OpinionSchools & Higher Education

Building a stronger teacher pipeline for day schools and yeshivahs

Educators don’t just spring up but must first have fertile soil, so we need to create the best environment for them to grow.

A group of children with backpacks walk along the school corridor. Credit: Orion Production/Shutterstock.
A group of children with backpacks walk along the school corridor. Credit: Orion Production/Shutterstock.
Sharon Freundel. Credit: Courtesy.
Sharon Freundel
Sharon Freundel is managing director of the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge.
Marc Wolf. Credit: Courtesy.
Marc Wolf
Marc Wolf is chief program and strategy officer at Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools.

At Prizmah and Jewish Education Innovation Challenge (JEIC), we hold two central beliefs about our Jewish day schools and yeshivahs: Jewish day-school education is valuable, if not critical, for a strong Jewish present and future; and the strength of Jewish education in day schools is built on a strong foundation of talented, trained and dedicated educators, who are steeped in the content they are teaching and their pedagogies.

For our collective investment in the vibrancy of Jewish life, we believe that the strength of Jewish education will ultimately sustain North American Jewish life and contribute to world Jewry.

As we recently learned in our communal educational seminar known as the Passover seder, in every generation we must see ourselves as if we ourselves have left Egypt. Each generation revisits the Exodus and not just tells the story, but experiences the wonders and the struggles of previous generations.

In every generation, Jewish communal leaders ring the alarm bells that we are not doing enough to ensure that we have a strong pipeline of talent. And in every generation, we learn from that history and develop new responses to the Jewish educator challenge. What ideas and learnings can we revisit from the previous generation? How does our current context change our proposed solutions? What will be our call to action?

A partnership for progress

Prizmah and the JEIC joined forces over the 18 months to explore just this question. We launched a think tank and gathered 25 Jewish day-school stakeholders—educators, funders and other Jewish professionals—and convened six working groups. These groups were tasked with assessing the current state of the teaching pipeline, exploring realistic options to address the problem and drafting a handful of high-impact initiatives. Aside from the two main deliverables—a summary report and a playbook for possible projects (to be released soon)—we surfaced some principles that everyone in Jewish day schools, including faculty members, parents, lay leadership and donors, should understand in order to address the issue of lack of trained and dedicated educators. 

We use a number of metaphors when discussing the educator pipeline. Rona Novick, dean of the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education at Yeshiva University and a member of the working group, speaks often about “growing the garden” of educators. We need to recognize that educators don’t just spring up but must first have fertile soil, and so, we need to create the best environment for them to grow. Care in planting seeds and nourishing growth comes well before we can expect fully grown educators.

That set the context for where our work on the pipeline began. We believe that the pipeline starts by identifying potential talent in their youth—in high schools, youth groups, camps and other early pipeline environments. Early Pipeline became the first of six committees described in the “Report on the Prizmah-JEIC Educator Pipeline Working Group.” Four of the core pillars focused on training and careers are recruitment and training; creating the environment for success; ongoing development and learning; and investing in the career arc of a Jewish day-school educator. Each one was its own committee.

Our sixth and last committee focused on elevating the profile of Jewish day-school educators, the foundation on which we believed that any initiative will succeed or fail. Conversations in this committee ranged from compensation and benefits to respect, work-life balance, working environment and our communal conversations of how we talk about our teachers and educators. Not surprisingly, many of these areas are ones that impact teacher retention in schools.

Once we had mapped out the scope of our work through our definition of the pipeline, we brainstormed a list of thought partners to invite. We looked to and beyond the 300-plus Jewish day schools and yeshivahs that make up the Prizmah Network in North America. These were easy to identify because discussions about the educator pipeline were happening around all of their tables.

We had been hearing many thoughtful, engaging and creative parallel conversations in different areas of the field, without solid coordination or the benefit of the collective wisdom and knowledge. This lack of coordinated response could run the risk of duplication of effort on many fronts, including programmatic and philanthropic. Our premise is that if we can link the silos, then we can better address the shared need for trained and dedicated teachers.

Ultimately, we believe that the educator pipeline issue is so pervasive and complex that no single school or organization can address it alone. Some have tried raising wages, offering incentives such as housing and moving costs, or by providing free undergraduate or graduate education to their teachers. Nonetheless, localized success can be scaled; good ideas can be replicated in other schools and communities; and we can learn from each other and from what has and hasn’t worked.

In his keynote at the 2019 Prizmah Conference, educational guru George Couros said that “the smartest person in the room is the room.” This became our mantra for building this Educator Pipeline Working Group. We began to imagine the home runs we might be able to hit were we to have a full team roster. Working together, we can accomplish exponentially more than we are accomplishing individually.

This means not only inviting in but enfranchising the vast array of professionals and lay leaders from Jewish day schools and other Jewish communal organizations and educational institutions; foundations and federations; higher education and training programs; professional development providers; academics; researchers; and adjacent sectors that influence and contribute to the Jewish day-school educator pipeline.

Leading the charge

JEIC and Prizmah began this process by convening thinkers for our working groups from different demographics of Jewish day-school stakeholders. The collaboration was rich and robust, and we now have proof of concept that we can all work together in a productive and thoughtful manner.

Granted, this was a “think tank” rather than a “do tank,” and we have a great deal of work ahead to pilot and implement any of the initiatives that the brain trust developed. We know that the issue of recruiting and retaining top-notch teachers will not be solved tomorrow; we need to commit ourselves to stay the course for the long haul.

Through publishing our deliverables, the working group hopes to begin conversations in schools, communities and throughout North America both to galvanize partnerships and to inspire funders, school and community leaders to seed new initiatives to advance the pipeline of Jewish day-school and yeshivah educators.

We can only begin to imagine the paradigms that will emerge to recruit, train and retain teachers. Only by exploring new ways to work together—often interrogating previously held beliefs and structures—can we make the most promising investments in our collective future: the educators who teach the next generation of students.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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