Bringing MTEI Home: By Mel Berwin and Rachel Nelson

September 10, 2021

We are one seminar away from finishing two years of learning with the Mandel Teacher Educator Institute.  One of the most impactful lessons that we gleaned from the program was present from the very first seminar, in November 2019.  After gathering for three days in our hotel in Skokie, IL with our 44-person cohort, focusing on many aspects of Jewish learning and teaching, the MTEI faculty laid out the eight “pillars,” or principles, on which MTEI stands.  These pillars communicate values such as “Teachers learn and learners teach” and “Intentional creation of community.”  We noticed how the faculty not only provided transparency by explaining these core values, but truly lived and modeled them throughout the conference. For example, although many of the teachers are beloved and respected professors in their fields, they did not assume that they knew how their teaching would land for us, but frequently checked in with participants, and adjusted their approach based on the needs of our cohort, honoring the idea that we teach them just as they teach us. We saw how these teachers made their values explicit, lived them, and often referred to them in order to clarify the “why” of their decisions about everything from the logistics of the conference to the content of programming.

From that first conference, Mel returned to Portland, Oregon, inspired to create pillars for the education community at Congregation Neveh Shalom, where she is Director of Congregational Learning. She worked over the next year with her teachers and education committee to craft and share pillars that articulated the core values of the programs she leads. “I realized that while I have certainly communicated some of the values and principles on which our education program stands, there are others that I might believe implicitly are true or important but I might never have said out loud, to the teachers or students or families. I wanted our community to have a clear set of values that we could refer to that communicates what matters most in this setting.”

Rachel, too, was thinking about how to translate those pillars into her work, as the Director of Educational Initiatives at the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland.  Specifically, she believed that PAJE, or Portland Area Jewish Educators, the group of director-level educators representing preschool, camps, youth groups, day schools and congregational schools that have met consistently under her leadership for the past seven years, would also benefit from creating pillars for the work that we do together. Together we led a visioning workshop for these directors this past June. Fourteen educators gathered on Zoom to consider who PAJE is, and who we want to be as a collaborative education community. We asked them first to reflect and then respond anonymously on a prepared padlet to these questions:

  • What does PAJE mean to you?
  • What are barriers to participating in PAJE programs?
  • How else could PAJE function in our community in an ideal world?

Next, the educators paired up in breakout rooms to read the MTEI pillars, reflect on them, and start to write their own language for the pillars that they believed apply to PAJE—and capture both what is currently true in our work together as well as what is aspirational. Although these pillars are still in draft form, the ideas that emerged are significant. They included:

  • Collaboration as a key
  • Empowering leaders
  • A focus on equity and accessibility for teachers and students
  • Using Jewish teachings for learning and connection
  • Fostering a growth environment through professional and personal development
  • Peer to peer relationship building and small group cohorts
  • Treating each other as equals and building trust

In these principles, the educators beautifully articulated values that are important to the group (collaboration, empowerment, equity, accessibility, growth environment, relationship and trust building) as well as the actions we take as a group to foster those values (collaboration, using Jewish teachings, professional development, small cohort learning/gathering). As the facilitators of this workshop, we both felt that there was important, honest information communicated by the educators about the dynamics and the goals of our work together, both in terms of the ideals we want to live up to and the barriers that might impede us.

We are currently crafting these important ideas into pillars to present back to the PAJE community, which meets bi-monthly through the school year.  Rachel believes these principles validate the work we do and also help to guide her work as the convener of the group: “Planning and implementing this session felt like it was the next appropriate step with visioning where PAJE is going. I look forward to continuing the conversation as a larger PAJE cohort, to hone in on the areas in which we should focus on. I went into the visioning session with some ideas about what our pillars should be and that was validated, AND I appreciated the other pillars that shone through. I look forward to working with our educators to continue to provide meaningful opportunities for all of us to connect and to create synergies in the work that we are doing.”

Pillars allow us to articulate and understand the shared values of our community, and provide both guidance and accountability for our decisions and actions.  Already in the process of creating our pillars, we have seen participants open up to each other with honesty and vulnerability, setting the ground for deeper trust as we discuss the deeper meaning of our work in education.  We anticipate that sharing the language of these values more broadly, and living by them, will help us to function as educational communities with more ethical clarity, trust, and connection.