Learning to be Present: How Hevruta Learning Can Activate Teachers' Relationships to Self, Other and Text

From Section:
In-Service Training
Jul. 04, 2009

Source: Journal of Jewish Education, Volume 75, Issue 3 , pages 216 - 239


This article focuses on the ways hevruta learning can contribute to teachers' capacity to be present to self, other, subject matter and the cultural context in which the learning occurred. Hevruta learning, when conceptualized for the purposes of teachers' professional development, brings to the fore both the interpretive and relational aspects of the learning process. The theoretical frameworks of philosophical hermeneutics and relational psychology infuse our design of hevruta learning as well as our analysis of teachers' unfolding awareness of presence.


Drawing on qualitative data reflecting teachers' experiences in a week-long Summer Teachers Institute dedicated to text study and hevruta learning, this article describes the teachers' engagement with and exploration of each dimension of the relational triangle (i.e., teacher, student, and subject matter interactions; Hawkins, 2002). Data suggests that there was an activation or intensity in these dimensions, which was the result of the consistent and constant demands to engage with specific hevruta learning practices. This study's findings suggest that hevruta learning can be a powerful form of professional development because the intensity of experience with the relational dimensions of the learning process allows teachers to assume a new stance. The nature of this experience invited teachers to develop their capacity to be present to self, fellow learners and the text, thereby offering them the opportunity to consider how they would bring back and translate these lessons to their own classroom worlds.


The studied Summer Teachers Institute (STI), held during the summer of 2007, was titled: “Understanding and Teaching Jewish Texts: Exploring Collaborative Text Study.” Fifteen teachers participated—eight from one Jewish day school, six from a rabbinical college, and one from a local university. The STI was located at the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, offering one-of-a-kind texts for study.


The STI was taught by four university professors, including the authors of this study. They assumed a co-teaching model of instruction, planning collaboratively and reflecting and revising the curriculum during the week as a team. The study time in the Institute was allocated equally to hevruta study and group study of American Jewish archival texts. The institute closed with a number of sessions aimed to help participants make meaning of their experience, make their learning visible, and consider the ways they would want to implement their learning once they returned to their classrooms.


Research Methods


In order to study the ways that the STI shaped, modified, challenged, or otherwise affected the participants' ideas about teaching and learning, the researchers conducted an action research study grounded in qualitative and relational methodologies. As researchers, they entered the setting as learners, attempting to understand what we could learn by watching, listening, and interviewing teachers who engaged with each other in this culturally specific setting.


As a classroom action research study, the researchers aimed to understand the nature of learning that emerged from their practice as teacher educators, to reflect back on their practice, and to think carefully about changes in practice they would make as a result of their learning.


The primary data collected included teachers' written reflections during and after the STI, the teachers' final papers, and video recordings of every learning session. In addition, the researchers conducted two intensive open-ended interviews with each teacher, first in the month before the STI and then four months following the STI, after the teachers were back at work in their classrooms.


This article focuses on three teachers who described significant insights into their stance as learners and teachers as a result of the STI.



In their examination of the teachers' experiences, the researchers found that the practices of the STI seemed to activate all segments of the relational triangle which in turn facilitated synergy and fluidity in the teachers' learning. This activation of the relationships between self, other, and text, together with the fluidity of roles—especially in occupying the dual role of teacher and learner—together contributed to the teachers' heightened experience of presence.



Hevruta learning in the Summer Teacher Institute was designed for the purpose of engaging the learners in an intensive inquiry stance, where the roles of teacher and learner are fluid and have important parts to play in creating a relationship with the text. Because each of these elements (teacher/learner/text) are so deeply intertwined and can have such profound impact on one another, the teachers not only became acutely aware of the role of the I, Thou, and It, but they also discovered the dynamics of relationship among these three key players in the learning process. The researchers were surprised at the extent to which, in one short week, the teachers were able to elicit, study and reflect on the dynamics of these relationships.

Updated: Sep. 03, 2018
Hevruta | In-service training | Professional development | Research | Teacher education