November 16, 2022

Teachers as Learners

Sharon Cohen Early Childhood Day of Learning Planning Committee Member, Teacher at Congregation Beth El

Last Thursday was very exciting as 200 early childhood educators gathered for a day of learning and sharing. For the first time, early childhood educators from all around Greater MetroWest had the privilege of learning from stars in the Jewish community. In Pirke Avot 1:6, we learn, “Make for yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend.”  This program allowed us to come together for special learning as a group, with the hope that it would foster more such learning opportunities in the future.  

The day before, I told my class of three-year-olds at Thelma K. Reisman Preschool that they would have a long weekend since there was no school for them, but that their teachers would be learning. While driving to the program, a text popped up on my phone from a student’s mother. Her daughter had asked, “How can the teachers learn without the kids? Are they in school with no babies? Why?”   

I would answer her question that teachers, too, have a lot to learn. We learn from our students every day, but we also learn by collaborating with our colleagues! 

Upon entering the Scotch Plains JCC, there was much anticipation of the exciting day to come.  

Dr. Anna Hartman, Director of Early Childhood Excellence at JUF and Director of the Paradigm Project, spoke to us about Children as Citizens of the Jewish Community: Stories and Practices from the American Jewish Early Childhood Classrooms. She stressed the importance of listening to the words and stories of the children, as that will set the path for exploration in the classroom. Their words and questions should guide our teaching. A phrase I will keep in my “teachers toolbox” came from her remark: “Children can make their mark on Judaism.” The experiences of the Shabbat party, or Sukkah decorating, or the smell of the Hanukkah latkes, are all beginning steps to creating that piggy bank of warm fuzzies about our traditions. We need to remember that learning is unique for each learner and by listening to the stories of the children and by watching their interactions, we as teachers are developing the path for creating their “mark on Judaism.”   

We each participated in two breakout sessions. I attended one on Hebrew Movement in which the instructor, Reut Segall, demonstrated how to add Hebrew into our daily activities through games and rhymes. By using scarves or hand motions and musical instruments, the children can respond to a new language in a very nonthreatening way.  The second breakout I attended was about how to bring the outside environment into the classroom, and how to take the four-walled classroom outside.   

Both sessions gave me invaluable ideas that I’m excited to put into practice in my own classroom. I know other participants left with new and exciting teaching strategies as well. 

Shira Kline led us in inspirational singing and taught that there are six essential ingredients to a Jewish experiential classroom: Torah (learning), Tzedakah (giving), B’racha (blessing), Simcha (joy), Shema (listening), and Shehecheyanu (marking new moments) are core parts that we should include in our planning and classroom lessons.  It is the environment we create in our classes, the warmth, the sense of wonder and listening we do with the children that will influence how they “make their mark on Judaism.” 

It was an amazing day. It gave us the opportunity to feel like real professionals. Too often, early childhood educators are not regarded as real teachers.  

How often we hear, “You guys play all day.” True, we do play with the children, but play is the work of children at this age. And through play we are opening up new experiences for them.  

I have been involved in Jewish Early Childhood Education for many years, and I am so grateful to the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest for providing this opportunity to learn with the other educators throughout our community. And I would like to thank the Cooperman Family Fund for a Jewish Future for sponsoring this incredible day.