High-Quality Professional Development Can Help Solve the Teacher Shortage

While an educator shortage in Jewish day schools has been a topic of conversation for well over a decade, it has reached true crisis levels: Both new and seasoned teachers are leaving in droves and not being replaced by incoming talent, as people choose to enter other professions that offer more flexibility, less stress and higher pay. It is safe to say that recruiting, supporting and retaining excellent teachers are truly among the most urgent challenges facing Jewish day schools today. 

I was honored to participate in the Jewish Day School Educators Pipeline Working Group from March to October 2023. This initiative, sponsored by Prizmah and the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge, was designed to take action and channel innovative ideas to address the shortage of Jewish day school educators. The Working Group drew on expertise from individuals across the entirety of the Jewish education field: day school educators and leaders; academics; informal Jewish educators; those in Jewish educationadjacent fields; representatives from central Jewish agencies; and organizations such as Jewish New Teacher Project (JNTP) of New Teacher Center that support the career development of Jewish day school educators. 

Through my role as executive director of JNTP, I support beginning teachers and novice administrators, helping them get better faster so that they are more skilled, effective and confident, ultimately creating optimal learning environments grounded in instructional excellence. In order to cross-pollinate expertise across the various focus areas of the working groups, known as pillars, I was assigned to a pillar that focused on “Creating Working Environments for Success.” The group included Dr. Dan Glass, head of The Brandeis School in San Francisco; Lisa Klein, managing director, Jewish education, from the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston; Rebecca Rohr Ritter, head of teaching and learning at New York’s Shefa School; Rachel Levitt Klein Dratch, former director of education innovation at Prizmah; and me. Our goal was to identify barriers to successful working environments for educators and suggest solutions that would ultimately improve the educator pipeline. 

What we concluded as a group as the key to creating successful working environments for teachers is what JNTP has known all along: Ongoing learning and opportunities for professional growth over time, in the context of consistent support in a positive work environment, leads to teacher success and satisfaction, which in turn leads to teacher retention. 

 

Teacher Pipeline Crisis: The Challenges

As a partner of more than 300 Jewish day schools across North America over the past 20 years, JNTP has had a front seat to the unfolding pipeline crisis. Based on this experience, and supported by research, we believe that a leading indicator for retention is a teacher’s self-efficacy—the confidence that they are effective in the classroom. A recent article from JNTP’s parent organization, the New Teacher Center, explains that evidence suggests that poor self-efficacy is linked to higher teacher burnout and stress, which in turn leads to a higher rate of leaving the profession. The goal, then, is to help teachers have early success and gain confidence in their abilities, so that they have greater job satisfaction and evidence a stronger commitment to staying in the profession long term.

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Here are some of the factors that lead to poor self-efficacy and burnout.

Insufficient training and preparation. There is nothing that can adequately prepare new teachers to run their own classrooms until they are actually running their own classrooms. Those who have an education degree and/or attend a one- to two-year teacher prep course certainly have a strong advantage over teachers who don’t have specific education training. However, many Jewish day schools don’t require education degrees for their teachers.

Many new teachers have never taught a group of students before they step into their own classroom. And even those who have an education degree may not have had sufficient or quality student teaching experience. Moreover, out of desperation in the wake of Covid, schools have hired individuals with no prior teaching experience or education credentials who are looking to change careers. 

All of these new teachers may well become wonderful teachers down the road, but only on-the-job experience will give them the skills they need to be effective. Teaching can be overwhelming, especially for those who are not adequately supported, which is why nearly 45% of new teachers leave the profession within the first five years. 

Feelings of isolation/lack of support. In many ways, teaching is an isolating job. This may sound paradoxical since teachers are surrounded by people all day long. However, with some exceptions for those in co-teaching arrangements, most teachers spend the day professionally alone. They plan lessons, grade papers and manage their classrooms without input from or collaboration with peers. 

This can feel very isolating. Administrators aim to offer support, especially to new teachers adjusting to their roles, but they themselves are often overwhelmed and don’t offer as much support as a new teacher requires. 

Lack of opportunities for growth. Some teachers want to become administrators, and they work on gaining the experience and necessary skills to follow that track. Nevertheless, most choose to remain in the classroom throughout their careers. 

