August 2019: Staff Development

Will the Next Generation Find Life as a Mechanech Appealing?

RABBI DANIEL ALTER

Identifying the issues:

The character of a working environment is an essential part of any plan to attract and retain quality personnel in industry.  This is crucial in the world of chinuch as well.  Many factors influence school culture, but one stands out as the most difficult to address and is often discussed the least: the subject of finances.

Data exists on the role that finances play in education.  Math teachers in 2016 were shown to have stronger mathematical teaching knowledge than their counterparts in 2005, according to a study conducted by the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University.  Grace Tatter explained that “they found that the improvement appeared more tied to changes in the labor market than to policymakers’ efforts to strengthen the mathematics background of teachers. In particular, the uptick in teacher scores roughly correspond to the 2008 recession, when jobs become scarcer.”  She points to a separate recent Harvard study that “showed that the recession improved teaching quality — according to teachers’ impact on standardized test scores — across subjects in the state of Florida, not just math.”

This data comes as no surprise.  Competition from other industries offering more competitive wages to would-be teachers will continue to pose a challenge for us in hiring great teachers.  This challenge applies equally to Jewish day schools. 

This is no way means that we don’t currently have a cadre of idealistic, charismatic and talented educators.  Countless individuals recognize that there is virtually no more meaningful way to dedicate one’s life to a greater cause and live as an eved Hashem, then through a life of chinuch.  Nevertheless, finances continue to be a real challenge for the Jewish day school world.

Framing the issue:

The high cost of yeshiva tuition is one of the most discussed issues in our community.    Independent schools can afford to cater to the wealthy and offer limited scholarship to those in need for purposes of creating a more diverse parent body.  Jewish day school education, however, is not a luxury.  It is an integral component of our approach to raising children who are steeped in avodas Hashem, and as such the goal of our community is to send all our children to Jewish day school regardless of family income.  This reality creates severe hardships for families paying a very high percentage of their salaries towards tuition.  Pressure is placed on schools to cut costs in order to lower tuition.  The problem is that salaries make up over eighty percent of school costs.  This means that no matter how cost efficient the light bulbs in your building are, or how much you can scale down your non educational support staff, you cannot make a significant dent in your school budget.

In addition, scaling down significantly in all other areas often creates a challenging work environment for teachers.  Let me share an extreme example that describes how challenging this approach can be.  I recently heard of a day school that only employed maintenance workers at night to save costs.  This means that if a child throws up during class, the teacher is expected to pause his or her teaching and clean up the mess.  I imagine it would be harder to hire great teachers who are willing to work in such conditions.

Thus, the two most impactful options to keep tuition lower are to either raise the student to teacher ratio, resulting in larger classes, or to pay teachers less money.   Both options can create their own challenges. We can raise student to teacher ratio by allowing for larger class size.  There is a point where large classes will impact on the quality of education.  In addition, a school with large class sizes may see parents opting to spend their significant tuition dollars at a different school where they feel that the student to teacher ratio is more to their liking. The other option, to pay teachers less money, is even less acceptable.  We already pay inadequate salaries to teachers.  There is no room left to cut in this area.

This backdrop helps us understand the enormity of the pipeline challenge.  Pressure to keep tuition low translates into limited resources.  With limited resources it is very hard to attract a sufficient number of great people to the field of chinuch.

Are there solutions to this problem?

I don’t believe that there is any clear short-term solution to this challenge.  There are a number of long-term projects that can help solve this issue, such as catalyzing communal resources to build large school endowments, or continuing the push spearheaded by the Orthodox Union and other organizations towards more government funding.  We must continue to put all our energy into these initiatives.

There are also many short-term projects that can be instituted, each contributing slightly towards alleviating this challenge.  These include opening alternative income streams for schools, maximizing the usage of parsonage or other benefits, finding stores or professionals willing to give discounts to those in chinuch, or creating avenues for those in chinuch to find additional sources of income.

Individuals considering chinuch as a career have a number of realistic options that translate into long term financial plans with adequate salaries. They can move outside of the large communities in the northeast where cost of living is more affordable. They can also enter chinuch with an understanding that at some point following a successful bout of teaching in the classroom they will move into administration.  These solutions will not work for everyone, however.

Communal solutions in our current reality:

Orthodox families are often unable to support a lifestyle where one spouse works and the other remains at home tending to family needs.  It has become far more common for both spouses to work in some capacity.  I have counseled numerous young men and women looking to go into the field of chinuch to consider the following model:   One spouse works in an alternative field while the second spouse works in chinuch, and the couple send their children to the school in which the parent teaches.  Promoting this model in our community will give our teacher families sufficient sources of income, enhance the family’s quality of life, and ensure a strong pipeline of great teachers for our schools, as elucidated below:

Sufficient sources of income:

While the other spouse in this model will probably be making a more substantial income than the spouse who is teaching, the educator’s income is critical for most families.  Additionally, if a family sends their children to the school, there is generally a large tuition discount which can result in savings of hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of many years. 

Enhancing quality of life:

Managing a household where both spouses work while raising children can be challenging.  Life is much easier when one parent has the same schedule as their children.  That parent can take their children to school and bring them home at the end of the day.  They are off the same days as their child, and don’t have to worry about childcare. They end school on Fridays at the same time as their child, are free during summer vacation to watch their children, and don’t have to worry about last minute snow days, or childcare over chol hamoed.

Schools that are sensitive to this model will work to supply forms of childcare at times when students are off and teachers have to work, like professional development sessions. Offering an onsite babysitting service that is either free or subsidized is helpful.  Even if not subsidized, as long as it is affordable it can make life more convenient for teachers.

Strong pipeline of great teachers:

Families who have one parent who is a mechanech or mechaneches hold a strong advantage.  The parent spends their days developing an expertise in educating and molding children, and as such is best placed to raise their own children.  We need to continue to extol the virtues of chinuch in our community so that entering the profession is seen as an ideal.  Coupled with explicit discussions of the model I have described, some of our best and brightest will be less reluctant to devote their lives to educating our children.

What can we do now to support this agenda?

When deciding on a profession, one generally does not yet know who they will marry.  This means that we may be able to find a whole new cadre of teachers for whom teaching is a second profession.  We should develop teacher training programs that can work within a busy schedule of someone who may already have children but has decided that chinuch may be right for them.  This will probably look like an apprentice type program that resides in schools. 

Studies of countries with the best educational systems, such as Finland, have shown that one of the factors accounting for their country’s success is that they have created a culture that reveres their teachers.  Our community must constantly find ways to show that spending one’s life developing a love of Torah and mitzvos in the next generation is deemed as incredibly important and that our teachers are respected and treated well for it.

Ensuring that the world of chinuch is an attractive option for talented young men and women must be a priority for our community.  It is critical to continue discussions, share ideas and creative initiatives that should be explored and encouraged and in turn, help us attract and retain real talent.

Rabbi Daniel Alter is Head of School at The Moriah School in Englewood, NJ.