August 2019: Staff Development

General Studies in Our Schools: A Closer Look

RABBI AHARON CARDASH

Every school has their unique strengths and challenges. This article is focused specifically on boys’ elementary and yeshiva high schools that offer exclusively limudei kodesh in the morning, followed by limudei chol later in the day. These schools struggle to find and retain qualified and appropriate male general studies teachers.

If you would stroll the halls of most yeshiva elementary schools during limudei chol, you will notice a stark difference between the younger grades (K-4) and older grades (5-8). In the younger grades you may notice structure, attentiveness, full class participation, and many smiling and happy faces. The classrooms are filled with charts, pictures, and bulletin boards that are bursting with the boys’ fine work and creativity. Unfortunately, this is not the picture that you would see in the upper grades. True, in some of the classrooms students may be paying attention and taking notes, seeming to be interested in what is being taught. The decorum, neatness and general atmosphere seem to be conducive to real learning and accomplishment. As you walk down the halls, however, in most of the other classrooms… I don’t need to elaborate – you have heard the stories from your sons, and you know exactly what is going on (or not going on).

A successful class is led by a professional educator – a teacher with three specific qualities. Firstly, and obviously, a teacher must have expertise in the content of the subject matter that he teaches. Secondly, a teacher must have a broad repertoire of instructional skills and methods to teach the content in a way that the students can understand it and relate to it. Thirdly, teachers must possess the skills and judgement required to maintain proper classroom management. It is not enough that an instructor possesses one or two of these skills; all these qualities are essential.

One of the significant challenges many of our schools face is finding such professional educators for middle school (and high school) general studies, and this challenge has become more acute in recent years. Historically, yeshiva day schools were able to meet their need for general studies teachers from the public schools. In the past, many yeshivos were smaller and had smaller staffing needs to meet, but increasing enrollment is making this a greater challenge. Also, many schools are finding it harder and harder to find male teachers who are culturally appropriate for the yeshiva environment.

Schools have tried different things to solve this problem. There are schools that use rebbeim as general studies teachers. While some of them are doing an excellent job, others are over-worked and exhausted, and not adequately trained in the subject, thus doing a subpar job and detracting from their main role as an effective rebbi.

Some schools have become more reliant on online and computer-based education to make up for the lack of qualified teachers. In our times, when our children are being exposed to information from so many different sources, we must ensure that the information and middos they are getting in our own institutions meet Torah standards. There is a place for technology within the classroom, but never to replace a professional educator. Children should not associate the computer as a source of chochmah. The computer is a powerful tool, which amongst other functions provides information from a myriad of sources. It should not be used as a teacher.

Of course, an ideal solution would be to hire bnei Torah yeshiva and kollel graduates – to teach general studies subjects. Unfortunately, general studies education is not a sought-after career for many men. Bnei Torah are often not trained as professional educators and may not have mastery of the content area. There is not a ready supply of bnei Torah to teach general studies in most schools.

This is not just a staffing problem or a headache for administrators. As this challenge has become more acute, and more classes are taught by underqualified teachers, many of our 8th grade talmidim going into yeshiva high school have a difficult time writing a three-paragraph essay, solving math problems involving fractions or word problems, and knowing basic historical facts or events. Additionally, there is the significant problem of institutionalized bittul zman. Even more, many have observed that a negative outcome of general studies staffing challenge is the breakdown in middos and the creation of an attitude of bittul and cynicism. These are destructive forces in the development of a ben Torah. The discipline issues that exist are a symptom of the problem – that the teachers in many of these classrooms are missing one or more of the ingredients that would define them as professional educators.

Although our schools have grown, we are basically using the same structure that has been in place since the inception of the day school system. Perhaps with the growth of schools and the reality of the world in which we live, our children require more structure and support in their chinuch experience. They need to be surrounded by bnei Torah and be infused with yiras shamayim throughout the school day. They need to be taught how a ben Torah learns Torah, plays at recess, and yes, how he learns and relates to
the general studies curriculum. Not only do we need to ensure that the books and content are appropriate for a ben Torah, but equally important is how the material is being taught, ideally by a ben Torah.

It goes without saying that any new idea must have the input of daas Torah. But with the guidance from our gedolim, we could create a professional group of bnei Torah who are trained to teach general studies.

TO ACCOMPLISH THIS, THERE ARE TWO MAIN CHALLENGES THAT NEED TO BE ADDRESSED:

1. WILL BNEI TORAH WANT TO SEEK THESE POSITIONS?
2. HOW WILL THIS BE A FEASIBLE WAY FOR THEM TO EARN A LIVING?

Why would a Ben Torah, entering the work force, entertain the idea of being a limudei chol teacher? Currently, the way our yeshivos are set up, the mere thought of this idea is bizarre, to say the very least.

