Do We Honor Our Teachers Enough?

Without question, the high cost of living, especially within the larger Modern Orthodox Jewish community, is likely the most significant factor discouraging many within our community from considering teaching as a profession. Our community has a standard of living that generally requires dual-income families with two high-paying salaries, and as such, finding teachers (both general and Judaic studies) from within our ranks continues to be a massive challenge. 

Nevertheless, I believe there is an element unique to our private Jewish day school world that is within our control to rectify and change. In my observation, the status of teachers in our community has declined over time, discouraging idealistic young people from entering the profession. To address the challenges of the teacher shortages that we face across the field, issues of pay and status need attention hand in hand.

Below, I would like to briefly outline a few systemwide challenges that we have experienced in Toronto before delving into this additional, little-discussed factor that I believe exerts a greater impact then we realize on why we are having so much difficulty finding teachers.

The Great Reshuffle

During Covid, many teachers have retired for a variety of reasons. These include health issues, uncertainty about the future, exhaustion, emotional burnout, being asked to do things they aren't trained to do as well as overall challenges with the balance of home management and professional lives.

This has meant that after Covid, schools have been left with a lack of teaching staff. The Ministry of Education in Ontario temporarily changed the legislation in an attempt to ease the burden by allowing retired teachers to return to the classroom for extended periods without jeopardizing their pension or other benefits. 

Ontario-specific Challenges

In 2015, Ontario began to overhaul its teachers college by halving the number of students admitted and doubling the amount of time necessary to obtain a degree and full teacher certification. At the time, a teacher surplus caused novice teachers to spend years teaching part-time, waiting on lists for full-time positions. The Ministry of Education estimated that roughly 9,000 newly qualified were graduating each year and only 6,000 gained full-time employment. As a result, the government limited the supply of new teachers. 

Fast-forward to a post-Covid world in which Ontario schools confront a crisis exacerbated by all of these changes. Furthermore, this more stringent certification by the Ontario College of Teachers is required in the public system and preferred in the private schools, creating a high bar of entry into the profession. 

Private School–Specific Challenges 

The teaching profession (especially in Ontario) has become very much union-controlled, and this creates an inherent disadvantage for private schools looking to recruit teachers. The public school boards with their high levels of compensation and benefits have become the gold standard for any teacher graduating teachers college. Unions have helped teachers in public schools enjoy the peace of mind of a well-protected job; private schools are having a harder time competing each year. This has left private schools, and especially Jewish private schools, to look from within their own communities for teachers. 

In truth, Jewish private schools have always looked from within to hire teachers, both in general and Judaic studies; their success in recruitment derives from those teachers feeling mission-aligned and a sense of fulfillment by teaching within their community. Vacation time during the Jewish holidays as well as an early dismissal on Friday have certainly helped. 

However, there is one additional factor that certainly exists within the larger Modern Orthodox community and likely within the traditional Jewish day school world as well that I believe is strongly contributing to the dearth of teachers within our own ranks: the way we treat our teachers and the unfortunate lack of honor and respect they are often afforded. 

Our Most Significant Challenge: Honoring Educators 

I grew up in a home where both my grandfathers were rabbis, one a school principal and the other a pulpit rabbi. I was raised in a world in which I heard so many stories and compliments about my grandfathers, who both not only had an incredible impact on me but on generations of children and families.

I am loathe to stereotype and generalize, but if one grows up in a chareidi community in America, the most important individuals in the community are often the melamdim. Parents and entire communities give great respect, praise and honor to teachers and rabbeim, and especially to the first and second grade rebbes.

Grauer illustration

In that kind of environment, it becomes perfectly normal for a child to say, “I want to be a teacher when I grow up.” When they see and hear their own parents and surroundings giving unequivocal support, love and deep respect to Torah education in general and to Torah educators in particular, it comes as no surprise that these children consider these teachers to be true role models.

Talmud Torah and melamdei Torah in particular are raised on a pedestal for all to look up to. They are often the ones who receive Maftir Yonah on Yom Kippur, and they are frequently asked to open the ark for Ne’ilah, read pesukim for Ata Hore’ita on Simchat Torah, and afforded other honors that come along with their Torah knowledge, stature and specifically position.

