June 16, 2019

Teaching the teachers

In 2007, Michael Zeldin spoke to the Jewish Journal about DeLeT (Day School Leadership Through Teaching; it also means “door” in Hebrew), the education program designed to train prospective Jewish day school teachers at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). Zeldin, director of DeLeT and HUC-JIR’s Rhea Hirsch School of Education, told the Journal with confidence that he believes DeLeT, with its emphasis on experience-based learning and well-rounded curricula, “will transform the face of Jewish education.” 

Eight years later, DeLeT has become a highly successful Jewish education program. On July 16, faculty, staff, students and alumni gathered at HUC-JIR to recognize the program’s 13th anniversary with a b’nai mitzvah celebration. Zeldin said the 118 DeLeT graduates have lived up to his vision. 

“They are the fulfillment of our dream,” Zeldin said. “That these people who come into this program are willing to dedicate their lives to teaching Jewish children is just incredibly meaningful.”

When it was founded in 2002, DeLeT was the first education program that specifically trained participants to teach general studies courses in Jewish day schools. DeLeT’s curriculum integrates Jewish values and customs into general studies and emphasizes learning through experience. The school has formed partnerships with several Los Angeles day schools to place students as interns in classrooms, where they learn on the job while attending classes. 

In 2008, the 13-month program became licensed by California to confer the multiple-subject teaching credential to its graduating students, making it one of the only religious education programs able to do so. This academic year, DeLeT is launching a new track designed to prepare Hebrew-language teachers for day schools. The L’Ivrit course of study is based on the classic DeLeT curriculum, with modified sections of some courses as well as additional courses, such as Hebrew pedagogy, specifically for L’Ivrit students. 

In a speech at the b’nai mitzvah ceremony, Zeldin noted how state officials referred to DeLeT as “one-of-a-kind.”

Zeldin also said more than 90 percent of all DeLeT graduates are hired as day school teachers immediately after completing the program, which he proudly claims to be an exceptionally high rate of job placement. 

“What we’ve found so far is that even though schools don’t usually hire brand-new teachers out of a credential program, because our teachers are so well-prepared and had a yearlong internship at a Jewish day school, they’ll be hired as teachers right out of this program,” Zeldin said. 

When the program first started, Zeldin and his staff recruited people to join the program’s pilot class and convinced local day schools to partner with them. 

Eileen Horowitz, DeLeT’s education director, said the reputation of the program’s graduates quickly increased DeLeT’s prestige, and now the school gets flooded with applications, which has allowed it to raise standards of admission. 

The program, Horowitz said, has “an array of students. Some are straight out of college; some are looking for second careers. Some are 23, 24, and some are over 50.”

DeLeT looks for ambitious and open-minded “future teacher-leaders,” regardless of their previous work history or background, Horowitz said. “When it became more competitive, we could really look for the brightest and the best,” she said. 

Horowitz admires DeLeT for breeding the type of educator who wants to make as much of a difference as possible. She has worked in education for more than 40 years, including as head of school at Temple Israel of Hollywood, one of DeLeT’s partner schools. But, she said, when she first started teaching, she and her peers didn’t think in terms of career advancement or see themselves as leaders.

“When we started out, we thought, ‘OK, I’ll be a classroom teacher, I’ll get summers off,’ ” she said. “We know there are now many in our schools who have aspirations to be the best they can be, which in turn makes students the best they can be, which in turn makes the school the best it can be. So they ascend into different positions.”

DeLeT also has an active and supportive alumni network, which Horowitz believes provides a healthy space for peer relationships, especially when someone needs advice or counsel from a fellow teacher. 

Michelle Barton graduated from DeLeT in 2011 and teaches general studies to third-graders at Pressman Academy. She also is the lead coordinator for DeLeT’s alumni network. She said the network helps reinforce DeLeT’s core values among graduates once they enter the workforce. 

“We really try and support our teachers after they graduate from the program,” she said.

“DeLeT believes that teachers are lifelong learners, and we try to foster that and model that for our students.”

Like many of the program’s graduates, Barton speaks very highly of the curriculum and said her time at DeLeT was, to borrow Zeldin’s language, transformative. 

“For me, it was the most formative experience of my career,” Barton said. “It’s incredible to be in a cohort of learners and to learn from each other. It’s just a beautiful way to give back to the Jewish community and teach Jewish children.”