Photo credit: MTEI

This is one of several articles from “Gleanings,” a publication from the Leadership Commons at the William Davidson School at JTSA. This issue asks: “What does it take to nurture small successes into larger successes in Jewish education? Often we take a program or initiative that works well in one setting (say one particular synagogue school or JCC) or city and attempt to replicate it elsewhere, yet it fails to flourish.


By Dr. Gail Z. Dorph

The Mandel Teacher Educator Institute (MTEI) has fostered a unique approach to scaling up quality teaching and learning in Jewish education for over two decades by populating the field with a new kind of educational leader. MTEI has impacted both the principles and practices of the field through the learning and leadership of its 250-plus graduates who are in more than 60 communities in the United States, Israel, and Canada. We have learned from our graduates that these principles and practices not only enable them to do their current jobs differently, they also serve them in future roles they play as their careers develop. (See our website, mtei-learning.org, for further enumeration of these principles).

To place MTEI in historical perspective, in 1991, the North American Commission for Jewish Education published A Time to Act, the findings of a two-year study that made two suggestions related directly to the problem of improving Jewish education at scale. They were: 1) Focus on building financial and political will to champion Jewish education as a priority, and 2) Create a cadre of educational leaders able to transform the system at its core.

MTEI was the first educational leadership capacity project that was designed based on these recommendations. The MTEI leadership team designed the program to grow the kind of educational leaders who could leverage the system. When MTEI was launched in 1995, improving the quality of teaching was at the heart of national educational reform efforts. Researchers suggested that in order to make deep changes in the current educational system, the focus had to be on improving the quality of teaching. This meant helping teachers learn new ways of thinking and acting. Previously, instructional leadership had been defined in terms of defining the school mission, managing the instructional program, and promoting a positive school learning climate. Now the concept of instructional leadership was expanded to include a broader view of leadership focusing on establishing and promoting a school culture in which teaching and learning could flourish. (Holtz, B. W.  Dorph, G. Z. and Goldring, E. (2002). Educational Leaders as Teacher Educators: the Teacher Educator Institute—A Case from Jewish Education. Peabody Journal of Education. 72 [2] 147–166.)

At that time most teaching and learning in Jewish education focused on facts and skills and there was little emphasis on the “big ideas” of Judaism. Further, Jewish educational leaders lacked serious professional training and knew little about how to support teacher learning in the service of meaningful learning. There was no ongoing substantive professional development for Jewish educational leaders, especially related to instructional improvement, in particular. (Goldring, E. B., Gamoran, A., & Robinson, B. (1996). Educational leaders in Jewish schools. Private School Monitor 18:1, 6–13.)

The MTEI leadership team designed an intensive two-year program for educational leaders across denominations and settings that consists of six four-day seminars with assignments between gatherings. The MTEI curriculum intertwines best practices in teacher education and professional development with Jewish texts and big ideas. Our target recruit was, and still is, individuals already serving in educational leadership roles, for example, a head of school or key leader in a school setting; a head of an agency or educational consultant who works in a national or communal organization; or an educator who is developing a new initiative or institution.

The program rests on several beliefs about learning: people learn best when knowledge is presented in authentic contexts; long-lasting learning requires social interaction and collaboration; and learners need scaffolded opportunities to see and practice what they have learned. All of MTEI’s activities, including the seminar-based and home-based activities, are designed to situate learning within the real work of educational leaders and to build in opportunities for practice, feedback, critique, and partnership.

The program is designed to help participants develop ongoing, substantive, professional learning experiences for their teachers, and build a collaborative learning environment for them and their students. Our unique strategy for successfully scaling up instructional change results from preparing leaders who educate their teachers who, in turn, impact their students.

MTEI graduates work with diverse learners in a variety of settings in the Jewish world, always encouraging the same kind of active and meaningful learning modeled and practiced in our MTEI program. In this way, they gradually transform the very cultures of their institutions. That is both our theory of learning and the method by which the project works to achieve its scaling goals.

So, what is the MTEI’s theory of change as we work to change the field of Jewish education at scale? Our very first principle can be attributed to the vision of our philanthropist Morton Mandel, who from the very beginning said: “Invest in good people.” We have followed his guidance, recruiting strong leaders and providing them with a robust program based on best practices of learning and professional development. We have also created a vibrant network of graduates who share a vision of collaborative colleagueship and who benefit from a listserv, video-conference learning opportunities, an Edmodo online platform that allows for sharing resources and opportunities for unlimited storage and asynchronous learning, and periodic graduate seminars. All these allow graduates to connect both with one other and with MTEI faculty on an ongoing basis.

Evidence suggests that this theory of change is having our intended impact on the field of Jewish education across settings and environments.

Here are only three examples of how MTEI graduates are transforming the Jewish education landscape:

Graduate A designed one of the first afterschool programs for children between the ages of four and twelve that emphasizes, in particular, three of the MTEI principles: the centrality of Jewish content, the fact that how we talk with each other matters, and the importance of collaborative inquiry.

Graduate B created a Jewish educational consulting practice using the dialogic nature of havruta learning as the backbone of an initiative. The MTEI principle of the centrality of Jewish content in creating an intentional community was key to the design and enactment of this program, which helped educators integrate technology into their own practice.

Graduate C developed a community-wide mentoring program for principals and lead teachers based on the collaborative approach to educative mentoring espoused by the program.

As MTEI now educates its eighth national cohort and begins recruitment for the next cohort to begin in November 2019, this sustained 20-year program continues to develop educational leaders who are catalysts for change in the field of Jewish education.

Dr. Gail Z. DorphDr. Gail Z. Dorph is the founding director of the Mandel Teacher Educator Institute. Her research interests are teacher development and the relationship between Judaic content and pedagogy. Prior to her work with the Mandel Foundation, she directed the Fingerhut School of Education at AJU (formerly the University of Judaism).

Cross-posted from Gleanings.