About the Prize Winners: Elana Weissman

Meet Elana Weissman

Elana Weissman won The Kohelet Prize for Interdisciplinary Integration as part of a team of two at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. Check out their winning entry, Beth Tfiloh’s Lower School Israel Fair: A Student-led Interdisciplinary Experience, here: http://koheletprize.org/database/beth-tfilohs-lower-school-israel-fair-student-led-interdisciplinary-experience/

In your experience, what is the greatest challenge facing students/teachers today?

With the oversaturation of technology and social media, our students are growing up in a world where they are accustomed to instant gratification, immediate and often excessive information, and constant access to communication. It makes sense, then, that children are growing up distractible and anxious, and struggle to cultivate their inner sense of emotional balance and regulation. Self-regulation is comprised of a body of skills: the ability to respond rather than react, to sustain focus, to exercise patience, to effectively work with others, and to persevere. These skills are gatekeepers for learning. I think the greatest challenge for our students is that they are living in a world that does not readily nurture their capacity to develop balance and self-regulation. They have to work that much harder to find that sense of equanimity. For teachers, the greatest challenge is to intentionally cultivate a learning environment that strengthens students’ capacity for self-regulation alongside their academic skills.

In implementing your winning project in the classroom, was there a moment when you knew that you had hit upon something really powerful? If so, describe that moment.

One of the days of the project, I walked down the hallway to check in with each of the classes and to see their progress. Standing outside of the long row of 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grade classrooms, I remember just stopping for minute and realizing that I could actually feel the energy emanating from each room. Classrooms were abuzz and alive in a way that I had never seen before. They were hubs of learning, where students were actively investigating their curiosities and teachers were guiding the exploration. Every student and every teacher was invested and engaged. I knew at that moment — when the learning was so alive that walking down the hallway felt noticeably different — that we had achieved something exceptional.

What advice would you give teachers who want to attempt something new and different in their own classrooms?

Develop a community of colleagues who share the desire to grow professionally, and use each other as sounding boards. When you try something new, be clear about what your goal is, and view your attempt as an iterative challenge. You may not hit a home run on your first try but give yourself the leeway to reflect on your practice without being self-critical. You can always modify, improve, and try again.

What’s your favorite part of your teaching day and why?

Listening to the purity in children’s questions and conversations. It gives me a glimpse into the world through their eyes.

Practicing mindfulness with our students and observing the few moments when students are peacefully centered. In our world of constant distractibility and movement, I love knowing that they are taking a moment to just be.

And hearing kindergarteners belt out Hatikvah every morning reminds me daily of the precious gift of working in Jewish education.

How do you ensure that you’re always growing professionally?

I’m currently pursuing my doctorate in educational psychology at Johns Hopkins University and am writing my dissertation on whether elementary school students can achieve increased levels of engagement, skill development, and content knowledge when learning Chumash through a student-centered approach. My coursework and dissertation research deepen my thinking about what it means to teach and to learn, and my work at Beth Tfiloh offers me the opportunity to apply that which I am learning. I also love to watch other teachers in action, and think that we can learn so much from each other.

If you had one piece of advice to share with a new teacher walking into his/her classroom for the first time…

Be patient with your progress and growth as a teacher. Seek out colleagues who will be a supportive network and together build a positive work climate. Feeling supported, appreciated, and happy to come to work is so essential.

Think of your classroom as a family — Your job is to help each student feel known, celebrated, and loved for who they are. Aim to create a classroom environment that is structured and that supports students to develop autonomy in their learning.

What are some ways in which you motivate your students to become lifelong learners?

My students know that I am still in school and learning, which I hope sends the message that we continue learning even when we “grow up”. I also think giving students the time and space to ask questions and seek out answers will naturally strengthen their curiosity and deepen their thirst for learning.

When I’m not in the classroom I love to ______________. This strengthens my teaching by…

When I am not in the classroom, I love to spend time with my husband and three daughters, spend time with my friends, and exercise. I know that my ability to give to students and to support other teachers is dependent on my capacity to also take care of myself. Spending time with my family and friends who I love, and finding the time to take care of my physical and mental health gives me the energy and clarity of mind to come to then invest myself in teaching.