A win-win: doctoral students teach educators

Doctoral students at Gratz partner with the NEXT program to offer innovative courses and boost Jewish education at supplementary schools. 

Students in Gratz College’s Ed.D. and Ph.D. programs are getting practical experience while sharing expertise with NEXT’s supplementary school teachers.

A burgeoning partnership between doctoral students and NEXT, Gratz’ professional development program for teachers who work in supplementary schools (also referred to as Hebrew, religious and synagogue schools), is proving to be mutually beneficial, said Rabbi Erin Hirsh, director of Gratz Advance, the umbrella department that supports all aspects of supplementary school education, including NEXT. The partnership calls on doctoral students to teach online courses to supplementary school instructors across the country.

“Religious school teachers are often untrained in either education or Jewish content,” Hirsh said. “The NEXT program is professional development designed specifically for teachers who work in supplementary schools. By inviting Ed.D. and Ph.D. students to teach NEXT courses, we’re weaving together the NEXT program with students in our degree programs.”

Gratz launched the NEXT program in 2012 with a generous grant from Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. Hirsh determined that online courses would best serve Philadelphia-area supplementary school teachers. Once her colleagues learned about NEXT’s online courses, teachers from throughout North America began enrolling. Since the program’s inception, over 1,500 teachers from more than 30 states and two Canadian provinces have participated in NEXT courses.

“All the NEXT courses feature a combination of pedagogy and Jewish content,” Hirsh said. “They’re all taught by people with expertise in supplementary school and many of our doctoral students have exactly that expertise.”

The Auerbach Family Foundation, which has a long-standing commitment to supplementary Jewish education in Philadelphia as well as nationally, also generously supports NEXT. Most recently, the Foundation offered NEXT a $25,000 matching grant for the 2018 - 2019 school year.

The online platform is especially interesting for Laurie Fisher, a doctoral student who plans to use her Ed.D. to teach at the college level. Fisher has taught four NEXT courses and has found that it challenges the way she approaches education—both as a student and as a teacher.

“The thing I love most about NEXT is developing classes that work well in the online platform,” Fisher said. “Teaching for the NEXT program has allowed me to develop and hone my skills as an online educator, which dovetails nicely with my status as a student. I have seen the online platform from both sides and I’m able to bring my perspective as a student into my teaching.”

The NEXT staff began engaging Gratz doctoral students both to continue expanding the range of NEXT course offerings and to give doctoral students more adult teaching opportunities. NEXT course topics include teaching specific Jewish subjects like holidays and prayer, using methodologies like project-based learning and music, and teaching the Holocaust through literature. 

“Doctoral students teach NEXT courses based on their own areas of expertise,” Hirsh said. “It gives them a chance to teach what they are passionate about in the online context while building their own resumes and profiles in their fields. It’s a win-win.”

For Boaz Avraham-Katz, a doctoral student in Gratz’s Genocide and Holocaust Studies program, teaching for NEXT offers opportunities to explore issues in different ways. Teaching also gives him license to think creatively about topics and come up with innovative ways to present lessons. 

“Teaching for NEXT allows me to put my knowledge into practical use,” Avraham-Katz said. “NEXT allows me to share my knowledge and passion with others and thus continue the chain of remembrance which is so important as the Holocaust becomes more and more distant. One of the reasons I am pursuing my Ph.D. is to allow me to teach in higher education and make a difference.”