Indeed, possibly the greatest leader the world has ever known, Moshe—who led the people out of Egypt, who received the Torah from God Himself on Sinai, who worked miracles, who spoke to God “face to face”—is known for eternity as Moshe Rabbeinu, “Moshe, our teacher.”

Can there be any greater aspiration for a Jewish parent or child?

Evidently there can.

Because if a child grows up in a home and a world in which teachers, of Jewish and secular subjects alike, are often openly criticized, maligned and ridiculed, he or she absorbs those messages, which then become part of the culture. Unquestionably, these messages then have a major impact when these young people come to choose a profession.

Yes, our teacher shortage is linked to everything mentioned above, including of course the high cost of living and tuition in the Orthodox world and the level of wealth that is needed to simply survive within our communities. Nevertheless, we should consider to what extent our children aren’t growing up with dreams of being a teacher because they don’t see teachers idealized and praised within their homes and communities.

Our parents are often by and large more likely to push their children to become hedge-fund managers, attorneys and engineers before considering teaching. As mentioned, much of this is driven by economics and the unparalleled high cost of entry within our world and our communities, and this is a reality that is hard to overlook, but I wonder how much of it is also driven by how teachers and educators are sometimes perceived.

The current dearth of educational talent within our communities didn’t happen overnight, and the issues cannot be solved easily. It has taken at least a generation to uproot the idealistic view of the rabbinate and Talmud Torah, or just teaching in general, and it will likely take at least a generation to rebuild it. After all, it takes children 20 years or so before they enter a profession.

Now, though, is the time to change our attitudes.

Grauer illustration 2

If we want to fill our schools with incredible teachers, especially those from within our communities who personify our values by living within our hashkafah, we need to encourage more of a culture of honoring the second grade rebbeim and the fourth grade math and science teachers. We need to show our genuine appreciation in private, at home, and in public to our high school history, art and computer science teachers. This will have an impact. Here are a few specific and practical suggestions for consideration. 

Encourage greater appreciation from our parents. At a recent opening school program, a colleague and friend, Rabbi Rafi Cashman, head of Netivot HaTorah Day School in Toronto, suggested to his parents to put a notice in their calendar to, on a regular basis, send an email expressing a sincere message of hakarat hatov to a teacher. He elaborated on its positive impact and meaning to the recipient because teachers fundamentally are in the profession to make a positive and lasting impact. 

Encourage synagogues and community organizations to give greater honors and find more opportunities to recognize educators. This may seem trivial, and of course so many of our teachers are very modest, unassuming and not looking for public recognition, but the impact is felt in a far greater way on the community and our youngest members than even on the educators themselves. Our young students see their teachers being placed on a pedestal, and this creates a lasting impression.

Consider ways to give educators within our community opportunities for additional compensation. This could come in the form of scholar-in-residence opportunities (not necessarily going outside our communities, rather than looking at home talent that is often overlooked), joining panel discussions more, consultancy possibilities for other schools, or other creative ideas. 

One final piece to consider is how important it is to recognize that educators also have private lives, and if we want them to develop within our communities, we need to not see them as employees 24/7. Many educators report that every time they go to the supermarket, shul or even to exercise in the local gym, some take it as an opportunity for a parent-teacher conference. Part of giving them greater honor is to recognize that they don’t work privately for each and every parent all the time. Part of respect is respecting their time, privacy and desire for normalcy within a community. Consider inviting them over more for Shabbat meals and avoiding speaking about their jobs the entire time.

Of course, it is important to emphasize that it is not easy for private Jewish day schools to compete financially with many other lucrative professions, but if the private Jewish day schools not only have vacation time around chaggim and early Fridays on their side, but a sense of purpose, life of fulfillment and a knowledge of great honor within a community, I believe we have a better chance to inspire new generations of educators.

I would like to finish with one of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s many quotations about the importance of teachers and education to our communities. Rabbi Sacks himself was a teacher par excellence who contributed much to elevating the prestige of educators and was instrumental in many initiatives to support educators in various ways. 

Teachers open our eyes to the world. They give us curiosity and confidence. They teach us to ask questions. They connect us to our past and future. They’re the guardians of our social heritage. We have lots of heroes today, and they are often celebrities—athletes, supermodels, media personalities. They come, they have their fifteen minutes of fame, and they go. But the influence of good teachers stays with us. They are the people who really shape our life. (From Optimism to Hope)

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