The Intersections of Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) and Gender Issues in the Classroom

Dialogue on Jewish Education from The Davidson School

Shira D. Epstein 

I can vividly recall that self-crafted homecoming: the first time I went back to visit my yeshiva high school as a college student. It was spring break, and I hoped to gather some compelling observation notes for my Education 101 course and fulfill a teaching observation assignment in which I would consider one high school's main curricular modes and pedagogic approaches. The scope and sequence of the coed Talmud course I observed offered few surprises; the rav pushed and prodded the students to translate and make sense of a rabbinic passage and lengthy parable contained within the Talmud-on what, I could not recall for you today. What did leave an indelible mark, and no doubt was one of several observations that shaped future directions for my academic research, was the "hidden curriculum" of that 45-minute coed text-study session. Sandwiched in between instruction on Aramaic translation and intertextual understandings were lighthearted remarks the rav made to one female student: he would make peace with her less-than-perfect observance of Pesah kashrut laws if she promised to engage in modest attire by exclusively wearing dresses instead of pants from now on.

As the students emptied the classroom and I gathered up my notes, I continued to sit, a bit dumbfounded. Why did this attempt at tzniut (modesty) deal-making take me by surprise? Certainly this sort of banter between male teachers and female students had regularly occurred when I was a student, and certainly I had cheerily participated. Perhaps my views had simply shifted through my studies at a liberal-minded college. Upon deeper reflection, I admitted that such exchanges had always offered momentary discomfort to me; because I was now an outsider, an observer, I was able to detect that look of discomfort, however so subtle, on another female student's face. Up until then, I had been a student but was now returning as an alumna. I had been observing the classroom as an (I perceived myself as) oh-so-wise alumna college student but now I was thrust into the role of critical reader of a problematic incident. Previously, I had experienced teaching at this school only as an insider, a "member of the club." While I had intuitively sensed as a student that the learning I experienced didn't always feel comfortable, it was all I knew. It wasn't until I had the opportunity to step outside what I considered "natural" that I was able to consider the messages I had been sent on a daily basis that were not a part of the formal curriculum, but most certainly had shaped my beliefs about modesty, my body, and Jewish views of what it meant to behave as a "girl."

This anecdote might seem like an extreme example and possibly irrelevant; after all, you might think, this happened many years ago, and today's teachers would never explicitly offer such messages in their progressive classrooms. However, my exploration into gender and Jewish education suggests another view. This example, albeit possibly far afield from mainstream Jewish educational life, is a reminder that so much of the climate we participate in as educators and learners seems normal until we have opportunities to take a wide lens, step back, and observe. What affects our learners is often as much what we do say as educators as what we don't say, the messages we do send as much as what we fail to address.

As part of the elective course I teach at The Davidson School, Perspectives on Gender and Education, I ask the students to interview a Jewish educator (e.g., a classroom teacher or a synagogue educator) about the ways in which gender issues percolate and are addressed in their settings. Across the past 10 years, my undergraduate, master's-level, and rabbinic and cantorial school learners have commonly reported that in the early part of the interviews they conduct for the course, the educators they interview maintain, "Gender is not an issue in our setting" or "I can't really think of anything." Yet, as the interviews progress, a whole host of issues always emerges, ranging from bullying to gender and sexual identity exploration to questions about dress code, dating, and cliques.

My students' interview data support my early-career hunch: in order to become more deeply aware of the gender-related SEL issues within their institutions, educators require opportunities to observe and reflect upon the daily hidden curricula that otherwise might be otherwise invisible. We need not rely upon "big incidents," such as accusations of sexual assault or verbal attacks toward a gay student, to serve as barometers of the social-emotional climate within our educational settings. We can instead look to the smaller exchanges as reflections of the institution's values-both what we do well and where we need to improve in developing a healthy learning environment. By more regularly making space for observation of the quotidian, we can better allow ourselves to walk in the shoes of our learners.

Dr. Shira D. Epstein is an assistant professor and area coordinator of Jewish Education at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary. Among the courses she teaches are Skills for Teaching, Curriculum and Instruction in Jewish Educational Settings, Perspectives on Gender and Education, Early Childhood Education, and Methods of Research in Jewish Education. Dr. Epstein coordinates the day school track, supervising student field work and teaching the yearlong practicum. She has extensive teaching, curriculum writing, and mentoring experience in a variety of Jewish educational settings. Her research interests include gender and Jewish education. She was founding director of the Addressing Evaded Issues in Jewish Education project, which has received funding from the Jewish Women's Foundation of New York, Hadassah Foundation, and Dobkin Family Foundation. In April 2008, Dr. Epstein received the Voices of Valor award from Dayenu! Enough Silence, the domestic violence initiative of the New York Board of Rabbis. Dr. Epstein has a doctorate in education (Curriculum and Teaching) from Teachers College, Columbia University (2003), and was a Wexner Graduate Fellow (1999-2003). She holds a master of arts degree in Educational Theater from New York University (1996) and a bachelor of arts degree in Women's Studies, with a concentration in the Education of Girls, from Brown University (1994).