With Covid not yet behind us but with some sense of managed normalcy, I have returned to visiting day schools across North America. While each individual school, community and region differs in approach, I am learning from school leaders and my HATC colleagues about key trends, challenges and strategies defining the current state of Hebrew teaching and learning.
The Shrinking Talent Pool
By far the biggest challenge is the shrinking number of available Hebrew teachers, not to mention qualified Hebrew teachers and leaders. While many teachers from a range of fields left teaching or just relocated away from their schools, the field of Hebrew teachers relies heavily on Israeli-Americans or short-term shlichim. Travel restrictions and visa issues significantly reduced the number of shlichim coming to North America.
A number of Israeli-Americans have used this moment to return to Israel, either no longer wanting to be prevented from visiting family or because a primary earner could now telecommute from Israel. Hebrew leaders often found the pandemic-related demands on their time as school leaders meant less time to focus on staff development or curricular planning. In order to reverse this talent shortfall, fieldwide strategies regarding recruitment, retention and professional development must increase, especially if reported parallel increases in enrollment continues.
Zooming In and Out
Challenges related to the shift to virtual, hybrid and on-again, off-again onsite learning consumed countless articles. Key challenges have included working to meet the needs of students moving into the day school space seeking “safe harbors,” arriving in most cases with limited or no Hebrew language skills, and often entering grades where teachers are unaccustomed to beginning Hebrew learners. Groupings of students are not always done based on Hebrew language levels, and some schools continue to keep teachers from moving freely across grades or buildings. The need to create new beginner classes for these students further exacerbates the already stated paucity of teachers. Time and resources will need to be prioritized to train teachers to successfully onboard these students and, where applicable, to expand their effectiveness in differentiated instruction.
Social-Emotional Learning and Hebrew
We are seeing a shift from primarily considering how social-emotional learning supports skills building and content learning to where instruction is now being modified to meet students’ social-emotional needs. The theories and skill sets related to social-emotional learning and the range of training that prepares teachers to be effective and nimble are central to the core curriculum of academic training in education. However, more than half of the field of Hebrew teachers have not even attained a bachelor’s degree in education, and the time demands due to Covid prevent many from accessing the professional development opportunities that might have partially offset this lack of training. Most school-based professional development is typically done in English rather than Hebrew, and attention is not always paid to the unique cultural reality many Israeli-Americans contend with as first-generation immigrants in a new country.
A central variable in successful language learning is time allocation; the pandemic typically took away time from Hebrew instruction that is only now returning. Covid’s increase also led to decreased assessment of Hebrew, particularly approaches that focus on all four skills of reading, writing, speaking and comprehension. This challenge, besides obscuring student progress, hindered teachers’ ability to use assessment to inform instruction. We are now seeing a return to more robust assessment. Early results indicate that while the pace of student advancement slowed, Hebrew language learning did progress despite the pandemic.
From the perspective of Hebrew language learning, we are also seeing Covid-keeps, those creative adaptations likely to become normative. Teachers are reporting a percentage of students did well with distance learning, and increased use of digital tools provided fun and engaging access to Hebrew learning in ways likely to remain in teachers’ repertoire. Greater comfort with using videoconferencing enabled teachers to bring guest speakers into the classroom from across the globe or to support real-time interactions with peer learners in Israel.
The surge of increased virtual professional development opportunities that emerged to respond to the crisis is not likely to reverse to the prior state, ensuring that more time and dollars can be spent helping teachers and school leaders grow rather than be spent on travel, lodging and food. We expect more intentionality to guide us when we gather physically, ideally focusing more on networking and field building in this still nascent profession.
Barriers between and within schools have also moved or been broken, allowing students, teachers staff and parents to learn from one another. Within schools, an “all hands on deck” reality has allowed Hebrew teachers greater opportunity to step out of the Hebrew-speaking departmental community to interface and integrate with other colleagues. This helps elevate these teachers’ sense of being a part of the school as a whole and allows everyone the ability to see them in a new light.
The graying boundary between home and school has allowed Hebrew to be experienced in a more holistic manner. We are also learning more materials are needed to assist most parents in helping their children with Hebrew language learning, an opportunity to perhaps empower more parents to connect with this key element of good Jewish day school education.
Two final, broad thoughts emerge from this field perspective. Language learning, by its very nature, provides space for teachers and students to explore thoughts and feelings about their identities and to develop new lenses through which to view the world. We believe this increases a sense of empathy and community.
And while Covid has been a global scourge, reminding us that no community can isolate itself from the rest of the world, it also reminds us that the Jewish community has always been a global people. Our physical isolation has raised our awareness of the centrality of Hebrew as a connector across Jewish schools and communities. May greater attention on strengthening Hebrew learning and teaching ensue, leading to better student outcomes and increased support for the teachers providing these students with the gift of the Hebrew language.