Monday, January 10, 2011

Guest Post: Dara's acceptance speech

Yay, Dara! Last night the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland presented her with the Ratner-Goldberg Israel fellowship award! She sure busted a gut on the acceptance speech, and I asked her to send me a copy to post. It has so much to say about who she is and what we do.

Before I begin my personal remarks, I would like to acknowledge and congratulate
my fellow honorees:
Kate milgrom- temple emanu el – libbie braverman award
Johannah cross – agnon – Steiger family education grant
Chaya fixler- park synagogue-ratner Goldberg israel fellowship
To all of you, mazal tov.

In addition, I would like to express my appreciation and hakarat hatov to Maury
Greenberg, the awards committee and of course to the ratner and Goldberg families
for so generously sponsoring this fellowship. Thank you.

I want to give a shout out to my children for joining us tonight and for changing
into Shabbat clothes on a Sunday! Finally, a huge thank you to my husband
michael, for everything! But most recently, for putting up with me while I was
writing this speech! But on a serious note, I am so grateful to have him as my
partner in all we hold sacred; our teaching, our family, and in serving Hashem.

As I was preparing my speech for tonight, I took a step back and asked myself two
questions. Firstly, what would I say I need to bring to the table in order to succeed
in the classroom? And I answered; expertise in my subject matter, creativity,
classroom presence, good assessments…

Then I asked myself, but what do I need to bring into my classroom in order to
ensure that the learning that takes place in it is meaningful?

This is what I put on my list:
A desire to connect to each student as a unique individual, and the ability to
communicate that appreciation to every child. The commitment to making the
kids feel safe and secure enough to make the mistakes that are a natural part of the
learning process. I need the discipline to command respect as well as to be equally
respectful in return. To ensure that teaching is meaningful, I need to have the
passion to inspire my students to aspire. I need the drive to push my students to
stretch themselves, but also the restraint not to push too hard. I need to be mindful
of the fact that growing up is hard and that they are coming into my room with all
sorts of “stuff” on their minds. I must remember that if I don’t strive to achieve my
personal best, in what I say as well as in what I do, how can I expect the same of

And if that wasn’t enough for the “to do” list, there is also the added layer of
teaching Judaic Studies.

I remember the application process for my first teaching job. I was young,
idealistic, and ready to roll up my sleeves and get to work. I anticipated my
interviews with a mixture of excitement and nervousness. I replayed the answer to
the question I was sure they would ask me over and over again in my mind. Why
do you want to be a Judaic studies teacher, they would ask. I had many answers:
Because I love learning Torah and I want to share that love of Torah! And since I
appreciate living life in accordance with the Torah’s values so much that I want to
share my experience with Jewish kids! Plus, I really enjoy working with kids, and I
want to make a difference.

But no one asked. They were only interested in practical things, like what
kind of experience did I have and what certification I held. Of course, I am not
minimizing the importance of classroom management techniques and the necessity
for thoughtful pedagogy and effective lesson planning! As vital as those things are
to excellent teaching, they are not, at the end of the day, what makes teaching truly
meaningful. I felt so dejected when I finished that round of interviews. Where was
the idealism? Where was the sense of urgency about the mission?

Twenty one years have passed since then, and I have been fortunate and
privileged to have found a professional home in an institution that shares my
idealism and sense of mission; Fuchs Mizrachi School. In as much as these
values are at the core of my identity as an educator, I am also appreciative that
the JECC prioritizes these very same ideals, as the essay topic for this award
indicates: Describe how you, as an educator have influenced the Jewish identity
and education of your students.

At Fuchs Mizrachi School, we teach in classrooms that defy the physical
parameters of walls or a door. They are classrooms that defy forty minute periods
or semesters. When students walk into our classrooms, they walk into our hearts.

This relationship manifests itself in the time I spend with my current students in
my home or on our high school retreats. This relationship manifests itself when
an alumnus asks me to learn the laws of Jewish family purity with her before her
wedding or when alumni drop by, with spouses and children, when applicable, just
to catch up. The fact that these values and priorities are part of the very fabric of
our school is in large part to the credit of our administrators as well as to the high
standards that my fellow teachers hold themselves to.

It is of paramount importance to me as a Jewish educator to engage my
students in Judaism: in their relationship with G-d, in their commitment to the
Jewish people, in their connection to the land of Israel, and in their learning of
Jewish texts. I, along with my colleagues, am attentive to these goals as we design
the educational experience that our students receive.

I have the privilege of serving as the chair of the Chumash department
at FMS. I developed a four year curriculum that our staff uses based on the
approach to curriculum that is called Understanding by Design. Thanks to the
superb teaching and mentorship of the JECC’s Nechama Moskowitz, as well as
the commitment of an FMS mini cohort initiated by my husband Rabbi Michael
Unterberg, the project was realized. UBD is about uncovering the big ideas
of a discipline and about seeking relevance to “real life”. This model serves
wonderfully in connecting the students to the Torah as a living, breathing work
that impacts directly on their world view and forms the cornerstone of their Jewish

In addition to this, on a daily basis, we encourage our students to think
and inquire. I push my students to come up with their own theories and answers
to the very questions they formulate. I structure the flow of my Tanach classes
to be interactive and dynamic. Often, a student’s name will make the board next
to commentators like Rashi or Ramban, and we note all three approaches to a
question we had posed.

Another responsibility that I share at work is planning for our annual retreat.
For a few days, once a year, we have the opportunity to learn “informally”, and
it is wonderful. One of my favorite jobs on retreat is to prepare the Friday night
session. We break up into small groups and discuss topics like belief in G-d, why
be religious, relationships, and the like. Friday night is an intimate time and we
find ourselves talking to students for hours about their struggles and challenges as
well as their hopes and dreams. These are some of the most precious moments of
my year, and I believe of the students’ as well.

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge and express appreciation for
how being a Jewish educator has influenced my own Jewish identity and how my
students have taught me. At times the goals and responsibilities of teaching can
feel daunting. There are times when you leave the classroom feeling like you’ve
missed the mark. There are nights when there are many lessons to prepare or so
many tests to grade. But ultimately, it is an honor to be a Jewish educator. We
encourage our students to be the best they can be, in terms of academics, but more
importantly in terms of being Jews. And in so doing, we too strive to the best we
can be; as educators and as Jews.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is both beautiful and moving. Kol Hakavod on receiving the reward. Polly