It’s impossible to think of an area of the economy or society that hasn’t been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The field of education certainly has. The tragedy of the virus and the trauma of the lockdown challenged students, teachers, staff and administrators alike. We are still recovering — emotionally and academically. But, after just over a year living with the status quo, and through some trial and error, we believe the following lessons will help us move forward toward a better and healthier future.
Generals do not win wars. Traditionally, schools have been built around a top-down “power pyramid” of sorts. Principals or department heads determine the overall direction the school takes; teachers, in turn, are charged with ensuring students follow the curricula. In this way, the school meets academic standards set by both the state and community.
COVID-19 upended this structure, decentralizing our decision-making process. There was so much required to transition to online schooling that we needed all hands on deck. Administrators, teachers, maintenance workers — everyone was required to step up their game and participate in ways we couldn’t have anticipated. Keeping the school open required that the traditional “chain of command” be discarded in favor of a new paradigm in which power was handed to those closest to the classroom.
As a Jewish school, Torah frames all our lessons. So we looked to great leaders in Torah to suggest the conduct required in trying times — and who better than Moses? At the burning bush, God commanded Moses to take the Jews out of Egypt. Moses replied, “They (the Israelites) will not believe in me.” According to the Midrash, God replied, “They are believers, the children of believers.” God then punished Moses by afflicting his hand with the skin disease tzara’as (Ex. 4:6). This story demonstrates how crucial it is that a leader have faith in the people he or she leads. Without this belief, what endeavor could succeed?
I experienced this in my own life. As an 18-year-old, I was part of a group of young men sent to Johannesburg, South Africa, to help open a beit midrash. Before leaving, we met with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who told us that it was our responsibility to bring these teachings to the local people in a practical, approachable manner. He believed that we were capable; he was our general and had enough faith to send us across the world to continue his work. We left the meeting feeling uplifted, confident and empowered. It’s this approach that’s so necessary to creating strong leaders, particularly in the field of education.
But it takes more than belief — leaders must empower others to become leaders in turn. This requires communicating core values as well as expectations, and allowing staff to make decisions accordingly. Empowering our staff required that we reevaluate our own system of beliefs and presuppositions. We had to ask ourselves: What is the purpose of a yeshiva education? Is it strictly to impart academic knowledge? Or are we aiming to impart Torah-based values as well?
Ultimately, we decided that students’ spiritual, social, emotional, psychological and physical well-being were more important than their academic achievements. This required us to change from a focus on strictly academic performance to a new approach in which we emphasized that teachers should consider the whole child — building connections with the students and helping develop their characters.
The pandemic also demonstrated how much education is a collective endeavor. If it takes a whole village to raise a child, it certainly takes a whole school to educate one. The choices of how to approach education during the pandemic involved parents, psychologists and social workers; even local community members and volunteers lent support. We were fortunate to have the backing and leadership provided by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. Its leaders quickly responded to the crisis by establishing open communication and a system of common practices, as well as helping our school through funding for additional COVID-related expenses. Everyone pulled together so our students could have engaging opportunities to learn core skills and understand the big idea of each subject, connecting to it beyond rote memorization, bringing it to a place of deeper meaning.
We also learned that things can be accomplished much faster than imagined. Last November, due to an outbreak, we had to move online in a matter of days. Before COVID, this process would have taken years. However, with the original outbreak and spikes in cases over the past year, we’ve had no choice but to be flexible and to grow at dizzying speeds. We gained a more adaptive approach to education and a willingness to try new things.
Responding to an unprecedented challenge like COVID-19 necessitated a total shift in the way schools looked at education. The new paradigm required more communication and flexibility, continuously updated expectations and evaluations, and a communal approach to transmitting core values, as well as age-appropriate content and skills development. Once the pandemic has run its course, it behooves us as educators to take these lessons and move forward to the future. PJC
Rabbi Yossi Rosenblum is CEO of Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh and rabbi of Congregation Kesser Torah.