Jewish Educators Turn To Mentoring For Growth, Support
Tue, 01/10/2012
Jewish Week Correspondent
Amy Ament, left, of the Jewish New Teacher Project, coaches Susan Mindrick, a second-year teacher at Carmel Academy in Greenwich
Amy Ament, left, of the Jewish New Teacher Project, coaches Susan Mindrick, a second-year teacher at Carmel Academy in Greenwich

Adele Chabot’s first year of teaching seemed like a nightmare to her, says the 22-year-old educator at the Barkai Yeshivah, a school in Flatbush serving Sephardic Jews.

“Everything that could go wrong did go wrong,” she says, recalling that she faced not only discipline problems, but also the overwhelming nature of adjusting to a new job and a new environment.

“Even if there are no discipline problems, it’s hard for a new teacher because everything is new,” Chabot says. “Planning a lesson is new; meeting with parents is new; learning to speak to students in the right way is new.”

But Chabot entered the classroom last September, ready to begin her second year in the field, with the professional confidence and self-esteem she lacked during the previous term. Calling herself a “changed teacher” and a changed person, she now says she’s “one of the happiest people in the world” — an educator who “loves” her students and looks forward to work each morning.

Not only does she feel she’s engaging the students on a deeper level, but, she says, the disciplinary problems have also disappeared. Rather than scream or shout at her students, as Chabot did last year, she now feels better able to handle problems, and that, she believes, leads to an atmosphere of mutual respect.

What made the difference, she says, is the guidance she’s received from one of the school’s veteran teachers, Vicky Kairy, through the Jewish New Teacher Project.

Part of the New Teacher Center in Santa Cruz, Calif., JNTP is one of several relatively new programs that offer mentoring or coaching to teachers in Jewish day schools and yeshivas. Other programs include Hidden Sparks, launched in 2006 and now working with 34 schools, and Yeshiva University’s New Teacher Induction Program, now in its pilot year and involved with five schools.

While each program is unique, taking a different approach from the others, all have the same goal, says Shira Loewenstein, who heads the YU program. “It’s about advancing teaching and learning” in Jewish schools and yeshivas.

The programs have taken shape at a time when teacher burnout has affected as much as a half of all new teachers, including those in Jewish schools.

“Forty to 50 percent of new teachers leave the profession in their first five years,” says Ellen Moir, CEO of the New Teacher Center, who cites a 2004 study for that figure. In the eyes of Moir and other educators, it’s a rate of attrition that hurts everyone, from students, teachers and schools to the community itself, especially after so much money has been invested into recruiting teachers and developing them professionally.

The Jewish New Teacher Project came into existence in 2002 after the attrition problem set off alarm bells at the Avi Chai Foundation, a private charity devoted to promoting Jewish education, says Fayge Safran, JNTP’s interim director.

At the time, she explains, the foundation did a needs-assessment study of what principals believed would most advance education in their schools, “and teacher mentoring surfaced as a common thread.” The foundation then researched various organizations involved in that work, leading Avi Chai staff members to the New Teacher Center, which, by all accounts, was having a huge impact on teacher retention.

Asked by the foundation to work in Jewish schools, the New Teacher Center agreed, creating JNTP as one of its divisions. JNTP now works with 49 schools in New York, New Jersey and five other locations around the country.

The work involves supporting new teachers in their first two years through “in-house mentors” — other, more veteran members of the school’s faculty who’ve been trained to coach their colleagues — and “visiting mentors,” or educators from outside the school. JNTP provides extensive training for both types of mentors, each of whom meets with and observes the new teacher for two hours a week, aiding them in such areas as analyzing student work, communicating with parents and planning a lesson.

Each new teacher also attends four seminars led by JNTP during those two years, Safran says — forums that cover classroom management, how to engage students and other subjects related to teaching.

“The goal is that, in two years, the new teacher will be an independent problem-solver,” no longer dependent on his or her mentor, Safran says. Like her counterparts at Hidden Sparks and YU’s New Teacher Induction Program, she adds that her program’s mentors don’t tell new teachers what to do, but, instead, act as their allies, helping them arrive at their own conclusions.

“One of the best compliments I ever got from a new teacher was, ‘Fayge, I hear your voice in my head,” recalls Safran, who became head of the organization when its director of seven years, Mark S. Silk, left las month.

The language at Hidden Sparks is more student-oriented, reflecting the program’s history. Debbie Niderberg, the organization’s director, says it was launched, in part, with seed money from philanthropists Pamela and George Rohr, interested in helping struggling students in Jewish day schools. With those funds, she and her colleagues developed a model that helps classroom teachers come up with individual strategies for each student, thus avoiding a tendency on the part of some educators to label students or place them in a box.

“The idea was to prevent students from falling through the cracks,” Niderberg says. “That was how we came up with the name of Hidden Sparks,” referring to the sparks, or strengths, within each child.

The mentors trained or employed by Hidden Sparks are referred to as coaches, and the teachers they help span the spectrum, from new teachers to veteran members of the faculty, from those without any degree to those with a master’s degree. As with JNTP, the program utilizes internal and external coaches, each of whom visits the classrooms of individual teachers and leads monthly forums for groups of educators.

At YU, what makes Shira Loewenstein’s program unique “is that we view new-teacher mentoring as part of the induction process,” but not the only part, she says. The process also includes creating a community of new teachers, creating a community of veteran teachers and working with the school’s leaders.

The program is part of YU’s Institute for University-School Partnership, which offers an array of services to each school, including help with financial planning, board governance and professional development, says Dina Rabhan, the institute’s director of recruitment, placement and induction. The belief, she adds, is that everything about a school — the finances, the community, the teaching — is interconnected.

One discovery made by educators at JNTP, Hidden Sparks and the YU program — all of which are based in New York — is that mentoring helps not only the teachers being coached, but the mentors themselves.

Vicky Kairy, Chabot’s mentor at the Barkai Yeshivah and a seven-year member of the school’s faculty, says her experience with JNTP has given her the chance “to sit down and reflect on what I’m doing as a teacher and what others are doing.”

Meanwhile, Kairy, 27, is proud of the progress made by Chabot, who, she believes, has “set herself up for success this year” by recognizing her strengths, as well as her weaknesses. And Chabot is now advising other new teachers “who had the same problems I had last year.”