It Takes a Village: Communal Initiatives to Grow Jewish Educators
Rona Novick, PhD is Dean of the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration and the Raine and Stanley Silverstein Chair in Professional Ethics and Values at Yeshiva University. She serves as Co-Educational Director of the Hidden Sparks program. Dr. Novick has published and spoken on special education, trauma, bully prevention, social-emotional learning, and positive behavior support. She is the author of a children’s book, Mommy Can You Stop the Rain?
I have an enviable job. As the Dean of perhaps the largest Jewish educator preparation program in North America, I am regularly inspired by the men and women entering the field. They are committed, passionate, and understand that while their career choice may not make them wealthy, it will enrich them and their communities immeasurably. I also have an unenviable job, as I inform the dozens of dedicated Jewish educational leaders who reach out monthly seeking qualified and inspiring teachers that my graduates are already committed to other positions.
Young people are drawn to careers based on their personal affinities and interests, and who and what inspired them. Many, inspired by their own Torah learning and its transformative power, think of how impactful and fulfilling teaching the next generation of informed and impassioned Jews could be. Financial rewards, working conditions, opinions of family and friends, and their sense of career status/stature then come into play as they decide whether to follow such aspirations. If we are to address the critical shortage of Jewish educators, we need to consider how our global and local Jewish communities can support those already considering careers in Jewish education and encourage many more to consider such a sacred occupation.
Elevating Status & Stature
Career choice is impacted by seeing how those already in the field are treated, what opportunities are available to them, and what status they hold in their community. Unfortunately, the dialogue about Jewish education often centers around excessive tuition and complaints about what day schools can and should do better. On personal and communal levels, we must counter or at least dilute negative “Shabbat table kvetching.” We need to share our admiration and appreciation for the work of educators and celebrate their extraordinary efforts. In the early days of the mandated COVID school shutdowns, families’ windows into the work of educators often provoked amazement and a new appreciation for educators’ efforts. Jewish day schools and educators are no less amazing and their work no less challenging than in those unprecedented months of crisis, but our conversations seem to have reverted to unproductive complaints and less than grateful expressions. Every family needs to consider what they say about Jewish educators in earshot of their children and how they respond when others complain. Our silence in those moments is a missed opportunity and is viewed as if we agree with the negative perception. When negativity is expressed, do we counter with our appreciation for the effort and expertise of Jewish educators, or share our interest in what and how they are teaching? Complaints about a professional development day as a babysitting nightmare can be countered with the “yes, and” approach, validating the inconvenience while also acknowledging that the best professionals constantly learn and re-tool.
On the communal level, we can consider how we honor the sacred work of Jewish educators. Many fields offer awards to outstanding professionals. Partnering with other institutions including foundations and communal agencies, such honors could be bestowed, offering both recognition and financial awards supported by community donors. This could include awards for teaching excellence, curricular advancements or other accomplishments, or invitations to serve as visiting lecturers or educators in residence.
Community settings can contribute to elevating the honor of the teaching profession. One community Rabbi stands whenever a Jewish educator enters his synagogue, a powerful honor publicly bestowed. Imagine the statement a Communal Hinukh Shabbat could make, with names of all educators in the community posted in shul lobbies and newsletters, with sermons devoted to celebrating their contribution and perhaps even a token of appreciation such as a challah delivered to enhance their Shabbat. Might we even envision a “Hinukh Across America” Shabbat, that reaches many communities to achieve maximal impact?
We need more than one Shabbat or event to elevate the profession. Communities and national organizations can consider how the extraordinary work of Jewish educators can be recognized beyond their own classrooms or school. Local Jewish newspapers agreeing to a regular column celebrating innovation and great practice in Jewish education would offer positive publicity. Through cross-community media agreements the creative approach of “Morah Smith” in Seattle to parashat hashavua might be shared in Pittsburgh, and “Rabbi Shapiro’s” method of connecting his Mishna curriculum to current events in his Florida classroom, might, through a syndicated column, receive recognition across North America. This positive sharing can be expanded beyond newspapers to include the publications of Jewish organizations. To consider that such publications focus on synagogues, Zionism, women’s issues, and other communal issues, but not Jewish education, is dangerously short-sighted. If we fail to address the critical shortage of Jewish educators and invest in Jewish education, we place the Jewish community and all its institutions and movements at risk. In contrast, when we combine our communal resources to infuse Jewish education with energy, resources, positive press, and honor, we swell the tide of Jewish learning and living, and all boats can rise.
