COVID-19 Is Ushering In The Future of Jewish Education

November 6, 2020
Photo by Imgorthand/Getty Images

For years to come, 2020 will be remembered as a time that changed everything. These months in quarantine have changed the way we interact with others, engage in our professions and relate to our family, friends and community. Nothing has gone untouched by the new reality.

The Jewish community, and Jewish education specifically, is not, and will not, be immune from the changes taking place. In fact, many of the changes are happening so quickly that most of us in the field have been too busy to take the time necessary to evaluate the changes and their long-term effects on the way we perceive education, how we educate, where we educate and, most importantly, why we educate.

In many of our Jewish schools, we’ve transitioned to either remote (Zoom) teaching or small, insulated pods with very little diversification or collaboration. We’ve moved away from extracurricular programs that promote social and emotional growth, connection and cultural awareness to remote or socially-distanced events that lack the same levels of connectivity and bonding opportunities. These are just a few of the changes we are seeing in the field of education.

These sweeping changes are forcing education to move into a realm that most educators have resisted for over 20 years. Personally, I have been pushing for a move to a more student-focused direction for over ten years, and I believe that we can offer our students so much more by shifting to online and blended learning, not just remote learning. I also firmly believe that we can offer our students so much more by giving them more ownership of their learning and learning outcomes. Here are some of the things we’ve already learned from the shift to online learning:

Moving a traditional classroom onto a remote (Zoom) platform does not work. Although this was a good, quick fix for the shutdown, Zoom and similar platforms are not appropriate for long-term online learning. Students, for the most part, are disengaged while attending remote classes: Most students struggle with maintaining their attention and are not actively engaged throughout the class. Although the use of cameras and microphones have been hotly debated because of issues with equity and self-esteem, a study conducted through the Department of Education in​ April 2020, found that approximately 40% of students turn on their cameras and only five percent actively use their microphones. In some cases, students have become so tech savvy that they create a short video of themselves seemingly engaged and loop it so that it looks like they are fully participating even when they’ve stepped away from their computers.

Honestly, the issue with remote education is the use of cameras and microphones. Teachers may not actually know what to do differently to engage their students or ensure they are following the lesson. They are using the same in-person classroom management techniques in a remote environment instead of adapting their teaching styles to the remote environment. They don’t know how to use exit tickets, choice boards, Google Forms, chat boards, or flipped classes to even begin to assess how much their students are learning. Of course, there are outliers who are adept at using the technology, while others resist it.

In the past, a gentle touch to a shoulder or pointing to the place in the text or simply asking a question was enough to re-engage a student. In our new reality, none of these tricks exist and teachers don’t know what to do. Nor should they. This is a brand new way of teaching that requires a whole new set of pedagogical skills. And the bigger, unspoken problem is that school administrators didn’t know how to provide the training (or retraining) that teachers, students and parents so desperately needed.

In the past, a gentle touch to a shoulder or pointing to the place in the text or simply asking a question was enough to re-engage a student.

The solution is simple but very difficult to implement. First, every school needs to create policies to boost family engagement. These policies need to be implemented across the entire system, integrated in all programs, and sustained, with resources and infrastructure available for all participants. Parents should be provided with opportunities to participate in decisions that focus on student learning, beyond participation in pre-planned events. These family engagement policies must become part of our school evaluation process, putting the focus on student achievement and the shared responsibility of all stakeholders. These policies allow teachers to stop blaming students for not being engaged and parents to stop blaming teachers for not engaging their students. Instead, each teacher partner evaluates what they could be doing differently to support their students’ growth and progress. When we stop blaming others and reflect on what we could be doing differently to support our students, they get the best support possible.

There’s just one problem. Every stakeholder in education — administrators, teachers, community leaders, parents and students — assumes that educators possess the requisite skills, knowledge, confidence and belief systems to successfully implement and sustain these policies. But we don’t. These capacities, like everything else, need to be taught, modeled, refined and evaluated on an ongoing basis. We all need some training. Without this training, our partnership efforts can fall flat and default to one-way communication.

These capacities can be taught, but they cannot be applied across the community. Each school needs to take the time to really, deeply reflect on their community and evaluate what their students need and build the training that makes the most sense for their stakeholders — especially their students. It also requires that each school evaluate the capacities of their teachers to fully embrace a partnership with their students’ parents. Building these capacities requires an understanding between schools and parents that they have equal responsibility in the success of their students. Paying (and collecting tuition) is not enough to ensure our students’ growth — especially now. We all need to take responsibility for what is happening, and not happening, in our classrooms and our homes, for the sake of our children and the future of our Jewish community. It is time for parents and community leaders to become active partners in the education experience and not merely consumers of whatever the school offers.

For parents, this partnership will require them to show more flexibility with administrators and teachers. It requires experiments in pedagogy, in using technologies and techniques (exit tickets, choice boards, Google Forms for assessments, chat boards, flipped classes, alternative class schedules) while we move away from didactic instruction, where the teacher lectures and the students just listen. It requires acknowledging that we are learning all the time and that mistakes are going to be made. But these mistakes are part of the learning process and will lead to a better learning environment for our children. It also means that administrators and teachers need to be transparent about their experiments, the data they’ve collected, the results the data yields, and where the learning will go. Most importantly, parents and students need to work together to bridge whatever gaps may exist while pedagogies are being tried and refined for the long-term sake of our students, our schools, and our Jewish community.

We may be stuck with COVID-19 for a while. Let’s use the time in quarantine to emerge with a stronger Jewish education system.

Rebecca Coen is a long-time educational leader, coach and consultant dedicated to advancing the field of education through reflective thinking and strategic planning.



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