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On being a teacher

The broken education system in the US in having a negative existential impact on the Jewish people, but there are ways to fix it

As we began wrapping up our lives here in Atlanta upon completing two years of shlichut — as a teacher in a Jewish day school and working in the community — and begin our journey home this summer, I was given cause to reflect on my calling as a teacher. In one of the several farewell gatherings arranged in our honor by the wonderful people of this community, the head of the school, who has been my boss for the past two years, read aloud the following passage from the Jewish thinker who  has perhaps influenced me the most, Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks:

For Jews, education is not just what we know. It’s who we are. No people ever cared for education more. Our ancestors were the first to make education a religious command, and the first to create a compulsory universal system of schooling – eighteen centuries before Britain. The rabbis valued study as higher even than prayer. Almost 2,000 years ago, Josephus wrote: “Should anyone of our nation be asked about our laws, he will repeat them as readily as his own name. The result of our thorough education in our laws from the very dawn of intelligence is that they are, as it were, engraved on our souls.” The Egyptians built pyramids, the Greeks built temples, the Romans built amphitheatres. Jews built schools. They knew that to defend a country you need an army, but to defend a civilisation 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.

He suggested that I was just such a Jewish hero, by simply being a teacher. He couldn’t have found a greater compliment if he had tried (I suspect he realized this and chose his quote well). During my time as a student teacher in London, many moons ago, as part of my post-graduate studies in education, Clive Lawton, the world-renowned master educator, was invited to address my cohort of trainee teachers. He asked us to spend a moment and try to calculate how many people had been appointed in some way as educators (in the widest sense of the term) in our lives. Without too much difficulty, many in the group arrived at enormous numbers ranging between 50 and 250 people. On average we decided it was in the region of between 100 and 150. He then asked us to consider how many of those had had a life-changing impact on us. Many could think of four or five, some could not mention even one. I had three educators in my life whose impact on me could be described as “life-changing.” He described his enduring search as a head of a school to find and employ the teachers that could have that kind of impact, and urged us as student teachers to consider how we could have that kind of  an impact on our students. We all realized at that time both the difficulty of the task ahead of us, and its importance.

Children in a classroom in Jerusalem (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Children in a classroom in Jerusalem (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

I don’t know if there are Jewish kids out there who would think of me if asked to do the same exercise, and I don’t much care. Every teacher has that potential, and on some level I believe achieves this goal, whether the student remembers it 15 or 20 years down the line or not. But I believe the profound impact the exercise had on me (to the extent that I can clearly remember it like it was yesterday, while I find it difficult to remember anything else that I learned that year — I mean, can you really be taught how to be a teacher?) was in the realization of just how high the stakes were in my newly chosen profession.

If there is one thing I have learned in my American adventure over the last two years, it is how frighteningly expensive Jewish education is, and how it seems to this non-financially minded educator and parent that the model of the Jewish day school in the US is economically unsustainable. Very early on in our sojourn here we realized that our new friends, who come from very similar religious and socio-economic backgrounds to us, were choosing to have smaller families than our friends in Israel. And the reason, as many of them were forthright in informing us, was that they simply cannot afford to educate more than three children. How heartbreaking. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I quickly realized this broken system was having an existential impact on the Jewish people.

Yet, despite the astronomical cost of Jewish education for the parent, I am dismayed to find out that teachers in the US are still significantly underpaid, whether we are judging based on their education, how hard they work, or their contribution to society. Rarely a day goes by when I don’t spend time feeling frustrated that I have close friends, who showed just as much talent for education as I did when we were all youth leaders together, yet decided to spurn my glorious profession to find financial security in less meaningful work. I spent more years educating myself, and, frankly, I believe I contribute much more to society, yet I get paid a fraction of my friends who are lawyers, bankers, computer engineers, etc. etc. To echo the findings of the 2004 Dovrat Commission, since then condemned to oblivion by Israel’s powerful teachers’ unions, in order to ensure higher quality education we have to ensure high quality teachers, and we do that by firing poor teachers and rewarding good ones with higher pay. If the free market cannot ensure this, then government must step in.

Now, granted, I was brought up in Britain, and have chosen to bring my children up in Israel, two countries that because of a refusal to separate religion and state, despite all the obvious democratic benefits, can provide state-supported religious education. (They also provide free healthcare, and that was another rude awakening we received when we landed on the shores of the goldene medina.) And not wanting to get involved in the size of government debate in a US election year (mainly because I don’t have the political brain for it, the necessary knowledge of the constitutional system, or, to be honest, any concern for US politics), I cannot fathom why the US Jewish leadership, with all of its political clout and concern for the good of the Jewish people, has not found a way of bringing pressure to bear on Washington to move toward the UK model of state-aided religious education. For 14 years of day school education, my parents were asked for a “voluntary contribution” to cover the cost of the Judaics instruction (less than $5,000 a year). In all other ways, I received a public school education — in a Jewish day school.

Dr. Jonathan Mirvis argues in a recent opinion piece that free education is a civic right and a social responsibility, and he extends that argument to Jewish education. I am arguing that Jewish teachers deserve to be paid in a way that is commensurate with their education and value to society. If the free market cannot provide for both of these calls, then it is the responsibility of the government to foot the bill, however high that price may be. Because the stakes are high, and it is society itself they will be paying for.

About the Author
Father of 4 beautiful children. Husband to Wonderwoman. Modern Orthodox Zionist Educator with a newly acquired Ph.D. Made aliyah in 1999. Recently returned from shlichut in Atlanta, GA. Arsenal in the blood. Marathon runner. Champion of the Average!