Caution: Hard Hat Area. Mentoring, Teaching and Learning Together in Congregational Religious School


The first time I met Alicia Harris, I handed her a hard hat, and she accepted it with a smile. The Valley Temple was nearing the end of a renovation project, and I wanted to give her a tour of the building. Thinking back, her willingness to step into a construction zone with my guidance, protected by the hard hat, was an excellent indication that her trust, courage, positive attitude, and receptiveness would afford her not only a wonderful teaching experience but also a successful mentoring relationship with me.


When one is a novice, one must navigate the waters of beginning — not an easy task to do alone. Mentorship, in any field, is crucial to the continued success and growth of any beginner. This year, I am working at the Valley Temple as a fourth and fifth grade teacher. This is not the first time I’ve had my own classroom in a Hebrew school setting, but it is the first time that I have been lucky enough to have a true mentor who has agreed to devote time and energy to my growth as an educator.


I begin each school year with a new HUC-JIR TJF Fellow wondering, “What can I learn from this experience?” I am transparent about my stance as a learner, and I look to the Fellows — who are new to our school and community and may be counting on learning about our congregation, our school culture, and background information about our students — to help me see our school and students through fresh eyes. This year, by observing, co-teaching and talking with Alicia after every class, I have learned about the power of honest and informed dialog. Alicia welcomes me into her classroom as an observer and partner. I never feel that I am interrupting her or overstepping my role. Each time I get to co-teach with her, I am energized by the partnership and by the learning that occurs in the room, for both the students and the teachers. Alicia’s unbelievable flexibility allows her to trust the process to unfold.


My mentoring relationship with Alison has blossomed and is productive because, as a new teacher, I don’t feel protective over my classroom. It doesn’t feel like it’s “mine.” I prefer to look at the classroom as a place where both my students and I learn together. I never feel like I have anything to prove. I am confident that my Hebrew skills are solid enough to teach Hebrew. The reason I’m teaching this class is to learn how to teach and to build my skills for the future, so it’s easy and natural to invite Alison into the room to observe me, to co-teach, to help. She and I have spent a lot of time co-teaching. I get to observe her as she interacts with the students; I make note of the way she seamlessly steers conversations with mature content and the little tricks and techniques that she uses to push kids along in their learning. She encourages the kids to ask substantive questions and participate in the classroom.


At the end of each class, our shared experience allows us to have a conversation with two perspectives. My job as Alicia’s mentor is often to talk her down from being too hard on herself. I was often able to help her change her narrative by offering my view of how the class session unfolded, or describing something that I noticed about the lesson or interactions among the learners. Even when I was not in the classroom, I was familiar enough with her teaching and with the students to have a conversation and offer her a different view or a question to consider.

Alicia’s growth from self-critical to productively introspective is a process I strive to improve in myself. Through mentoring Alicia, I was reminded of the work I continue to do to deal with disappointment, remain flexible, and look for the bigger questions that may be hiding within lesson bumps and classroom interactions. Alicia has been an excellent teacher to me in this area.


The most important aspect of our mentoring relationship, for me, is the reflection process. After every single Hebrew school and Sunday school class, Alison and I sit together and reflect on the day. I give her my perspective on how things went in the classroom, the things that worked and didn’t work, and we brainstorm for the classes ahead. Because of our experience with co-teaching, Alison is able to give me a totally different perspective. If I view a lesson or a part of a lesson as a failure due to class behavior or level of engagement, she is able to help me process the experience. Many times she reminds me to be easier on myself, or that the students were learning despite the level of chaos in the classroom. This is an invaluable experience to have. The reflection process allows us to work as a team. We are united in the common goal to educate the children, and our mentor-mentee relationship allows for productive reflection, improvement, critique, and experimentation in the classroom. I have the freedom to do new things because I have the structure to process the experience and improve upon it with Alison’s support and feedback.


One of my teachers, Sharon Feiman-Nemser, Brandeis University professor of Jewish education, wrote an article that introduces the term “educative mentoring” and spells out some qualities of a successful mentoring relationship.[1]

Educative mentoring rests on an explicit vision of good teaching and an understanding of teacher learning. Mentors who share this orientation attend to beginning teachers’ present concerns, questions, and purposes without losing sight of long-term goals for teacher development. They interact with novices in ways that foster an inquiring stance. They cultivate skills and habits that enable novices to learn in and from their practice. They use their knowledge and expertise to assess the direction novices are heading and to create opportunities and conditions that support meaningful teacher learning in the service of student learning

This definition of educative mentoring stood out to both Alicia and to me. In my attempts to help her navigate what it means to be a teacher and a learner in a congregational school setting, I try to remain aware of the everyday concerns of a new teacher as well as the larger goals of professional development, which we discuss weekly when the entire faculty meets before the start of school.


Another wonderful aspect of our relationship is Alison’s ability to help me recognize growth in myself. She is cognizant of my growth and gives me helpful feedback. As I mentioned, Alison is an incredible teacher and, as an incredible teacher often does, she helps me develop skills I know I will use in the future. She consistently reminds me of my long-term goals and helps me to see my own growth. I am so grateful for our connection and for the way the entire Valley community embraced me this year.


Alicia and I began the year wearing hard hats and, although there were other times throughout the year when the work was difficult and we may have wished we could have donned protective gear, it has truly been an unprecedented incredible experience. The respect that Alicia has shown for her students, Valley’s culture, her learning, her students’ learning, our mentoring relationship, the reflective process, and herself have made this year one of joy and learning for me. I am thrilled to have had this experience with Alicia and I look forward to hearing of the success she has and the relationships she builds with her future students and congregants.


Alicia Harris is TJF Fellow at The Valley Temple

Alison Weikel is Director of Education at The Valley Temple.


[1] S. Feiman-Nemser. “Helping novices learn to teach: Lessons from an exemplary support teacher.” Journal of Teacher Education 52 (2001), 17–30.

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