Monday, April 26, 2010

When quitting is the right choice

I'm a follow-through person. I don't fear commitment and when I say I'll do something, I do. When I make an alliance with someone or an agency, they've got me. I have worked for years for people I didn't actually like - all because I felt some weird alliance. I will admit there's a fair amount of avoidance of conflict playing out here, too, just to put it all out. I hate saying to someone - I just don't want to work for you anymore.

But that's what I just did. I just tendered my resignation at a school where I have been teaching off and on for the past 6 years. This last year has been so much drama, so many incidents where I did not feel respected. And yet, when principal came to me last month and asked me if I was willing (his word, not mine!) to return for another year - of course I agreed. I even had another offer, closer to my house, better salary, more creative license and support - but no, I turned that down because of this loyalty.

So why quit? And why write about it (albeit anonymously, so as to be respectful of all)?

I quit because I got to the point where I was dreading it. Not the class itself - that I still actually enjoy - but dealing with the administration. Dreading talking to the principal, who I actually like personally, because of the way he runs his school. Feeling disrespected - knowing they have the best of intentions, which sometimes makes it worse!

And I'm writing on it because I can identify two major lessons that I want to take out if this experience, and I welcome your thoughts as well.

First, the reduction in mental and emotional stress that comes from removing yourself from a toxic environment or relationship is always worth the stress and pain of getting there. I've experienced this in ending toxic friendships, too - but I had forgotten it. It's easy to think that our work and "real life" are separate, that stresses from work won't affect our time with our kids, our physical health, etc - especially when it's not a major incident, it's not abusive, or anything like that. But we are unified beings and we don't disconnect as easily as we'd like to.

Second, I realized that, as educators in general but especially as Jewish educators, when it's not fun anymore, it's time to try something different. This isn't to say you need to love every second, but I don't think you can be an effective Jewish identity builder and strenghtener if you aren't enjoying your end of the relationship. I heard myself say (to... myself) "it's work. It doesn't have to be fun." - and then I stopped myself. Can you be an effective teacher of anything if you don't enjoy teaching?

I haven't yet seen the principal in person (this all occurred over email, see earlier line about avoiding conflict - although I do think there are certain things that are better said via email, allowing each side to present as they wish, not how their emotions rule! And in this instance there were time constraints, too.) but I will shortly. I must admit some anxiety about that meeting, but it is strongly overridden by my complete confidence that this was the right decision.

(and no, I don't know yet if I'm going to teach somewhere else next year. I might just need a break!)

Sunday, April 18, 2010

What on earth worked??

I just got back from a Confirmation class retreat for a synagogue school. I have been teaching off and on at this school for the past 5 years, but I wasn’t originally signed up to teach this year (I have little kids at home and wanted some extra time with them). About halfway through the year, however, the Confirmation class was going very poorly: the teacher was having such a hard time connecting with the class, the teens were not engaged or participating, the whole bit. So the principal asked me to come back and co-teach the class. When things had hit bottom, the school had held a class meeting – with parents and teens – where they all vented their frustrations and talked about what they thought it would take to make the class functional and a positive experience. The parents talked about positive experiences, not too much content, giving lots of time for the kids to socialize.

In short, they wanted a youth group.

The teens admitted that they were a large part of the problem. They weren’t trying, didn’t answer questions that were asked, and had largely checked out. Let us have more fun, they said, give us activities and games that will let us get to know each other. Don’t be too strict or go too heavy on the content and we’ll try to engage some more.

So in I came, armed with team-building activities, very light on the content, but high on the personal. We built cubes out of straws and did silent introductions. We talked about Jewish values, but not for more than 20 minutes at a stretch. And we muddled through – the class certainly wasn’t a raving success, but it wasn’t on the brink of anarchy either. We were stymied by the never ending series of dramatic weather that hit the mid-Atlantic and missed several weeks of school. I tried to continue the class bonding and conversations through a class wiki-page, but never managed to get more than half the parents or students to sign onto the site. I felt the same frustration as my co-teacher and my principal had felt all year: we’re giving them exactly what they wanted, and yet they’re still not engaging or participating.

Then two things happened to shine some light. First, as we were casually chatting before class one morning, one teen asked what we were going to do that day. “No more games, I hope!” chimed in another one. “Yeah, no more games! We already know each other and we are tired of the silly games!”

