This coming Sunday I leave for Chicago to attend the second of six seminars in the Mandel Teacher Educator Institute (MTEI), a professional learning program for Jewish educators who supervise teachers. In our first session back in June, we explored a number of techniques of observation and communication, with a focus on attentive listening – hearing and seeing without judgement or immediately forming opinions. This proved to be a difficult and challenging exercise, but very valuable as well.
This type of observation is a hallmark of both 21st century Jewish learning and special education. We live in a democratized era where each individual wants to explore topics or themes that are relevant and meaningful to him or her. In the context of Jewish learning, this means that Jewish educators should not be informing others about what they should study; rather, we need to listen to what they are saying and be willing to engage with each learner in their own journey, regardless of whether their areas of interest aligns with our personal, professional, or institutional goals. It is a humbling process, as we are steeped in a tradition of texts and sources that seem to predetermine what the most important or crucial areas of study should be.
In settings involving special education, these tools are also critical for the establishment of a healthy learning environment and determining learning goals. It is always important to be informed of each student’s needs – do they have an Individualized Education Plan, do they have any fine motor challenges or processing difficulties, how do they act and react in different social situations, and so on – but this doesn’t get to the heart of who that particular learner is, what they are interested in, what they want to learn and what supports they might need to get there. To find this out, the educator needs to truly listen to the student and be able to either look past or compartmentalize any learning challenges that can so easily frame how we look at those with special needs, and in doing so can help the learner more strongly connect to the subject matter at hand.
We are always quick to form opinions and take sides. Our modern society has engrained this in us – single click likes or dislikes online, pundits and talking heads, the need to have an opinion lest one be identified as wishy-washy or uninformed about an issue. We usually listen for what we want to hear, not what the other person is actually saying. By slowing down, focussing on the other and their needs, and by using the protocol I have learned at MTEI, I am becoming a more empathetic and learner-focussed educator. This is one aspect of our commitment to inclusion at Beth Tzedec, but the overarching approach is extremely important in synagogue education – truly hear what the other person is saying. Respond to them directly, not to already-formed opinions about what they have said. This path will lead to deeper connection and commitment to Jewish learning, practice and community-building.
Principal, CS|X @ BT