Three incidents stand out when I think of the staffing issue. One: A student beginning a graduate program in Jewish education asked its leadership how one could support a family on the salary of a Jewish studies teacher. The Director responded, “That’s why people go into administration.” Two: A key executive of a Jewish university was asked about a group of Jewish high school teachers’ response to a policy decision with communal repercussions. The executive responded, “Who cares what high school teachers have to say.” Three. A national Jewish organization which was concerned with attracting and retaining Jewish studies faculty was asked to address…
Recruiting and retaining Jewish day school educators has always been a tremendous challenge, especially in smaller Jewish communities. COVID compounded this challenge, creating a national teacher shortage crisis in all communities. Increasing pay and benefits would go a long way toward attracting and retaining teachers. In addition, providing positive work environments and support contribute to keeping teachers fulfilled professionally, increasing their commitment to staying in the field long-term.
The Jewish educational community in South Africa, like much of the Jewish world, has been grappling with finding Jewish studies staff. The lack of educators is rapidly approaching a point of crisis. This article outlines some of the innovate initiatives we have taken to address this.
In the UK, to become a qualified teacher, graduates need to train as part of a government accredited program. LSJS (the London School of Jewish Studies) runs such programs with a number of different training routes across primary and secondary sectors. Over the last 15 years, LSJS has frequently received anecdotal evidence from graduates of its training programs of feeling undervalued in their school environments. They often express frustration with their status, their pay, and their lack of leadership prospects in school, in contrast to the relatively high status of those teaching general subjects.
Excerpted (with permission) from a June 2022 report, After Covid: The Future of Jewish Education in the UK, A Community Project. The very existence of such a project, in which a community-based non-denominational organization (UJIA) joined with a denominational institution for adult Jewish learning (LSJS), marks significant forward-thinking. The report itself contains numerous innovative ideas for planning the future of Jewish education in the UK, and serves as another example of how being prepared to re-examine the basics can open doors to new starts.
It’s an oft-cited lament—teachers are leaving because they are not being paid enough. While that is true, it is not the only truth. A star teacher who has now transitioned out of the classroom stated, “It’s a mistake to think that people are only price tags. There is often something people want that might not cost money.”
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.
How can we encourage more young men and women to consider and ultimately choose Jewish education as a career? When I raised this question as the primary focus of my work for Yeshiva University, inevitably most people’s first responses related to the problems in the field. “Teachers don’t get paid enough.” “The community doesn’t respect teachers.” “Administrators aren’t leading and supporting teachers properly.” While these issues are critical and certainly play some role in young people’s career decision making processes, I think we must separate between issues that impact teacher retention and those that impact bringing teachers into the field in the first place.
As meaningful and rewarding as a teaching career may be, it can also be very stressful and demanding. The last few years have been particularly exhausting as teachers have needed to navigate unprecedented challenges—the pandemic, political and social unrest, economic uncertainty, racism, antisemitism, and gun violence in our schools and communities—all of which affect our daily emotional state and feelings of security.
It was 5 months into the school year and I was devastated. After 15 years of successful teaching in high school, I concurrently began working in a local elementary school and I was really struggling. What had worked well until now just wasn’t working there. Despite my best efforts, the students were often misbehaving. I was really disappointed in myself and in my classroom. I was scheduled to have a meeting with my principal, and I was certain that his feedback would be negative. What happened, though, completely shocked me and opened my eyes to a profoundly different style of leadership.
“If you don’t do this for the rest of your life, you’re crazy.”
I was 14 years old when I heard these words from my camp director, Fred, and they still ring in my head. I was working at a camp for kids with disabilities, mostly to keep busy for the month of August, with only a few hours of babysitting under my belt. I was in need of training and mentorship. Fred gave me both.
Teachers are often driven by idealism. The meaningful and impactful work of educating youth can be truly gratifying. This personal sense of fulfillment, however, is not always enough to keep teachers in the field, or at their particular workplaces, when the work may be satisfying but also draining and seemingly limitless. As with any other profession that is mission-oriented, it would be highly misguided to conflate the desire to “do good” with an impulse toward selfless voluntarism; we should not expect teachers to embrace the nobility of their commitments without enjoying explicit appreciation for their accomplishments.
A recent Google search for “Teacher Shortage” returned 4,630,000 results. People choose a career in teaching to fulfill their calling and they invest thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours into their training. School leaders are responsible for making their teachers’ experiences rewarding and meaningful, so they remain in the field. Todd Whitaker argues that increased teacher morale and sense of efficacy are important components for retaining teachers. Heath and Heath argue for solving big problems using a sequence of small solutions that are actually in our control.
The year is 1999. I am sitting with my McGill University Advisor mapping out the next four years of my educational career. He looks at me with a smirk and says, “Yiddish? Why would you want to teach Yiddish? Who speaks Yiddish anymore? Now Hebrew—teach Hebrew. Study Hebrew, build your language skills, maybe an Ulpan or live on a Kibbutz. There will always be a future in Hebrew.” Hebrew, I thought? Not for me. While I learned Hebrew from Kindergarten to Grade 11, I was not connected to the Hebrew language. I had never been to Israel, I was not a regular synagogue goer, and my parents did not speak Hebrew at home. Hebrew was not a passion of mine.
This was the moment it became clear that teacher rounds had been a success: a group of teachers on rounds had just observed a second-grade literacy lesson and were offering feedback to their colleague. One teacher commented on how she really liked a technique the teacher had used. Without even a pause, the teacher who had been observed said, “Oh, I learned that from the third grade teacher when I observed her last time during rounds.” Teacher rounds had been implemented as a way to improve teacher morale, but had led to much more, including improved practice and shared conversation about instruction.
It is not to the credit of my first teaching experience that I stayed a teacher. I was hired and installed in my own silo. The eighth-grade girls were by turns friendly, motivated, disinterested, and oppositional; these behaviors often manifested in the classroom at the same time. I was tempted to explore another career but decided to follow my passion. As my coffee mug says, “To Teach is to Touch a Life Forever.”
The Great Resignation—masses of people leaving the workforce—has hit the field of Jewish education particularly hard. Even before the pandemic, organizations such as CASJE were working to understand the reasons behind the educator shortage, and since 2020, the shortage has intensified significantly. Aside from the persistent issue of relatively low salaries, at least three other factors can be seen as playing contributing roles.