‘Quest for Teaching Excellence’ Conference Held at Kushner

Paula Gottesman could not have been happier. The philanthropist supporting the Jewish community of Greater  MetroWest’s Vision 2025 education innovation talked about the “profound influence” teachers have on their students and how glad she was to see instructors from three different schools working together to improve that influence.

She was the donor behind the November 6 ‘Quest for Teaching Excellence’ Conference, a joint professional development day hosted by the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy, and including teachers from the Golda Och Academy and Gottesman RTW Academy.

“The thing I’m most excited about is the collaboration and assistance between the schools, instead of rivalry,” said Gottesman, who attended the program. “Now everyone has benefited from it. I’m so pleased by the way the schools have bought into the opportunities offered to them. The quality just goes up for everyone.”

At the same time, the Jewish Federation of MetroWest organized a “Day School Day On” community volunteer opportunity for students from the three schools, so they could give back to their communities while school was out. As Kushner Head of School Rabbi Eliezer Rubin announced to the assembled teachers, “While we’re engaged in learning, our students are engaged in community service.” Over 100 participated in the family-oriented program.

“Today was six months in planning,” said Penney Riegelman, consultant to the Quest Conference initiative. “We worked with faculty to find out what they need and what expertise they’d like to learn, to make sure we are offering what they really want to learn.”

Sessions at the conference included topics, from how to teach tefillah and getting students to reflect, to creating “maker spaces” for STEM learning, to personal time management for teachers dealing with busy schedules.

“We cast a pretty wide net to find our speakers,” Riegelman said. “We wanted the top experts with the best track records, because they’ll be the most effective. I’m thrilled with the fact that half the teachers who participated signed up within the first 12 hours. That really shows you that there is a great demand for this kind of programming.”

John D’Auria gave a powerful keynote lecture that had all 300 teachers actively participating and thinking of ways to apply what they learned in their interactions with their students. His takeaway message was that developing a growth mindset, rather than a fixed mindset, helps students succeed, and teachers have the power to instill it by praising students for their strategic thinking and effort rather than for their inborn traits.

While Rosemary Steinbaum, Kushner dean of instruction, was already familiar with the growth mindset research, she appreciated the keynote. “A presentation like this distills research for me so I can take notes and bring it back to my teachers,” she said. “Also, it’s important on an individual level for teachers to take time out of their busy lives to focus on their own learning and inspire their students in turn. It strengthens the schools to have a culture of learning in the faculty and strengthens them as a community to come together like this.”

Tammy Anagnostis, the Golda Och dean of faculty, also plans on applying what she learned with her teachers. “This conference highlights everything that teaching excellence means for us. And it’s not just a one-day thing, I’ll talk to my teachers [afterwards] about what they will implement from what they learned today, so we can embed it in our schools.”

Riegelman thinks the success shouldn’t stop here. “I think we should take this [program] outside MetroWest. This should be a model for other day schools, and maybe even outside day schools. No one else is doing this, sharing between schools in this way.”

Throughout the conference there was a buzz of excitement and enthusiasm for learning as the teachers listened to experts and shared their own insights with colleagues. Ruth DiGiovanni, Kushner’s director of early childhood education, said that she especially appreciated the “affinity group” sessions held for different types of teachers. The focus on the specific needs of early education enabled her to learn lessons targeted to her daily work. She was able to share her own ideas on how she structures centers with other teachers who’d been looking for new ideas.

“I can hear how my subject is being taught in a completely different way in another school, and then find ways to incorporate that into my classroom,” said Henny Bochner, a high school teacher at Kushner. “We talk a lot about being a community of teachers, but a day like today is when it really happens.”