The Shefa Teacher Residency Program Breaks New Ground

The Naomi Foundation is proud to support the work of The Shefa School, a Jewish community day school in Manhattan serving students in grades 1-8 with language-based learning disabilities. Students benefit from a specialized educational environment in order to develop their strengths while addressing their learning challenges.

The Shefa Teacher Residency is a groundbreaking two-year program that recruits and immerses educators in its unique approach to language-based learning disabilities. Teacher residents train in a classroom with a mentor teacher and take on increasing responsibility while gaining support through professional development and coaching.

The Naomi Foundation spoke with Avital Katz and Menucha Lowenstein, who completed the Teacher Residency and are now in their second year as head teachers at the Shefa School.

What is the Shefa Teacher Residency program and what makes it unique?

Menucha (M): It’s a 2-year program designed to learn by doing the work alongside other professionals. It’s not an assistant program – you’re not decorating classrooms. They have high expectations and they guide you with those expectations. You slowly observe in the beginning and then you begin to take part in the planning. What’s incredible is that as the year goes on, you lead portions of the lesson and then, by the end of the first year, you are planning and teaching an entire week’s worth of subjects. What’s also amazing is that we’re included in any professional development offered to any other staff. It’s not like if you’re a resident you’re on the bottom of the totem pole. By the second year, we actually each ran our own math and reading group independently, with supervision of course. By the end of the second year, you’ve really been shaped into a Shefa teacher in so many specific ways.

What attracted you to this particular program?

Avital (A): Shefa sold the program to us as a way to learn teaching strategies in an immersive and professional environment. We were excited to be doing the work we always wanted to do. Whether or not we had worked with kids with language based disabilities before or not, it didn’t really matter. It was just the concept of the entire school being such a special place for kids. They really believe in their mission of training teachers and they saw us as educators right away. And that is such a huge draw for someone right out of college – I do know something and someone sees that, sees the potential that I have as a teacher.

M: I was excited that it didn’t seem like a stagnant position. It was, here’s a really clear timeline of what we expect you to be able to do by the end of the year and here’s how we’re going to support you. So I felt really invested right away. It was unreal that Shefa had this program for us.

What have been some highlights and ways you have grown from your experience as a teacher resident?

A: In my second year, I was teaching one student basic letter formation and simple sentences. The great thing about Shefa is that you get to work with students over multiple years, and teachers know your students and give you updates. I had the opportunity to work with the same student that next year on more complex reading. All of a sudden, they were reading harder words and complex sentences and I knew that it was in part because I had been trained to educate them in the way that best fit their needs.  All of a sudden I was doing it and they were doing it.

M: When you’re able to make a connection with a student and track their progress, you can’t put a price on it. I worked with a student my first year and he didn’t know how to write his name or letters, even though he was so brilliant and had so much background knowledge. I got to be his “scribe.” It’s been really crazy to keep tabs on him. A year later I got a knock on my door and he was holding a paragraph that he wrote with his writing group in fifth grade. I was speechless. I made a copy of that paragraph. He said, “Why would you want a copy of the paragraph?” I said this is what being proud of yourself feels like.

A: A big theme is differentiation and being there for those students. Giving that one-on-one attention in order to differentiate is much easier when you have another person in the room.

M: The community feel at Shefa is very real and it’s very much like you’re passing on a baton. You know that your work with this kid is not in isolation, it’s not in a vacuum. It’s about the teamwork. The collaboration among teachers is really paramount, not only for the success of the students, but for the camaraderie of the teachers.

How does the teacher residency program help the broader Jewish day school community?

M: We see kids from a strength-based perspective. We’re not just looking at the reading, we’re looking at how language is affecting the way they’re speaking, how they interact with peers on the playground, how they’re able to ask for help from a teacher. When people hear about this residency program, it widens the conversation about what students who fit into this learning profile are capable of doing.

A: Once there are more residents and more people are trained, we will be able to go to those schools and offer what we know. We have this very specific area that we’re becoming experts in and we will then be able to support students in those Jewish Day Schools so they can stay in their community schools. I think that’s a huge draw for a lot of schools and families.