We’ve known for far too long that America’s teachers are overworked, underpaid and burned out, tending to our kids all day and grading papers all night. And, of course, the Covid-19 pandemic damaged teacher morale even further, leading us now to a teacher shortage of about 36,000.
Something substantial must be done, and I believe this should start with the American Teacher Act, a recent call to make teachers’ salaries nationwide a minimum of $60,000 per year, with adjustments for inflation. It is clear to us that teachers are among our most important professionals, and keeping the best-qualified individuals in the field requires that we treat them as such.
Naturally, teachers in some areas need to be paid more than this, and in union-strengthened states like New York they already are, but other states, such as Mississippi, where the base salary for teachers is just $46,862, need to be brought up to a minimum national standard. In one school district near my hometown of Phoenix, the average teacher is paid only $37,012.
How can we expect our teachers — whom we hire to inspire and mentor our children — to live their fullest lives, with families and their basic needs taken care of, if this is the salary we expect them to live on? At this rate, we are effectively asking teachers to work other jobs on the side, saying our kids are not worthy of their full attention and our teachers are not worthy of focusing on their true calling.
Imagine getting up early in the morning, caring for 30 children all day and coming home not knowing how you’re going to buy your own children dinner, with next month’s rent right around the corner.
This is asking for a disaster society-wide if we do not rethink our priorities, and those of us in the Jewish world should know as well as anyone. It is taught in the Jerusalem Talmud:
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai taught: If you see towns which have been uprooted from their original location in the Land of Israel, you should know that the inhabitants did not faithfully pay the fee of their scribes and teachers. (Hagiga 1:71)
So too, the Sefer HaChinuch cites from the Babylonian Talmud:
Communities everywhere have an obligation to appoint teachers for their children. A city without school children will be destroyed. (Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 419; Bava Batra 21a)
The Talmud elsewhere (Sanhedrin 17b) teaches that one of the 10 essential things required in a city for a scholar to move there, in addition to a doctor and a court, is a teacher of children. Presumably if there is a teacher shortage then the wages must be increased to be sure students always have access to the full educational support they need.
In regards to teacher strikes, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef argued that they are forbidden because the teachers are preventing learning (Yachaveh Da’at 4:48). On the other hand, Rabbi Chaim David Halevy argued that those paying the teachers have responsibility for the lack of learning happening, in a teacher strike (Aseh Lecha Rav 3:23). Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch further taught that the needs of teachers must be met (Teshuvot veHanhagot 3:473).
Yes, giving teachers a livable wage is of practical benefit, but we should also see it as a spiritual enterprise. We should see it as a religious duty today to make sure that teachers have high morale, that they feel they are treated well and have their basic needs met and exceeded. We don’t just need our teachers to survive — we need them to be fulfilled, for their sake and the world’s.
The ethic that we have cherished in our Jewish communities for thousands of years can now be extended beyond Torah learning and beyond private Jewish day schools toward secular public schools as well. This is what it means to be a responsible citizen wherever we live, to respect the role of teachers, to value the development of all children whoever they are.
We learn from Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers,
Let the honor of your student be as dear to you as your own, and the honor of your colleague as the reverence for your teacher, and the reverence for your teacher as the reverence of heaven. (4:12)
As Jews, we find that every day is an opportunity to successfully live out our values. We should all be in agreement that letting our nation’s schools, at best, scrape by is not something we can abide by.