Moving Out of Our Comfort Zones

November 17, 2021

By Tamar Shames and Dassi Shtern

Walking into the first Sunday of the very first MTEI Seminar, we were both filled with mixed feelings of trepidation and excitement. What was this all about? Who would we talk to? What am I getting myself into? These were just some of the questions circling our minds as we searched for our name tags around the tables. As we sat and were introduced to our homegroup members, we met one another and very quickly realized how much we had in common. We had mutual friends, similar educational backgrounds, and many overlapping professional responsibilities. A match made at MTEI!

Over the last two years we have been fortunate to develop both a friendship and professional relationship that has extended beyond the parameters of MTEI seminars. In one another we have found thought partners, collaborators, and like-minded colleagues. As such, after Seminar 4 when we were assigned to create a professional development session for our colleagues, we jumped at the opportunity to collaborate and bring our work worlds together.

As we began brainstorming and thinking about the possibilities for a joint professional development session, we challenged ourselves to come up with something that would be new and different for our colleagues while closely aligning with several of the MTEI Principles. The two specific principles that guided our work and thinking were:

  1. Intentional creation of community
  2. There is moral meaning in the work we do

As Directors of organizations responsible for multiple Special Education programs in our respective cities, much of our professional development work with staff centers around Special Education related to strategies and solutions. MTEI challenged us to engage our staff with text study, which for many of our colleagues, is quite foreign at this stage in their careers. We decided as such, that it would be an exciting and worthwhile opportunity to try something new and really bring the flavor of MTEI back to our work. We were eager to see what would happen if we all pushed ourselves and our colleagues out of our comfort zones. It was also an opportunity to bring our two agencies together for professional development.

We imagined what it might look like to take a Jewish text related to the work we do, and use it to inform and inspire. While we were cognizant of the fact that this experience would certainly push people beyond their comfort level, we worked together to develop a session that would meet the needs of all our learners and scaffold the process so that our colleagues would feel supported throughout.

Finding the texts took time, but we eventually chose two texts that focused on two specific characters in tanach: Nachson ben Aminadav and Chushim ben Dan. Each of these characters were different-abled, and found themselves making a decision in an extreme situation. We wondered what would happen if a group of special educators would consider each character’s abilities, and how their situations might relate to the work that we do.

Despite any hesitations we may have had about our colleagues’ willingness to engage in this unfamiliar process, we were thrilled with the results. Some of the feedback we received:

“It was exciting to feel some success in an area that was not in my comfort zone.”

“ I am inspired by applying Jewish text to everyday life in the manner of this workshop”

“It was beneficial to hear my Chavruta’s perspective of how she initially responded to the text vs what I initially responded to in the text and how with each other’s perspectives we were able to apply it to our work.”

“I never considered the idea of special needs being represented in Torah text (had never heard of Chushim ben Dan) and again I really appreciate being able to look at Torah in relation to current work that we are doing. Thank you for the opportunity!”

We were impressed with the way our colleagues embraced the text and appreciated interacting with one another. We were also amazed at the new ideas that were discovered within the texts – concepts that we ourselves had not considered.

Ultimately, our goal, and what we hope we were able to transpire to our colleagues, was that text study enriches what we do, even in our unique context. Furthermore, through collaboration and chevruta work we were able to sense the building of community, even over Zoom and hundreds of miles away.

We are grateful for the MTEI experience and feel this Professional Development concept is one that we can continue to develop in the future. In fact, our colleagues’ only complaint was that the session ended too soon!