Partnerships in Preparation
Recognizing the efforts of those in the field is an important component of retaining educators but will not be sufficient to fill the critical need for talented Jewish educators. Too often professional fields rely on the pipeline metaphor—suggesting we turn on the tap and increase the flow of potential career candidates through a narrow pathway. I believe we need a broader metaphor, to consider cultivating a garden of Jewish educators. A garden offers an expansive and varied landscape that allows us to grow a variety of educators, recognizing there is no one pathway to the career, and different nutrients may support some, but be inadequate for others. A garden starts with fertile soil, and the personal and communal actions discussed above help ensure that we create the right conditions for productive growth.
Just as a successful garden depends on planting the seeds most likely to flourish, we need to find those individuals with the affinity, inspiration, latent talent, and motivation to become extraordinary Jewish educators. We could learn much from collegiate and professional sports organizations about how to scout, recruit, incentivize, celebrate, and develop talent. Many educators, camp professionals, and youth workers could point to current and prior students who are “naturals”, empathic leaders, “born teachers,” and engaged learners. Imagine if we could tap those not-yet-educators on the shoulder and offer mentorship, experiences, and support that would engage and inspire them to pursue a Jewish education career. Imagine if we celebrated them as rising stars, and communicated their value to our community, similarly to how student athletes and artists are treated.
At Yeshiva University, we are beginning to develop approaches to find and nurture potential talent. The Chinuch Incubator, led by Rabbi Yehuda Chanales, will connect with men and women from their Israel experience through their college years. By providing ongoing career counseling, rich mentorship, and exposure to innovation and best practices in the field, we hope to grow these as-yet decided career seekers’ consideration for and dedication to Jewish education careers.
It will not be enough to identify the best candidates. We will need to cultivate growth with sound and significant teacher preparation. Research makes clear that inadequate preparation carries a significant cost, resulting in high teacher burnout rates. Teaching is a profession and as such requires formal, professional preparation, through established and accredited University degree programs. Research also underscores the need for continued mentorship and support beyond graduation.
High-quality preparation requires time, effort, and significant funding. Until Jewish educator salaries are significantly higher, it is unreasonable to expect those pursuing the career to bear the cost of their preparation and make the investment alone. Individuals and communities need to consider how they can help. Partnerships between universities and communities could make a huge difference on both the financial and talent-scouting levels. Communities know who might be considering a career change, and who, with the right encouragement or support would be a wonderful educator. With the availability of online programs, home-grown talent can be identified and engaged in professional preparation even as they begin education-related work in their community. Local funders could “adopt an educator”, whose university or other preparation they financially support with forgivable loans if the educator commits to teach in the community for a specified period following graduation.
Out of the Box Appreciation
It is not uncommon, in the Haredi world, for children’s clothing stores to give a deep discount or gift certificate to Jewish educators’ families before the High Holidays. Recognizing that educators’ salaries may not enable them to offer their families the same support as higher earning parents, our community vendors could do similarly, whether it involves offering retail goods or professional services. We could go even further. In many communities, synagogues arrange cooking teams to provide meals when families give birth or have other needs. On a rotating basis, educators could be gifted a Shabbat meal cooked or purchased by community members. On a rotating basis, community members might deliver Shabbat flowers and notes of gratitude to local educators. Higher ticket items, such as camp scholarships might be supported by groups of donors. Communities can find ways to communicate that such gifts are offered as tokens of appreciation and honor for those who dedicate themselves to the children of the community. In visibly caring for and honoring Jewish educators this appreciation benefits the dedicated professionals and sends a powerful message of kavod to those considering careers as Jewish educators.
The hard data confirms what our hearts and our traditions recognize: that Jewish education is a powerful and necessary agent of continuity and communal growth. Our schools, camps, shuls, and agencies thrive when we have talented, inspired educators to facilitate the Jewish learning central to their vitality and growth. The Jewish teacher shortage should call us to action as powerfully as the shofar we will hear in a few short months. Addressing the issue will take significant effort, creativity, and resources, and it is easy to feel overwhelmed. When the size and complexity of the problem overwhelm me, I have two sources of encouragement. First, I remember the words of Rabbi Tarfon, “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it” (Pirkei Avot 2:16). Then, I read an essay from any recent application to Azrieli, and the passion that animates the Jewish educational enterprise is clarified, my hope and energy are refreshed, and I am ready to find partners, to generate ideas, and to be part of the village that grows Jewish education.
Rona Novick, PhD, is Dean of the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration and the Raine and Stanley Silverstein Chair in Professional Ethics and Values at Yeshiva University. She serves as Co-Educational Director of the Hidden Sparks program. Dr. Novick has published and spoken on special education, trauma, bully prevention, social-emotional learning, and positive behavior support. She is the author of a children’s book, Mommy Can You Stop the Rain?
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