Voluntary Turnover of Rebbes In Jewish Day Schools in Isolated Communities

by: Avram Skurowitz

Originally appeared in Ten Da’at  Volume XIII, Winter 2000

Background

It has often been observed within the profession that there exists a relatively high turnover rate amongst male Orthodox Jewish teachers (“rebbes”) in Jewish day schools. At conventions of Jewish educators, one often hears more rebbes greet each other with the salutation, “where are you?” than “how are you?” – the assumption being that since two or three years have passed since each has spoken to his colleague, the other has most likely moved. Additionally, many principals and teachers jokingly maintain that the expression “day school movement” refers to the phenomenon of high teacher turnover.
A review of related literature confirms the common sense assumption that high turnover has a negative impact on student performance, the stability of the day school, the potential for successful Jewish outreach to parents, and on the life of the rebbe and his family. Searching for replacement rebbes also takes a financial toll on the school and takes away valuable time of the principal. The results of this study may be useful to Jewish day school principals and lay leaders who want to reduce the frequency of turnover of rebbes in their schools.
This study determined whether certain selected attitudinal and background factors are related to voluntary turnover rates of male Orthodox Jewish teachers in Jewish elementary day schools. The following factors were selected on the basis of related research and observations of the target population:

  1. salary
  2. professional advancement
  3. job satisfaction
  4. employment opportunities for wife
  5. availability of amenities common to large Orthodox Jewish communities
  6. opportunities for their children to socialize primarily with Orthodox children
  7. opportunities for their children to attend a single gender yeshiva or day school whose student body is more than 50% Orthodox

The background factors explored were:

  1. number of children between ages 5-18
  2. length of time teacher and spouse have lived in isolated Jewish communities prior to current position
  3. extent of prior training and experience in the teaching profession

The particular focus of this research is the voluntary turnover of rebbes located in Jewish communities that are removed from the major Jewish population centers—where the turnover rate is greater. For the purposes of this study, the term “isolated Jewish communities” refers to all communities that have three or fewer Jewish day schools and the term “concentrated Jewish communities” refers to communities or cities that have four or more Jewish day schools, including high schools. Additionally, any location that is within a half-hour commuting distance to a “concentrated Jewish community” is also included in this category.
The term “turnover” is used in this paper to refer to a change of job within the profession; i.e., transfer to another Jewish day school, and not attrition from the profession. “Voluntary” turnover is operationally defined as a move to another Jewish day school initiated by a teacher even though he is offered renewal of contract in his current position.

Hypotheses

The following hypotheses were found to be significant:

  1. Rebbes who assign greater importance to professional advancement will be more likely to depart voluntarily from isolated Jewish communities than those who assign less importance to professional advancement.
  2. Rebbes who assign greater importance to living in a large Orthodox community will be more likely to depart voluntarily from isolated Jewish communities than those who assign it less importance. There also was a significant relationship between the importance assigned to residing in a concentrated community and to the importance the subjects placed on having their children socialize primarily with other Orthodox children and on sending their children to a single gender school. It is possible that the importance assigned to living in a concentrated community is due primarily to the importance placed on the latter two variables as opposed to other factors, such as having the amenities offered by large Orthodox Jewish communities.
  3. Rebbes with greater previous experience living in isolated Jewish communities will be less likely to depart voluntarily from isolated Jewish communities than those with less previous experience living in those communities. The most likely explanation for the statistical significance of this relationship is that respondents who have experienced living in an isolated community for a substantial amount of time knew what to expect and were better prepared for the unique challenges posed by living in an isolated community. Possibly, those respondents even chose to reside in an isolated community because they prefer the lifestyle unique to these communities. Conversely, perhaps those who had not experienced living in an isolated community for a substantial period of time did not know what to expect or were not adequately prepared for the unique challenges posed by residing in an isolated community.

