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Will the Personnel Crisis in Our Day Schools/Yeshivot Change the Narrative?

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Over the past several decades, the Jewish Day School and Yeshiva community, irrespective of philosophy, have experienced impressive accomplishments, unsurpassed in US history.

These milestones include significant pupil enrollment growth, the incredible expansion of innovative and creative teaching approaches and curricula, increased public awareness and visibility,  and,  the expansion of innovative teacher pre-service and inservice teacher training and leadership development opportunities. These monumental  accomplishments are accented by a  growing body of research which demonstrates the long and short term positive impact of this institution on adult jewish literacy, communal involvement and family values and behavior.

What began as a bold Jewish communal experiment at the turn of the century in America, has now evolved into a dynamic and powerful force and institution – impacting millions of Jewish families and communities around the world. To be sure, the Yeshiva and Jewish Day School enterprise today represents one of the most successful phenomena in American Jewish life. Its growth, development and impact have surpassed its founder’s wildest dreams and aspirations…..as it has given birth to an entire generation of Jewishly knowledgeable and committed members of our jewish community, in addition to the spread  Jewish scholarship and the pursuit of Jewish learning and living throughout the world.

As we document, promote and celebrate this impressive growth, we are also challenged to ensure this institution’s financial sustainability, vitality and viability. Today’s impressive  and expansive Jewish day school and yeshiva community  is indeed blessed with tremendous success and accomplishments. It is a narrative of inspiration, passion, grit, and vision. But, we must also be mindful and cognizant that this amazing  growth is peppered with cautious reminders that it is currently being challenged regarding the temporary nature and fragility of this success.

One needs only to recall the daunting impact of the economic meltdown of 2007-09 on the viability and stability of our day schools, or the lingering effect of our recent pandemic on student learning and teacher effectiveness. These are but two examples of how fragile and vulnerable our institutions are and how these events can change the Day School/Yeshiva narrative overnight, in a split second.

Another emerging and significant phenomenon impacting the stability and effectiveness of our Day Schools and Yeshivot is our growing personnel crisis.

As we know, high quality teaching personnel hold the key to effective education. This is not a catch-praze of buzz-word metaphor…… but rather a truism which must be taken very seriously. The absence of quality teachers has a devastating and debilitating impact on the quality of education – Judaic and Secular. In fact, the lack of high quality teaching personnel has already created a crisis of epic proportion in our schools.

Never in my thirty-plus years of experience in education have I witnessed such a profound and daunting dearth of quality teachers or senior administrators. This reality is a monumental challenge which is slowly changing the Jewish day school and yeshiva narrative; and must be addressed at all cost. In fact, unless we find ways of responding effectively to this ever-evolving personnel crisis, the viability, impact and effectiveness of our days schools will be in peril.

In addition to the current teacher shortage, our schools are in dire need of senior professional leadership – principles, heads of school, department heads, etc….many of whom are now retiring or are just not prepared to undertake the leadership challenges required of the job.

This past month alone, I know of at least eight major Jewish day schools and yeshivot that were  searching for experienced and seasoned heads of school and principals.  Many of these executive search processes are unfortunately still active, with very few prospects for filling these vacancies as we approach the end of the school year. This reality is once again not sustainable and in dire need of solutions.

As baby-boomers approach retirement from  current day school leadership posts, the search for high quality replacement  candidates are virtually non-existent. Potential candidates for these jobs are either too young and inexperienced to assume current senior day school leadership roles and responsibilities, and/or they were never exposed to the wide array of hands-on educational leadership experiences required for the job.

All of these challenges are further exacerbated by the lack of financial resources required  to attract and retain high quality teachers and experienced  administrators in a day school system in dire need of personnel transitions and change.

In a brilliant 2005 essay written by Moshe Bane  (senior lay leader and President of the Orthodox Union) for Jewish Action Magazine, he details how our Jewish community must  come to the daunting reality that our educators who are about to retire, are not accorded a level of financial security upon their retirement commensurate with their dedication, passion and impact.  This of course leads to financial distress and  deprivation. He posits the all-to thought-provoking question “Jewish educators are preparing our children for their future; what preparation are being made for the future of the educators?”

Since 2005, there have in fact been a few attempts to provide pensions and modest retirement incentives to educators. But in reality, these initiatives have not expanded nor have they made a measurable impact on teacher recruitment and retention.

To be fair, over the past several years, select day schools and yeshivas (in partnership with the philanthropic community)  have in fact  undertaken a variety of  select responses –  from  leadership  in-service training to new teacher coaching and mentoring programs; from significant “sign-on” bonuses to special conference allowances and sabbaticals.  Unfortunately, all of this is happening while national and local graduate training programs are shrinking or disappearing and as fewer and fewer young folks are opting to pursue careers in Jewish education. And all the while, our day school personnel needs and requirements continue to  significantly surpass  personnel availability.  Not a great prognosis for the future.

If these trends continue, it is almost certain that the personnel condition in our schools will be devastating at best. This reality not only changes the day school/yeshiva narrative, but makes it virtually impossible for these institutions to attain levels of academic excellence in both limudei kodesh an chol.

