educating during the current pandemic.

1)       Relationships matter. Relationships have always been known to be a strong driver for successful learning. Rava captured its value when he declared, “או חברותא או מיתותא”—give me a study partner or give me death. In his strong language, Rava was describing the necessity of a partner in enabling more proficient learning. While Rava refers to a study partner, the adage of “They (students) don’t care how much you (teachers) know until they know how much you care” refers to the importance of the teacher-student relationship in enabling the learning to be successful. Lev Vygotsky, the renowned child psychologist, conducted research to demonstrate that learning is relational, meaning the stronger the relationships that exist, the stronger the learning will be. While this educational ingredient is deep rooted, our sudden shift to remote learning and shift to the COVID-19 learning of this year has magnified its importance and forced us to actively and thoughtfully prioritize it. In the spring, when we swiftly shifted to remote learning full time, many rebbeim and teachers creatively incorporated relationship building into their new modality. This ranged from providing time on Zoom for the class to just talk together, to teachers driving to visit each of their students to be able to talk in person, to the many after-school activities we offered for a range of interests to continue ensuring relationships were primary. When we returned to our campus this fall, teachers prioritized and thoughtfully planned the establishing of relationships when protocols required “social distancing” for safety. We have learned to read “eye smiles” since we cannot see our students’ mouths. We have invested in programming that brings students together safely as well as provides the important framework for teacher-student bonding. The continued success of relationships has enhanced our learning community as well as the social-emotional wellbeing of our students that contributes to a student’s continued drive to learn and grow. In fact, with the increased anxiety and depression among adolescents during the pandemic, the importance of social and emotional programming has become increasingly important. As we continue to look toward being able to reopen our yeshivas even more, the recognition of the centrality of providing a robust experience must remain a priority.

2) We do not always know what a student is experiencing in his or her personal life. This wisdom dates back to Chazal who advise us to judge everyone favorably. This principle has long been understood by teachers as many studies have demonstrated the impact of a student’s personal life on his academic achievements. For example, while a natural reaction to a student sleeping during class may be disappointment in the student, effective educators may wonder if the student is staying up too late and why they are staying up this late. With all of the uncertainty COVID-19 has created, we have developed a heightened sensitivity to the magnitude of challenges that a talmid may face. Does the student have a parent or grandparent who is battling COVID or out of work? Does all of the time at home together create anxiety or additional stress that our students are feeling? Are there not enough devices for each child and parent to use? During the COVID pandemic these questions may seem more obvious than the factors educators may need to try to consider during more normal times; however, the importance of this approach remains constant.

3) Education is about much more than information. As we first transitioned to Zoom and then struggled with Zoom fatigue, hybrid learning and asynchronous learning, we have had to relook at our learning priorities given the changing nature and time available for instruction. Zoom and remote learning may enable us to provide information, but is that all there is to the educational process? As we planned to reopen the building this past fall, we grappled with what we were looking to accomplish given the situation. Was the goal to return our students to the classroom, provide them with in-person learning, and then send them home, minimizing potential risk and exposure? Our approach was guided by our commitment to the MTA experience, which is more robust than classroom learning. We believe that our students benefit from night seder, debate, robotics, school newspaper, athletic teams and activities, as well as our programming such as Chanukah activities and grade-wide trips to Top Golf, paintball and snow tubing. All these pieces are part of a commitment to education in its most true form. In fact, empirical studies have been conducted to demonstrate how participation in co-curricular or extra-curricular activities are helpful in boosting the skills and academic competencies of students. These experiences provide for the holistic educational experience, the social emotional components, that is critical for adolescent development.

4)      The parent-school partnership is critical for the success of our students. “והחוט המשולש לא במהרה ינתק”—and the three-part rope will not easily come apart. This quote, from Shlomo Hamelech, describes the strength of a three-way partnership. In this context, when the yeshiva, parent and student all work together, the results are much greater than the sum of its parts. Throughout last spring our yeshivas actually took place at home. It required working together to ensure that the learning was set up for success, as well as soliciting feedback as we continued to adjust the approach to ensure we were achieving maximum effectiveness in our learning. The strength of the parent-school partnership was magnified. We ran parenting programming and invited our parents to participate in various programs. We communicated with our parent body on a daily basis, keeping them updated on how we were handling the unchartered waters. Then, as we began planning for our reopening, we actively engaged a parent committee, inviting their expertise and input in what yeshiva would look like in the fall. And the communication has remained at a higher volume throughout this academic year, as we continue to share updates and work together to maximize the educational and social-emotional experience of each talmid.

5) Adaptability and creativity. Education has evolved over time and continues to evolve. As new research is conducted, new technology is created and new approaches emerge, educators consider the most effective way to enable our students to achieve the goals we envision. Teachers not only teach, but remain lifelong learners, learning about and considering different ways to encourage our students to become learners. These shifts have necessarily been more dramatic over the past year, with the popularization of terms such as asynchronous learning and hybrid learning. Without in-person learning in the spring and with the variety of circumstances we have faced throughout the fall and winter, teachers have experimented with different pedagogical approaches as well as thought outside of the box regarding assessments. While these changes may be more pronounced and accelerated, the commitment to professional development and adapting pedagogy to meet the changing educational demands and landscape must continue, even when our schools are able to function as they did pre-pandemic.

We may have COVID fatigue and hope we do not hear certain buzzwords, such as unprecedented times, out of an abundance of caution and social distance. Yet, the experience of the past year must be used to advance our yeshivas. These five core principles that are not new have taken on a greater priority within our yeshiva framework. We have learned to appreciate each of these maxims in a more profound manner than ever before and understood in ways that were never as apparent. Our continued adherence and advancement of these concepts in our yeshiva structures will make sure that the past year has been one of growth and opportunity so that we can continue to strive to provide the best chinuch for our children.

Rabbi Joshua Kahn is the head of school at MTA.