How We Can All Help Retain Talent

Focusing on Employee Retention

The task of staffing Jewish day schools with enough appropriately qualified educators is widely depicted as a recruitment challenge above all. The discussion often revolves around issues such as, How to make the material conditions in schools, such as pay and benefits, sufficiently attractive such that people will be willing to pursue this work? Where to find mission-aligned talent to recruit? How to widen the personnel pipeline so that suitable individuals take up work in schools?   

Over the last five years, our team at Rosov Consulting has had opportunities to explore these questions in multiple Jewish community sectors. Drawing on these studies, we posit that the primary challenge for day schools, as for other service-providing organizations in the Jewish community, is not recruitment; it is retention. To employ the pipeline metaphor, the primary task is to address leakage or the loss of talent already in the pipeline. 

Our data come mainly from two sources: the study of Jewish educators’ career trajectories we conducted for CASJE (Collaborative for Applied Studies in Jewish Education), and a study of the learning needs of early career Jewish communal professionals we conducted for JPro. These sources have been supplemented by what we have learned from evaluations of professional development initiatives for educators.

Our CASJE data confirmed a widely known state of affairs in both Jewish and non-Jewish school settings: About half of those who start work as teachers leave the profession within five years. Of course, early career turnover is not always a bad thing. Many professions include an entry-stage phase in which interested candidates have an opportunity to explore their suitability and readiness for the work, and employers get to filter out borderline-appropriate candidates. 

What is surely unhealthy is the scale at which such turnover occurs in schools and in other Jewish community settings. We believe that addressing this problem by equipping educators with tools for resilience would be both a cheaper and more readily actionable solution to the teacher shortage than trying to recruit more talent in the first place. 

Why Staff Leave: Inhibitors to “Employee Value Proposition”

Interviews with early career professionals indicate that most of them enter challenging and poorly paid service professions already inspired by a desire to do good or by satisfactions intrinsically associated with the work. Teachers, for example, enter the profession to help children grow or share Jewish wisdom with the next generation. They leave this work during those early years because of phenomena that subvert whatever it is that makes work meaningful, rewarding and attractive. In the words of an interviewee, they leave when the challenges of the job outweigh the “employee value proposition.” 

Subversive phenomena that lead to staff turnover can be structural or circumstantial. Structural inhibitors, such as poor financial compensation, limited benefits and parochialism, are built into the field of Jewish education. They are not unique to specific institutions. Crucially, they are more likely to keep people from entering the field in the first place than leaving it once they start.

Circumstantial inhibitors are composed of the specific and often unexpected dynamics of particular workplaces that make them unattractive places to remain. These inhibitors are what typically lead individuals to switch their places of work, if the option exists, or to leave the field altogether once they have already begun employment. They can be emotionally fraught to tackle, but such inhibitors are probably more readily addressed than the structural inhibitors that challenge the field as a whole.  

It can be hard work reducing the impact of these inhibitors. No doubt improving the professional culture of schools would help reduce the corrosive effect of circumstantial inhibitors, but to do so at scale would require a major school change initiative designed to remake the challenging aspects of school culture, one school at a time. It is more realistic, we believe, to build the resilience of educators in the face of such inhibitors. And it will be more efficacious, too. 

Enabling Opportunities

The best way to build such resilience is to provide early career professionals with experiences in frameworks and programs designed with the specific intent of translating an already-stimulated appetite to work as a Jewish educator into a commitment and ability to be one. We call such experiences “enabling opportunities.” In the field of Jewish education, these take all kinds of shapes and forms, grouped under the categories of induction, sustained professional development and graduate education programs. Crucially, they all occur during the early phases of educators’ professional lives when their career commitments are still unsolidified. 

The strongest enabling opportunities elicit three broad outcomes. They cultivate critical skills, theories and knowhow; they fuel a commitment to doing the work; and they nurture support systems of peers and mentors who can be invaluable aides when the work gets hard. In short, they develop skills, dispositions and social supports that help educators resist the corrosive effects of circumstantial inhibitors and contribute to people preferring to stay in the field. These broad benefits surely help explain why almost half of the educators who participated in the CASJE study and remained in the field of Jewish education for more than five years had participated in such an experience, while only a quarter of those who dropped out of the field within five years had done so. 

Shared Responsibility for Employee Retention

Creating valuable experiences of these kinds at scale, and expanding opportunities to participate in them, should be a cross-communal endeavor. In the meantime, there is something individual schools can do, too. In our JPro work, we learned that access to such valuable experiences is undercut by a kind of vicious circle: Many employers question the value of investing in junior staff who are liable to move on; better, they say, to see if these new hires have what it takes or if they’re truly committed before investing resources in their professional development. We suspect that if employers took the risk of investing in the professional development of early career hires, and aided their participation in commitment-forming enabling opportunities, they might find them more inclined to stay in the field and perhaps in their institutions. Those hires would certainly be more effective in their work.

When our team has had occasion to study the participants in these programs and to track changes in their attitudes and sense of self-efficacy before, during and after participation, we have observed that profound changes often occur. Participants frequently acquire tools that help them do their work more effectively, something that’s obviously valuable in and of itself. What’s more striking is that the acquisition of such tools also takes on significance as a marker of professional identity, cultivating a sense of self as an educator or Jewish community professional. Perhaps the greatest contribution of such programs is that they nurture a greater sense of belonging to the field. Their graduates want to stick around.

Two caveats. First, enabling opportunity programs are not a panacea. Those who participate in them are often the most enthusiastic and determined to become Jewish educators, even prior to their enrollment. If the graduates of these programs remain in the field, it may have as much to do with the commitments they brought with them from the start as with what they gained from programs. 

Second, to employ a metaphor, if enabling opportunities (and professional development more generally) are akin to upgrading software, then employers must consider what hardware components need to be upgraded to ensure that the new and improved software functions at an optimal level. Professional development, no matter its intensity and quality, operates within a larger professional ecosystem that shapes the career trajectories of emergent talent. We all share a responsibility to take care of that ecosystem.

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HaYidion Jewish Educator Pipeline cover image
Jewish Educator Pipeline
Spring 2024
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