By Susan Kardos

In a recent eJP post, Dr. Erica Brown gracefully laid out an 18-point agenda for Jewish education. Among the important ideas she put forth was the idea that “We need more great teachers. And we need to celebrate the ones we have.”

The research is unequivocal: teachers and teaching matter most. Great teachers enable high student achievement, and great teachers make great schools.

Jewish day schools are filled with knowledgeable, creative, and inspiring teachers. But we need more. And there are forces that are keeping top talent out of Jewish day school classrooms – low pay and prestige, the demands of the job, family obligations, lack of opportunities for career advancement, and increasing job opportunities for women outside of schools (the best of whom used to go into teaching). In addition, those who come into teaching often leave prematurely (perhaps to re-enter after their children are older or perhaps never to return) or switch to schools where working conditions, professional culture, and pay are better and challenges and pressures of the job are fewer.

What do Jewish day school teachers really want? I think they want, more or less, what all teachers want. They want a combination of the extrinsic and intrinsic rewards that, on balance, make the effort worthwhile and provide enough incentive and reward:

  • First and foremost, they want to be able to do their best work and have success with their students; they want to “make a difference” in the education and lives of young people.
  • They want fair pay and extra pay for extra work.
  • They want opportunities to learn and grow.
  • They want supportive contexts, colleagues, and mentors.

For these, they need the working conditions, instructional leadership, and resources that are most conducive to good teaching, teacher learning, and teacher job satisfaction.

It would be tempting to rely on knee-jerk instincts about how to reward or “celebrate”/“appreciate” teachers more. Merit pay or performance bonuses are ideas often heard in the boardroom when the topic comes up. I maintain that such programs are highly problematic in Jewish day school education where (1) student outcomes are hard to measure and harder to tie directly to a particular teacher, (2) schools value academic content and skills in general studies and Jewish studies, and they also value social-emotional outcomes, identity development, spiritual development, and the development of beliefs and commitments – also hard to measure (3) schools work best for a student when teachers collaborate and take collective responsibility for the success of all students, and teacher bonuses would undermine that.

So yes, Jewish day school teacher salaries need to be fair and, on the whole, comparable to salaries in other competing sectors. They need to respond to market forces: teachers in shortage areas may need to be paid more, or a school that consistently loses its best candidates to a nearby public or private school may need to be more competitive on salary or other benefits.

But we shouldn’t overlook the importance of the intrinsic rewards that drove young, talented, energetic educators into Jewish day school classrooms in the first place. If the budget and longer-term financial and enrollment forecast allows, by all means, pay teachers more. But know that they are likely never going to get what they truly deserve. So in the meantime, who is doing what to make Jewish day schools the best places to work in all of the Jewish community or in all of the education sector? In what ways are schools optimizing the possibility that teachers have what they need to succeed with their students? In what ways are schools places of continuous growth, collegiality, and collaboration? In what ways are schools set up to maximize teacher autonomy, creativity, and career advancement? The answers to these questions will determine whether Jewish day schools attract and keep the best teachers; Jewish day school teachers fulfill their dreams for their career in Jewish education; and Jewish day school students get the teachers they need and deserve.

Susan Kardos is Senior Director, Strategy & Education Planning at The AVI CHAI Foundation. Her views have their grounding in her classroom teaching experience and her training as an education policy researcher.

Cross-posted on the AVI CHAI Foundation blog.