Taken together, the two attitudinal variables and the one background variable can be combined to form a profile of the type of rebbe who is most likely to stay in a position in an isolated community for a greater length of time than his colleagues. Rebbes who do not aspire to become administrators (the most common expression of professional advancement for rebbes) in the near future, who do not place great importance on residing in a concentrated Jewish community, and who have at least two years experience living in isolated Jewish communities fit the profile. While a rebbe who possesses one of these characteristics is more likely to remain in an isolated position longer, one who possesses two or, preferably, all three is even more likely to do so.
Independent Variables
The subjects’ responses to the importance assigned to the various independent variables for the last move were compared with responses regarding a projected move. For every variable there was an increase in the amount of importance assigned for the next move over the amount of importance assigned for the prior move. There are two possible explanations for this phenomenon. The first is that subjects (and their spouses) view things differently as they acquire experience in life and their values change accordingly. The second possible explanation is that the shift in values is due to life cycle changes as the children of the rebbes become older and more numerous.
In particular, respondents who resided in isolated communities where each of the amenities and variables examined are not as readily available compared to concentrated communities, placed increased importance on these variables. This may be due to the fact that after experiencing the downside and sacrifices associated with residing in an isolated Jewish community, they realized the variables examined had greater importance to them. This explanation is referred to as “the experience factor.”
Included in the experience factor may also be the phenomenon that the respondents who live in concentrated communities may have already experienced living without the amenities and benefits of larger concentrated Jewish communities in previous positions and therefore deliberately moved to concentrated communities.

