Our School of Education “Covid-Keepers:” Evergreen Lessons That Will Shape the Future

Miriam SternA Message from Miriam Heller Stern, Ph.D., National Director, School of Education

My colleague David Bryfman at the Jewish Education Project likes to talk about “Covid Keepers” – what we got stuck with this year that turned out to be “a keeper” for the next normal (and the normal after that). He and I, along with a group of colleagues, co-authored a piece in eJewishphilanthropy in the Fall about some of these emergent possibilities to watch in Jewish education. While January has in many ways felt like the thirteenth month of 2020, many of us are caught between survival mode and looking ahead with a sense of anticipation. We may experience whiplash, between the two.

What have we done differently this year that we intend to keep?

Relational Pedagogy and Collegiality: We were not satisfied simply moving the courses and multi-day intensives that used to be in person onto zoom. We embraced design challenges together as a faculty. We gave each other feedback and ideas about how to reimagine the structure, content and pedagogy of courses to best teach and engage our students.  We have never taught in complete silos, but this year our faculty relationships have been ever more valuable, with so many course elements to rethink at once. We launched new cohorts of the new MEdL, DeLeT and EMA programs virtually. We learned how to stretch the possibilities of online gathering to forge deep bonds and encourage self-reflection. We have also learned more about the patterns of “zoom fatigue,” discovering that certain courses which we once assumed had to be in person can continue online in the future. We mastered a new course management system, Canvas, as well as the apps that replace in-person gallery walks and sticky notes. Dr. Lesley Litman assumed a new part-time role as Coordinator of Online Instructional Support for HUC, coaching faculty across schools and campuses in online pedagogy. We are still learning to forgive ourselves when it is imperfect, as we continue striving to perfect our craft. Fortunately, as a team, we support one another when the exhaustion hits. We look forward to teaching in person again at least some of the time! But overall, we are proud to have been able to create successful online intensives and courses that we previously imagined were impossible and preserve some of them for the future.

Alumni joining our part-time faculty and administration: We have been able to engage additional alumni experts from around the country to serve in hybrid teaching and leadership roles. Julie Lambert (MAJE ’97, Miami, FL) began teaching Professional Learning and Rabbi Nicki Greninger (MARE ’10, Lafayette, CA) is teaching a module on Hebrew language as a case of navigating competing aims and aspirations in Jewish education as well as a few guest spots in a new course called “Charting the Future of Jewish Education.” Dr. Kathy Schwartz (MAJE ’94, Boulder, CO) joined the EMA leadership as Associate Director, recruiting 22 students to the XED 500 Introduction to Leadership course. These alumni join Dr. Michelle Lynn-Sachs (MAJE, Austin, TX) who has become a fixture of the EMA program over the last several years. Now that we have lived through a forced transition to being fully online, we are thinking about how we can continue to include talent from around the country and maintain the right mix of hybridity to enhance student learning in the future.

One School: For the first time, residential students across campuses attended the Sara Lee Seminar and our creative beit midrash at the end of the semester. We have convened the clinical faculty of our emerging career students from across the country into one professional learning community that meets quarterly. The clinical faculty studied supporting students (and ourselves) through the trauma of the pandemic with Dr. Betsy Stone. We also learned with Rabbi Dr. Ariel Burger, affiliated with HUC through the Beit HaYozter/Creativity Braintrust, about the spiritual practice of holding opposites as leaders. We now have an ongoing national conversation about mentoring that connects the student experiences on our campuses, as we prepare to fully merge our early career leadership degrees into a single Master of Educational Leadership program. We are beginning to imagine linking the clinical faculty learning across the EMA and the MEdL programs. We will continue to seek out new opportunities for hybrid experiences that unite programs in connected learning and shared exploration.

“HUC-ing one another” with our School of Education Alumni Association: “Seeing” each other at online gatherings to celebrate milestones during the pandemic has been just the beginning of our Alumni Association’s agenda. Our Alumni Association Leadership has revised the organization’s bylaws and ignited the commitment of a fantastic network of colleagues to define new initiatives and programming around its pillar values: l’dor vador, limud, kehillah, and kavod. While we have not been able to gather in person for a classic kallah, the leadership has used the time to plan intentionally for new approaches to program, networking and support across masters’ alumni of our various campuses and degrees. I am grateful to Susan Morell, Rabbi Liz Rolle, Sarah Lauing, Jo-Ellen Unger and David Scott for their leadership, and Chelsea Simon, HUC’s Alumni Program Manager, for supporting their creativity and dedication.

Student Care: Before Covid, we had just about deleted our postage budget. Who needed stamps when all of our newsletters and marketing were digital! One way we have built an ongoing connection with our students has been to send care packages including swag, treats, and items to aid their self-care. The beauty of being a boutique graduate school is that we know our students well and truly care about their well-being. While we hope we will have more opportunities to give gifts in person, we also know that making sure our students feel seen and connected to the College is an important anchor for successful learning. We look forward to a time when our Manager of National Programs, Amanda Sissman, will be able to go back to booking travel for our students (primarily the EMA); in the meantime, she has also become our Chief Giftology Officer. (Yes, there is an art to giving gifts to express appreciation and build culture which we are following.) These packages have also contained supplies for our students to participate in pop-up creative beit midrash experiences at home, including kintsugi, visual art with Jewish Studio Project, and Paper Midrash.

Daring to Lead: Finally, a confession. Some of us on faculty have become Brené Brown junkies. When we walk the dog, cook for Shabbat, exercise, or just take a break for personal learning, we listen to her new podcasts, Dare to Lead and Unlocking Us. We enjoy sharing insights that sparkle for us and shed perspective on our leadership and teaching. Among our recommendations: Aiko Bethea on creating transformational change in contrast to transactional change; Simon Sinek on adopting an infinite mindset; Sarah Lewis on sourcing creativity; Barack Obama on leadership, particularly, how we weigh competing priorities and choose the better option when there is no ideal; and Brown’s own musings on “surge capacity depletion” and how to prepare ourselves for “FFT’s” (her term for the many arduous challenges we have navigated for the first time this year, when the task is more grueling due to the pandemic.) We continue to exchange ideas and research that can help us be more bold and intentional in our work.

What do all of these “keepers” have in common? Relational pedagogy, one school, alumni expertise and community, caring for our students and intentional leadership were paramount for us long before 2020. By being clear about those values and our mission, we have been able to collaborate and find new ways to deliver on our values when our world turned upside down. We have not been derailed; we have doubled down.

We have mourned tragic losses in the last few months: our Skirball Campus colleague and friend Professor Sharon Gillerman z”l, and Sophia Lambert, z’l, daughter of alumna and part-time faculty Julie Lambert. We have breathed through uncertainty, uttering prayers of mishebeirach for the health of friends, family and colleagues and for the United States government. Leading with our values has provided an extra dose of strength to regroup and redesign on demand. Wherever we lead, teach and learn in the future – virtually, in-person or most likely, hybrid — we will keep our flexibility and resilience, our collegiality, and our unwavering belief in the power and importance of the Jewish education profession.