May 26, 2024
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Six Ways to Stop the Great Teacher Shortage

What happens when great teachers leave the profession (and when those who can become great teachers don’t enter it)? Shaky schools and an uncertain Jewish future.

The shortage of teachers in Israel, America and in Jewish day schools should be the top priority of any community that is thinking about its future. Teachers being the greatest factor in student success makes it imperative for schools and communities to address this shortage. Rachel Schwartzberg’s excellent recent article in Jewish Action offers a much-needed discussion of this crisis facing our day schools. Schwartzberg’s suggestions, such as increasing teacher pay, additional training programs, and adjusting expectations are all vital to making sure the next generation of Jews are taught by top-quality teachers. As a teacher myself, here are six ideas to address this crisis:

1. Job Stability

In a secret known to few on the outside and everyone on the inside, many Jewish teachers are up for renewal every single year, towards the end of the year. That means that if you have been successfully teaching in the same school for 20 years, come January, you still have no confirmation if you will have that job in September. Around Passover time, all teachers do—or do not—get a letter of intent letting them officially know that the school wants them for the coming year. While this system surely has its reasons, it reminds teachers yearly of how disposable they are.

If you are an idealistic and talented teacher, you are still treated as disposable. No one needs to fire you; you just don’t need to be hired for the following year. I have seen schools in highly desired areas with a large population of potential teachers get rid of 10% of their staff around Passover just because they could. Nothing terrible about those they got rid of, but why not refresh with some new faces in September if you can? This sends a terrible message to parents, students and teachers. As the saying famously goes: “If someone treats you like an option, leave them like a choice. If someone treats you like you are disposable, prove them wrong and leave.”

Why should a teacher give their heart and soul to a job that pays them less per hour than driving an Uber, with all of the emotional and personal commitments that come with it, when they know they will be disposed of when the time comes? If Jewish day schools want to keep good teachers, the policy needs to change. If a teacher has served in good standing for a determined amount of years, schools should have the minimal decency to let them know they can assume they have that job for as long as they would like to keep it. Failing to let teachers know they will have a job come September has everyone having to think in some corner of their mind about what they will do and where they should go, should that letter of intent not arrive. This culture of yearly renewal keeps teachers and schools “shopping” for better options rather than allowing schools the stability and structure that are best for students’ success.

The crisis of teachers leaving schools is not just the absence of bodies in the classroom—which it most certainly is—it is also more qualified teachers leaving the field, squandering the experience, education and knowledge they have built up. Yet it is not just about how talented the teachers are. Even if we assume all day school teachers are of the highest educational caliber, which many of them are, the impact of turning-door policies and new teachers always being hired and discontinued deals a blow to education, morale and values—the things we are trying hardest to impart to our students.

2. Classroom Management

I learned a great deal in my days at the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education. One course I never took there? Classroom management. Looking at their current list of courses, I could not find a course dedicated to what is most likely to influence the ability of new teachers to stay in the field. Sadly, this is no exception. Half of the teacher training programs in the nation do not have a course dedicated to classroom management. 44% percent of teachers who leave teaching leave within the first five years of teaching. Some of the most difficult challenges—and reasons to make you want to leave the field, will come from the field of classroom management. No matter how idealistic you are, if you are passionate about teaching but can’t get children to sit and learn, all that passion will go nowhere. As Angela Watson wrote about the reason she left teaching: “I was managing the classroom, I was maintaining some sense of order, but I wasn’t teaching.” To improve retention, training programs should do more to focus on classroom management training.

3. Allies, Not Just Mentors

I remember my first two years of teaching as gruelingly difficult. Nothing was more encouraging to me at the time than a ride I used to get with one of the more senior teachers who was teaching in a different department in the school. I still remember the ride. As we were navigating our way through the Friday traffic, I told him I thought this would be my first and last year teaching. We had a brutally honest conversation in which I told him I didn’t think I could do this anymore. He listened to everything I had to say, considered it all, empathized, and told me he didn’t think it was reasonable to quit unless I gave teaching at least three years of trying my best. New teachers need mentoring, yet as the numbers are showing, they also need someone to champion their cause. Teachers who enter the field need someone they can turn to on difficult days, which are inevitable: someone who will advise, encourage and inspire them to stay the course.

