The South African Jewish community, with a population of approximately 70,000, is uniquely characterized by its dedication to Jewish day schools. More than 95% of Jewish students attend Jewish days schools. In Johannesburg, where a majority live, there are nine schools, and in Cape Town, the next largest Jewish population center, there are three. This almost exclusive attendance of Jewish Day schools has created a demand within the community for qualified Judaic studies teachers. However, while most Judaic studies teachers in South Africa are passionate about teaching and care deeply about their students, only a small percentage have had formal training in education and are familiar with basic pedagogy and teaching methodology. South African Jewish youth deserve to have knowledge, skills and understanding of Judaism. We knew that this can be done through providing our Judaic studies teachers with professional training, and arming them with pedagogical skills and practice. With this in mind, in 20014, the Teacher Training Academy (TTA) was created in order to tackle this challenge and raise the quality of Judaic studies educators throughout South Africa.

Initially, we began with an intensive 12-month teacher training programme focused on improving teachers’ pedagogic practice through a multi-pronged approach. This program included workshops, pedagogic reflections and numerous observations in the classroom. Each facet of the original training was intentionally designed to provide teachers not only with pedagogic knowledge, but also to offer teachers the opportunity to grow their self-reflective skills and actual pedagogic practice through classroom observations. While observations are crucial to integrating new knowledge, until the TTA programme began, a culture of observing classes either by peers or the principal, was not present at all.

Following two cohorts of the original teacher focused programme, although growth among individual teachers was apparent, due to financial constraints within the schools, only a small number of teachers were reached. The entrenched culture in South African Jewish day schools in relation to lack of professional development, ongoing pedagogic training and classroom observation amongst Judaic teachers remained prevalent.  It became apparent that, in order to effect widespread change, the focus of TTA needed to shift to a more principal and school-focused programme.

The objective of the new principal and school-focused training programme is not only to empower principals with pedagogic knowledge and the tools needed for observing lessons and mentoring teachers, but also to begin changing the present culture of Judaic teachers in South African Jewish day schools. The new culture that we aim to create is one in which there is an understanding of the role that ongoing evaluation and observation of teachers plays in professional development. Within the school and principal based programme, both teachers and principals attend all the workshops and then each teacher is observed twice during the programme, with the mentor and the principal providing feedback after the class. In addition, teachers complete short assignments on workshop-based content.

Initial analysis from the principals has been positive. Many comment that the workshop content has been relevant and useful, and that the introduction of teacher observation and feedback meetings following observations are really helping to build a culture in the schools of professionalism. However, significant challenges have still been encountered.

One of the main aims of the school and principal based programme is to train both teachers and principals in order to drive a cultural change at South African Jewish day schools. Despite the fact that one of the reasons we developed the schools-based program was to offer schools a more affordable training option, it was still too costly for some of the smaller schools with fewer than ten Jewish Studies teachers. We therefore tried to accommodate these schools within their budget constraints and allowed boys and girls divisions within the same school to join together for workshops. However, due to the difference in the focus of Judaic education within these schools, workshops can be challenging as both the male and female teachers tend to not share the same concerns or goals.

There is also a challenge in gaining commitment and engagement from the teachers, as there is limited interaction with them outside of the workshops and two observations held during the 12-month period. However, as the focus of the school and principal based programme is to change the prevalent culture of South African Jewish day schools through gradually relieving teachers of the responsibility for professional development, towards a system of observation and feedback led by the principals, this lack of commitment from teachers is not a cause for major concern, as many of the principals are already engaging with the teachers and beginning to make the change.

While it is still early, and challenges still remain, we are pleased to have changed the programme to be more school and principal focused as we now are not only reaching more teachers but, more importantly, we are facilitating the development of principals’ skills which will, ultimately, increase classroom teaching effectiveness in the South African context.