Flexible working

Including Jewish teachers just requires a little faith

Accommodating time off for Jewish festivals isn’t just good practice, writes Madeleine Fresko-Brown, it’s a teachable moment for an inflexible system

Accommodating time off for Jewish festivals isn’t just good practice, writes Madeleine Fresko-Brown, it’s a teachable moment for an inflexible system

19 Sep 2021, 5:00

Monday evening, 7pm. A friend and colleague knocks on my door. She’s been at school all day, and I have been at synagogue, celebrating Sukkot.

After a brief, friendly catch-up, she takes a deep breath and launches in with the real reason for her visit: “I have a bit of an ethical dilemma. I might be about to do the wrong thing. I’m sorry. We have Ofsted tomorrow.”

Cue speechless silence. Tomorrow was yet another Jewish festival, the 7th of a long run of days preventing me from going into school, switching my phone on, checking my emails, or doing any work at all. And now I would be missing an Ofsted too.

“My partner said I shouldn’t tell you,” she went on apologetically, “he said it was your day of rest.”

The realisation dawned that even education’s most anticipated event could not drag me away from my religious observance. Quickly, a calmer, more assured tone set in. “The lead practitioners have it totally covered,” she continued. “They’re doing lunch duties, they were included in the team briefing and they’re on the timetable for learning walks tomorrow.”

Still slightly stunned, all I could do as she left was to wish her and the team good luck. Some teachers cut sickness or bereavement leave short to avoid the guilt that comes with missing an Ofsted – to ‘do their bit’ for the collective effort. While I felt some guilt, my religious practice mandated that I could not do this. My only choice was to have faith in my team and let the show go on without me. 

Asking me to compromise my observance is simply unreasonable

If you’re a leader in a school with Jewish staff, chances are they will have asked to take some religious leave. Many secular or traditional Jews will ask for the three days usually covered by most schools’ religious leave policy, but observant Jews consider ourselves bound by the laws of the Torah and its mandated days of religious observance. 

And it turns out there are quite a few: two for Rosh Hashannah, Yom Kippur, two for Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, Simchat Torah, two for Pesach and two for Shavuot. That’s 11 days, of which eight usually fall in term time, and the first seven of them in the autumn term.

From a school logistics standpoint, that sounds fairly horrendous. But I have heard of fellow observant Jewish teachers being instructed to ‘choose’ three days to take, and that’s far worse. The rules are the rules, and asking me to compromise my observance – for Ofsted, for managerial ease, or for quality of teaching for that matter – is simply unreasonable. 

These dates are in the calendar well in advance, so they can be planned for.  For my part, I found my planned absence actually enabled my pupils to do more independent work than if I’d been in the classroom, taking up time talking at them. A little faith in them and in the cover staff provided a valuable springboard for the rest of the term.

And there’s another benefit too. Some teachers and leaders feel that they are irreplaceable, that the school or classroom couldn’t possibly run without their constant presence. Being forced to take inconvenient days off can be a helpful lesson in ego-reduction, and in the value of a lower-stakes culture around the job.

But Ofsted visits aren’t planned – or low-stakes – I hear you cry. True, but in my absence the three lead practitioners stepped up fabulously, led the inspectors around on learning walks, talked intelligently about the learning they saw and demonstrated the strength in depth of our teaching and learning team.  

I met with the lead inspector on my return and my absence hadn’t mattered one bit. An object lesson in humility, and the confidence boost we all needed that my team would be ready to take the helm when I went on maternity leave the following year.

So next time a Jewish teacher declares they need eight days of religious leave, have a little faith: in them, and in yourselves. Say yes.

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