4. Communal Respect

My grandfather, Rabbi Dr. Baruch Poupko, was a fearless man. Despite fleeing Russia as a child, he went back to Soviet Russia in the 1960s, spoke from the podium of Moscow’s Great Synagogue in praise of Israel and Torah observance, and was eventually banned from returning to Soviet Russia. He respectfully spoke his mind when meeting great leaders like David Ben Gurion, Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan and the greatest Torah scholars of his generation. The people he showed most deference to? School teachers and rabbis. When they came into the room, he was silent and did his most to show his respect for them. As a teacher, it is very easy for me to sense in which communities there is respect for the profession and, unfortunately, which there is not. Showing more respect for teachers, for teaching as a profession, and for education is something we should all strive to grow in. Children who see their parents respecting teachers, teaching and learning, tend to do far better in school, and teachers in such communities are far more likely to remain in the profession.

5. Supplies and Big Little Things

A 2021 survey found that “teachers spent an average of $750 of their own money to purchase school supplies for their homes, classrooms and students during the 2020/2021 school year. 30% of teachers spent $1,000 or more on school supplies each year.” While different schools rank differently on how well they supply classes, every single school would benefit from reviewing what they are giving teachers, as opposed to what teachers are coming to administrators and asking for. Too often, while schools might consent to give teachers certain supplies and allowances for various educational programs, books, etc., the application and asking process is too cumbersome, in which case teachers just decide not to get those things that would benefit children’s education or end up spending their own money. Small things matter.

I once read an op-ed by a gifted teacher who left her acting career to teach in an inner-city school in Los Angeles. After enduring countless difficulties, coming to school many days before there was daylight outside and leaving after the sun had set, once between classes, she ran to make copies of the worksheet she needed for the next class. As she dashed to the copy machine, her attempt to make copies was brought to an end by there being no more paper and the machine being jammed. That is when she decided to quit. Making sure schools are not only properly supplied but always logistically operating well so that teachers need not worry about supplies, making copies, their computer or printer working, or how they will get the $200 fee to sign up for a national essay-writing competition, is essential to keeping good teachers and good teaching in our schools.

6. Training and Subbing

While the obvious way to make sure our day schools are properly staffed is by making sure there is more training, stricter barriers to entering the profession are part of the problem, not part of the solution. Schwartzberg quotes professor and department chair Dr. Deena Rabinovich of Stern College: “When we put teachers in a classroom before adequately training them, it’s like staffing a clinic with doctors before they’ve gone to medical school. They aren’t set up for success and are unlikely to stick with it.” Sadly, our day schools are not operating with enough training in mind. Ask anyone working in a Jewish day school how often they see young people shadowing, substituting or taking on other roles the way you would see in medical institutions and teaching hospitals. There are simply not enough opportunities for young people to be shown the beauty of education.

Sure, after two years of graduate school in the field of education, you can begin your student teaching stage—at which point you may find you didn’t want to enter this field to begin with—but why are we not allowing more people thinking of entering the field to be part of our school cultures (obviously in a safe and well-vetted way), the same way Chabad youth and other groups get people involved in education when they are younger? These can offer helping hands in schools, show more people the beauty of education, and offer children an insight into different styles of teaching. Training does not begin or end in one place.

In her role teaching in medical school, my wife has seen everything from high school and college students wanting to shadow her in her work to medical students following her on hospital floors and seeing patients, all the way to residents and fellows who continue to grow their knowledge to the peak of their specialty. We cannot allow training in Jewish education to be limited to the narrow window of student teaching in graduate school. We need to bring both younger and older individuals who are considering entering the field to train and work alongside regular school teachers.

As both Israel and the Diaspora face a dire shortage of teachers, it is time we all think together about what can be done to solve this problem. A shortage in teachers is not just a shortage of bodies in the room; it is good teachers leaving too soon and instability in our schools. Anyone thinking about the future of the Jewish people must first and foremost give attention to the education of the future generation. A collaborative approach among teachers, parents, schools and communities has the power to address this crisis and ensure the better future we all wish for the next generation.


By Elchanan Poupko/TimesofIsrael.com

 The writer is an 11th-generation rabbi, teacher and author. He has written “Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays,” “Poupko on the Parsha” and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN—The American Israeli Jewish Network.

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