Resilience in Community: Relational Learning in a Small Congregational School

Spring, 2019

Source: Journal of Jewish Education


This case study is an investigation of the teaching and learning of a teacher in the congregational school of which the author was the director, whose classroom practice was strongly reflective of relational learning theory. It explores the pathways through which this teacher was in turn supported in learning and teaching by relationships with peers, supervisors, and teen madrichim in the Relational Learning Community in which the faculty participated. Most significantly, this study examines how such support provided a source of resilience during a period of intense stress and disconnect, and explores the wider implications for teacher growth and retention.

During my tenure there, Temple Beth Shalom’s religious school served approximately 45 students with a faculty of seven teachers, a Rabbi, and an Education Director (all of whom were employed part-time), as well as a cohort of teen madrichim. For the 2015–16 and 2016–17 school years, I designed a curriculum for a joint professional development series in which the teens participated along with the teachers. The program, which ran for two years, began with a retreat/ orientation session (half a day the first year, a full day the second), followed by quarterly two-hour meetings after Sunday school.

In this article, I focus on the experiences of one teacher, Aiden, because his classroom offered a strong example of the relational awareness I was trying to cultivate in the school. Aiden also experienced some representative situations of rupture and repair during the course of the study, which drew on the resources of the Relational Learning Community (RLC). This case study of Aiden allows me to focus in on particular “moments of discord” and to examine how the RLC helped Aiden find the resilience he needed to reframe them as “opportunities for growth”.

While this case study focuses on the experience of one teacher in one small school, the challenges he faced and the pathways of resilience and repair available to him are by no means unique. By becoming aware of relational sources of resilience, particularly those with madrichim, colleagues, mentors, and supervisors, and acting to develop these supportive relationships, educational leaders in other settings can similarly help the teachers with whom they work to grow and develop professionally. Noticing when teachers’ learning relationships are disrupted, and helping them to leverage available sources of resilience, are important skills for supervisors to develop, even in part-time educational settings. As illustrated in this case study, the Relational Learning Community model can be a powerful tool for educational leaders to use to develop this relational awareness and to devise necessary interventions. In RLCs, educational leaders can also help their faculty to learn through relational connections—with the self, others, content, and context —to overcome periods of disruption in their and their students’ own learning and to navigate the potentially treacherous waters of relationships with clergy and other stakeholders.

The RLC model also provides a powerful framework through which to approach the types of meaningful professional development which have been well-documented to be necessary in supplemental Jewish education. Teachers who feel supported by their peers, by their supervisors, by their madrichim, and by the other people in their contexts are far more able to adapt to challenges in their learning environments, and to undergo significant and lasting change in their teaching practice. Structuring faculty meetings to include teacher learning that models relational learning practices also encourages teachers to experiment with these practices in their own classrooms. In this way, fostering the creation of RLCs in supplementary religious school environments, through professional development programs using relational learning practices, may be one answer to the question of how to overcome the obstacles identified as contributing to high rates of teacher turnover and compensate for the lack of effective teacher training endemic to supplemental religious schools.

The concept of the Relational Learning Community, with the depth of theory behind it, provides not only a framework for developing professional development programs, but also a lens through which to understand the experiences that result from these programs, and to learn from them. Even in a small, part-time school such as the one profiled here, many different types of learning are happening at any given time. The Relational Learning Triangle and its variants provide a useful conceptualization, and a language through which to communicate the complexities of the learning environment. As such, it is a valuable tool for leaders to use as we strive to improve supplemental Jewish education.

Updated: May. 01, 2019