Why I Stayed in the Teaching Profession

Why I Stayed in the Teaching Profession

Calling, Growth and Satisfaction

Clara Gaba, Judaic Studies Teacher, Hillel Day School, Farmington Hills, Michigan

In today’s world, filled with headlines about teacher shortages and demanding careers, many might wonder why someone would choose to stay in the classroom for decades. The answer, for me, is simple: It’s the most rewarding profession imaginable.

I was born and raised in Israel. I studied Bible and archeology, but never intended to be a teacher. Moving to the United States, I dreamed of a career in accounting until someone asked me if I was willing to be a guest teacher for them in an afternoon school. I was never in a classroom before, neither did I have the credential to be a teacher. The initial experience as a guest teacher ignited a realization that this was my calling, motivating me to pursue the necessary education and certification. 

Over the years, the joy of touching young souls, witnessing their growth, and contributing to their education became a lifelong mission that continues to energize me. The impact on students’ lives and the deep connection to my calling have been enduring reasons for my commitment to teaching. I started as an afternoon school teacher 38 years ago; six years later, I became a day school teacher and remain one today, energized to go as many years as God will allow me.


I stayed in the teaching profession for so long because I found a deep sense of purpose and fulfillment in shaping young minds through Judaic studies. The experience of unexpectedly discovering my passion for teaching and the impact I could make on students’ lives became my driving force, leading me to continue and thrive in this meaningful career.

As with many other teachers, I often cite the satisfaction of witnessing my students learn and grow as a key motivator. Seeing the “lightbulb moment” when a student grasps a new concept, or the confidence they gain over time, can be incredibly rewarding.

Forming positive connections with students and their families is another reason I kept on teaching. With some families, I gained friendships that would last forever, and I am in touch with many of my former students. These bonds can be incredibly meaningful and contribute to a fulfilling career.

Teaching allows for continuous learning. I stay updated on my subject matter, adapt my instruction to new challenges, and often collaborate with colleagues to share ideas, keeping the profession intellectually stimulating. I always felt a strong sense of purpose in my work. I truly believe I am contributing to shaping the future by educating the next generation and preparing them for their lives ahead.

My journey in the teaching career exemplifies the multifaceted reasons I find longevity in the profession. It’s a testament to the rich and varied motivations that kept me dedicated to my mission / holy work over the years.

Recovering My Purpose

Rabbi Eric Yaakov Traiger, Jewish Studies Faculty, Upper School, Golda Och Academy, West Orange, New Jersey

I have been a Judaic studies teacher for 34 years. Currently, I have the opportunity to introduce 7th and 8th graders to the world of Talmud and Halachah. I teach because I am very committed to the Jewish people and our collective national and religious enterprise. While I knew that teaching was my calling, the experience of the past three years has made the question “Why I stayed in the teaching profession?” all the more poignant.

In October of 2020, six weeks into the new school year, my second year in this school, as we were returning to in-person teaching after online teaching during the first months of Covid, I was suddenly stricken with a condition known as Guillain Barre Syndrome. This is a rare autoimmune disease where the body literally attacks its own nervous system, affecting the peripheral nerves and the muscles. I was left paralyzed from the shoulders down, unable to move my arms and legs. I spent four weeks in Hackensack Hospital and then 12 weeks at the Kessler Rehabilitation Center in West Orange, New Jersey.


During the 12 weeks of intensive in-patient occupational and physical therapy followed by six months of outpatient therapy, I had to relearn all the basic skills we take for granted. I had to learn how to stand up, walk, feed and dress myself. The blessings we recite as part of Birchot HaShachar each morning have taken on a whole new dimension for me, as I now realize these brachot acknowledge God’s role in allowing us to perform these seemingly mundane activities.

This experience of illness and recovery has given me the opportunity to think, read and reflect. Halakhic Man by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s God in Search of Man and Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning were most resonating. I came to see that there had to be a reason for this. I had served as an administrator for a few years, but perhaps I needed to go through this struggle, this journey, in order for me to realize my place is indeed in the classroom teaching Torah. 

I teach for that student who said I helped her understand the foundations of Jewish tradition. I teach for those aha moments when a student has understood a piece of Gemara. I teach because this is what I can do for the continuity of the Jewish people. 

 At the start of therapy, when I was asked about my goals, I said, “To return to the classroom.” Though I now need braces on my legs and a walker, and I have limited arm movement, as my disability is permanent, I achieved that goal in September of 2021 when I walked into room 203 for my 7th grade rabbinics class. 

 I have tremendous gratitude to my wife Lisa, my therapists at Kessler, many friends and my school, Golda Och Academy for their continued support. I am grateful to the One who bestowed blessings upon me to help me understand why I have remained a teacher.