Findings

Findings indicated that a much greater percentage of respondents living in isolated communities are willing to live in an isolated community in the future than their counterparts in concentrated communities. Other findings indicate that over 85% of the moves from isolated communities were to other isolated communities. In light of the experience factor, this points to another possibility: It is likely that many rebbes take positions in isolated communities when they first enter the field or when they have limited experience teaching. After this exposure to living with their families in an isolated Jewish community, the rebbe and his wife develop either an affinity or an aversion to isolated Jewish communities. Those that develop an affinity stay in isolated communities, which explain the high percentage of turnover from one isolated community to another. Those who dislike living in isolated communities account for the large increases in importance assigned to the many variables examined and explained by the experience factor. Members of this group will most likely plan a move to a concentrated community.
This research captured attitudes of respondents of various ages and at various stages in their lives. Very few respondents voluntarily moved from concentrated communities to isolated communities. Those that did generally had either very young children or children who were above 18 years of age. Overall, a trend seems to emerge. Rebbes entering the profession take positions in isolated communities in order to get experience. The majority of rebbes prefer to live in concentrated communities, so it is likely that the more experienced rebbes have a better chance of getting the limited number of positions available there. There exists, therefore, a real or perceived need to take one’s first job in an isolated community. In addition, if a rebbe was not rehired by a school located in a concentrated community earlier in his career, he may lose confidence in his ability to be hired by another school in a concentrated community, or, in reality, he might not be offered a position in a concentrated community.
In all of these scenarios, once the rebbe gains experience and is successful as a teacher in one or two isolated communities, he and his wife develop attitudes towards isolated communities, which change over time based on experiences and reality factors, such as the number and ages of children in the family.
Policy Implications
In light of the above findings, it is advisable that teacher training institutes, placement agencies, and Jewish day schools utilize this information in the attempt to reduce turnover. Some of the following suggestions are direct conclusions of this research and others are generalized applications.
Ramifications for Teacher Training Institutes
Teacher training institutes should consider sensitizing their students and their spouses to the issue of turnover. They also could better prepare their students and spouses for life in isolated Jewish communities. One way of doing this is to have a course or series of sessions on these topics. Rebbes who reside in isolated communities could give sessions on what life as a rebbe in an isolated community is like. Spouses of the rebbes could give sessions for the spouses of the students in the teacher training institute.
Another way for teacher training institutes to possibly better prepare their students is to arrange for the rebbes and their spouses to spend a significant amount of time, including at least one Shabbat, in at least one isolated Jewish community. Ideally, this should be done before the rebbe goes on his first job interview.
These experiences could give the rebbe and his wife a better idea of what to expect if they were to accept a position in an isolated community. More importantly, perhaps, it may prompt those who are not suited for life in an isolated community to realize this and not pursue positions in isolated communities. Both of these factors may lead to a reduction of turnover in isolated communities.
Ramifications for Placement Agencies
Placement agencies could sensitize their clients, both the schools and the candidates, to the issue of turnover. Individuals responsible for placement must be familiar with both the communities and the candidates they represent. The placement agencies could have a detailed application that includes questions regarding the relative importance rebbes ascribe to various factors, such as living in a concentrated Jewish community, sending their children to single gender schools, and professional advancement. Questions designed to ascertain the length of time that rebbes and their spouses have lived in isolated communities could be included as well. The individual responsible for placement could discuss their responses to these questions during a mandatory personal interview. In this way he may ensure that their written responses are not skewed to broaden their opportunities. Placement personnel could also discuss the ramifications of their responses as they pertain to their suitability for working in an isolated community.
Placement personnel should consider encouraging candidates to call at least three rebbes who currently live in the community under consideration as well as rebbes who chose to leave. They could provide candidates with names and phone numbers, as well as a suggested list of questions to ask.
Ideally, the placement personnel should attempt to spend a few days and a Shabbat in every community that they represent. They should make an effort to speak with rebbes who are in the day school and those who left in recent years, in order to develop an accurate picture of the community. In particular, they should try to obtain information regarding the resources, amenities, and opportunities afforded in the community as well as in communities within commuting distance. The placement agency could produce a fact sheet that should be distributed to all potential candidates.
Rebbes, and their spouses, who feel they would like to live in an isolated Jewish community should consider spending a significant amount of time, including at least one Shabbat, in every community in which they interview. This would give them the opportunity to determine whether the community is a good match for their family and lifestyle.  In particular, they would be well advised to contemplate whether the community offers adequate opportunities and amenities in areas that are important to them and that will facilitate their staying long-term. For example, if a rebbe aspires to begin a career in administration in the next few years, he should ascertain whether or not this is a feasible option in this particular community. Or, if the rebbe and his spouse consider it very important for their children to attend a single gender school by a certain age, and their children are approaching that age, they should investigate available schools in this community and/or in communities within commuting distance.
Based on their knowledge of the candidate and his family and of the community, placement personnel could also guide candidates towards positions that will potentially provide good long-term placement. While it may not be  fair or ethical  to withhold information of certain job openings from certain candidates, under two circumstances the placement personnel should consider dissuading a candidate from taking a position in a certain community. The first is if the person doing the placement perceives that the rebbe views the position as a short-term stepping stone and is taking the position only because a more desirable one is not currently available. The second circumstance is if the person responsible for the placement believes that the position is not a viable long-term placement due to the unique characteristics of the family and the community. It is better to break up the shiddukh before the wedding than to have it break up afterwards.
Ramifications for Day Schools
Principals of Jewish day schools located in isolated Jewish communities should consider the findings of this research during the selection of candidates in order to predict which rebbe is most likely to stay for the greatest length of time.
Regarding retention, principals may identify and target rebbes they want to retain on their staff who may be “at risk” of leaving and utilize the findings to take measures of intervention to increase the likelihood of retaining them. For example, if a principal feels that a particular rebbe may leave to assume an administrative position in another school in the future, the principal might be proactive and attempt to create a mid-level quasi-administrative position designed to take advantage of the strengths of that rebbe. Such a position could focus on improving the quality of education in the school as opposed to ongoing administrative duties. The rebbe could be assigned to lead a project in curriculum development or to mentor new Judaic studies teachers. Of course, an increase in salary should accompany the increase in status.
Principals also should consider doing everything in their power to make their communities more attractive to the most qualified candidates. Although they obviously cannot create single gender schools and openings in administration when no need exists, they can provide small things that other schools do not offer. For example, they can provide childcare (for infants and toddlers) for the faculty as a perk, or a comprehensive insurance package including dental, disability, and life insurance.
Hopefully serious consideration will be given to these policy suggestions in the effort to attract and retain the most qualified candidates available.

The Lookstein Center