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Uncategorized   |   Dec 19, 2011

True Life: I Work in a Jewish Girls’ School

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

True Life: I Work in a Jewish Girls’ School

By Angela Watson

A classroom in a Chicago Bais Yaakov (girls’ school.)

As the end of 2011 approaches, I thought it might be a nice time to share some interesting stories about what my instructional coaching work was like this past year. I’ve had the opportunity to do technology consulting in a type of learning environment that was completely new to me…and it has ended up being one of the most enjoyable opportunities of my entire career.

As you can presumably guess from the MTV-inspired title of this blog post (is that an inappropriate reference? probably), since last winter I’ve been working in Orthodox Jewish schools. Let me say upfront: I am by no means an expert on these schools after 12 measly months, and I probably don’t have all of my terminology and inferences correct. Please feel free to straighten me out in the comments as needed! I’m mildly terrified to hit publish on this post for fear of offending someone by getting a detail wrong. But I didn’t want to let the gaps in my understanding prevent me from sharing what I’ve experienced, because I think the glimpse into this world that I’ve been privileged to have is fascinating and thought-provoking.

Getting dressed in the morning for work at a Jewish school requires a considerable amount of thought for me. Collarbone, elbows, and knees must be covered; no pants, bare legs, or open-toed shoes in most of my schools. Orthodox Jewish women in these New York City communities have a certain style of modest (tznius), non-attention-calling dress that I like to imitate as closely as possible out of respect. The look is feminine and classy: think black midi-length skirt and a beautiful ruffled sweater in an earth tone, accessorized with elegant formal earrings, black tights, and pretty ballet flats. I feel confident and comfortable when I leave the house: dressing in such a proper, modest way commands respect and dignity in a world where sweat pants and jeans with holes are the norm…and sets a nice tone for the learning environment, as well.

The teachers I work with in the Jewish schools tend to be friendly, kind, and hard working. They are appreciative and eager to learn new things. After much observation and thought, I’ve surmised that there are possibly three main factors which contribute to the teachers’ positive, energetic attitudes (as it’s probably not their salaries, which are usually below that of public school teachers.) Those of you who have experience with these schools can tell me if I’m right in my theorizing here. The first reason is that most have a sense that teaching is a calling and not a job; they are serving Hashem (G-d) and their community by training young girls in the traditional ways. The second reason is that there is little bureauocracy; though they teach the state standards, they are given a great deal of freedom in how they instruct, and their administrators often have the power to make quick decisions to improve less-than-ideal situations. The final reason is that most work a very reasonable part-time schedule: one set of teachers instructs in Judaic studies in the morning (approximately 9-12) and another group of teachers instructs in all the other subjects (termed General Studies) from about 1-4.

Yes, that means reading, writing, math, science, and social studies are crammed into a 3 hour period. And that’s only four days a week! On Friday, school typically dismisses at 1 pm to allow families to prepare for Shabbat (Sabbath) observance. Though this is mind-boggling to those of us from a public school background who can’t figure out how to teach everything in six hours, the Jewish day school schedule somehow works. I haven’t been doing this long enough to understand the teaching methodologies used, but I do notice that most teachers are extremely selective on what they devote class time to. There is no time for busy work or extraneous tasks that don’t have a strong impact on student learning and progress.

And yet the atmosphere is often playful and celebratory; one principal explained to me that the Jewish religion places much emphasis on celebrating the passage of time and even the smallest milestones are acknowledged. There is a party at some schools on the first day of every Jewish month, to honor another month of life and health and to reflect on what’s been learned and accomplished.

I have NEVER heard anyone in a Jewish school raise her voice at a child. There is no yelling, and interestingly, there is little behavior management.  The goal does not seem to be controlling children, but nurturing them. The Jewish day schools that I have been to are lively places, full of laughter and chatter. The girls move about freely. Doors are not locked. Someone is always singing somewhere in the building; it’s not uncommon to hear groups of young girls singing in Hebrew all throughout the day.

