Where Have All the Teachers Gone?
The indicators point to an intensifying shortage of Jewish educators in North America and beyond, and it looks like it will only get worse. This is not new and there are likely multiple causes, but COVID has brought about a wave of early retirement and teacher burnout so that the need has become more acute faster than anyone anticipated and the effects are being felt almost everywhere. Studies are trying to figure out how to attract new educators and retain old ones. School heads report that they are hiring people with absolutely no training and whose ideological stances are incompatible with their schools because they can’t find appropriate candidates. Graduate schools in Jewish education and pre-professional training programs are struggling to find students.
There is an understandable temptation to hire anyone—qualified or not—to put warm bodies into the classrooms. This solution is not only short-term but short-sighted. It means having ineffective and uninspiring Jewish teaching, or worse. Aside from the damage done to the students, the schools themselves will suffer. Lower quality means that fewer students will be attracted to those schools, and morale amongst staff will drop when the level of professionalism and interaction with colleagues diminish.
Throwing more money at potential teachers to attract them to the field will likely have little effect. Even if teacher salaries were to increase by 50% (which is highly unlikely) they still won’t compete with salaries in other industries.
This does not mean that all is lost, but confronting the critical challenge of sustainability in the current model requires some creative rethinking. I’d like to offer one suggestion to open the conversation and to help get people thinking about alternate models. It is not a cure-all, and is more likely to succeed in some locales than others, but is an opening to some of the kinds of reimagining we can all be doing.
Imagine taking our best teachers—and almost every school has some—and training them to be what I will call master-teachers. What are master-teachers? They are individuals who understand their students, the content they are supposed to teach, and how to develop engaging, substantive, and meaningful learning experiences. Master-teachers understand that it is not them at the center of student learning, that their role is to facilitate student learning.
What do these master-teachers need to learn? They need to learn to not only create materials that they themselves can use, but that others can use as well. Even more, they need to learn to conduct ongoing training and supervision of inexperienced teaching assistants who will be the main learning interface with the students. They will not be sitting in offices, conducting formal evaluations, or filing paperwork, but will engage directly and exclusively in the educational process—circulating from room to room and from teaching-assistant to teaching-assistant, coaching, guiding, directing, and helping both students and their teachers.
Students get the benefit of personal attention from their teaching-assistants in addition, to a lesser extent, from their master-teacher. The assistant-teachers will get a rich experience of working with students and getting hands-on training and mentoring from a master-teacher.
Where do these assistant-teachers come from? They can be graduate students who want to give something to the Jewish community without a full-time commitment; people considering career changes; mothers or fathers who love interacting with kids and are willing to spend some time or who are just getting past the years of intensive child-care at home; young people waiting to get into law school or medical school or business school, or whatever. They don’t get a crash course in Jewish education, but a well-organized program that fits the school and its educational model, collegial support, and ongoing guidance from a consummate professional.
Is it possible that these assistant-teachers will need to be replaced every year or two or three? Of course. Is it possible that some of them will be so enriched by their experience that they will want to pursue education as a career? Absolutely.
What do the master-teachers get? Career advancement, the opportunity to multiply their impact by tapping into their expertise, personal growth through interacting with their assistants and their students, and a meaningful increase in salary.
What do the students get? Adult role models who are fresh, dedicated, untainted by years of burnout; multiple layers of supervised adult interaction; outstanding learning experiences designed by master educators.
What do the schools get? A regular infusion of energized staff, an educational experience they can showcase, growth-paths and career-ladders for outstanding staff, and a recruitment plan for future staff.
What does the Jewish community get? A sustainable model for staffing Jewish schools with embedded, school-based, ongoing professional development.
21st century educational models have already laid the foundations for how this can work educationally and practically. The emergence of teacher leadership models contributes greatly. This proposal looks to advance those models one step further. My hope is that it will invite critique, debate, refinement, and many other alternatives from creative, committed, and forward-looking professionals and laypeople, so that we can work to ensure a robust, nimble, and adaptive future for Jewish education.