From the Board Chair: Making Teachers

A new take on an old joke: The Presidential Award for Teacher of the Year was won by a social studies teacher from a local Jewish day school. Her mother was there for the ceremony at the White House, where the award was to be bestowed by none other than the President. The mother leaned over to the person sitting next to her and said, “You see that young woman up there getting the award?” The person responded, “The highest teaching award in the country? Yes! You must be so proud!” The mother replied, “Of course I’m proud! Her sister’s a doctor!” 

Every teacher I have told this to has said the same thing: This would be funny if it didn’t ring so true.

The pipeline for Jewish educators and educational leaders is no laughing matter. At recent Prizmah convenings of both lay leaders and school professionals, the issue has come up as a matter of urgency on par with affordability and recruitment. These issues are all related. Our schools need to maintain educational excellence in order to keep attracting students, and that excellence lies in the hands of first-class Jewish educators.

We know that the number of teachers entering the field is declining, across the secular, religious and ideological spectra. In exploring this problem, I had conversations with several teachers in search of the “secret ingredient” that led them to choose a career of Jewish education, and what they thought the barriers were for others.

The teachers I had the honor to speak with all had different paths, but there were some commonalities. Most of them knew they loved to teach from an early age, and many had opportunities as early as high school that supported this inclination. Working as a counselor at a Jewish camp seems to have been a pivotal experience. Several had other experiences as peer teachers through organizations like Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, or as tutors in high school and college. Staunch family values of education and a dedication to giving back seemed to be a common theme as well. 

One case stood out in particular: I met M when she was only 13 and a Junior CIT at my then-five-year-old’s day camp. At my son’s request, she became a frequent and beloved babysitter. I had a hunch then that she was destined to be a Jewish educator. She was a natural teacher, even at 13, but was obviously also on a Jewish journey. 

She told me that when she was in high school, she participated in a program through the local Bureau of Jewish Education where she received a few hours of basic pedagogical training a week and was then placed as an aide in a classroom. As a result, she knew just what she wanted to be. She sought out a college with an excellent education program; twenty years later, she is a rock star teacher at one of our local Jewish day schools.

I also asked about the barriers that keep young people from entering the field of Jewish education. Of course, the number one barrier is economic; many of the largest schools tend to be clustered in major metropolitan areas where the cost of living is very high, yet entry-level salaries are so low that it is hard for recent graduates to pay rent on a new teacher’s salary. Many also complain about the lack of prestige and respect for the profession. One teacher, an Ivy League graduate who intentionally chose teaching, often had her choice questioned by peers and family members who assumed it was just a phase or a placeholder in between college and a professional degree like law or business school.

One of the teachers I spoke with suggested that our best pool of candidates are day school alumni themselves. Those who are the products of Jewish day schools are well-attuned to the unique value of this type of education and often have role models they seek to emulate. We might consider ways of encouraging day school graduates to imagine and pursue a career for themselves as teachers.

In the library of Jewish texts, there are too many references to teaching and teachers to count. One of the most famous is in Pirkei Avot: “Yehoshua Ben Perachyah said, ‘Make for yourself a teacher, establish for yourself a friend.’” I have always been taken with the fact that the imperative is not to “find a teacher for yourself” but rather to make one. Teachers are not individuals who are meant passively to be “found,” but rather they are literally “made” by the community of those they teach. It is our Jewish obligation to make teachers.

Through publishing the results of the Prizmah-JEIC Educator Pipeline Working Group and galvanizing action to work through these challenges, the team at Prizmah is addressing the question as to how we can expand the pipeline to actively make more teachers and leaders for our schools. It is a question of vital importance to the success of our schools so they can continue to inspire the passionate, knowledgeable and committed Jewish community and its leaders for generations to come.

We at Prizmah know that our teachers are the heroes of Jewish community. I look forward to the day when that mother, sitting at the ceremony where her other child is receiving a Nobel Prize for medicine, leans over and says to the person next to her, “See that doctor up there? Her sister is a teacher!”

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HaYidion Jewish Educator Pipeline cover image
Jewish Educator Pipeline
Spring 2024
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