Who will pay our teachers?
Here’s the good news: all of the participants of the Pardes Day School Educators Program — a unique pre-service teacher training program at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies that I have the honor to direct — who graduated, and were on the job market this past spring got multiple offers and took positions about which they were excited and passionate.
Here’s the great news: most of them negotiated for starting salaries of about $65,000. That is unprecedented in a field where novice teachers are generally offered $50,000 or less per year.
Here’s the bad news: I believe that that higher average amount is a complete anomaly.
Let’s back up and start this story again.
There has never been a more glaring scarcity of Jewish Studies teachers in day schools. Last March, an esteemed group of Jewish educational leaders, members of the Association of Directors of Communal Agencies for Jewish Education, published a piece in eJewish Philanthropy entitled, “Who Will Teach Our Children and Grandchildren?” They wrote about the very real teacher shortage that is affecting Jewish institutions, such as day schools, congregational schools, and early childhood centers. They asked:
What can we do to find solutions to this crisis? How might we as a Jewish community work together to ensure that there will be well-trained and inspiring teachers to teach our children and grandchildren?
At the time, I predicted that within a decade from now, many schools will have fewer than half the number of Jewish Studies teachers needed to teach our young learners the content, skills, and relevance of Jewish text, culture, lifecycle, and values. From whence this prediction?
Every single day, for months at a time each year, during the “season,” as I like to call it, my team and I receive emails and phone calls from day schools and supplementary schools, asking us to recommend a teacher to teach fifth-grade Tanakh/middle school Rabbinics/11th-grade Jewish history/teens Israel-education course/second-grade Jewish Studies.
Take your pick. It’s every single day. The schools are desperate for candidates for these positions. In May, we received an email from a very well-respected day school asking if we could recommend someone for a particular position, for which they had not one candidate, despite having publicized the position in all of the right places.
There is a pipeline, in potential. As the Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education (CASJE) has shown, there are institutions doing the holy work of training Jewish educators both pre- and in-service, and doing it very well. Including my own institution.
But herein lies the problem: young people do not want to even consider a career in which, after graduating with a masters degree from a prestigious program, they can expect to be offered less than $50,000 a year in a major city. Where, after four years of teaching, they can’t hope to earn more than $60,000 in a town where, in order to thrive, one needs a salary of $95,000.
What’s the point? If they want to be Jewish educators, and do not feel the need to stay in the day school world, they can earn upwards of $80,000 in national organizations without the masters or certificate. Or they can leave the field altogether.
I make sure to keep careful records of what teachers are offered for their first teaching jobs, what they are able to negotiate for, and, when I can, I check in with a sample size of alums a few years later to find out where they are at, salary-wise. I also keep track of what experiential educators at different organizations can expect to earn in their first jobs.
And this is a painful thing. I spend my life trying to convince people to become Jewish educators, especially day school teachers. I believe with all my heart, from all my experience, that maintaining good Jewish day schools with excellent Jewish studies teachers is a vitally important part of a thriving Jewish world. But when alumni who are working as teachers, long-time teachers, tell me that they are struggling, that they just can’t make it work, that they just don’t want to make it work anymore, I cannot in good conscience push them to stay in the field.
Would I advise my own child to stay in a field that won’t pay them anything near what they are worth? Would I try to convince my own child to stay in a field that doesn’t allow them to go on vacations like others do, to send their kids to summer camp like others do, to buy houses like others do, to easily enroll their own children in their own day schools? I would not. I could not.
And now, to the anomaly of 2022. I submit that this past year, the situation became so difficult for some schools, that they were willing to pay excellent candidates an average of $65,000 per annum. I would add that I heard from one administrator how inappropriate they felt teacher candidates were acting, pitting different schools against each other in order to negotiate up. I absolutely sympathize with that administrator and the schools themselves; they don’t (all) have the money to pay their new teachers $65,000! And a moment of desperation — getting their boards to agree to such salaries — cannot keep repeating itself every year. Hence, my prediction of 2022 as an anomalous year, vis-à-vis salaries.
As such, what I know for sure is that we cannot afford to simply ask, “Who will teach our children and grandchildren?” We must ask instead: Who will pay teachers to teach our children and grandchildren?
I put it to you here. I believe that if starting teachers would earn $70,000, and could expect pay raises accordingly over the years, we would have a pool of candidates for teacher training, and then for the positions our schools are so desperate to fill.
In 1999, Birthright Israel was launched. Over the past 23 years, hundreds of millions of dollars have been put towards this hugely important endeavor. A fraction of that amount, if put towards the salaries of day school, supplementary, and early childhood teachers, could solve this crisis. And change the field of day school teaching to one of prestige and aspiration, rather than scarcity and avoidance.
Today, I put out the call to our communities’ funders, and ask once again:
Who will pay teachers to teach our children and grandchildren?
This article appears in the fall issue on day school affordability of Prizmah’s journal, HaYidion.