Tired of the games? Really?

Then the next week we took our teens on our annual Confirmation trip to Philadelphia. It’s not usually terribly high in content, but this year was lighter than most. Our tour guide was very nice, but talked about things the teens couldn’t relate to, and kept pointing out where things used to be (see that corner there? That used to be a Yiddish theater! And that store there? That used to be a cafĂ© where radicals met.). We were debriefing on the bus back to D.C. and the teens were all saying the same thing: We didn’t learn anything. It wasn’t connected to Confirmation. We wish we could have gotten more out of the experience.

So last weekend we tried something new. We taught. We had such a tight lesson plan that we hardly gave the kids a break in the middle - - let alone the multiple breaks the parents had requested. We had the teens out teaching the younger grades about the Holocaust and encouraging them to come to that evening’s Yom Hashoah program. We used text, we challenged them to state their own beliefs and then we set them a challenging assignment to tackle: figuring out how to explain the Yom Hashoah program in a way that was compelling, interesting, and related to 7th or 8th graders.

It was the best class of the year.

Then came the Spring Retreat. I always dread this retreat, sure that it will fail miserably. We spend almost the entire weekend writing - - the teens do half a dozen introspective writings, both wrapping up the year and also writing the material that creates the Confirmation service. Despite my fears, it always seems to work – maybe it’s just school-like enough that the kids don’t fight back? – but I was sure that this time it wouldn’t. These kids couldn’t possibly handle the hours and hours of writing, the editing and critiquing to get their first drafts into things worth sharing with the congregation. And, to top it all off – we just load up the weekend off with content! We read and analyze the book of Ruth. We talk about the Reform movement’s statement of principles, about God, Torah, and evolution, we think about the purpose of Judaism in our lives.

And it worked. Beautifully. Absolutely beautifully. The teens engaged. They wrote. They thought. They shared and they processed. And in reading their writings, I see that many of them have really struggled with what their Judaism means to them - - but they are committing to have that struggle, something many couldn’t do at the beginning of the year. One teen in particular, who is an avowed atheist and came into the class not considering himself part of the Jewish community in anything other than an accident of birth, wrote a beautiful letter to his parents as one of his confirmation assignments. Dear Mom and Dad, he wrote (and I’m paraphrasing, but not much!), I did not want to go to Confirmation this year. I complained and argued, but you ignored me and sent me anyway. And I now understand why you did. I still don’t know what my place in Judaism is, but I now see the value in it. I understand the importance of Jewish values and I can commit to them. And I now understand the passage: v’shinantem l’vanecha – you shall teach them to your children. You have done that, and I will do the same for my children. Thank you.

What’s the moral of the story? I’m not sure. But I do think that there’s something to be learned here and I open it to this community to help me find the moral. Is it just that the class needed a fresh voice and a new approach? Was it really not as bad as it seemed? Were the parents (and the teens) just completely wrong on what they wanted? Was giving more content all of the solution? I look forward to your analysis, and for now, I’m just relieved that, for whatever reason, it worked!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Put Your Own Oxygen Mask On First,
And Then Help Your Children

Taking A Year Off
This past fall many Jewish educators encountered a newish phenomenon. Some families in our religious schools were “taking a year off” from Religious School and in some cases synagogue membership. If these were families whose youngest child recently became Bar or Bat Mitzvah, we might wring our hands and say “Ri-i-i-ight. Taking the year off. We’ll look for you next fall.”

But most of these families in my synagogue and in those of colleagues who have told me they have encountered the same conversations have children who are much younger. They tend to be in Gan (K) through Kitah Gimel (3rd). In fact, our enrollment from Kitah Chet (8th) through Kitah Yud Bet (12th) is at an all time high. If pushed, some parents will say it is a temporary economic decision. They indicated the economic realities of the fall of 2010 and a belief that their child’s Jewish identity will not be irreparably damaged by a break in their studies. And they absolutely did not want to discuss financial aid – either they were too uncomfortable with the topic or they didn’t feel things were that bad. They promised to come back. And in some of the conversations I am beginning to have with these hiatus families, they are telling me that they are absolutely coming back. From their mouths…

Linchpin: Are You Indispensible?

