After teaching in a Northern California religious school for four years, Jen Wakefield thought she knew everything there was to know about teaching Torah to religious school students.
"Boy, was I wrong," laughs the Palo Alto, Calif. resident. "The process will be dramatically different for me now in terms of how to set it, how to teach it and make it more effective."
This summer, Wakefield was one of 18 fellows to begin the Day School Leadership Through Teaching (DeLeT) program, which trains day school teachers how to approach most secular subjects from a Jewish perspective.
DeLeT fellows complete the academic portion of their training at either the Rhea Hirsch School of Education of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Los Angeles or Brandeis University in Boston. But most of their experience is drawn from time spent out in the field shadowing veteran teachers at local day schools.
Founded by Laura Lauder, a philanthropist known for her support of Jewish education in San Francisco, DeLeT was created with the intention of increasing the number of Jewish professional day school teachers with the skills to serve as general studies and/or Judaic studies teachers. The initiative was also set forth to help retain current teachers and attract more people into the education field.
Lauder's own experiences as a day school parent drew her to the subject. "There were always either great secular teachers and then Israelis or Jewish educators for the Judaica part," she said. "There was never 'one size fits all.'"
Lauder said she designed the new program to produce well-rounded day school teachers who have the ability to integrate Judaism into secular subjects. The only subject taught without a Jewish slant is mathematics, which administrators believe stands on its own.
DeLeT involves a full-time academic curriculum that takes place over two summers at either Brandeis or HUC-JIR, and an internship at a day school in the time between. Fellows must then work at a day school for two additional years while pursuing a master's degree in Jewish education and/or earning a state teaching credential.
DeLeT has partnered with nine day schools in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Boston. Students work as interns at the schools and are mentored by a faculty member. Local fellows will intern at Adat Ari El Day School in Valley Village, The Pressman Academy or Stephen S. Wise Elementary School in Los Angeles. During the year, they will congregate for weekly meetings with mentors and program administrators.
Another program cornerstone is the idea that the learning process continues for all teachers, no matter their stage of development as an educator. While fellows learn from their teachers and mentors, the process is reciprocal.
"There's something wonderfully generative in the work [the mentors] are going to do with the fellows," says Luisa Latham, the Rhea Hirsch School of Education's DeLeT program director. "The physical reality of having someone in your classroom observing is going to raise the bar for [mentors]."
This fall, Sapphira Fein will work on raising the bar for her mentor at Pressman Academy. The West Hollywood resident choose DeLeT because she wanted to work in a field where she could incorporate her passion for Judaism.
"I realized that the future of Judaism rested with the children, and to me they seemed like the most crucial group I could help," Fein says. "I knew that as a person I'd make an amazing teacher and an amazing asset to the Jewish community. I felt that this program would give me the practical experience I need."
Having just completed the first academic segment, Fein is looking forward to using her new knowledge in a classroom setting in September.
While creating a day school teacher community of sorts, DeLeT also aims to unite the schools themselves, which sometimes have a tendency to exist quietly as their own entities. "There are not very many collaborative projects among day schools," says professor Sara Lee, the director of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education and co-chair of DeLeT's National Academic and Professional Advisory Committee. "The fact that DeLeT fellows are at different schools and will come together again can remove the isolation of these day schools."
Regardless of what marks these teachers will make on future students, it's clear that the program will spawn a new breed of teachers into the teaching pool.
"We feel that from the very beginning [of the program], we're grounding [the fellows'] practice," says Jane West Walsh, DeLeT's executive director. "Whether they're teaching math or reading, they're specifically Jewish day school teachers."
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