Where Have All the Teachers Gone?

by | May 16, 2022 | Blog | 14 comments

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.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

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Rachel Kirschbaum
Rachel Kirschbaum
2 months ago

YES!!!!!

yael zelinger
yael zelinger
2 months ago

At the Center for Jewish Education In Baltimore, we are thinking about this critically and creatively. I would love to join a conversation with you and other professionals who are grappling with teacher recruitment and retention to discuss this and other research-based ideas. Would you be interested in convening a Zoom call for this purpose?

zvi Grumet
zvi Grumet
Reply to  yael zelinger
2 months ago

That sounds like a worthwhile idea.

Dr. Chaim Y. Botwinick
2 months ago

The proposal as presented in this essay is forward-thinking, creative and inspiring;
and, truly responds to a daunting unmet personnel need in our day school community.
Yasher Koach!

zvi Grumet
zvi Grumet
Reply to  Dr. Chaim Y. Botwinick
2 months ago

Thanks. I believe that done well, this can be helpful, but there needs to be even more happening as well.

Dr. Chaim Y. Botwinick
Reply to  Dr. Chaim Y. Botwinick
2 months ago

Of-course…..

Yael Harari
2 months ago

Yes! The teacher shortage crisis has only been intensifying. TalentEducators is focused on this issue as well and was created to find new and innovative to answer this question.
https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/a-strategic-approach-to-addressing-the-teacher-shortage/

zvi Grumet
zvi Grumet
Reply to  Yael Harari
2 months ago

Indeed, there are many pieces of this complex but critically important puzzle which need to be addressed.

Moshe Glasser
Moshe Glasser
2 months ago

I was a participant in Avichai’s Jewish New Teacher Program when I was starting my career, a similar model to what R’ Grumet describes here. The support and mentorship were invaluable.

Shirah Hecht
Shirah Hecht
2 months ago

I love this idea! The day after I observed a master teacher at work many years ago, I walked to my class right afterwards and had the best session I’d ever done to that point! It’s also just a great way to approach this. People love learning, and this will draw people to jobs.

zvi Grumet
zvi Grumet
Reply to  Shirah Hecht
2 months ago

That is an inspiring testimonial. Imagine what could happen spending a year or two working closely with a master educator!

Rabbi David Bockman
Rabbi David Bockman
2 months ago

This idea/system was piloted decades ago in Brazil. It was called PSI (proctored system of instruction), and I worked as one of these proctors/teaching assistants in my university in the physics department. Later, I became a rabbi and worked in synagogues and day schools. There is ABSOLUTELY a place for it in Jewish education, but it’s a huge investment of time and effort on the part of the master teacher. Big payoff due to big investment of time and effort.

zvi Grumet
zvi Grumet
Reply to  Rabbi David Bockman
2 months ago

Thanks. This is definitely somethin to look into.

Peretz Rodman
Peretz Rodman
2 months ago

The proposal has great merit, but one point in the argumentation for it is weak: “Even if teacher salaries were to increase by 50% (which is highly unlikely) they still won’t compete with salaries in other industries.” One need not *match* the high tech salaries to compete with them. A very significant increase in salaries will indeed induce significantly more people to choose teaching as a profession. Economic theory and economic history provide support for my claim.

Zvi Grumet

Zvi Grumet

Zvi Grumet is the Director of Education at The Lookstein Center at Bar-Ilan University. You can reach him at zvi@lookstein.org. 

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