By Dr. Evie Rotstein
Each year the challenge seems to grow. Jewish educators are frantically searching for qualified teachers to fill open positions in their religious schools. Research for many years has indicated that there is a shortage of well-trained teachers in Jewish settings, exacerbated by the challenge of retaining strong teachers for these part-time positions. (Westheimer, 2007). This past summer, though, the problem was particularly striking: I received more requests than ever for graduate students to fill multiple empty positions in the New York metropolitan area. Is this problem intractable, or can something be done?
Last winter, a group of seasoned NYC educators that form a peer network group hosted by the Jewish Education Project in Manhattan began to explore this very issue. They discussed how they might collaborate to offer high level professional learning to encourage current religious school teachers to become teacher leaders. One of the educators, Saul Kaiserman, teaches our “Laboratory in Teaching in Learning” course to rabbinic, cantorial and Masters in Religious Education students at HUC-JIR New York School of Education. What would happen if these educators could offer their faculty members such a course for graduate credit at a highly subsidized tuition fee? What if the congregations themselves paid for the course and then offered the teachers a salary bonus upon the completion of the course? Might avocational teachers begin to consider a career in Jewish education? There was significant back and forth as the group hammered out what they would want in such a course, whether their teachers would realistically attend such a course, how many transferable credits it would be, and ultimately if the finances would be feasible.
And behold a strategy for change was born. HUC-JIR made the bold decision to offer students enrollment at an incredibly subsidized rate, similar in cost to the introductory course for the Executive Master’s Program. The professor offered to teach the course gratis, Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York agreed to host the course, and all of the congregations were willing to provide the funding for the tuition. At the time of writing, teachers representing congregations across NYC have applied for a spot in this course.
This is a story of community collaboration and the desire to address the challenges of the teacher shortage and retention. We as leaders in the field of Jewish education must continue to find ways to recognize and validate the fact that our teachers need to continue their own growth and learning to keep them from leaving the field. We know from the data, that teachers who do not participate in ongoing professional development are less effective in the classroom and less likely to meet the emerging needs of students, administrators, and the field of Jewish education. Our hope is that this course may be the catalyst for teachers to seek a graduate degree and ultimately a full time career in Jewish education. We also need to think about the future of Jewish education leadership.
Dr. Evie Rotstein is Director of the New York School of Education, HUC-JIR.