Keep Teachers Teaching

Research shows that teacher effectiveness has the greatest impact of any variable on student outcomes. Given this clear correlation, why is it that so many devote significant time and allocate outsized resources to utilizing new curricula, implementing specialized programming and purchasing cutting-edge technology while neglecting to properly nurture the growth and development of our teachers? In this article, we will argue that we must undertake efforts to address the complex and urgent challenge of elevating the status of the teaching profession by taking a whole-systems approach and by considering the unique context of each individual school community.


Looking Back

It was May 2022, and like teachers across the country, many teachers at the Shefa School were experiencing a high level of burnout and dissatisfaction. Shefa, the first and largest Jewish day school serving students with language-based learning disabilities, is located in the heart of midtown Manhattan. The toll that the pandemic took on educators everywhere, combined with a mass exodus of NYC residents from the city, resulted in close to 20% of our teachers leaving Shefa at the end of the school year. Perhaps even worse, on Leading Edge’s Employee Experience Survey, fewer than half of our teachers said they saw themselves working at Shefa in two years.

While teacher turnover is a struggle everywhere, we felt it particularly acutely at Shefa, given our high-needs population. In order to learn our specialized instructional methodologies, teachers at Shefa participate in a rigorous and lengthy onboarding process, which is followed by intensive and ongoing coaching and professional development. We see this high level of investment in our teachers as essential to providing a high-quality education for our students, and we allocate resources and time to reflect this commitment. The blow of losing even a single well-trained teacher is deeply felt, as we know it can take years until a new faculty member has developed the skills to fill their predecessor’s shoes.


Fast forward two years. Our teacher retention is now the highest it has ever been in our 10 years of existence. Despite the high cost of living in NYC, the stress that can come with working in a culture of high expectations and the particular challenges of supporting a high-needs population, 92% of teachers who received contracts for next year signed them and plan to return next year.

So how did we achieve a 10% increase in our teacher retention in just two years? And what can be learned from our efforts?


The Context

Every community has its own unique set of challenges and opportunities related to the different phases of the teacher pipeline. In designing and implementing a strategic approach to attracting, growing and retaining teachers, it is critical to understand the specifics of each context so that strengths can be leveraged and the most acute pain points can be addressed.

At Shefa, teacher recruitment was a phase of the pipeline that we had addressed in our school’s first years of existence. Given the dearth of special educators in the field of Jewish education, we dedicated time and resources to developing and refining the Shefa Teacher Residency, a groundbreaking program that recruits and trains recent college graduates to become exceptional teachers by providing an intensive and supportive school-based teacher training program. Over the course of the past 10 years, over 60 teachers have gone through our residency, and many of them continue to serve as lead teachers at Shefa.

The creation of our own internal pipeline for teachers, along with a number of other factors including the benefit of being located in a geographic region with many young Jewish professionals and our growing reputation for fostering a mission-driven culture of excellence, allowed us to attract many high-quality candidates for early-stage teaching roles. At the same time, many of those factors that made it easy for us to recruit new teachers were the very same reasons why we faced tremendous challenges around teacher retention.


The Process

In the summer of 2022, we launched a yearlong broad and comprehensive initiative to examine the employee experience at Shefa in the wake of Covid and on the precipice of a period of growth as we prepared to transition into a new facility and increase our enrollment. We needed to really understand why a teacher might leave Shefa before we could design ways of incentivizing them to stay.


Gathering data

That fall, we convened a Climate & Culture Taskforce, a group of faculty members and administrators who were charged with analyzing existing data and conducting additional research in order to better understand the employee experience at Shefa and make recommendations for potential interventions we might pursue.



Alongside the efforts of the taskforce, the senior administrative team simultaneously designed and conducted a number of studies in order to better understand what we were hearing and seeing. For example, in response to teachers’ concerns about the demands on their time, we ran a study tracking teacher use of time on a standardized spreadsheet for two weeks. This allowed us to aggregate data and analyze it with different metrics to see trends. For example, how much time was spent on lesson planning outside of school hours? How much time was spent on family communication? What were the discrepancies among teachers, and how might that help inform what levers we decided to pull to make changes in how teachers’ time was being allocated? The findings from this time tracking study led directly to the creation of specific interventions later on in the process.

Similarly, we conducted a “meeting audit,” in which teachers were asked to rate each type of meeting they participated in across key metrics. This helped us determine whether meeting frequencies could be changed or meeting practices could be improved to better achieve their intended purposes.

In addition to combing through the data from the Leading Edge survey, the taskforce members conducted detailed empathy interviews with Shefa staff members and implemented more targeted surveys on particular areas that begged further exploration. After unpacking this data, the taskforce identified the common areas of strength related to the employee experience at Shefa and the priority areas for improvement. By working to understand the root causes behind the challenges and by grounding observations in data as opposed to hearsay or anecdotal conjecture, the taskforce was able to make data-driven decisions about what to prioritize and how to move toward constructive next steps that were specifically targeting the areas of challenge.

