About the Prize Winners: Rabbi Yoni Fein

Meet Rabbi Yoni Fein

Rabbi Yoni Fein won the Kohelet Prize for Differentiated Instruction for his work at The Moriah School. Check out his winning entry, Personalized Talmud Learning, here:

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

The greatest challenge is how both teachers and students face the need to change. Now, almost two decades into the 21st century, it is clear that society has been invigorated with the exciting and polarizing pursuit of innovation. This pursuit has brought a tremendous amount of positive change to almost every industry. Yet, the rapid pace of change and innovation also presents challenges that are unique to students and teachers. School has become incredibly more complex for all stakeholders. The workflow of a teacher has seen an increased workload in terms of prep, the need to differentiate, and constant communication. It has also become more stressful with added pressures to be more accessible, more rigorous in standards, and more innovative and current in pedagogy. At the same time, students must deal with heightened social anxieties due to social media and smartphones, the need to be adaptable as teachers explore new ways of teaching and learning, and the increased pressures of academic achievement. These realities only make it harder for true learning to take place and for a school to cultivate a warm and calm environment for teachers to work and students to learn.

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.

I spent over a year researching the most effective way of implementing a standards-based personalized approach in Judaic Studies. In order to get to the personalized learning stage, we needed to start from the very beginning of formulating standards and revamping our assessment methods. We weren’t sure when the “aha” moment would arrive after an incredible amount of energy was invested into exploring this method. It was a month into the school year when I reviewed the test results for the first unit. Upon grading the tests, I was shocked to see that almost every student reached advanced levels of proficiency on certain skills, yet failed to reach proficiency on others. There were students who received 90’s on the overall grade, yet had one skill that they failed to reach 70%. That data alone was remarkable because under normal circumstances, I would have given the test back with a smile congratulating the student on a “good” grade. Yet, I would’ve been blind to the fact that the student had a significant learning gap in a particular skill. The next day, I ran a personalized learning rotation and those very students had a chance to meet with me during teacher-led instruction. It was inspiring to see that it just took a personalized lesson for these students to correct their errors. It also made me smile seeing that 18 other students were working diligently on their own learning with a sense of agency and ownership. That was the moment, among may others, I knew that I couldn’t go back to traditional methods.

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

I was glad to see that one of the categories for the Kohelet Prize was for risk-taking and failure. When trying anything new for the first time, there will be setbacks and aspects of the change that don’t work as you might’ve wished at first. It can be easy to blame the approach in its entirety and the setbacks as justification that attempting the change was a foolish decision. It’s important to always keep the primary goal in mind: providing the best possible learning experience for each and every one of your students. As long as you are striving for that goal, the pursuit is not only valuable, it is necessary. Compartmentalize the challenges you face and be excited about addressing them and trying again.

The Torah, in Parshat Re’eh tells us that Hashem placed in front of us life and death. He instructs us to choose life. The commentaries point out that this seems to be an obvious decision. Why would the Torah need to waste any words on advising us to choose life over death, a decision that any sane human being would make? The Midrash Tanchuma explains that Hashem was referring to the difficult choice a person has to make when facing a decision to take the path of righteousness in the face of adversity. Imagine two roads in front of you. The first presents you right away with many thorns at its entrance. However, once past the thorns the remainder of the road is clear. The other path is clear until the very end when you are faced with the challenge of getting through the thorns. I believe this analogy is the perfect advice for educators who want to make changes to their approach. Taking the easy road of keeping the status quo might feel like the approach that is best. Yet, at the end of the road you will look back and realize that your approach might not have been the best for your students. On the other hand, if you persevered through the initial thorns and continued on your pursuit you will realize that the effort not only becomes easier for you, but it benefits your students in ways that make it all worth it in the long run.

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

My favorite part of my teaching day is when I have the opportunity to lead small group instruction during personalized learning rotations. When I first started out teaching, everything seemed to move so quickly. The pace of class was so fast that I found myself teaching what I needed to cover and hoping that my students would do well on a test. As I got the opportunity to grow in my practice, I appreciate these moments to be able to truly understand how each individual student learns and to help them progress at their own pace and level. It also strengthens the Rebbe-Talmud relationship to be able to have that time together.

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

I view professional development as a daily pursuit to become a better educator and leader. I am lucky to be surrounded by talented and devoted faculty and administration on a daily basis who push each other to grow and develop. I am also fortunate to have a wide network of amazing educational leaders that love to share and collaborate. Twitter is a great resource for me to see some of the innovative work being done across the world of education. I also love to read. My wife knows I am on a passion pursuit when she finds multiple books from Amazon that arrive in one day. I like to keep a journal while I read so that when an idea is inspired from the book to utilize in my school I can draw concrete applications from the book to my work. I also take advantage of the myriad free online courses through Coursera and EdX on education. While these courses are not necessarily interactive, the resources tend to be really helpful and informative.

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

Buy a large bottle of Excedrin and keep it within arm’s reach at all times. All kidding aside (although I would still definitely do that), just know that no matter how challenging that first year might be, you are one of the most important people in your students’ lives and you owe it to them to give your best efforts each and every day to help them succeed, even when they might be their own worst enemy. Stay humble, genuine, and true to the reason why you decided to commit your life’s work to teaching. There is a tendency to believe that teachers must be infallible and completely in control. The best way to grow is to model a growth mindset and be willing to learn from others, even your students.

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

Spend time with my wife and two daughters. At the start of my career, I struggled with finding the right work-life balance. It’s definitely still something that I continue to work on.  My wife is an early childhood teacher and I see the tremendous amount of care and love she puts into her work, and she still has the patience and energy to come home to two nursery-aged children and give them the attention and love that they need. It’s truly inspiring. My daughters come home and all they want to do is sing songs that they learned in school, or speak to their dolls in Hebrew like their Morah, or open a siddur to daven to Hashem. It’s amazing the impact their teachers make on them, and while I try to tell them how much they mean to my girls, words cannot truly encapsulate the impact they have as role models for their students. It gives me chizuk to know that we can have such an impact on young children and how they connect to Torah and Mitzvot. To be given that opportunity is a privilege, albeit a challenging one, that I appreciate and cherish.