Collaborating to Make Judaics Teaching an “Affordable Profession”

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In fall 2019, pre-pandemic and a month into my deanship at the William Davidson School, I was approached by a community day school administrator seeking support with what has by now become infamously known as “the pipeline issue”: the pressing challenge of attracting and retaining Judaics classroom teachers to fill increasingly vacant positions. He described in detail what would be the first of many similar narratives I would hear from day school leadership over the ensuing months, which increased in urgency during the pandemic. Many of this day school’s strongest and most veteran teachers were looking toward retirement, and school leadership were in need of strategy for recruiting novice teachers. He wondered: How might Jewish education teacher preparatory programs, such as the one we facilitate at our graduate school, support such an effort?

As I listened to the frustration in the administrator’s plea, I heard an invitation to co-imagine strategies for enlarging the pool of trained teachers who might persevere through the growing pains of the first years of teaching to become valued faculty members. Beyond a request for more teachers, beyond a simplistic casting the problem as a supply chain issue, was the question of how programs such as ours could message and brand Judaics classroom teacher as a viable career, an affordable career—a career of value, in all respects.

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This request for strategizing how we brand Judaics teaching as a valued career was the flip side of what I had been hearing from the master’s students I had been teaching for 15 years and coaching as they sought their first full-time day school positions. After investing in higher education, they were often unable to secure a teaching position that would offer a livable wage, especially when schools were hesitant to offer lead teaching positions to those who were new to teaching. As a result, graduates of a two-year in-residence master’s program were often being offered lower-wage assistant or associate teaching positions. Some would abandon the career track of classroom teaching altogether, pursuing instead a higher paid Jewish educator position, such as synagogue school education director or an education-focused position within a Jewish nonprofit.

Herein was the problem-within-the-problem: If we wanted to expand the pipeline of teachers, we had to develop a multipronged solution that would both recruit Judaics teachers to the field while simultaneously offering a concrete pathway to advancement to lead teacher positions.  To address the teacher recruitment issue at its core, schools and providers of professional and academic-based training needed to collaborate at the outset in messaging that Jewish communities are committed to providing both financial incentives and mentoring supports. Thus, the Hitlamdut Fellowship was conjured up.

The goal of Hitlamdut is to support novice Judaic studies teachers through coursework in pedagogic content knowledge, reflective practice and curriculum design. Participants are enrolled in the William Davidson School’s online, part-time, asynchronous MA program, and teach full-time while concurrently taking two online JTS courses per semester. While we have been granting distance learning MAs since 2006, this fellowship was designed and tailored specifically for in-service classroom teachers, offering enhanced merit aid and mentorship. Fellows are fully funded by JTS in partnership with their schools. The fellowship name, Hitlamdut, reflects the Mussar-based value of “mindfulness”; fellows benefit from both individualized and cohort-based coaching and feedback that supports them in building a community of practice.

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Based on feedback from participants in our inaugural cohort, here are incentives and opportunities that day schools can consider for attracting early career educators during springtime teacher recruitment season.

Build incentives for professional development into the benefits package and advertise these benefits. We need to offer professional and academic learning to novice teachers that complements and enhances their understanding of teaching as a profession. To that end, the Hitlamdut Fellowship is designed to be available only to full-time teachers. While this might at first seem counterintuitive, feedback from the fellows indicates that this feature is what enables them to take the long view and imagine the classroom as a career, rather than an interim post-college gig on the way to a different career choice.

One fellow who was a recent college graduate shared that she would not have applied to an MA in Jewish education program this early in her career had she not known of this opportunity to teach full-time while also taking courses as a part-time student. By connecting early career teachers at all stages of life to part-time learning options, we are messaging that they can engage simultaneously in gaining experience, earning a salary and advancing their credentials.

Vary the types of incentives offered, including asynchronous online options. The online and asynchronous learning options across North America have vastly increased during the pandemic. Our fellows have repeatedly shared that this format was the key feature that led to their engaging with an MA program, as it eased their personal scheduling concerns. This feature of online options for professional development and learning positions teaching as an “affordable career,” as those with young children or other after-work commitments have more flexibility in the late afternoon and evening hours. In the words of one of our fellows: “I think it’s incredible that I’m able to do both, and I don’t have to leave faculty meetings early, I don’t have to leave school early to go to class, I’m able to stay the full day, I’m able to work, I’m able to take classes… That you’re able to work full-time and get a degree is compelling.” 

Include varied financial incentives, working in partnership with board members and other donors. Classroom teachers need opportunities for credential advancement that are affordable. Perhaps your school has a board member or a local donor who would want to sponsor a novice teacher in their learning. We have found that this model offers an opportunity for engaging a school’s local community in co-solving the pipeline challenge, by becoming personally invested in the cause. Our fellows have shared with us that the full tuition scholarship is imperative to teaching being an affordable career.

Ensure that mentoring and coaching opportunities are components of benefits packages. Over the past decade, day schools have increasingly been building mentoring opportunities directly into offer letters. Alumni of our program have shared that mentoring support within the school, and in partnership with organizations such as New Jewish Teachers Project, have eased their burnout concerns. By co-sponsoring and subsidizing such supports, and/or by partnering with organizations that can offer this outside support, day schools are demonstrating that teachers are worth this investment.

Hitlamdut is but one example of addressing both the pipeline and affordability issues as systemic and interconnected challenges. Through incentives and supports to novice and earlier career teachers, we can broadcast the message that Judaics classroom teaching is a viable career.

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HaYidion Fall 2022 Affordability
Fall 2022
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