August 2019: Staff Development

Why Am I Still Here? Retention in Yeshiva High Schools

RABBI MORDECHAI YAFFE, PhD

When first considering the topic at hand, my initial inclination was to review the extensive research on the topic of retention in the workplace and identify those factors that have been demonstrated to contribute to retaining a company’s workforce.  Upon further contemplation, I realized that those who enter the field of education might have considerations that are different from those in other professional endeavors.  Then I discovered that there is a body of research that addresses retention in Jewish Day Schools and that perhaps, there is no need to review that which has already been researched.  However, as I read some of this literature, the findings did not resonate with what I have observed within the confines of what can be termed as a classic mesivta model. I have not found separate literature addressing the specifics of these types of yeshivos which serve a male, high school population. 

Although there are certainly commonalities between all educational institutions and, for that matter, within other professional fields as well, I would postulate that there are some unique factors that contribute to staff retention in a mesivta setting that are distinct from other institutions. As such, I would like this paper to be considered as an initial exploratory analysis which reflects my personal experiences and what I have observed over the past 37 years in chinuch.  I am not certain that I have the key to this issue, but I am pleased to say that in our yeshiva, over the past 19 years, only two rebbeim left on their own accord, each move being one that clearly constituted a vertical change.

What will keep a person, specifically a rebbi, in the same yeshiva?  Consistent with the results identified in other professions, while remuneration certainly is a contributing factor, once a person has decided to live within those means provided, it does not appear to be the major consideration in remaining in the same institution.  So what does contribute to the retention of a rebbi, if not compensation?  Three factors that I believe are significant are vocation, identification, and appreciation.

Vocation

Yeshivos, in contrast to colleges, generally do not view themselves as institutions that are preparing young men for careers.  They are providing them with the opportunity to advance in their learning, something deemed necessary throughout a committed Ben Torah’s life.  This is not a criticism of them, but is something not well understood beyond the confines of the yeshivos themselves.  The result is that many young men only seriously consider chinuch when the time comes for them to support their families.  By necessity, they enter the classroom, often with almost no preparation and a lack of understanding that teaching in a classroom is very different than learning in a bais medrash. 

I have frequently told young men that they need to understand that going into chinuch means going out of “learning.” Of course, any ben Torah will continue to learn, but that is only one small factor in becoming a successful rebbi.  A primary understanding must be that rebbeim recognize that this is a career and, in fact, one that requires dedication, devotion and commitment.  Reciprocally, the institution must view itself as having retained professionals who are worthy of the standards and benefits afforded those in other fields.

A number of years after I began teaching, I concurrently pursued a Ph.D. degree in clinical psychology. I constantly encountered the observation, “Oh, so you’re looking to get out of chinuch?”  My reply was that I was looking to stay in chinuch – and I was.  I have always detested the George Bernard Shaw adage “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach”, which to a large extent is untrue.  There are many talented individuals who feel their true calling is education, despite the fact that they could have been successful in any number of fields. However, successful educators sometimes experience burnout. In my case, having the ability to choose another path should I so desire served to inoculate.  The knowledge that one is choosing to be in chinuch is a significant contributing factor to remaining in the field in general.

Identification

There is an old joke that if someone wants to achieve different great accomplishments, the most important thing to do is to pick the right grandparents.  Although it would seem to be obvious, the first step in retention is to try to hire people who you will want to retain! In other words, one should do his best to hire individuals whom he believes will have the greatest likelihood of success within that specific institution.  It is often said that every institution has its own unique “culture.”. One of definitions of this word offered by the Merriam-Webster dictionary is “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization.”  I have come to believe that a yeshiva can take on what can be considered a personality.  I remember once being asked to speak in a yeshiva high school and was looking forward to the opportunity.  As I entered the bais medrash to speak, it felt like all of the air was sucked out of the room.  The apathy and disconnect was palpable, and I was told that this was the general atmosphere. In contrast, I have been told by countless visitors that one can feel the happiness and comfort of the talmidim that permeate our yeshiva, and that these feelings  are apparent as soon as one enters the building.  I hope it’s true because we dedicate ourselves to nurturing this environment.

