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Professional Preparation: A "Value Add" for Educators and Their Employers

February 09, 2017

In October 2016, the Jim Joseph Foundation released a final evaluation conducted by American Institutes for Research of its Education Initiative — in three top-rated Jewish education institutions — Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), and Yeshiva University (YU) — to increase the number of educators and educational leaders who are prepared to design and implement high-quality Jewish education programs. The foundation and AIR have shared some of the key findings and lessons learned from the initiative. AIR also is releasing a series of blogs that delve more deeply into important findings from the evaluation — the second of which, below, discusses the value of professional preparation programs and the key characteristics that distinguish those programs as excellent.

Jim_joseph_foundationWhether in a classroom, at a camp, at locations in a city, or in nearly any other environment, effective Jewish learning experiences can enrich lives and help cultivate deep, long-lasting relationships among participants. Over the last two decades especially, Jewish education and engagement experiences developed for teens and young adults have focused on opportunities to create peer communities and friendships, develop leadership skills, and strengthen cultural and religious beliefs while enabling youth to voice their opinions and serve their communities. An important aspect of many of these initiatives is a high level of accessibility and inclusiveness, so that people of various backgrounds and differing levels of prior engagement in Jewish life feel valued, respected, and welcomed.

A Need to Raise the Bar

With the growing popularity of these offerings, both by well-established organizations and in the form of innovative projects, there is an urgent need for the professionalization of individuals responsible for designing, conducting outreach for, and facilitating them. Jewish Community Centers (JCCs), congregations, youth groups, camps, Hillel, and social justice organizations in particular offer many of these experiences — and as a result are driving increased demand for talented, well-trained professionals eager to work in this space.

At the moment, however, no degree requirement exists for individuals tasked with delivering such influential Jewish experiences. The Jim Joseph Foundation's Education Initiative, a recently completed $45 million, six-year investment in three top-rated Jewish education institutions — Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), and Yeshiva University — in part aimed to fill this void by increasing opportunities for and improving access to professional preparation programs for educators, aspiring leaders, middle managers, and directors and executive directors in the field of Jewish education. The initiative was based on the premise that higher education institutions are uniquely equipped to promote the research-based knowledge and decision-making tools needed by professionals to design and deliver a range of excellent educational practices for a particular age group in different settings.

We previously shared other key outcomes and findings of the initiative, including the number of new educators trained and new training programs developed. Now, we want to home in on the value of professional preparation for the individuals and organizations that offer Jewish learning experiences.

From Personal Development to Organizational Change

Data collected as part of the independent evaluation of the Education Initiative confirmed that employers value training opportunities for their staff.

"Certificate programs help raise the bar of all of our staff. We want our employees to come from a place of knowledge rather than a place of hunch or guess."

— director of education at a congregation

Employers recognize that professional training helps them (and other organizations) address the recruitment and retention of qualified, skilled, and experienced Jewish educators. In fact, from 2010-16, most of the employers of students in Education Initiative-funded programs sponsored paid time for participation in seminars and for study time. Some of the initiative programs even required employers to cover some of the tuition costs, but that was not a deterrent. Not only were most employers happy to support their staff; they also reported a high likelihood that staff were happy to recommend the program to others inside and outside their organizations.

"My goal is to keep him in his position as long as possible, and that means that I want to see our youth director position continue to grow. What we need are qualified people staying in youth director positions for longer terms, as opposed to seeing their job as a stepping stone. A certificate allows the youth director to change in such a way that their role in the congregation can change."

— an executive director at a congregation

Across Education Initiative programs such as M² (Machshava and Maase, formerly the Experiential Jewish Education Certificate Program), Certificate of Jewish Education for Adolescents and Emerging Adults, and the Jewish Experiential Leadership Institute, both employers and participants reported higher job satisfaction and improved job performance as a direct result of their programs. In most interviews conducted for the evaluation, employers remarked that their youth program directors were more confident in their leadership and management abilities after attending one of the certificate programs developed under the initiative. A Jewish Community Center director explained that her program coordinator now feels "more connected to the organization and more empowered as an employee. She is working with her project [team] with greater excitement and it is going to help a number of part-time employees grow professionally."

For youth directors specifically, the most common direct outcomes from participating in a professional development program were (a) greater interest in designing or redesigning educational programs; (b) greater interest in embedding professional development into staff meetings; and (c) improved stakeholder engagement.

"[The program] has made him more self-confident about the education work that he is doing. That translates to how he speaks about our Hillel to others in the field and it boosts our profile."

— director of a Hillel at a university

Key Characteristics of Effective Training Programs

Interviews with the direct supervisors of professionals who graduated from an Education Initiative-funded program crystallize what made those programs so valuable:

  • Relevance: Knowledge directly applies to the organizational context in which program participants work.
  • Resources: Having the lesson plans and materials (e.g., texts, art, songs, movies, games) to teach children and adolescents about Jewish themes.
  • Perspective: Learning from the experience of youth programs operating in different geographical areas, communities, and organizational structures.
  • Inspiration: Understanding how theory and research can be used to design state-of-the-art, developmentally-appropriate activities.
  • Assessment: Developing the ability to collect and analyze data to identify ineffective practices that should be replaced or revised.
  • Communication: Learning how to convey the rationale for program design when engaging stakeholders, including other professionals, partnering organizations, and families.
  • Model: Experiencing a learning process that bridges research, practice, and Jewish community context and gaining the tools to deliver a similar workshop to co-workers and others.

The outcomes delivered by the Education Initiative suggest that beyond gains in professional knowledge, successful training programs can boost organizational commitment and reduce job stress for educators. Such programs also can inspire educators to think about new ideas for practice, share those ideas with colleagues, and communicate about the meaningfulness of their work:

"The program impacted the way I see myself as an educator and my philosophy. I learned a lot in terms of how to plan and execute content in a meaningful way and [to carry out] team building [strategies] for an educational purpose. But the ultimate takeaway was the importance of the journey in forming a Jewish identity. I now have the language to explain it [to my colleagues] and to make it happen. It is important that you know that this program attracted people who feel like they are good at what they do — they are not novices and they are not struggling. But, they really needed the language and the tools for what they had a hunch for. This sort of takes you from 'This is what I want to do with my life' to 'I am going be amazing at it'."

— director of teen learning at a JCC

Headshot_Yael KidronThe positive outcomes of the programs created under the Education Initiative demonstrate how professional training influences educators, increasing the quality of education they deliver and increasing the likelihood they remain in the field. And beyond this, high-quality training programs positively affect organizational content, pedagogy, staffing, and culture. Most importantly, these training programs create a ripple effect of knowledge sharing and the dissemination of proven practices that ultimately advance and further help to professionalize the broader field of Jewish education.

Yael Kidron, Ph.D., is a principal researcher at American Institutes for Research.

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