Karen Reiss Medwed

Tuesday the Rabbi Went to PTA

A school building

May this be a sweet new year of learning for all our children, and for all of us, and may we all have the opportunity to study, to teach, to observe, and to practice.

I don’t know about you, but when I think PTA, I have images, likely imprinted by the endless movie and t.v. shows that mock them, of ladies in white gloves and puffy dresses, hosting tea parties while setting up bake sales in the school gym. As a working mom I never really gave much thought to who these women actually are, and what the value of their work could be.

Until that fateful day when an email came through seeking a volunteer to help the online learning committee of the district during the onset of COVID19. Having taught online for year, and finding everyone now at home struggling to figure out best practices, I raised my hand to volunteer. The rest, as the colloquial goes, is history.

This year I find myself, a rabbi, a professor of education and non profit management, as co-President of our high school PTA and I could not be more proud of the volunteer work this allows me to do. Supporting students, teachers and parents in the community is my rare chance to be a cheerleader for the public school system and I am loving it.  I have spent years working in education, where we love schools and teachers, but where we work in an environment that must also hold a critical mirror up to the realities of education across a country. My days are full of conversations where we critique the systems, where we support teachers in places they are not celebrated, and where we teach about the students on the sidelines who are not visible in the schools. What a gift to spend this year in PTA invited to meetings lauding success, celebrating with joy accomplishments and having a voice around important opportunities for inclusion. 

I reflect on Pirkei Avot, and on the wisdoms of our early Jewish rabbinic sources on teachers, shared back in an ancient world, when schooling as we know it in our modern world was not yet conceptualized, yet already the economy gigs for teaching children was up and running.  One pearl of wisdom there was in the saying of Rabbi Yishmael (Ch. 4): “One who studies Torah in order to teach will be given the opportunity to both study and to teach. One who studies in order to practice will be given the opportunity to study, to teach, to observe, and to practice.”

In today’s world, as we hear the media complain that teachers are leaving education as part of the general resignation from the workforce, being on PTA gives me a front seat to encounter teachers who have studied, not for the imagined voice of authority their expertise would afford them, but for the actualized grace that teaching offers them as it instills in them a thirst and need for lifelong learning, for upskilling and for application of materials in real world scenarios on a daily basis. How miraculous to be honored with the gift of being present in PTA to support our children and the people who spend most of the day with them in this educational journey.

Lifelong learning is not a buzzword, it is a skill, a growth mindset. I have learned that PTA is a place where that is honed and honored. I have actually learned so much, about myself, about schooling, about students today, being at the table with PTA.

So, as we launch a new school year and I officially step into my new role as a PTA Co-President, here are some simple wisdoms of which I have been reminded and which energize me.

  • Anyone can raise their hand to volunteer, and the chance to give our time and share our skills is a gift and PTA is a place where it is appreciated
  • There is a PTA table, and all you need to do to sit at the table is turn words into action. See something going on and want to help out?  Don’t just say something, offer to do something.
  • There are always committees that need people, there is always work being delegated, which allows everyone to find a place and space that resonates with your skills and what you bring to help the students in the district.
  • PTA equals communication – what do people need to know to best support our students, how do we find out information to best support our students, and how do channels of communication best support our students. That is a life lesson.
  • PTA equals relationship building. I have never seen a group of people walk into more places in our city and know more people by their first name than when I go somewhere with PTA.  If the professionals where I work knew the local community in the same intimate way as PTA so much would happen differently and dare I say better.  Relationships matter and spending time nurturing them pays off.  That is also a life lesson.

Finally, the work of education which is at the heart of the Parent Teacher Association:  The role of teachers and school personnel is one of the hardest jobs out there, and working collaboratively, parents and teachers, to support our students, eases that work in ways immeasurable.  That is the ROI on the hours of volunteer work that make this all worth it.

And what is my personal wisdom I bring to PTA? It is wonderful to remove my rabbinic kippah (metaphorically) as I step into the public square and public school district. Not only because being Mom is an important other hat to wear, but because our American democratic society demands that of me. Looking around the world, seeing religious zealotry damaging civic democratic education everywhere, I am proud to be known as a person of religion who views her role as being part of a critical thinking and reflective learning environment where diverse views are respected, including religious views, and a diverse community is supported. As Rabbi Yishmael also stated, “Do not make the Torah into a crown with which to aggrandize yourself…” I am not the rabbi in the room, I am not the educator in the room. I am a parent who listens to other parents and works with other parents, because PTA is about all of us, not about each of us. In our world today having shared hopes and dreams for our children in a community is a rare gift and I am so honored I can be part of this work, if only for one year. May this be a sweet new year of learning for all our children, and for all of us, and may we all have the opportunity to study, to teach, to observe, and to practice.

About the Author
Rabbi Karen G Reiss Medwed, Ph.D. is the only certified practicing female identifying mesadder gittin in the Conservative movement, and is an appointed member of the Joint Bet Din of the Rabbinical Assembly. She works as a Teaching Professor at the College of Professional Studies of Northeastern University.
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