The Challenge of Professional Development in Jewish Studies: Why the Conventional Wisdom may not be Enough

February, 2019

Source: Journal of Jewish Education, 85:1, 53-75 


This article examines the ways that Jewish studies teachers think about their teaching. It analyzes data from a three month teacher study group in which teachers read educational research articles as a framework for reflecting on their own teaching.

The data suggest that Jewish studies teachers take one of two approaches in talking about their teaching: Half the teachers focused on the process of teaching, the specific modalities and teaching moves they employed, while the other half focused on the goals of teaching, the specific outcomes they wanted to see in their students. We also found that those teachers who were more focused on outcomes (rather than process) saw personal identity as an essential ingredient in effective Jewish education.

This article raises questions about the efficacy of transferring professional development models from general education to Jewish education, without special attention to the specific cultural context of Jewish studies.

To shed light on how Jewish studies teachers relate to the practice of teaching, we brought together seven middle and high school Jewish studies teachers from Orthodox and Community Jewish day schools to read and discuss articles from the field of education that explored various facets of pedagogy. We wanted to provide a professional development opportunity for these teachers, but also to understand how they would think and talk about teaching—their own and others’—when given the opportunity to do so with colleagues. Specifically, we wanted to know What dispositions do Jewish studies teachers take toward practice when given the space to talk about pedagogy with other Jewish studies teachers? In this article, we will first identify two distinct dispositions that Jewish studies teachers took in those conversations we will then explore how their subject matter, Jewish studies, informed their dispositions. Finally, we will discuss implications of our findings for professional development in Jewish day schools for Jewish studies teachers.

This study suggests that while Jewish studies teachers, like all teachers, exist along a continuum of reflective practice, moving Jewish studies teachers closer toward an inquiry stance might require tackling obstacles that are unique to Jewish studies teachers. Jewish studies teachers like Shimon hold a conception of Jewish studies as a subject that has no parallel in math or English (Thompson, 1984). And this conception of Jewish studies leads to a disposition toward teaching that poses a unique obstacle for professional development. Existing literature on professional development from general education does not give us the tools we need for these particular obstacles. It will not be enough to simply “share much with recent efforts to alter professional development in general education” (Dorph, Stodolsky, & Wohl, 2002, p. 58).

The continued, and even accelerated, use of professional development practices from general education in Jewish education is a positive and important development, but the context and experience of Jewish studies teachers is an important variable not to be ignored. Any professional development conducted as an intervention aimed at improving teaching and learning will focus on cultivating in teachers a process-oriented disposition to their teaching practice. A stance of inquiry requires of teachers an interest in their teaching process. But teacher educators, and those leading professional developments for Jewish studies teachers, need to acknowledge the real tension that some Jewish studies teachers feel between pedagogy and charisma—that is, their sense of themselves as text, one as important as the formal curriculum itself. They must acknowledge and address the fact that Jewish studies teachers are navigating two conflicting responsibilities and two conflicting curricula. Shimon thinks about identity outcomes for his students because he understands himself to be tasked with the responsibility of shaping their Jewish identities. Jewish studies teachers are asked to teach students Jewish literacy and text skills but also to develop their Jewish self-understanding and positive Jewish connection. While the former requires a process-oriented disposition that allows for inquiry stance, the latter may not.

It is not easy to move Jewish studies teachers toward an inquiry stance, but it is imperative that we do so. Teachers who are trained to focus on student thinking and children’s learning teach better and help their students learn more. In identifying a potential location of resistance, this article offers wisdom to support those in teacher education and professional development. As the field of Jewish education advocates for more and better professional development, it will be important to keep in mind that moving Jewish studies teachers toward an inquiry stance will require more than just the application of borrowed models from general education; it will require a deep sensitivity to the particular dynamics of Jewish studies as a subject and the particular passions of its teachers.


Updated: Feb. 20, 2019