Weekly Message 2-1-08

1 February 2008 
25 Shevat 5768 
Shalom Chaverim, 

Early this morning I read a headline in the New York Times that intrigued and somewhat disturbed me. The article, “Online Schooling Grows, Setting Off a Debate,” describes the growing phenomenon of students – beginning in elementary school – who are not only taking classes on line, but actually “getting all their schooling from virtual public schools.” The article discusses the merits of virtual classes – “students can go to school at any time and in any place,” they have access to a wide range of courses in a wide range of subjects, they “move through their lessons at their own pace” – as well as sharp debates over regulations, oversight, the expansive role of parents, “corporate profiteering,” and the draining of public funds from “traditional” schools.  

But nowhere did the article discuss the first word that came into my mind when I read the headline and when I think about my vision of education, and about the Gann experience: relationships. While the excitement and the entrepreneurship of alternative schooling and the possibilities for online learning opportunities to augment a school’s curriculum are compelling, what happens to the profound impact of relationships and human interactions – among teachers, students and parents – on our students’ intellectual, social-emotional, and spiritual development?  

Just yesterday, three of my meetings – two with teachers and one with a parent – underscored my intuitive concerns about virtual education and my sense of what makes Gann so special.  

One teacher and I discussed the ways we as educators model our own diverse commitments and identities, as well as our passionate relationships with our subject matter. We agreed that relationships with adults who explicitly share and model their journeys, their “process”, and their commitments, contribute significantly to our students’ exploration and formation of their identities as Jews and as human beings.  

A second teacher shared with me the profound impact that a school’s faculty culture – supportive, collegial and collaborative relationships with other teachers – has on her work and her quality of life. Our conversation highlighted the impact of faculty relationships on teacher recruitment and retention; and, it also reminded me of research that has shown that in addition to teacher-student relationships, the relationships between adults in a school have a significant impact on student learning. As educators and as parents, we can talk about values, family and community, but our relationships – the manner in which we, as adults, talk and interact with each other – speak loudly as well.  

After talking with these teachers about student-teacher and teacher-teacher relationships, I ended my day in a meeting with a parent who reminded me of the critical partnership – the sacred trust – between teachers and parents. This partnership involves more than “putting a face to a name” or calling when a problem arises. The quality of our parent-teacher relationships is essential to our shared work – educating and caring for our students, our children.  

When I think of our school and our community, I think of relationships – real, live, emotional and complex, frustrating and rewarding, transformative human interactions. When I hear our students describe what they love about Gann, the first thing they talk about is the relationships with their teachers who they know really care about them. And when I think about what motivates and inspires me to do my work each day, I think of walking through our hallways absorbing the unique energy of our community, and of meaningful moments and interactions with our students, faculty and staff.  

In many ways Gann is an anti-virtual school. Our students spend hours a day on buses, our parents spend hours a day driving back and forth, and our teachers spend from morning to night at school, in order for us to be together and to learn together. We are more than a school; we are community. May we continue to invest in the depth and quality of relationships that support, strengthen and inspire learning and growth – for our students and for us all. 

Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Marc Baker  

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