The fourth bi-annual Quest Conference for Day School Teachers, attended by 450 local day school educators, was hosted last week at Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School (JKHA/RKYHS) in Livingston. This year’s theme was “The World in Our Jewish Day Schools: How the Social, Cultural and Political Climates Impact Our Work.”
Funded through the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ and Day School Council, the Quest Conference was spearheaded by Jerry Gottesman, z”l, and his wife, Paula, who was honored in celebration of her 85th birthday.
The conference was attended by every teacher from all four Greater MetroWest day schools, including JKHA/RKYHS, Golda Och Academy in West Orange, Bruriah School for Girls/Jewish Educational Center (JEC) in Elizabeth and Gottesman RTW Academy (GRTWA) in Randolph. Held biannually, it just celebrated its eighth anniversary with an overarching program goal of building academic excellence with affordable schools so that all the children appreciate their value in the Jewish community.
The keynote address, “The World Is Changing—So Should School,” was presented by Mike Anderson from New Hampshire, who started his career working as an elementary school teacher for 15 years. Noting how the world of work is changing, he revealed that his mother worked one job until retirement, while he is on his second career in addition to having penned several books on education. His assumption is that, the way things are going, his kids will need seven jobs throughout their work life.
Anderson presented on navigating a diverse and complex world. Noting “shifts in the world of work” and changes in the workforce, he focused on what the children need to succeed in this world, including “social and emotional weaving in everyday academic teaching.” Stressing the need for self-motivation, Anderson requested that the attendees work on his questions by turning and talking to the people seated near them, in this way building congeniality and a chance to work together.
Anderson noted the need to tap the students’ intrinsic motivators rather than offer rewards. Through video presentations in a classroom setting, he showed that when the work has purpose and significance, it can be really fun. After Anderson’s presentation, each educator chose two of the morning workshops to attend.
From a teacher’s perspective, Debbie Buechler, who teaches high school art at RKYHS, said, “Each year I look forward to our professional development opportunities. The keynote speakers are always interesting and give me valuable information. I really enjoy the time I get to spend with other art teachers as well (from the other day schools), as we share a lot of the same challenges. Brainstorming and sharing with them is very worthwhile. The variety of breakout sessions allows each teacher to attend what interests them most.”
Minna Heilpern, director of professional development at the JEC, said that working and learning together is a model for other communities, and it’s a beautiful thing with a lot to learn from each other and people open to learning from each other.
Jordan Herskowitz, upper school principal at Golda Och, regarded Anderson’s presentation as “spot on about the importance of SEL—social-emotional learning—and teaching those skills both in and out of the classroom. Besides academic, these are skills our students will need to be successful in our changing world.”
The afternoon session offered 39 affinity groups for professionals who do similar work across the four schools. Separated by their roles in the school, such as administrators, teachers or nurses, they worked in their own groups so they could build relationships with their colleagues. The purpose of the affinity groups was to help build collegiality and allow the schools an opportunity to learn from one another.
Robert Lichtman, the first chief Jewish learning officer for the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, lauded the deans of faculty and Federation for coming up with the idea to have the teachers try to connect every child with the world. One educator from each of the four schools was challenged to provoke the audience during the ELI Talks StorySlam, meant to “cultivate, raise up, and transmit inspired Jewish ideas” through “one unique piece of Torah” or their very own story, which centered around the theme of “The World in Our Schools.”
Rebecca Hindin, director, Day School Initiative of Federation, and Dov Ben-Shimon, Federation executive VP/CEO, presented Gottesman with a bouquet for her birthday. Then, one teacher from each of the four MetroWest Jewish day schools was called to join Gottesman on stage to receive the Jerry Gottesman Award for the Pursuit of Teaching Excellence. Awards were presented to teachers who have gone above and beyond in professional development and collaboration. The winners will meet over the next two years and visit day schools in other locations. The trips, based on what the educators are trying to master, are for professional development. This year’s recipients were Margueya Poupko, Bruriah School for Girls/JEC; Shira Stein, JKHA/RKYHS; Susan Allie, Golda Och Academy; and Kate Rubenstein, GRTWA.
Hindin is proud of the fact that “with such a diverse range in level of observance at the Jewish Day Schools, we at Federation recognize the fact that there is diversity, yet we are able to learn from each other and benefit from each other’s expertise as a community.”
By Sharon Mark Cohen