Details count

The Silver Bullet of Jewish education is teachers

Reading Bodner’s elaboration of Rapp’s proposal for how Jewish day schools should be restructured was inspiring. Bodner imagines a school where 60-70 students are grouped into six cohorts matched not by age, but by shared interests and learning styles. Each cohort is led by one teacher who is able to facilitate student learning across all subject areas. Bodner argues that a school structured this way would be able to cut costs and stay affordable.

But in education, it’s the details that count. Reading Bodner’s and Rapp’s proposals, we found ourselves trying to think through how this model might actually play out in practice. At the very least, Bodner’s plan depends on being able to hire at least six superstar teachers (for a school of 60 students). Here’s the list of job requirements:

“[S]tellar communicators, creative, capable across disciplines, able to curate and analyze, and passionate life-long learners themselves – lead the cohorts and have significant responsibility as learning facilitators, administrators, curriculum planners, and mentors.”

It sounds like these educators can teach every subject and also play all the administrative roles normally found in a school. We’ve met a lot of tremendously talented Jewish educators. But we’re not sure we’ve met anyone who fits this job description.

In describing how the school would function at an administrative level, Bodner writes:

“The relatively small management tasks and decision-making could be shared by the teachers and at the board level.”

As a day school administrator who started during a global pandemic, I (Jonah) am not sure what makes Bodner think that the management and decision-making tasks of running even a 60-70 student school would be small. 

What happens when a student has a mental health crisis?  Does the school have a counselor? What happens when a teacher gets hired who turns out not to be a superstar?  Who manages that person’s performance? How is the decision made to keep or let go of that teacher? Are these decisions made by the board? 

What happens when a parent disagrees with a teacher’s approach or evaluation of their child? There are an enormous number of people who work together in a school to manage the many cases that may not come up every day, but certainly come up often enough to need a plan in place. 

We agree with Bodner and Rapp on one thing. The quality of our schools will ultimately depend on the quality of our teachers. The question to answer is how we make Jewish education a compelling enough career path to draw the best and brightest potential Jewish teachers?

We have two suggestions:

  • Invest in culture. People want to work in places where they feel valued and supported. All too often, teachers are treated as interchangeable parts that burnout after a few years and can be easily replaced. It takes a long time to develop the kind of  master educators Rapp and Bodner will need. We need to build schools that have professional cultures that make them the best places to work. This will include creating structures for support, mentorship and care for teachers. It includes creating a pipeline of incredible school leaders and lay leaders who know how to recruit and retain these talented individuals.  
  • Define career paths. Education is one of the only fields where to “advance” requires stepping away from the context that brought you into the field in the first place. Whether we like to admit it or not, many talented teachers feel pressure to leave the classroom in order to grow professionally, or, dare we say it, make more money. Bodner’s model of creating a school run by “teacher-leaders” holds a lot of promise. Schools that experiment with putting more power in the hands of teachers do find greater retention and career satisfaction. But it doesn’t just mean telling teachers overnight that now they’re also administrators, curriculum developers, and more. How do you show potential Jewish educators that Jewish education offers them a long pathway for continued professional growth?

Over the past year, I (Jonah) and the other leaders of Schechter Boston have launched a reorganization of our school’s structure in order to serve these goals. Instead of teachers operating in silos, each teacher belongs to a small team of 6-8 other teachers and are supervised by a team leads, fellow teachers who spends part of their time teaching, and part of their time supporting their colleagues. Each teacher has a weekly coaching time and collaborative time built into their schedule and works with their team leader to identify their areas for growth. These structures not only support our newer teachers (and turn them into the master teachers that could staff Bodner’s and Rapp’s schools), and also provide opportunities for veteran teachers to grow without having to leave the work they love: classroom teaching.

There are many ways we can cut costs in Jewish education. There are economies of scale that can be tapped, creative staffing models to be explored, but one place that we should never compromise is in the development and support of educators. No, they won’t be able to wear every hat, or teach every subject, in every language, but with the right leadership, culture, and opportunities for development, they will help develop kind, curious, and knowledgeable young Jews. 

Jonah Hassenfeld is Director of Learning and Teaching at Schechter Boston. Ziva R. Hassenfeld is the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Assistant Professor of Jewish Education at Brandeis University.