In order for a rebbi to thrive in the “personality” of our yeshiva, he must value this culture and naturally contribute to it. There are other factors which contribute to a rebbi’s success, including dedication to limud haTorah, development as a mentsch, and striving to be one’s best ability in all areas.  I often say that we have no magidei shiur in our yeshiva, only rebbeim. Of course, our way is not the only way, but without commitment to these ideals and reinforcing them, a rebbi would simply not be successful in our yeshiva and wouldn’t be a good fit.

A major contributing factor to one’s retention would be to identify with the mission of the institution and strive assiduously to promote it within the student body. If the mission isn’t clear or the rebbeim being hired do not commit themselves to it, the ability of maintaining a stable, dedicated staff will have been significantly compromised, if not outright sabotaged. Feeling part of the mission encourages staff to develop new and creative ways to implement it and creates a sense of stewardship to the institution and, more importantly, to the talmidim.

Furthermore, if everyone is working towards similar goals, it is much more likely that relationships between rebbeim themselves will develop, creating a spirit of camaraderie and a willingness to share with each other, rather than one of competition and jealousy.  The sharing in everyone’s simchos, as well as the challenging times, fosters emotional ties that transform the day-to-day experience as well.

It is also the menahel’s or principal’s responsibility to create an environment in which his staff members feel secure to approach him with educational challenges they are confronting.  They must be made to feel that they are welcome to share their difficulties and that you will work together to resolve them.  In addition, perhaps it is even more important that they want to share their victories and successes.

Appreciation

As important a factor as identification is, I believe that feeling appreciation is at least as crucial regarding retention.  A yeshiva that communicates to its rebbeim that they constitute the most vital natural resource is tapping a basic human need to feel valued. This can manifest itself in numerous ways, such as paying consistently on time, providing bonuses, facilitating discounted products for a Yom Tov, showing understanding when time is needed for family situations or simchos, or even providing the opportunity for an occasional mental health day.

It is critical that rebbeim feel that they are an   integral part of the institution.  For example, when our yeshiva was about to initiate purchasing a new building, we first met with the rebbeim.  It was explained to them that even though in was not our intention to have this affect paying salaries in a timely manner and that we believed that this action would have a transformational effect on the entire institution (which proved true), there was some risk involved and we did not want to proceed without their being on board.  I believe that merely asking them reinforced their understanding of the esteem in which they were held. 

At one time in my career, when I was offered an opportunity to take a different job, I went to speak with members of the administration. I was told, “You need to do what is good for you”, and “We couldn’t possibly match such an offer financially”.  To this day, I believe that they were more than satisfied with my performance and that they were just being forthright.  Nevertheless, deep down I just wanted to hear that my leaving would be such a loss to the school.  I wasn’t expecting them to match the offer; I wanted to hear that I was important to them.  Apparently, I wasn’t, and I took the offer.

Another time, a school in which I worked was having financial challenges.  Believing us to be partners, I convinced the other rebbeim that we should present to the board of directors that we did not want a salary increase and that we appreciated that we were always paid in a timely manner. Many of them agreed only begrudgingly, but everyone capitulated.  We assumed that as things improved they would offer raises to us and that we wouldn’t even have to ask.  In the ensuing twelve years that offer never came, and I believe that it was my fault.  I’m a little less naïve today.  Nevertheless, I learned the importance of expressing gratitude to dedicated rebbeim and that when difficulties arise and offering that raise just isn’t possible, at the very least, an expression of regret is in order.

I believe that the three “ations” – vocation, identification, and appreciation – are contributing factors to retention.  If administration and rebbeim view the career of a rebbi as a life’s mission, identify with the mission, and appreciate each other, someone who was meant to be doing this from the outset is much more likely to be retained, rather than detained.  In that way, not only do the rebbi and the yeshiva benefit, but most importantly, so will the precious talmidim.  Ultimately, it may be true that rather than compensation, the motivation may be vocation, identification, and appreciation.


Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe is the Rosh HaYeshiva of Ateres Yaakov, a local Mesivta (MAY) and Yeshiva Gedolah, with over 220 talmidim, and the Rav of Kehillah Ateres Yaakov. Besides his decades as an experienced mechanech, Rabbi Yaffe holds a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and is licensed to practice in the state of New York.