Retaining Day School Teachers Involves More than Networks and Workplace Happiness

by Dr. Ezra Kopelowitz

Recently, Hal M. Lewis, posted on eJewish Philanthropy an article about the need to place the issue of workplace happiness at the top of the Jewish Community’s efforts to retain quality personnel. He argues that non-financial factors, having to do with the quality of the work experience are critical in retaining personnel in the non-profit world. In responding to Lewis’s article, Deborah Fishman argues that in the context of Day School education, networks are the way to retain quality teachers.

In one area, namely day school teaching there is research that points to not one factor, such as work place happiness or networks, but a compilation of factors that lead to retention of quality personnel. Understanding how these factors come together enables concrete and realistic steps toward retention of day school teachers.

I’d like to take the opportunity to share some of the findings of research conducted for the Pardes Educators Alumni Support Program (PEASP) and the Jim Joseph Foundation, which focuses on the role of workplace and a teacher’s network for the retention of day school educators. The report, titled Promoting Retention of Pardes Educator Program Alumni can be found on the Berman Jewish Policy Research Archive.

In brief, the report shows, as Lewis argues, that workplace is critical to retaining personnel. However, it is only the dominant factor in determining retention during the initial years in which a teacher first enters the classroom. We also learn that the place of an effective teachers’ network, of which PEASP is an example, while certainly important, can only serve to complete and complement the workplace experience and not replace it.

Since 1999 the Pardes Educators Program (PEP) has recruited and educated Judaic Studies teachers for Day Schools in Canada and the United States. There are currently 113 alumni of the program, representing ten cohorts. PEASP provides induction support and runs an alumni network for the purpose of nurturing on-going peer support and to provide on-going professional development. Both PEP and PEASP are currently being integrated into the newly created Pardes Center for Jewish Educators (PCJE), which is expanding Pardes’s work and networking to include Jewish educators in other sectors (beyond Day Schools) and serve the needs of more Jewish educators both in Israel and North America.

Factors that lead to the retention of Day School educators

From the PEASP research, we learn that the primary role of an educators’ network, for both the novice and veteran teacher is to preserve the feeling of membership in a supportive and visionary community. Within that general charge, the mission needs to play out differently vis-a-vis novice teachers and those who are past the three year commitment made to teach in a Jewish day school.

The induction period

In the first three years of teaching, a good working environment is critical for retention. Our research and that conducted by others consistently shows that novice teachers who report a good work environment are likely to remain in the field, while those who do not are likely to drop out.

In the PEASP research we learned that those teachers who are most likely to continue teaching after three years are “the right people in the right school.” They are individuals who (in this order) really like teaching children and are committed to Jewish education. In the first years of teaching, issues such as salary are relatively unimportant for explaining retention. The novice teachers’ concerns are not financial, but rather are focused on teaching well. For that to occur, the school environment is the critical variable, including issues such as the feeling of the freedom to develop, job security, the presence of a mentor and/or sufficient system of collegial support; and, in the case of Judaic Studies teachers the overall commitment of the school to supporting “a Jewishly nurturing environment.”

For those individuals, who are “right for the job” and in “the right school,” the educator’s network rounds out the positive experience of teaching and helps one excel. For all of the recent PEP alumni we surveyed and interviewed, the Pardes Educators Alumni Network serves three primary roles:

  1. A community of colleagues and mentors who share Jewish vision and mission, and offer resources to enable their excellence as Jewish educators.
  2. A framework which directs and coaches regarding selection of which school to work in. This includes encouraging job candidates to ask for a mentor and sensitizing them to awareness of a school that will nurture them as educators or not.
  3. A framework for ongoing professional development that rounds out and supplements that provided by the school with a focus on Judaic Studies.

Where the alumni network is especially important are for the “right people, in the wrong school.” These are committed, motivated and talented teachers who find themselves in a poor working environment. For these individuals, the educators’ network provides an anchor, a supporting community of colleagues and mentors who keep the individual focused on his or her reasons for teaching and love of Jewish education. Practically, the Network serves as a source for support in dealing with the bad school experience and when necessary, provides assistance in finding another position.

Beyond year three

The issue of long-term retention is far more complex. Keeping a teacher in the classroom over the long term involves too many variables, which are beyond the ability of a single organization or initiative (such as networking) to affect in a straightforward manner. Our research on Pardes alumni and other research on educators (see reading list below) show that critical issues include low teacher salaries, life cycle effects such as marriage and children and the role of geographical mobility, which can take even the most committed teachers in the best of schools out of the classroom.

Given the complexity of long term retention, the likely role of the educators’ network for the veteran teacher is not retention, but rather access to resources and support for becoming master educators and leaders for positive change in their schools and the broader field of Jewish education. Those who remain in the field need help in maximizing their potential. In Judaic Studies, beyond PEASP, there is no network for Day School educators in general and Judaic Studies teachers in particular. In realizing the lack of such a network, Pardes has recently established the Pardes Center for Jewish Educators, in order to reach out to Judaic Studies educators beyond the PEP alumni network.

In summary, this research points to the fact that teachers, like other Jewish communal professionals, have different kinds of challenges at different points in their careers. It is important to think about how to support those working in the Jewish community, and to think more specifically about different kinds of support at different points in one’s career trajectory.

Some additional reading:

Donaldson, Morgaen L., Susan Moore Johnson, John B. Willett, and Richard J. Murnane 2008. “Teach for America Teachers’ Careers: Whether, When, and Why They Leave Low-Income Schools and the Teaching Profession,” a working paper of the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Available at

Ingersoll, Richard and Thomas M. Smith. 2004. “Do Teacher Induction and Mentoring Matter?” NAASP Bulletin, Volume 88, Number 638, March 2004, pp. 28-40. Available by clicking here.

Kress, Jeff. 2008. “How important is salary?” ” HaYidion, The RAVSAK Journal, Winter 2008. P. 7.

Kress, Jeff and Michael Ben-Avie. 2008. “Educators in Jewish schools Study (EJSS).” Jewish Education Service of North America (JESNA). The RAVSAK Journal, Winter 2008. Pg. 36.

Eran Tamir, Sharon Feiman-Nemser, Rebecca Silvera Sasson and Jacob Cytry. 2010. “The DeLeT Alumni Survey: A comprehensive report on the journey of beginning of Jewish day school teachers.” Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education.

Dr. Ezra Kopelowitz is a sociologist of specializing in issues of Jewish identity, education and peoplehood. He is the CEO of Research Success Technologies and a Fellow at the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.