HERE ARE THREE POSSIBLE OPTIONS TO SUPPORT THIS MODEL:

A. Integrate bnei Torah as support to limudei kodesh in the morning. They are already talmidei chachamim and would now be trained in educating children. These bnei Torah would be used as professional substitutes, serve as part of the resource staff, and provide other educational support during limudei kodesh. In the afternoon they would be limudei chol teachers. (This might have the added benefit of enhancing the training of the educators in some of our limudei kodesh resource rooms.)

B. Establish paid mechanchim chaburas or kollels in the morning for the bnei Torah who will be working as limudei chol teachers in the afternoon.

C. A partnership with businesses that would provide part-time employment to these new teachers who will teach limudei chol in the afternoon. (see sidebar)

All these models would provide full-time employment and parnasa; however, the first model would integrate these new teachers as full-time school employees. These models are not mutually exclusive, and they would create the opportunity for bnei Torah to enter the arena of teaching general studies.

While this proposed model of teacher education and salaries will cost more money on the front end of the budget, if successful it could save significant sums in remediation, therapies, and failed patchwork fixes down the road. The Ribbono Shel Olam has blessed our generation with tremendous shefa of wealth and prosperity. We have recently built beautiful state-of-the-art schools to accommodate the growth of our student bodies. Shouldn’t we also see to it that we invest in our rebbeim and teachers, and children, the neshamah of our yeshivos? More important than the economic sense of this idea is the hope that it will help thousands of talmidim reach their full potential.  Another benefit is that we could create a framework that would allow our yeshivos to run as one integrated school, instead of the current model, which is almost like two different schools working as one.

Does it make sense for a business owner hire a bright and capable candidate for his company only for part-time employment? Let us assess the situation. Many baal habatim are moser nefesh to use their resources to help our shuls and schools. Currently, our baal habatim may not be getting as much bang for their buck as they could. They may be paying full tuition and also making large nedavos to our yeshivos, only to see a failing system in the afternoon. If we would make a financial analysis of how much we are currently paying for our current limudei chol teachers, substitutes, resource and other support faculty, and compare that to the figure of creating a program that trains bnei Torah to be professional educators along with increased salaries and some benefits, we would likely see that the added expense is worth the end result. There is no doubt that hiring a candidate for half of a day in order that this professional ben Torah will be available to teach limudei chol, will have a much greater impact than the thousands of dollars that this baal habayis is pumping into our current failing system. This might save him money in the long run, but the greatest benefit is the opportunity to be part of the remediation our school system. Instead of having two different schools working as one, create a platform that would allow our yeshivos to run as one integrated school.

However, if the system is set up in such a way that these teachers are not just teaching limudei chol, but become part of the chinuch of our precious children, and are able to make a positive impact while making a kovodik parnasa, perhaps it would be more appealing. True, the general studies teacher is not a rebbi, but he is definitely a mechanech who is modeling proper middos and teaching with Torah perspectives. While it’s true that general studies are not kodesh, our children are kodesh. They are our most precious treasure, the future of Klal Yisroel.

A platform needs to be created that will support a full-time parnasa for these new general studies teachers.

These bnei Torah would need to be trained. They would enroll in a training program where they would master the content of the subject, educational methodologies of teaching, and classroom management. They would go through a three-tiered training program, and to incentivize their continued professional development, after successful completion of each tier the teacher’s salary would increase.

Ideally, the recruitment and vetting process would start with the schools. The candidates would first be interviewed by the hanhala of the yeshiva to see if they would be a good ft for their yeshiva, and if selected, they would be eligible for acceptance in the training program. Tis would aid in filtering out candidates that don’t have the interpersonal skills and classroom presence, which are just a couple of the qualities that make a true professional educator.

This article is primarily focusing on the staffing challenges faced by boys’ schools, but if we take a closer look, our current structure is not recruiting as many talented young women teachers as well. Many of our bnos Yisroel are seeking alternate career options, primarily based on financial considerations. Qualified female teachers need to be paid as professionals, as well. With siyata d’Shmaya, guidance from daas Torah, and collaboration within our communities we can transform our schools into the mekomos haTorah that nurture our children all day and in all aspects of their development.

Now more than ever, the quality of our teachers has an indelible impact on our children. Many of the issues that we are seeing in our schools can be alleviated with professional educators. With a little ingenuity and creativity, we can increase salaries and benefits in order to make general studies a viable profession. We have already figured out ways to provide training for bnei Torah regarding other professions; now it’s time to address the profession of teaching general studies in our schools.


Rabbi Aharon Cardash has been a 9th grade rebbi at Fasman Yeshiva High School in Skokie, Illinois for 27 years, where he also taught algebra and geometry for 19 years. He served as the general studies principal at Yeshiva Ohr Boruch, the Veitzener Cheder, in Chicago from 2011-2018.