The girls–and yes, they are all female since single gender education begins in kindergarten–are very much “normal” kids, in the sense that they are not perfect. There are occasional arguments over petty jealousies, cheating on tests, not doing homework, etc. But the girls are uncommonly well-mannered and gracious. In some schools, the students stand up when an adult enters the room. The words “thank you” flow from their mouths at every turn, for even the smallest deeds: Thank you for unlocking the computer lab. Thank you for helping us save the document. Thank you finding these websites for us. 

Not all Jewish schools use the internet; some instruct the girls only in the Microsoft Office suite out of concern for what they might see online. Some of the children have only used computers in school, but many have computers at home and are quite comfortable with the technology. I notice an innocence and purity in the way they use the internet. Once a group of girls asked me if they could show a YouTube video during the last five minutes of class. My first thought was Um, what kind of video? but the teacher immediately said yes without blinking as eye.  A child rushed to the SMART Board and pulled up a video by a group of Orthodox Jewish men singing a catchy song in Hebrew that mesmerized the class as they hummed along and tapped their feet. I stood in the back of the room, smiling and marveling at the trust their teacher had demonstrated, and how well the girls had lived up to that trust.

I’ve now had the privilege of doing educational consulting in public, Catholic, and Jewish schools. Though I really enjoy the orderliness of many Catholic schools, I think I most enjoy my time in the Jewish schools, and feel very grateful to be working almost exclusively in them at the moment. Observing daily practices in the Jewish schools continues to challenge and transform a number of my beliefs about education, culture, and religion. But on a more practical level, Jewish schools are joyful places for me to work: I feel like I am helping teachers and kids, and my work is appreciated. What could be more rewarding than that?

Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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  1. It was so interesting to hear your point of view, since I was a student at just such a school. You’re so right about the emphasis on politeness and appreciation; I was flabbergasted when I gave my first demo lesson to apply for a job at a yeshiva and the students thanked me on the way out. I just taught you extra math and you’re thanking me?! And that was in a BD program.

    1. Thanks for chiming in! It’s great to hear from someone who has been both a student AND done some teaching in a yeshiva! What’s amazing is that the politeness and appreciation seem completely genuine. The girls aren’t just kissing up, they’re actually really glad someone took the time to teach them something. I find that the teachers treat me the same way. Being the recipient of that kind of genuine gratitude is just the best feeling.

  2. That sounds like a really unique and interesting place to be! I love the way you described the atmosphere.

    I teach at a Catholic school, so I smiled when you mentioned the “orderliness” of Catholic schools. Our staff of 5 teachers is primarily young with less than 5 years of experience, so I think our school environment is much more lively than orderly! People always ask if we are really tough on the kids as far as discipline, but I’d say we are pretty comparable to the public schools in our community. Every school has its own identity, I guess! 🙂

    1. You’re right that Catholic schools have a reputation for being orderly, but actually, I’ve only worked at 2 Catholic schools that were that way. The others were quite “lively” as you put it! There is quite a variance between schools, in general.

  3. Angela,

    Your line that jumped out at me was the part where you talked about the teachers not trying to control the kids but rather nurture them. I LOVE that. I do not feel comfort or affinity for controlling kids, but I feel shame that I’m not a good teacher when I’m not “controlling” students. I feel the judgement coming in on me. I’m also struck that kids think it’s my job to try to control them. I’m also struck that they don’t think it’s their job to control themselves!

    Happy New Year!

    1. Happy New Year, Miriam! Wow, what great insights you’ve got. You hit on a really important point–that kids have been conditioned to think that teachers are there to control them, rather than the reality that they are in control of themselves. Teaching kids how be in control of themselves does mean a great number of moments in which the teacher feels out of control-and yes, there is judgment there sometimes from outsiders. It’s something that we have to push through to accomplish a greater goal. Thanks for helping me to reflect more on that.

  4. Thanks so much for sharing. I will be working at a Jewish school in the new year. I was already looking forward to it but you made me even more excited.

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