May 18, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Let’s Hear It for the Teachers

A Master’s degree in Jewish Education or a state teaching license includes a great deal of instruction in leadership, organizational management, and philosophy of education. It may not be obvious why these topics would enhance the day-to-day professional work of a teacher.

Teachers have a nearly impossible job. A wide variety of students with an array of different learning styles shows up in their classrooms. They are tasked most broadly with preparing all these young people to lead successful lives in the future—even though the skills and knowledge they will need are changing rapidly and are hard to predict more than a few years ahead. In this dynamic environment, teachers make hundreds of decisions an hour as they work in the classroom.

To be effective as a teacher, they prepare lessons carefully, but must always be ready to shift focus, reassess needs, and grab a teachable moment whenever it presents itself. Because time in the classroom is necessarily limited, and there is much to teach, this often means focusing on one concept, skill, or idea at the expense of others. Teachers must decide minute by minute what to prioritize. Teachers’ academic backgrounds gives them a broad and deep understanding of their subject areas. They know what the critical building blocks and the central concepts are.

Teaching in a Jewish day school is a unique challenge. Teachers are tasked with preparing the students to lead successful Jewish lives in the future. Ideally, even the secular studies faculty should share in the responsibility to contextualize the lives of students and, hopefully, envision their future needs as Jews in the wider world.

It is possible to teach students directly from a textbook. They can learn the facts they need to know very efficiently. It is tempting to create neat, easy lessons in that way. But a Jewish life is a complex one, enhanced by an ability to negotiate the significance of many different ideas and values. If teachers guide students’ learning by insisting that they learn facts analytically rather than by rote—by comparing their ideas with each other, by listening to others’ opinions, by asking thoughtful questions, by consulting sources and arguing respectfully for what they think makes sense—they will learn their facts. It will take a little longer, but they will also learn how to weigh options and examine others’ opinions critically. They will learn to disagree respectfully. They will learn to navigate complex ideas.

Understanding the significance of these activities and conversations for a rich Jewish life allows teachers to prioritize them appropriately and integrate what matters into the classroom. It helps get closer to the goal of educating our students to their highest potential as both Jews and Americans. It empowers them to enrich our world, which will soon be their world.

Those who labor as Jewish day school teachers do so out of deep passion and a commitment to make a difference. Historically, those who dedicated themselves exclusively to education were held in high regard for their selfless devotion to this high calling. The Jewish community valued the services rendered by those who devoted themselves completely to the study and teaching of Torah. As early as the 10th century, Rabbenu Gershom of Mainz, Germany ruled that such scholars were entitled to a monopoly (maarufta) in a certain business in order to provide an income. This concept was maintained until modem times. Even the IRS extends certain courtesies to the clergy.

All teachers deserve respect. And in the words of Maimonides, they deserve proper remuneration as well. There are core Jewish values that speak to the issue of how one treats the professionals who spend more time each week with children than their own parents.

There is a vast literature of Jewish labor relations and business ethics. Lay leaders need to study these sources. Judaism is not only about study and rituals, but about how people who devote their lives to the community ought to be treated. The teachings of the Torah must inform all aspects of hiring, compensation, benefits, work environment, severance, etc. Staff manuals and contracts need to be “Jewish.” If Jewish tradition is not part of the way teachers are treated, then any such lay professional discussion is labeled “a session of scorners.”

Teachers deserve status, honor, and respect. Parents should be proud when their child wants to enter the field. Using the Talmudic model of compensating someone for what they could have earned on the “outside,” salaries need to be highly competitive since teachers have to live “inside” the Jewish community, and it is expensive to live as a committed Jew. Day-school tuition, JCC and synagogue membership, summer camp, legal services, insurance, pension plans, day care, etc. should either be included as benefits, or made possible by a competitive salary. Furthermore, good teaching should not be rewarded by taking that teacher out of the classroom to become an administrator. Arguably, effective pedagogy should be worth more than administrivia. Today’s teacher is exceptionally motivated, passionate, competent, and creative. Yet the Jewish community does not value his/her services in the same way it values other professionals.

If there is to be organizational and communal vitality, this inequity must cease. We want to attract the finest and the best, yet we are not competitive. The private sector is luring away those whom the Jewish community has trained. Can we afford this inexorable hemorrhaging?

A certain community had just completed its new day-school campus and invited the professional head of a major Jewish educational organization to be the guest speaker at its dedication ceremony. On the day of the dedication, the sidewalk cement was still wet and there were signs to avoid this area and enter from the rear of the building. The speaker was delayed. He pulls up in a cab at the last minute and dashes into the building tracking cement onto the new carpet and leaving his footprints in the sidewalk.

The school president was furious! He verbally pummeled the professional head of the major Jewish educational organization publicly, dressed him down in very abusive terms, and totally humiliated him. Another lay leader was shocked at this behavior and said to the president, “How can you treat him this way? You have to respect those who work on our behalf. You know how important his job is.” Whereupon he replied “I respect Jewish education in the abstract, not in the concrete!”

Here’s something concrete to consider. Most labor-management disputes are adversarial. Labor feels it deserves certain benefits, wages, working conditions, etc., and management wants to provide as little as possible. That is why employee progress is usually achieved by organizing into unions that utilize collective bargaining, work stoppages, and strikes to achieve their goals.

Arguably, the lay leadership of the day schools and their educational staff have a united goal and agenda. And this commonality of purpose should lead to an amicable partnership. After all, partners should treat each other equitably.

Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene has had a distinguished career as a Jewish educator. He is the founder of the Sinai School, and is currently a consultant to schools, non-profit organizations, and The International March of The Living. He can be reached at [email protected].

By Wallace Greene

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