There is Moral Meaning in the Work We Do
January 26, 2023
At the MTEI (Mandel Teacher Educator Institute) graduate conference on Singer Island, Florida, in December 2022, we were asked to take a pad of sticky notes and jot down each task we accomplished in the previous week at work. I filled out about 20 notes during the allotted time: prepping materials for our Chanukah program, emailing parents, re-scheduling tutoring times, submitting payroll, problem-solving with teachers, etc. The facilitator, a graduate of MTEI named Esther, asked us to place these sticky notes on one of three concentric circles on a larger piece of paper. I considered the smallest circle, “moral meaning,” a wider circle, “meaning,” and the largest circle, “not meaningful.” I didn’t have to think long; I placed each of my sticky notes in that smallest circle, “moral meaning.”
“There is moral meaning in the work we do.” That was the theme of our -conference, and it’s one of the eight “pillars” or value statements which MTEI believes are core to the work we do in Jewish education. At this four-day conference, we would hold up that sentence for scrutiny, teasing out definitions of “moral meaning” and reflecting on how to infuse that meaning into all that we do—training teachers, working with lay leaders, building curriculum, working with children and families, and communicating with colleagues.
And although I am not always attentive to that ideal, with one step back I can easily see that there IS moral meaning in each task, however mundane. Are my teachers paid equitably? Are we meeting the needs of each student and family? Am I doing all that I can to set up my teachers and students for successful and joyous Chanukah experience? Is this 3rd grade lesson communicating a bigger Jewish idea that relates to the world of our students and what matters to them?
I believe we place moral meaning at the center of our work when we connect Jewish education to the real world our students live in and the real challenges they face, and when we strive to create a more humane world through our individual and collective actions. Moral meaning reminds us of the bigger picture and purpose of the work we do; it challenges us to focus on what matters most.
The ability to take a step back and focus on this big picture is a gift. To do that work with a dedicated and talented group of colleagues like the faculty and participants of MTEI is truly a blessing. My mind is swimming with the big questions and the practical ideas to bring back to my work at Neveh Shalom, and I am grateful to all who made this trip, and my participation in MTEI for the past 2.5 years, a reality.
One of MTEI’s principles is that learners teach and teachers learn. In that spirit, many of the participants led sessions at the graduate conference. I offered a workshop called “Working with Children with Anxiety through a Jewish Lens,” which I developed during the pandemic for Portland Area Jewish Educators (PAJE), and have since been leading for various groups of Jewish educators online through the Blue Dove Foundation (https://thebluedovefoundation.org/), an organization dedicated to transforming the way the Jewish community responds to mental health and addiction.
The workshop, which focuses on providing a social-emotional framework for mental wellness using Jewish texts, has three parts. First, we collectively describe what anxiety looks like in our teaching spaces. This can refer to students’ anxiety, but also teachers’ and parents’ as well. While it’s not our job to diagnose, noticing and describing behaviors that are hallmarks of anxiety and depression can help us be more empathetic educators. Second, we look at slides with a series of unhelpful thinking patterns. These include “all or nothing thinking,” “disqualifying the positive,” and “catastrophizing.” All of us have these types of thoughts sometimes, but a person with severe anxiety or depression may get in a rut with these thoughts, leading to increasingly helpless, hopeless, and life-threatening ideas.
Unfortunately, I’m all too familiar with these dangerous “thought trains.” All three of my children have struggled with severe anxiety and depression at times. When my daughter came out of residential treatment for suicidal ideation, our family entered a two-year program of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), which is often effective for young adults and adults in distress. The skills taught in DBT were so helpful to our family, and made so much sense to me as an educator, that I began to incorporate the language and concepts of DBT into our teacher trainings in ALIYAH. Little did I know that we would soon be facing a major change in the scale of mental health challenges in our world.
Seeing our kids suffer is one of the most humbling and challenging experiences we face as parents and educators. If we can use our experiences to connect with others, we can normalize and de-stigmatize mental health challenges and provide essential support, decreasing our own and others’ sense of isolation and shame.
The third part of the workshop focuses on four Jewish texts that can be taught or modeled to reflect healthier thinking patterns and shift us away from the unhealthy ones, interrupting that negative, dangerous “thought train.”
Before this MTEI conference, I had facilitated the workshop only on Zoom, never in person. I was moved by the honesty and care of the educators sharing space with me in our hotel conference room. We delved into each text together, considering how we could be as attentive as possible to each student and their needs, and we discussed how we might teach or model the ideas within our own education environments. We left with greater clarity of purpose and practical ideas for meeting the needs of our students, families, teachers, and communities.
This session brought together my MTEI community with my work at Blue Dove Foundation and Congregation Neveh Shalom, along with all of the struggle and heartache and learning from my own family’s journey. Focusing on the moral meaning in our work involves connecting on a genuine level about our shared experiences of being human. I hope this work leads to greater understanding, empathy, and skill within our learning communities. At the end of the day, I want our community to feel like the safest space for our children to be authentically themselves, without stigma or shame.
Many thanks to the leadership of CNS and BDF for supporting this work, to MTEI for creating an inspired and inspiring educational environment, and to our teachers at CNS who are always up to the challenge.