As we know, it is easier to lead our schools when times are good and full of plenty. But, the true test of communal leadership is how we respond during times of need and crisis. This is indeed a time in our history when we cannot afford to be paralyzed, lest we lose an entire generation to mediocrity – a narrative which is scary, depressing and in most circles unacceptable,

This personnel crisis and other exigencies impacting today’s Jewish day school is already beginning to change the day school narrative – from one of growth, advancement and academic  excellence, to one which engenders  challenge and uncertainty. Not a promising formula for success or a prognosis for its future,

As we grapple with these realities, we must challenge ourselves to begin to aggressively exploring alternative creative approaches and responses to the personnel crisis.  If there was ever a time for out-of-the-box thinking….its now.

Many proposed  bold and strategic responses will require significantly more financial resources as well as a new mind-set or way of thinking.

Several short and long-range opportunities may include:

  • The creation of a nationally coordinated effort to identify, recruit and retain teacher retirees  or those  who are approaching retirement  with incentives to remain or consider reentry into the classroom. Many of these senior retirees already possess tremendous content and pedagogic skill and experience, but require an incentive in order to return to the classroom;
  • An accelerated teacher induction training program, complimented by significant one-one-on coaching, mentoring,  financial support and communal/public recognition;
  • Project Teacher-Share:  the sharing of Judaic and General Studies faculty and specialty teachers in order to help create more full-time employment opportunities and portfolios. This will hopefully result is teachers having access to more full-time teaching portfolios as they teach in multi-institutions that are in close geographical proximity;
  • The sharing of back-office administrative staff between schools in the areas of human resources, payroll administration, plant maintenance and the joint purchasing of supplies, consumables and curricular materials;
  • The creation of an accelerated intensive senior executive leadership training boot camp where novice and inexperienced administrators, prospective principals and heads of school are paired with senior c-suite executives with experience and expertise in nonprofit administration – especially in the areas of time management, performance assessment, program evaluation,  human resources, clinical supervision and community building;
  • The creation of student teacher internships were 11th and 12th grade students are placed in a pre-college prep program as Teacher Apprenticeship Fellows.

Long Term:

  • the establishment of an National health benefits insurance and pension reimbursement umbrella program, for all full time teachers (modeled after the Fund for Jewish Education in New YorK) ; the umbrella would also include pension investment opportunities, interest free loans; mortgage relief and tuition remission;
  • the establishment of a national  mega endowment fund for teacher growth and development. The fund would be created through the forging of new strategic partnerships between local federations, foundations, local and national philanthropic leadership, corporate sponsorships and venture capital investors;
  • the creation of a national marketing and promotion campaign that positions the role of the teacher in the community to the front and center of the communal agenda.
  • Second-Line Annual Federation Campaigns for Teacher Growth and Enrichment.
  •  Teacher exchange programs with English speaking teachers from Israel in the sciences, Judaics, and the arts.

Where Do We Go From Here?

A comprehensive Jewish communal response to the current personnel crisis in our day schools and yeshivot will demand a sense of communal urgency through the creation of a new narrative. This narrative must support the contention that in the absence of quality faculty and professional school leadership, our day schools and yeshivot will fail in their missions. They will not only fail our students and their families, but the very communities which created them. It’s just a matter of time. Unfortunately ,we run the risk of having all of the gains achieved by these institutions begin to fall into a state of academic mediocrity. Not an acceptable prospect.

Finally, it is so very difficult to create this sense of urgency while our schools are bursting at the seams with record-high increased student enrollments. But to quote a colleague,  “it is so ironic that now that we have the students, we do not have sufficient quality teachers to teach and inspire them”.  Bottom line….there is no way to compromise for a lack of high-quality faculty or school leadership.

This sad and daunting reality creates a “house of cards” just waiting to implode…..especially for the multitude of students and their families who are so dependent upon our schools to  inspire role models, teach Jewish knowledge and literacy, and  promote and instill Jewish values

My friends, we have a clear choice…..we can either accept the status quo as we experience academic mediocrity; and then anticipate the inevitable result of failure; or we can call for a Jewish communal revolution which places our Jewish educational personnel at the top of our agenda.

If we opt for the later, than I respectfully suggest that American Jewish communal leadership – lay, rabbinic and professional – use every resources at its disposal to improve and enhance our current state of Jewish day school personnel.

Our day school and yeshiva narrative must continue to promote academic excellence and growth. The only path forward for this narrative to be realized is through high quality teaching personnel and leadership. There is no alternative, there are no compromises.

It’s a communal imperative!

About the Author
Dr. Chaim Botwinick is currently Principal of the Hebrew Academy Community Day School in Margate FL and Executive Coach and Consultant. He served as president and CEO of the central agency for Jewish education in Baltimore and in Miami. He has published and lectured extensively on topics relating to education, strategic planing and leadership development. Dr. Botwinick is Author of “Think Excellence: Harnessing Your Power to Succeed Beyond Greatness”, Brown Books, 2011
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