Teachers are our Building Blocks: Staffing in Jewish Early Childhood During COVID

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By Sasha Kopp

In the walls of our early childhood centers, young children first understand their role as individuals within a group. They learn to trust other adults. They create friendships, become problem solvers and flexible thinkers. The learning that happens throughout early childhood helps foster our brains and our souls, fostering kindness and creativity in the next generation. With the school year underway, many communities are asked to consider: Will school be in person or online? Or, in some communities: Will they continue at all? Every community is trying their best to react to a variety of different landscapes concerning COVID. Some schools have been open for months and are finding the experience safe and rewarding. However, for many, the challenges of this school year are deep; they involve new health protocols and routines and there is one major challenge that continues to dominate the landscape. Where will we find new staff?

Our Jewish early childhood centers are at a moment of crisis. Every day staff members around the country are making the choice to discontinue their work as early childhood professionals. There are three district trends that have begun to emerge:

1) Educators are concerned about their own health or the risks to the health of an immediate family member

2) Educators are compelled to stay at home with their own children who are learning though a virtual or hybrid model in their k-12 learning programs

3) The pay is just too low. It is not worth the risk and/or teaching pods (small groups of children organized by individual families) pay more 

Our field knows that it thrives on vibrant, joyous, educated professionals who help bring Jewish life to the families that they serve. This summer, the Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education (CASJE) at The George Washington University released a new study that demonstrates the essential nature of Jewish early childhood education (ECE) to engage young families in Jewish life. Through experiences in Jewish early childhood, not only do children become more familiar with the rhythms and joys of the Jewish calendars, but whole families begin to engage with their children, their communities and each other. As one parent quoted in the study shared, “I’ve heard so many stories about people whose … best friends are those families who they met in the twos … all those kids go through and end up doing their bar mitzvahs together and going to camp together… I think for sure some of those families may not have continued to be as involved or continued to be as Jewish if it weren’t for the group that they are a part of.” (CASJE study, Parent).

Our early childhood professionals grow these relationships. Teachers are part of families’ lives, helping them form new bedtime routines, guiding them on how to help a child accept a new sibling, attempt potty training, and so much more. They help hold families’ hands as they connect and reconnect them to Judaism, the songs, the traditions and the community as a whole. At this moment when we have been lacking in-person community, we need our Jewish early childhood professionals to continue to thrive as a critical source of connectivity, support, and care.

These challenges of educator retention and recruitment need to be addressed. In addition to these factors that have been affected primarily by COVID, we are about to see other shifts in early childhood leadership throughout the American Jewish community. More directors and teachers than ever before are considering retirement. This feeds into the challenges of the moment and adds to the urgency in which we think about recruiting for and strengthening the field of Jewish Early Childcare professionals. How do we continue to support the field moving forward? Here are a few initial concrete ideas, supported by the CASJE findings, about next steps in supporting the field during this time.

1. We need to create a pipeline for recruitment. The field of Jewish ECE needs to connect to individuals at camps and colleges who are eager to create joyous connected Jewish community. Their strengths and skills can be brought into our landscape and they can become future leaders of the field. This idea is supported though research done by CASJE, “Develop programs to bring new faces into the field. Very few young Jewish adults are choosing ECE as a career path. Innovative programs to attract recent college graduates as well as midcareer professionals could be developed and implemented. We saw two such initiatives in Chicago.” (CASJE Report, p 27).

2. There needs to be a clear pipeline for professional growth within our Jewish communities. Often times, teachers become administrators with very little leadership or supervision background. We need to be proactive: to prepare the next generation now to fill their roles through training and professional development. This could be training on the job for new directors to learn about their new role, mentorship for first year teachers or fellowships for assistant directors and lead teachers to grow in their leadership capabilities. “Staff are the foundation of Jewish ECE. Recruitment, training, and retention are vital for the future of Jewish ECE.” (CASJE Report, p 26).

3. We need to be flexible in thinking about how teachers can bring their own children into our early childhood centers while K-12 learning is unpredictable. Schools could hire a professional to help facilitate virtual or hybrid learning for educators’ children within the early childhood center to help teachers feel comfortable going back into the classroom. Our institutions need to reframe how they think about benefits to reflect the best ways to support their staff at this challenging moment in time. As the research says, “Because pay levels in the field are low, it is especially important for staff to be compensated in other ways, through generous benefit packages, professional development, recognition, and ongoing respect,”  (CASJE Report, p 26). Childcare would be a creative way to help ensure that more educators stay in the field and feel valued.

4. We need to pay our early childhood staff a living wage. In many institutions, the profits from the early childhood centers help subsidize many of the programmatic costs of Jewish institutions. This money needs to go back into the early childhood center to attract the best teachers and keep current teachers feeling valued in our communities. Increasing salaries was a stated goal in the research, imploring institutions to “Work toward providing a competitive salary for the ECE workforce that will encourage highly qualified staff to stay in the field. One of the primary reasons that individuals are not attracted to the ECE field is pay, and one of the reasons that staff leave is for better pay elsewhere.” (CASJE Report, p 26).

There are many initiatives and organizations who have been working tirelessly to support the field of Jewish Early Childhood Education, including The Jewish Education Project, The Paradigm Project, ECE-RJ, the Sheva Center of JCC Association and many regional organizations throughout America. It is important that teachers and directors connect to regional and national organizations that support professional development. In turn, the Jewish community must further support these organizations to continue and expand their work.

COVID has illuminated deep challenges within our field of Jewish ECE that have been part of our landscape for years. We know that this sector helps bring new families into our communities and our congregations, and creates a strengthened sense of Jewish identity among children and their parents. Now is the time to invest in strengthening and professionalizing staff. We need to ensure that our centers will be staffed with qualified professionals not just this year but in the years to come. Now is the time to care, to act and to invest deeply in Jewish ECE to help ensure that every child has the chance to be taught by an incredible teacher. 

Sasha Kopp is Community Early Childhood and Family Engagement Consultant, The Jewish Education Project.