Teaching school children is hard. Teaching amid a global pandemic, even harder.
Now add in a different country, and you have a sense of Jennifer Cutler’s situation.
The 30-year-old has taught English to children in Israel since September, but rather than return home when the coronavirus began to mushroom, she elected to stay and continue teaching however she could.
“In the time before the pandemic, I was fortunate to develop meaningful connections with so many students and teachers that I wanted to do whatever I could to
continue making a positive impact in the community,” Cutler said via email.
Cutler’s family lives in Ambler, where they’re affiliated with Tiferet Bet Israel and Chabad Lubavitch of Montgomery County. She moved to Israel more than a year ago, initially to pursue a master’s degree in Jewish studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
At the program’s conclusion, she applied to be a Masa Israel Teaching Fellow. The program, funded by Israel’s Ministry of Education, partners with organizations across Israel to bring native English speakers into Israeli schools to teach. It’s Jerusalem partner is Ramah Israel.
“I decided to do the fellowship partly because of the love I developed for Jerusalem,” she said. “I have also always loved working with children.”
Cutler teaches at Hemed Tirosh Elementary School in the Gilo neighborhood of Jerusalem. Due to the social distancing measures implemented, she’s had to turn to technology to continue educating. Students from five classes in grades four through six now communicate with Cutler through WhatsApp and Zoom. There she instructs them on classwork and shares resources.
“I am not naturally a tech-savvy person, so I have had to learn quite a few new apps in order to teach online. It is difficult not being able to connect in person, but with WhatsApp, we are connected 24/6. Humorously, this has meant setting different boundaries with my students. For example, no messages after 10 p.m.!”
One of the more unique educational tools Cutler produced was a video tour of her apartment, in which she pointed out the English names of different household items. Another task she’s had the students complete is taking notes and pictures of home for a coronavirus diary.
Irina Baranov is a coordinator of English studies at Hemed Tirosh and has worked with Cutler since she began the program. She’s been impressed by Cutler’s work ethic and teaching ability under unforeseen circumstances.
“Jennifer loves kids, and they love her,” Baranov said via email. “She is very flexible, it is easy to work and to get along with her, she doesn’t count the clock, she understands the situation clear in mind and deeply in her heart.”
As for other Masa Israel Teaching Fellows, director of college and post-college programs for Ramah Israel Aliza Grabin said the program started with more than 200 participants from the United States and Canada teaching in schools across 14 cities. A few have gone home since the pandemic began, but most stayed and continue to teach.
“I decided to continue working because I felt I was making an important contribution here. Also, I really enjoy the work I do, and it is good to keep my mind occupied this way,” Cutler said. “Working with my students and co-teacher brings me a lot of joy and fulfillment, which helps me stay positive. Also, Israelis seem to be especially good at remaining calm during a crisis, so I am trying to adopt that attitude as well.”
Grabin has been impressed by the level of creativity and initiative fellows like Cutler have used to adapt.
“All our fellows are going through the same struggle as everybody is. Being at home, being so limited with our freedom, with how to get around, with concerns about the virus itself and so much uncertainty,” Grabin said. “And she’s been doing exceptional work in her school, especially now. It’s amazing to see how the kids are super-excited when they see their fellow, they see Jennifer, at home. And they can continue that connection with her.”
Despite missing home, Cutler remains positive and confident.
“It has been difficult to be so far from my family during such an uncertain time, but I feel good about the work MITF is doing, and I’m so happy to be a source of support for the students,” Cutler said. “As I mentioned, the apps required are all new to me, so it has been fun having my students teach me how to use them. It has also been really encouraging how many pupils wish to continue their studies and do extra work to fill the time.”