Dana and Yusra
In Hand in Hand elementary school classes, there are co-teachers, one Jewish and one Arab, who teach together in Hebrew and Arabic. Together, teachers model cooperation and respect for students, and in the process, go through transformations of their own. Yusra, a new teacher and Dana, a veteran teacher, co- teach first grade in the Galilee School.
Where are you from, and when did you come to Hand in Hand?
Yusra: I grew up in Sakhnin, an all-Arab city, I started working at the Hand in Hand Galilee School five years ago as a substitute teacher, and began co-teaching with Dana in a first grade class this year. Before my time in the Galilee School I really never met or had any relationships with Jewish Israelis. At the beginning it was hard for me to connect or communicate, there was a sort of barrier. But now it has melted away. Now I feel like the school is my second family. It’s my home.
Dana: I grew up in Ramat HaSharon, in kind of a Jewish bubble – I definitely never met any Arabs growing up. But I still grew up with the Arabic language around me because my parents are Iraqi Jews. My father encouraged me to learn Arabic as a way to connect to my heritage. I studied Arabic in high school and afterwards – I can read, write, and speak fluently. It’s important to me to be able to communicate with my neighbors in their language. It creates real partnership and respect.
I’ve been living in the Galilee for 20 years. When I came to Hand in Hand in 1999 it felt like a natural fit – it felt right to work together with another teacher. I’ve been teaching 1st and 2nd grade since then. I am also part of the school’s administration and am a pedagogical supervisor in Hand in Hand’s Haifa School. This year I have the privilege of teaching 1st grade together with Yusra.
What is co-teaching for you? How has it been to work together?
Dana: Co-teaching is like every relationship: you need to learn about each other and learn together. This place deeply affects all of the teachers who work here, the model requires deep commitment and learning. It demands all of you, but then it also nourishes in return. The most important part of co-teaching is to see each other as full people – with worries and hopes and fears. When I meet a new co-teacher, the first question I ask is – ‘who are you?’ I’m always growing in my understanding that we’re different – we come from different backgrounds and need to learn from one another and take the good from each other.
This year I’ve already gotten to know Yusra pretty well. We have fun together in class – we like each other, we work well together, and we joke around a lot. That impacts our students. They come to class smiling, they make jokes and are silly with each other. When there’s tension between us the children feel it, they can sense everything. That’s why it’s so important to have open communication.
Yusra: Yes, it really feels like Dana is like my sister. She’s family. We are always laughing and making jokes, but we also really connect. It’s amazing to have a partner to accepts me for who I am. When I feel fully accepted and connected with my co-teacher, I see it reflected in the students. They are so joyful and free, and then that becomes our joy in return.
What language do you speak in class?
Yusra: In class, we teach together. We each speak our own language – and sometimes we translate each other when needed. There are also times when we teach separately – only Arabic or only Hebrew. I speak to Dana only in Arabic, and it’s amazing for the children – I want this to be a model for them, to show them they can learn Arabic, that it’s not out of reach. It’s also amazing for me that we can speak in Arabic to each other, that I can express myself in my mother tongue. It helps me be myself.
Dana: Yes, when I use my Arabic, I am modeling for them that it is possible for a Jewish person to speak Arabic. Even, or especially when I make a mistake. It shows them that it’s ok. It’s also important to model equality – to take equal space in the classroom. Me and Yusra are both very present for the kids, one of us doesn’t overpower the other.
What have you learned from your co-teaching?
Yusra: We teach 1st grade so the students are very young. Something I learned from working with Dana is that the children can take responsibility for themselves and their work. Also, I was challenged at the beginning of the year. I was figuring out the best way to communicate with students who are so different from each other, how to make sure to reach each child.
Dana helped me learn how to connect with each child and their needs. One way we do this is by starting each day with an hour-long class meeting where kids share how they are doing. We both lead this together, in both languages. Recently the students have been making presentations to the class about what they are most interested in. Last week one of our students brought in dough to teach the class how to make pizzas together. You can’t believe what it does for the kids to have that space in the morning to express themselves – it gives them life, confidence. Then it makes us feel so good- their joy becomes ours together.
Dana: Being at the school opened me up to new understandings of all of the people who live here, to really hear their stories. I want to bring an example from the early days of the Galilee School – when we were just developing the co-teaching model. I remember in one of the first years of the school we were preparing for the National Days and we had two bulletin boards – one with the Israeli narrative, and one with the Palestinian narrative. Each of us worked really hard on to make them beautiful. When we showed each other our work, it didn’t go well – each side felt threatened by the national symbols and stories from the other side. We stood in front of the bulletin boards and yelled at each other, stuck and frustrated.
And then – somehow – we stopped. Took a breath. And remembered our shared mission.
We decided to take down all of our work to create something shared. And as we put up our new bulletin board, piece by piece, we were also piecing together a new understanding of the fears, beliefs, and hopes of our co-teachers, our friends, our new family.
It is moments like this that helped build a new and more deep and broad understanding of the complexity of this country and who lives here. From then on we never planned anything without consulting and having a conversation first. Today that is a core part of co-teaching.
What do you do to get through challenges?
Yusra: Working together can be challenging but rewarding. There are issues that come up in class with certain students or how to teach a subject. Communication is the most important. Sometimes we disagree, but the we talk, listen, and experiment. We talk EVERY evening to reflect. What’s most important for me is that I come to work every morning with a smile on my face. If there is an issue with a Jewish or Arab kids, Dana is so present with me and with the issue, and we tackle it together.
Dana: In my capacity as pedagogical supervisor, I see that co-teachers need guidance when they start working together, it’s not easy. Once a week they meet with me to go over how they are doing, bring up successes or challenges and work through how to deal with them together. The secret is to build understanding and communication, to help teachers deeply recognize and listen to the person across from them.
And honestly, I wouldn’t teach alone even if I was offered. I deeply believe that co-teaching is the best way to work. It’s essential for our growth, constantly having to figure out how to adapt, listen, and work together. Hand in Hand is my family. it’s part of me, it feels like part of my body, it’s not a place of work, it’s a home. My co-teachers from the last 20 years are my lifelong friends. It is a blessing for me to have these partners in work and in life.