I am nearly finished with a book call Linchpin by Seth Godin.[1] I am a Godin Junkie. I first met Seth’s work in the pages of Fast Company, another of my addictions. Both are from the world of business, not Jewish education. Both have taught me so many things about how to make Jewish education happen. I cannot recommend them enough. I could write ten articles about this book, beginning with how it was marketed. I am reading it with a small moleskine notebook next to me so I can take notes. Yes, it is that engaging.

At the heart of the book is a redefining of the American Dream: “Be remarkable. Be generous. Create Art. Make Judgment Calls. Connect people and ideas. And we will have no choice but to reward you.” He challenges the reader, regardless of your field, to be an artist, which he defines as “someone who changes everything, who makes dreams come true…someone who can see the reality of today and describe a better tomorrow…a linchpin.”

A linchpin. The pshat or plain meaning is the piece of metal that slides through the axle that keeps the wheel from falling off the wagon, or through the arm and the hitch to keep the trailer attached. It is a simple device yet it keeps things together and makes their proper function possible. Godin suggests that in our work, each of us needs to be a linchpin, someone who is indispensable to their company. Not a line worker or a rule follower, but an artist – someone who stretches possibilities to allow growth and change. He gives great examples.

Al Tifrosh Min Hatzibur - Do Not Separate Yourself From the Community
So why am I bringing this up while talking about the interrupted life of our students? I believe we need to do a better job of making the school and the synagogue (and the Jewish educator) linchpins in the lives of our families. I think that twenty years ago, no one would have considered “taking a year off.” That generation might have considered the financial ramifications when joining a synagogue. Once in, though, I am convinced that like their predecessors, they would not consider leaving – at least not before the youngest child’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah. I think that we have witnessed evidence of a paradigm shift in the mind of some of our parents. And because the synagogue is no longer a linchpin for some, they are making choices we have not seen before.

Much has been written about what needs to happen to make the synagogue and formal Jewish education more relevant. And some of it may be right on target. But before we go exploding all of our existing institutions, I have a thought. We need to be linchpins. By “we” I mean the synagogue, the school, the clergy, the directors of education/lifelong learning/early childhood/family education/programming/fill-in-the-blank, the teachers and the lay leadership.

In 1989 United Airlines ran a television commercial showing a conference room. “A manager announces they have just lost a major long-time client, one too many. It's time for a "face-to-face" policy, in other words, not just call the customer, but also meet him. He starts handing out plane tickets to the other employees...” [2]

They had the idea exactly right. We need to focus our energy on each adult, one family at a time. It’s not an easy task, given the size of some of our congregations. It is not a one-person job. I intend to become an evangelist, recruiting those who already feel that being a part of a congregation – learning, praying and coming together for ma’asim tovim (good works) and for fun – is not something to be weighed against other household expenses and youth activities. We need to get them join us in reaching out, one family at a time, and helping those families come to the same conclusion. We have to lose the model whereby the educator focuses on the children and that leads to families becoming more connected.

Put Your Own Mask On First…
Finally, I want to share the teaching of Harlene Winnick Appelman, the director of the Covenant Foundation. Harlene was one of the first winners of the Covenant Award, and was one of the first people to take the idea of family education and develop it into something more comprehensive than a special program on a Sunday morning. Her sessions at CAJE conferences were a must-attend for those who wanted to be on the cutting edge.

She reminded us of the safety speech that flight attendants used to give before takeoff (now it is usually on a video). They would say that in case of a sudden loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks would drop from the ceiling. After instructing us how to put it on and start the flow of oxygen, they would tell us that passengers traveling with young children should put their own mask on first and then help their children. Harlene taught us what should have been (and should still be) obvious: If you put the child’s mask on first, we might not be able to breathe well enough to take care of ourselves. And what if our children need us after getting the mask on?

We need to get the parents to put on their Jewish learning and living masks. Otherwise we will have a generation of adults with the Jewish identity and connection of at best a thirteen year old. We need to get them to understand that they need to belong to a synagogue and send their children to religious school (or day school) because that is something that is vitally important to them. And we can only do that through personal relationships. We need to be artists.

I have some ideas. More on this soon.

Cross-posted to Welcome to the Next Level

[1]Seth’s blog is at and his books can be found at I have taught about The Idea Virus and the Purple Cow, and recommend them!

[2] Thanks to" for the description of the ad and the link to the Leo Burnett Ad Agency site for the clip.