Sharing stories, inspiring change: Lessons from the Institute
Ask any one of my friends or family members: in the weeks leading up to JWA’s Institute for Educators, I was a mess. As the dishes piled up on my desk at the office and my eyeballs crossed from looking at spreadsheet after spreadsheet of catering orders and flight information, a battle between stress and excitement raged in my mind.
When the big day arrived, I was fully prepared to shake hands, pass out binders, and snap photos for press releases and news articles. I was armed with tupperware for catering leftovers and a flip camera for recording video of teachers participating in the program. I planned to share new teaching ideas and impart resources for making history inclusive and engaging. Pretty straightforward, right? Teachers come, they learn, they teach. But, as the week continued on, I learned a few things that even I wasn’t expecting.
Lesson 1: We’re not alone.
It has always surprised me that educators, in the midst of lively classrooms and schools, often feel isolated and disconnected from their colleagues, administrators, and communities. By coming together to talk about teaching and learning, participants quickly discovered that they weren’t the only ones feeling overwhelmed. “We all face the same challenges to bring our students the best learning experiences, no matter our type of institution or its geographic location,” said Sharon Freed from Winnipeg, Manitoba. Having an opportunity to connect face-to-face with other teachers, and talk about similar struggles, and ideas for overcoming them, is a much-needed reminder of why so many people dedicate their lives to this work. Others described the experience as “transformative,” “inspiring,” and “invigorating.”
Lesson 2: Our stories are important.
There is something powerful that happens when we hear the stories of earlier generations. “I’m a strong believer in creating ‘links in the Jewish chain’ of history,” said Ellyn Polsky from Little Rock, AR. “We have so much to learn from those who have come before us—from our ancestors in the Torah through the girls soon-to-become bat mitzvah.” Beyond telling and retelling stories, we draw strength from asking questions and exploring how others’ experiences relate to us. “My story is important,” said an educator from California, Gail Robillard. “My students’ stories are important. I validate myself and my students when I learn about and teach the stories of the women who came before me.” Whether it’s Jewish history, American history, women’s history, it’s “everyone’s history,” said Sara Salithan-Thiell from Poestenkill, NY, and “it is important for young people to connect with those stories,” added Erica Hruby of Greensboro, NC, “so that we can move forward understanding the value and importance of each member of our community.”
Lesson 3: Teachers need to be inspired too.
As the Education Program Manager at JWA, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many Jewish educators. I am impressed by teachers’ abilities to engage students, differentiate instruction, and negotiate school hierarchies and bureaucratic loopholes. I’m inspired when I see an instructor grab and hold the attention of every brain and set of eyes in a classroom. And I am reminded again and again that teachers are quickly worn down by the great many demands asked of them. While there are many curriculum materials, web-based programs, and resources available to teachers on JWA.org, I learned that resources cannot replace a smile of understanding, a nod of encouragement, or a laugh of camaraderie. “I ‘charged my batteries’ this week—I am full of new ideas for my classroom, my school, and my community,” said New Jersey educator Judith Sandman. Teachers need to be inspired, not just by the stories of their forebears, but by each other, by the energy, creativity, and contributions that they and their peers make to the future.
So, as children across the country are going to camp or swimming at the local pool, and teachers are recovering from the last school year and beginning to prepare for the next, I’m sitting in my office basking in the summer sunshine at the window and the humble knowledge that no matter how prepared I am, no matter what expectations I have, I’ll always be surprised.