This process also helped develop a deeper shared understanding among the taskforce members. Before making recommendations, the group members conducted external research to get ideas for what the latest best-practice research was in these areas and for how other schools or organizations were grappling with these challenges.

The taskforce’s findings painted a picture of a workforce that was working tirelessly to support a high-needs student population and deeply feeling the pressure and urgency of the school’s mission to close the gap and to prepare students to return to the mainstream. The school’s mission and the population cannot change—they are what makes Shefa Shefa. So what could be done to move the needle on the overwhelming sense of overwork that teachers were experiencing?

Overall, the taskforce’s findings suggested that the school’s leadership needed to better celebrate and reward the high level of investment on the part of its faculty and to create clear pathways for career advancement and sustainability. The key priorities that emerged centered around three buckets:

  • Career growth opportunities
  • Workload and time allocation
  • Compensation and benefits


Designing and testing interventions

Following the recommendations from the taskforce, our senior administrative team spent the spring and summer evaluating the feasibility, necessary trade-offs and potential impact of each of the recommendations. Many of the recommendations were already on the road toward implementation, and the taskforce’s findings confirmed that we were on the right track. For example, we had recently formed a Faculty Evaluation Redesign Committee, a group of teachers and administrators who had begun designing a new teacher evaluation framework—a necessary precursor to creating clear and transparent growth trajectories for teachers. Similarly, we had already instituted stipended teacher leadership opportunities and retention bonuses for teachers. Other recommendations, such as ways of better protecting teachers’ time, were new ideas that we considered.

In August 2023, we presented to faculty our Climate & Culture Strategic Plan, the various efforts and initiatives that were underway to address faculty growth and retention. The chart below shows how the process led directly to interventions that helped us preserve a culture of excellence while incorporating boundaries to protect teachers and opportunities to reward them. Some examples: We established “Green Time,” protected break time each day when teachers could not be pulled for coverage or asked to join a meeting. We instituted a clear policy around “blackout hours,” where email communication could only be used for time-sensitive emergencies. We trained and required everyone to use Google Calendar in consistent and standardized ways, so that we could have a system for more equitable and transparent use of time.




This school year, we tested out some of the more significant changes before implementing them on a broader scale. We piloted a senior teacher role, which is accompanied by increased compensation, recognition and PD opportunities. The learnings from the pilot helped inform how we plan to scale the program and led directly into the design of our new Faculty Growth System, a cohesive and coordinated approach to recognizing and developing exemplary teachers as they progress through their teaching career. Through this system, we have created meaningful opportunities for growth and leadership for classroom teachers in a way that incentivizes staying in the classroom as opposed to the traditional growth route of becoming administrators.


Evaluating outcomes and iterating again

As this school year comes to an end, we plan to continue to learn from our results on this year’s Leading Edge Survey and plan to carefully assess the impact of these new initiatives to determine to what degree they are meeting our intended outcomes. As a growing school, our reality on the ground changes year to year, and we need to be mindful to ensure that our teacher retention efforts continue to match our changing needs and realities. As more of our teachers have growing families of their own, perhaps we will need to consider more flexible teaching schedules in order to accommodate their scheduling and commuting needs. And of course, we need to look at this year’s retention results with a healthy dose of humility: This year could very well have been anomalous, and we will likely face new challenges in the years ahead.


Five Lessons Learned

Look in the mirror. We all hold assumptions and possess blind spots that can sometimes cause us to be defensive in the face of critical feedback. If we fail to take a good hard look in the mirror, we risk missing opportunities for meaningful progress. However unpleasant, striving for a deep understanding of our organization’s vulnerabilities is a necessary step in overcoming them.

Engage key stakeholders. Without buy-in and input from the intended audience (in this case, faculty from across departments in our school) at every step in these processes, efforts will fall flat.

Determine what you value and make tough tradeoffs. Financial resources are limited in schools, and there are certainly competing demands on how to allocate every dollar. At Shefa, we made the calculation that increasing salaries for top-performing teachers and investing in teacher retention efforts were not only mission-aligned but were also strategic because teacher turnover puts a strain on many other resources within the system. 

Communicate (over and over and over). With any change effort, there are opportunities at every step of the way for misunderstanding and missteps, which can lead to not only the failure of the effort but also to a culture of mistrust and lack of transparency. We found it helpful to create multiple forums for feedback, sharing and input, even in the draft stage of initial ideas. Most schools are relatively flat organizations, and shifts related to performance, promotion and compensation can be counter-cultural. These ideas take time and unpacking for folks to see them as opportunities rather than threats.

Make small bets and test them. While ultimately what emerged for us was a clear and coherent strategy for teacher retention, the process itself was messy. It helps to test new ideas out on a small scale and publicize both the wins and unintended consequences before expanding.

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HaYidion Jewish Educator Pipeline cover image
Jewish Educator Pipeline
Spring 2024
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