Friday, October 07, 2022

The quote above is from Deuteronomy 20:19. Homiletically and exegetically, people are like trees. Kind people offer shelter and feed others, trees provide not only sustenance but fuel and homes and objects. Teachers, especially, are very much like trees since they give so much of themselves. Shel Silverstein’s famous children’s book, “The Giving Tree,” depicts the relationship between a boy and an apple tree in simple line drawings. The apple tree continues to give and give to the boy until the boy is an old man, until at the end, all the apple tree can offer is its tree stump for the old man to sit upon for comfort.

In a recent article, Rachel Raz and Linna Ettinger write about “The Giving Tree and the Giving Educator.” Many have praised the book for portraying unconditional parental love. Others have criticized the book for the obvious absence of gratitude on the part of the boy. The boy never says “thank you” to the tree.

In many ways, teachers in our community are like the “giving tree” in Shel Silverstein’s book. Our educators give their time, resources and emotional energy to their students. While their extraordinary efforts may be recognized with a small gift at Chanukah and at the end of the year, our community continues to demand more and more from our teachers while their salaries remain at a level that requires supplemental income in order to survive independently.

No one becomes a teacher to get rich. These individuals, both male and female, are dedicated, passionate, talented and altruistic. They have marketable skills that could bring them a comfortable income in the “real world.” They do what they do because they believe that proper education of our children is the best guarantee of a Jewish future. We all want the same thing…in theory. We go to the “best” doctors and surgeons, we find the ”best” decorator or real estate broker, and we search for the “best” caterers and florists. Cars, clothing, shoes, restaurants, handbags, vacation spots, etc. all bespeak quality and top dollar.

When was the last time you heard someone brag about having the highest paid teachers in New Jersey? We want the best for our children but we don’t want to pay for it. Some of our most talented teachers are going into fields where they can earn enough to live in the community where they teach. Even worse is the situation where superstar teachers become administrators to earn a living wage, thus eliminating great teachers from the classroom.

There are those who argue that teachers get paid all year for essentially 10 months of work, plus they get off for all religious and secular holidays as well. This might be a compelling argument, except that teachers do not just clock out at the end of the day. There are papers to grade, reports to read, lesson plans to prepare, phone calls to parents, emails to students, professional enrichment, etc., every night! Many are also involved in clubs and extracurricular activities. Teachers look forward to summer vacation to prepare for the coming year. Not to mention that most teachers purchase items for their classrooms out of their own pockets. Their schedule is often equivalent to what first- and second-year law associates do—without the equivalent remuneration.

It is challenging to always be able to present material that is fresh and stimulating, while taking into consideration different learning abilities in the classroom. Making the holidays come alive year after year is demanding work. Creative presentation of literature, history, Chumash and Gemara is a constant challenge. Making math interesting and comprehensible is a skill. Coming up with new crafts projects is also not a simple task. Classroom management for rambunctious students with an inflated sense of entitlement poses yet another challenge. And yet, if our child presents any problem, who gets the brunt of the criticism?

This is a long way from the time when teachers were truly given the respect that they deserve. Once upon a time, teachers were respected and honored. Today, teachers need to earn that respect from parents who wouldn’t last five minutes in a middle school classroom.

Day schools cannot compete with the various professions in terms of salaries. Day school tuition is already expensive even for those who are making “good” salaries, even when both parents are working. Yet, the teaching profession, in our tradition, represents the highest calling and we must treat our teachers accordingly. What, then, can be done to offer appropriate compensation with dignity? Straight salary increases are not feasible. However, the following suggestions can be implemented, although they may also affect the bottom line. Bear in mind, however, that the benefits of attracting and retaining quality teachers will have far-reaching effects that outweigh some near-term deficits. (All of these ideas are based on actual implementations in various schools in North America.)

1. Offer full medical/dental coverage to F/T teachers.

2. Offer full tuition rebates for F/T teachers.

3. Offer full tuition rebates at another school for F/T teachers.

4. Offer to pay for local synagogue dues and JCC membership.

5. Offer to subsidize summer camp.

6. Offer free medical, dental, accounting and legal services from parents in these fields.

7. Obtain faculty discounts from local butchers, appetizing stores, bakeries, caterers, etc.

8. Offer life and disability insurance (purchased from brokers who will donate back their commission).

9. Offer interest-free loans to help with down payments on a home.

10. Offer to match pension contributions.

We have the means to provide a dignified lifestyle for the teachers in our community. These are the people who spend more time with our children than parents. They are the role models in whose care we place our children daily. They mold our children as much or perhaps even more than we as parents. We, as a community, have the creative wherewithal to do this. We have the capacity to make Bergen County the destination for the best teachers in America. Our children deserve the best teachers, and we need to provide our treasured educators with the means to focus on our children instead of on how to supplement their income.

[The opinions expressed here are solely those of the writer and do not reflect the thinking of any organization with which he is affiliated.]

By Wallace Greene

Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene is a veteran educator who has been a day school principal, bureau head, and school administrator. He is currently the executive director of the Shulamith School in Brooklyn.

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