November 2018: Leadership

Are We Our Teachers’ Keepers?

    RABBI PERRY TIRSCHWELL


We entered education because we love children. Whether there was a teacher who made a pivotal difference in your life and you want to pay it forward, you love a certain age group, or you found that you have a knack of explaining difficult concepts to others, you didn’t go into education because you want to work with adults. Most teachers have to summon up extraordinary emotional and mental energy to get through parent teacher conferences, and their hearts beat faster when they deal with their department chairs, APs, principals and head of school. They’re in their element with kids, but somewhat uneasy when dealing professionally with adults.
However, when you enter administration, you take on a new, additional focus- educating and caring for adults. Our teachers and staff are not just tools for us to impact children, they are also our students. When we hire a teacher or staffer, we’re not just filling an open slot in a lineup. We are taking on the responsibility to help this person grow and develop, just as if they were sitting before us in a student desk. A school administrator who views his or her role this way is someone people want to work for, and someone they will stay with longer.
I think that we need to run our schools as businesses, which have clear expectations for their employees, and consequences when these expectations are not met. However, well-run for-profit businesses are focused on keeping their employees healthy and happy. They understand that this translates into greater productivity and higher employee retention. Though the nature of school may not lend to flexible schedules, working from home, and extremely generous maternity leaves, there are relatively easy things that we can do to improve our teachers’ lives.
I believe that this responsibility extends to a number of arenas in a teacher’s life;
1. Paying Their Bills: I worked with a talented principal who had been trained by a head of school to pay teachers as little as she could get away with. School resources are tight, and like in any negotiation, the less we can pay, the better. Though I have the utmost respect for this school administrator, I suggested that she has to reorient her thinking. She is paid twice what the most senior teacher is paid, for arguably twice as much responsibility. We must care if our teachers are living in basement apartments with no potential way out. A teacher who doesn’t know how she is going to pay her power bill, rent or mortgage, can not give her all to her students, and likely cannot afford to stay on your faculty for long.
2. Physical Health: Our lifestyle of two large meals each weekend with traditional dishes (cholent, kugel) that certainly can in no way be construed as health food has its challenges. Having personally found exercise at age 45, I feel strongly that it is our job to encourage our faculty members to make diet and exercise a priority. Though it is an HR no-no for employers to comment on their employees’ weight, it is wholly appropriate for us to run greatest loser competitions, sponsor faculty members’ participation in marathons, or negotiate discounts for (or even subsidize) gym memberships.
3. Emotional Health: Life has its ups and downs. Marital, reproductive and child-rearing challenges, loss of loved ones, financial ups and downs- all of these can affect a teacher’s performance in and out of the classroom. I believe that it behooves us to speak to a faculty member who is clearly off his or her game. Sometimes our school’s mental health staff or a faculty member who has overcome a similar challenge can help. If not, give recommendations of counselors who may be of help, and if they can’t afford it, offer to help with payment.
4. Professional Growth: We all know that the studies show that the most effective way for an administrator to impact instruction in the classroom is to provide professional development opportunities for teachers. It’s more than just learning the latest educational innovations, inspiring a teacher to reflect on his/her practice and effectiveness, and keeping the teacher in a growth mindset. It’s also about sending a message to the teacher that we are investing in you. We are committed to you and your growth. This is equally true for kodesh and chol faculties.
5. Professional Satisfaction: Happy teachers make for happy students. Sometimes we have no choice but to make a class, subject or room assignment decision which makes a teacher unhappy. It can go a long way with affected teachers if we acknowledge and explain the decision. Tell them that we will try to make it up to them in other ways (to be determined at a later date). A totally new prep or a difficult class can certainly make a teacher miserable, and we have to do our best to address it.
6. Career Development: From a purely selfish perspective, you want to keep all your players in the slots where they have been successful. Who wants to look to fill a spot with an unproven commodity? However, we have a responsibility to the field and to a talented teacher to help him or her develop additional skills. Running clubs, extra and co-curricular programs, and mentoring other teachers may end there. It also may lead to serving as a department chair, an assistant principal, a principal or a head of school. Though you should assure them that you will tell them when you think that they must leave your school to advance further, I believe that it is worth the risk that they may leave you before you are ready to replace them.
7. Retirement: Americans are terrible savers. Because they chose a profession despite its remuneration, teachers are worse at long term financial planning than the average American. I believe that teachers of religion could be the absolute worst! The 2017 Nobel Prize Laureate in Economics, Richard Thaler, explains that employers can design programs that will inspire their employees to make better financial decisions. If we truly care about these people who are sacrificing on behalf of our children, we need to do so.
8. Role Model: If we want our teachers to create an atmosphere of respect, care and concern in their classrooms, we need to model it from the top down. It’s not just how we interact with students- it’s how we interact with faculty. Do as I do, not only as I say.
This philosophy has been shaped by my experience of hiring young Judaic faculty members straight out of school from the New York area to work at our school in Boca Raton. Without the support of local family and friends, I felt that we as a school, and I as its administrator, were responsible for these young couples. I attempted to apply the same philosophy when I returned to New York.
One of the first projects of the Consortium of Jewish Day Schools when it was founded 16 years ago was PTI- Principals Training Institute. Rabbi Heshy Glass recognized that not only did the field need to train future administrators- it needed to take care of them. PTI gives aspiring administrators mentors and role models. I suggest that we need to apply this attitude to all of our teachers, even those who are early in their careers or not inclined to play a supervisory role at some level.
A colleague related that in his school they had a teacher who told the administration soon after the start of the school year that he had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Baruch Hashem, he had a very good prognosis. He would be able to continue teaching except for a few weeks when he would undergo treatment that involved radioactivity, during which time he would be quarantined. The school managed to make it through this challenging time with substitutes, and thankfully, the teacher made a full recovery. They continued paying him during the time he missed, even though he ended up taking many more sick days than were allowed in his contract. Though this was several years ago, the teacher still tears up every time he thinks of this period and hasn’t stopped thanking the school for its kindness to him. Though compassion is what motivated this school’s decision, an unintended byproduct was a teacher who is truly devoted to the school and invested in its students’ success.
Chinuch has its challenges, and it should also have benefits. Our teachers have made the admirable decision to dedicate their lives to the Jewish community and our schools. We should return the favor by looking out for them. 

Rabbi Perry Tirschwell is the Director of the Torah Educators Network, whose mission is to provide education and benefits to mechanchim/chot. Tirschwell served for 15 years as the founding Head of School of the Katz (formerly Weinbaum) Yeshiva High School in Boca Raton, and is a graduate of Yeshivat Har Etzion, YU, RIETS and the Graduate School of Education of the College of New Rochelle. Contact Rabbi Tirschwell at rpt@toraheducators.net.