Professional Development Helped Me Up My Game

Stephanie Samuels, Middle School Judaic Studies Teacher and Grade 6 Dean, Maimonides School, Brookline, Massachusetts

I taught high school Jewish studies for seven years. Then I was trained to be a master teacher and mentor by several veteran professors of theory and practice in the field of Jewish education. This experience changed my view of the profession and inspired me to seek out many more growth opportunities throughout my almost thirty years of teaching.

In 2000, Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter arrived at Maimonides School as the founding director of the Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik Institute. One of the missions of the Institute was to create mentorship programs for the rabbinate and for Jewish education. I and four colleagues were accepted into the first cohort of the Rabbi Soloveitchik Teacher Training Program at Maimonides School. 

For the first year, we were trained as master teachers by Rabbi Dr. Chaim Feuerman from Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School of Education. Once a month, we met with Rabbi Feuerman for a seminar on pedagogy, and then we were each observed in our classrooms, replete with pre- and post-observation conferences each time. That year, we were also observed in our classrooms by Rabbi David Eliach, the founder and principal emeritus of the Yeshivah of Flatbush.


The observations and the seminars helped us each to find our own unique voice in the classroom, and to fine-tune our pedagogical skills. We learned how to chart out student engagement and the importance of setting an objective for each class. We learned “MBWA” (Management by Walking Around) and how to create note-taking guides that support student growth and success. 

What I learned during that year and the year following established for me what it means to be a professional educator and mentor. It was a gift for which I am eternally grateful because it taught me to be a reflective practitioner.  It came at a pivotal time in my career in education, and set me on a course to continually seek out opportunities for improving my teaching practice and skills in the years to come, and how to share this wisdom with colleagues, especially teachers at the beginning of their own careers. 

I have thought about this early opportunity of mentorship much this past year as I have participated in Prizmah’s YOU Lead program. The YOU Lead program focuses on teaching the skills of being a leader within a school setting. The combination of one-on-one mentorship, monthly small group meetings, and in-person gatherings has challenged me to up my game in my teaching and teacher leading. These two opportunities, and many others in between, combined with my love of learning and love of my students, have solidified and refreshed my commitment to Jewish education and continuing my professional development as a Jewish educator.

Aerospace STEM Keeps Us Aloft

Melinda Viteri and Chaya Shinensky, Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School, Washington, DC

STEM education has proven to be an important component in education to best prepare students for 21st-century jobs. As certified NASA STEM educators, we have developed unique curricula and programming for educators, schools and camp settings, infused with Jewish values and tradition.


Melinda has always been of the mindset that teaching is a vocation and is devoted and highly committed to giving her best to the children, parents and colleagues. In 2019 she attended the JNTP two-year course in mentoring new teachers. When teaching in the UK, it is a government requirement that all new teachers have a mentor assigned, and she has mentored and trained literally hundreds of educators, including convincing teaching assistants to push themselves and go for it by obtaining a degree in education as it will open up career opportunities for you.

As a veteran educator and mentor, it is always delightful to learn that a student teacher you mentored once upon a time becomes a senior leader within a school or remains happily as a classroom teacher. It is a hard job, and we must acknowledge this early on.

Melinda’s educational accomplishments include Global Educator of the Year Award 2022, the upcoming Presidential Lifetime Achievement Award from President Joe Biden for her dedication bringing educational opportunities to all students and underserved youth and underrepresented communities across the US and internationally. Melinda is also recognized for the development of engaging aviation and space curriculum for students globally throughout her cofounded nonprofit called Aviation Youth Mentoring Program.

Melinda, though not Jewish herself, has been an incredible supporter and advocate for Jewish causes during her international travels through her nonprofit aerospace organization, where she often meets with influential figures.

Why I Stayed in the Teaching Profession

As a STEM educator, Chaya’s true passion lies in developing curriculum that integrates STEM, robotics and design lab projects with Jewish tradition and core values. Chaya currently teaches STEM and design lab for 2nd through 4th grade, alongside Melinda who provides a robust elementary science and space program. Together, we forged a space education community within Milton, taking along many students and educators to create a broader Jewish aerospace STEM community.

Our passion for aerospace STEM science and engineering education can be seen in the programs and curricular content that we have developed over the years. In 2019, Melinda founded the Milton aerospace camp, and Chaya joined in 2020. Over the past few years, Chaya and Melinda have worked together to develop a unique curriculum integrating Jewish concepts and tradition. Some examples include the Jewish signs of the zodiac and the Rosh Chodesh moon cycle.

Last summer, we brought the aerospace camp program to the Brawerman East Jewish Day Camp in Los Angeles, and we are working on expanding it to other Jewish day camps, internationally. Two years ago, we presented our students’ work at the annual Explore Mars, Humans to Mars DC conference.