Over time, teachers can feel that they aren’t growing professionally. Few opportunities exist for classroom teachers to grow their skills and/or gain new responsibilities while staying in the classroom. 

Lack of morale. The teaching profession has lost status in our communities and beyond. There is a marked lack of respect for teachers and administrators, from parents and students alike. According to Dirck Roosevelt, director of doctoral specialization in teacher education at Columbia Universitys Teachers College, “There is definitely a crisis of morale and confidence. The belief that one can do good work and do good for young people and have a rewarding, satisfying career in teaching has gone down the tubes.” 

 

How Effective Professional Development can Impact Recruitment and Retention

The good news is that there are ways to address many of these challenges. It comes down to schools providing high-quality, effective, long-term, job-embedded professional development. This is not a “one-and-done” quick fix workshop. Real change with demonstrable results only comes with deep and sustained professional learning. Relative to the cost of teacher turnover, the potential impact of high-quality professional development on individual schools and on the field of Jewish day school education as a whole can be monumental. 

Here are some of the ways we at JNTP have seen professional development address the challenges listed above and why our Prizmah Working Group pillar came to the conclusion that effective professional development can be part of a solution to the educator crisis.

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On-the-job training makes new teachers better, faster. We’ve seen that for teachers, growth accelerates when a mentor visits their classroom and provides one-on-one feedback on an iterative basis. New teachers learn what works and what doesn’t work quickly through this collaborative process with their mentor. When teachers feel supported and effective, when they are able to successfully weather the transition into their new roles, they stay in the profession longer.

Mentoring and cohorts provide reliable, consistent support. For new teachers in particular—though it is certainly valuable and important for all teachers—having a mentor who observes their class and meets with them regularly means they are receiving constant, targeted, customized support. They never feel left to “sink or swim.” They no longer feel alone as classroom teachers, learning their craft in isolation. In the case of JNTP, veteran teachers who train as mentors are part of cohorts that meet regularly to learn together and share experiences, providing opportunities for collaboration and support even for experienced teachers, which sustains satisfaction over the course of a career.

Clear role definition and standards of professionalism create cultures of excellence. Quality of teaching and leadership improves when educators are driven by and held accountable to clear role expectations and a defined set of standards that promote excellence. When faculty across a school share the same language and standards, it creates a culture of excellence, which then leads to improvements in student achievement, respect for teachers and administrators, and educator morale.

Mentoring creates opportunities for professional growth. At JNTP, we have observed that veteran teachers who become mentors find that their own teaching skills improve as they mentor beginning teachers. They, too, adopt professional standards of practice and learn to evaluate their own performance against those standards. Furthermore, mentoring provides an opportunity to take on leadership roles within the school that are outside of administration, whether as a mentor and role model for other faculty or leading professional learning for their colleagues.
 

Specifically, here is how a positive work environment that provides high quality professional development can address the Jewish day school educator shortage crisis.

Recruiting. We have seen that having a strong professional development program in a school is a recruiting tool. Administrators frequently report that potential hires ask about the availability of mentoring during their interviews. At the field level, creating cultures of excellence in Jewish day schools will increase respect for the profession and create role models to inspire students to want to become educators when they grow up.

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Building a Stronger Teacher Pipeline

Retention. By helping new teachers become better, faster, and feeling successful, professional development and intensive mentoring increases the likelihood of those teachers remaining in the field longer. By providing veteran teachers with opportunities for continued growth in skills and ways to take on teacher leadership roles, schools can hold onto their most seasoned educators longer. 

Leadership Pipeline from Within. When schools support and invest in their own faculty’s development, they grow their future leaders from within.
 

While this is not the only fix to the Jewish day school educator shortage crisis, we at JNTP and we in the Prizmah Working Group believe that if schools, communities and the field as a whole provide a supportive work environment and invest resources in ongoing, job-embedded, observation- and standards-based professional development for our teachers so that they feel more successful and experience greater job satisfaction, we can begin to move the needle in the right direction.

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HaYidion Jewish Educator Pipeline cover image
Jewish Educator Pipeline
Spring 2024
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