By Simon Caplan

In another article on this blog former British Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks writes:

The Egyptians built pyramids, the Greeks built temples, the Romans built amphitheaters. Jews built schools. They knew that to defend a country you need an army, but to defend a civilization you need education. So Jews became the people whose heroes were teachers, whose citadels were schools, and whose passion was study and the life of the mind

So Jews became the people whose teachers were their heroes? Arguably this might have been true for most of Jewish history, perhaps up to emancipation. Sadly, and in spite of massive investment in the institutions of Jewish education, it is clearly untrue today. We still build amazing schools, many with cutting-edge educational technology and opulent campuses. But we invested less in what transforms infrastructure into inspiration – the educator. (Please note that I define the parameters of educator broadly to include all forms of formal and informal education, and that my frame of reference as Education Director for the Pincus Fund and as a result of professional experience is primarily the Jewish world beyond the USA).

If we are to make Judaism a compelling part of life’s journey for young people then it is the educator as role model, and not bricks and mortar or unmediated technology, which remains the linchpin.

To be a Jewish educator today is, in general, and I am sorry to say it, to be in the minor leagues in our collective communal psyche. Perhaps with a nod in the direction of declarative praise, it is only the few – and those mostly from the orthodox religious sector – who would swell with pride in referencing “my son the teacher”. And this is not to cast aspersions on our current educators. Some bring not merely dedication but even brilliance to an increasingly complex profession that demands no less skill and dexterity than that of law or medicine.

Is it all about the money? Is it merely tilting at windmills to even think we could return to the ‘teachers are our heroes’ age? Let’s face it, more or less globally, teaching is among the poorest remunerated of the traditional professions? What kind of strategy could possibly challenge the force of the market?

A conundrum. I have encountered, many times in many places and in different generations, a significant number of youth-movement, and even more strikingly student organizational, leadership who ARE potential major league players and who DO, at that formative period in life, feel inspired to enter a career that gives them the opportunity to impact on the lives of young people. But, on the whole, and with few exceptions, that changes and dissipates as the game of life is overtaken by the concrete challenge to succeed. The question is, is there any way we can tap into that motivation and create a tipping point that encourages a larger percentage of this pool of talent to enter the profession. And then can we create a professional environment that encourages them make a career in Jewish education?

This is the challenge with which some Funds, including the Pincus Fund, are beginning to grapple. Frankly, to a certain degree it IS about the money, and if communal leaders and benefactors had had the foresight to invest even a small percentage in teachers from the funds raised for capital projects, it might have made a significant difference in combatting the collective communal psyche.

But there is more to it than that. How do we, as a people whose teachers WERE our heroes, and notwithstanding the negative impact of worldwide undervaluing of the education profession, chip away at the challenge in a coherent and multi-facetted way.

What might be some of the components? What could we realistically do to create a paradigm shift? Here are a few suggestions gleaned from projects in which the Pincus Fund is involved.

  1. The pathway to the profession. At least beyond the USA and Israel, Jewish education lacks the sense of being a profession. Professional pre-service training and accreditation is key in this respect. How can you equate Jewish education to law or medicine when the entry level training threshold is so low? The Pincus Fund has recently supported a small portfolio of projects – in Mexico, Uruguay, the UK, and Russia – whose aim is to raise the bar and thus nurture and deepen in the communal psyche that Jewish education is a specialist skill requiring specialist training. This effort could be ‘internationalized’ to impact on both quality and communal perception.
  2. Building both national and a global community of professionals. Reducing isolation and building a sense that, as a Jewish educator, one becomes part of a supportive learning community may be as important as financial reward. In terms of retention and reducing burn-out it is essential. In terms of attracting the brightest and best into the profession it certainly cannot hurt to have more intellectually, socially and emotionally satisfied practitioners as its advocates. In this vein, the Pincus Fund has recently supported the creation of national teacher networks based on combinations of specialist digital platforms and face-to-face time, in Brazil, Germany and the FSU. And on the global stage, the Fund will shortly launch a specialist Jewish educator, global job search engine to allow employers and potential employees to find each other, and extend their horizons as to the range of opportunities to carve out a satisfying career. In this vein I should mention recent research sponsored by the Fund, and addressed in another post on this blog, which examines the potential for, and issues surrounding, the ‘transnational Jewish educator’ in the Latin American context.
  3. Expanding opportunities for professional and personal growth, and sideways as well as upward career progression. Jewish educator, job or career? This factor affects, among other things, parental approval or pressure on those same motivated and talented young people mentioned above, when they reach the threshold of actually having to find employment. Can a young person, whose heart tells him/her to be an educator, back that up with justification that this is truly a career for a lifetime? This in itself is a complex issue. Even within the teaching profession itself career advancement generally requires a move OUT of the classroom and into management. Expanding the range of opportunities for promotion which allow the young educator to develop his/her career without having to leave the classroom must be part of the required paradigm shift. One such avenue in which the Fund is investing currently is that of Mentoring. Others may include lead teacher roles and so on.
  4. Ennobling and enriching the profession. The Jewish educator is not, and probably never will be, a wealthy professional. But this does not prevent us as a people from rewarding outstanding teachers in other ways. Providing opportunities to broaden horizons by system sponsored participation in appropriate conferences and seminars beyond the educator’s specific local context is one approach. This could allow educational institutions and community leaders to show their appreciation for serious professionals, upgrade skills and knowledge, strengthen motivation and send a message to young people that this IS a profession where professional and personal growth is valued and enabled by the system. The Pincus Fund currently supports a collaborative project among day schools in Uruguay incorporating this element and other possibilities are being considered in the same vein.

“My son the teacher,” may require a significant culture shift within and stretching beyond the Jewish community. To get back to ‘teachers are our heroes’ may take a generation or two – or three. We may need to think within and outside the box. But try we must, or resign ourselves to having created magnificent Jewish edifices to provide mediocre Jewish education.

Simon Caplan is Director of Education at The Pincus Fund for Jewish Education.