Thanks to Melinda connections, astronaut Jeff Hoffman recently led Milton students on a private tour of the NASA Goddard satellite clean room building facility, followed by a private screening of the “Space Torah” documentary created by producer Rachel Raz, featuring Jeff’s incredible space career and how he celebrated his Jewish tradition by spinning a dreidel in space and reading from a Torah. We were joined by a movie producer of Space Torah, a children’s author and NASA administrator Charlie Bolden. 

As part of our core mission to connect student learning to Jewish tradition, we participate in an annual Holy Space Challenge run by the Israeli-based aerospace STEM program “Out of the Box.” Students select a ritual Jewish object to bring with them to space as an astronaut, just like Jeff Hoffman did on his space missions. 


In late October, our school took in some Israeli students who came to the US for a break from the intense war environment. Over the December break, Chaya visited the class of her Israeli student who had returned. The second-grade class participated in a Mars helicopter lesson and activity, with the students literally jumping off their desks to launch their helicopters. 

When Chaya returned, Melinda came up with the idea to create a STEM Aerospace Israel Camp for the summer of 2024 to help provide Israeli children affected by the war with a fun aerospace experience. Thanks to Milton’s generosity in sponsoring flights and helping to coordinate the program, the camp is taking place. 

If you are interested in learning more, please reach out to [email protected] or [email protected].

Learning to Listen Made Me a Better Teacher

Danielle Rose Smith, Fourth-Grade Teacher, The Ramaz School, New York City

“Would you like me to scribe for you?” I asked one of my fourth-grade students.

Pausing for a moment, my student responded: “[I know] it will be quicker if you write; but if you give me time, I'd like to write it myself.”

The student’s reaction proved to be an epiphany in my 13-year teaching career. It wasn’t because his response was particularly unexpected or profound. Instead, it may have been the first time I truly listened with curiosity rather than listening to respond. 

Before learning the art of intentional listening—thanks to the support of my school, Ramaz, which nominated me to participate in the teacher leadership master’s program at Brandeis University—I would mostly listen to check my students’ understanding, identify misconceptions, track their skill acquisition and meaning making. I used to think that “it was enough” for me to acknowledge their ability to express understanding of what was learned in class, and then encourage them to dictate that to me.

One of my professors assigned an article on “intentional listening,” and it catalyzed a mindset overhaul—specifically, in the way I listen to the words my students say. Laura Baecher, associate professor in the School of Education at Hunter College, observes, “When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life.” 

Up until this point in my professional career, my listening was primarily focused on judging the gap between a student’s response and the preconceived “right” answer. 

Once I began listening to my students with an “open” ear, however, I “heard” what they were telling me in both their answers and questions. I suppressed my inclination to qualify their “correctness” or guide them to a predetermined “right” way of answering; then and only then was I able to embark on the journey of “intentional listening.” 

This has transformed the way I interact with my students.

Danielle Smith

“Would you like me to scribe for you,” was one of the well-intended questions I asked my young student, who presented as struggling with the physical act of writing and organizing his ideas on the page. He demonstrated strong inferential comprehension skills in discussions, but his written responses were not to the same caliber. 

 “I got this,” I thought to myself. Soon enough, I was offering to scribe his ideas as he dictated. 

But something got lost in my well-meaning process. His syntax, his punctuation, as well as his writing were no longer authentically his; it was mine. I had never asked my student what the experience of writing was really like for him. I formulated my “reply” to my perception of his problem without giving him agency in his own learning experience. 

Then, I asked my student the question, “How does it feel for you to express your reading comprehension in writing,” and I did something radical: I actually listened to his answer. 

If I’m being completely honest, I don’t really like doing that kind of stuff (responding to reading comprehension questions). Depends how much time you give me to write it down what I think because if you give me time, that’s gonna matter so I can write it neatly. So, I can read what I’m actually doing. When I saw the things that you gave back to my parents from parent conferences, I realized that, wait, is that mine? Because I couldn’t believe that if I could focus a lot and have time, then I could actually have good handwriting, and I was so proud of myself for what I wrote.

Once I intentionally listened to my student, once I stopped churning the cogs of intervention design on the premise that I knew him better than he knew himself, once I listened with curiosity; a world of opportunity opened. I became acutely aware of the power of listening: “What is my student telling me about his capabilities, his interests, his strengths, his learning style?” I learned to ask myself: “What can I learn from my student’s words to help empower him in his own learning journey?” 

The study and application of intentional listening has infused new energy into my practice as an educator, a mentor and even as a friend. Listening has become a powerful tool to help my students feel they are seen, needed and heard. Only when I intentionally listen do I learn that students want to be masters of their own learning. 

As Roy T. Bennett, author of The Light in the Heart, powerfully writes, “The greatest problem with communication is we don’t listen to understand. We listen to reply. When we listen with curiosity, we don’t listen to reply. We listen for what’s behind the words.”

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Jewish Educator Pipeline
Spring 2024
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