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Holding on to good teachers

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Dena Block is beginning her second year teaching Judaic studies at Ma’ayanot.

As the 2011-2012 school year dawns, financially strapped Jewish day schools are faced with myriad challenges. The statistical likelihood of many new teachers leaving the profession within their first three years on the job, coupled with recent economic constraints, highlights one of those challenges.

“Low paycheck, low morale, and not feeling valued by administrators” is how “Shira,” a young teacher at a Northern New Jersey day school, describes her work. Speaking on condition of anonymity, Shira said she feels at a professional dead end. “There is no protection, no union, no tenure. I should be making about $6,000 or $7,000 more than I am now.”

All area Jewish schools offer similar compensation packages. Starting salary for a teacher with a master’s degree at a Bergen County Jewish day or high school is $40,000 to $45,000. Teachers contribute varying amounts toward medical and retirement plans. A school might typically contribute six percent of salary toward a pension once a teacher has completed two full years.

This standardization is fairly recent, resulting from an area-wide survey carried out by Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future, commissioned by the NNJKids Community Fund of the Jewish Education for Generations of Northern New Jersey partnership.

JEFG was established in 2009 to explore sustainable models of funding day schools as families find it harder to meet the rising cost of tuition. On the other side of the table, the budget crunch has forced many New York metro-area Jewish schools to trim faculty, freeze or limit pay raises, increase class sizes, and slash professional development programs, as well as reduce formerly significant tuition breaks for children of faculty.

In fact, said Shira, some of her professionally dissatisfied colleagues no longer see any reason to stay on without substantial discounts for their own children.

Dr. Wallace Greene, a rabbi and lifelong educator who is former director of Jewish Educational Services for the UJA of Northern New Jersey, said that struggling to make ends meet unquestionably aggravates the well-known problem of “early burnout” among new teachers.

“A [Jewish studies] teacher can probably make more tutoring than teaching, assuming the family has medical benefits from a spouse,” Greene said. “A general studies teacher could earn more in the public school system.”

More than money

Teaching is not considered a highly paid profession in either the public or private sector, however, and wage freezes are now in effect in many New Jersey districts. The state’s public school teachers are the third highest-paid new teachers in the country, starting at less than $40,000 without a master’s degree. More than half of all New Jersey public school teachers earn between $40,000 and $60,000; the average salary was $61,830 in 2009. The main advantage of the public system is better benefits and protections, including tenure and unionization.

Teacher retention is not only a question of compensation, however.

Ruth Gafni, head of school at Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford, said her administration uses a many-stage “thoughtful hiring process” to identify candidates most likely to be successful in mastering the curriculum, managing time in and out of the classroom, and acculturating to the school environment.

“Once you are placed in the classroom, there is no equivalent of an internship, so we have to create that,” she said. Schechter also provides mentoring to new teachers and to teachers switching grade levels, which Gafni also considers a valuable tool for retaining faculty members.

An independent report released in June by the Jerusalem-based Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies indicates that access to support services, particularly mentoring, seems to be a key factor in keeping educators in the classroom.

The report looked at the effect of such services offered by the institute’s Pardes Educators Alumni Support Project (PEASP) for graduates of the two-year Pardes Educators Program, which prepares teachers for jobs in North American Jewish day and supplemental schools. Results showed that 83 percent of these graduates are still in Jewish education after three years, 65 percent of them in day schools.

“Alumni credited PEASP with providing an anchor of support that helped direct them and enhance their careers in Jewish education,” said PEASP Associate Director Amanda Pogany, a former teacher at Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County.

Mentoring a factor

In particular, she added, “In-house mentoring seems to be taking off. When our teachers graduate, we encourage them to ask for it.”

In 2003, the AVICHAI Foundation launched the Jewish New Teacher Project, developed specifically for day schools at the New Teacher Center of the University of California at Santa Cruz. JNTP is now in place at about 50 mostly New York-area schools, pairing inexperienced teachers with outside or in-house trained mentors.

Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck was among the first to implement JNTP mentoring under founding principal Esther Krauss and assistant principal Fayge Safran, said Rivka Kahan, the school’s current principal.

“We didn’t consciously adopt mentoring for the issue of retention, but to provide support and skills. However, numerous teachers have told me it helped them decide to stay in teaching,” she said. “One of our most talented teachers said she would have left after her first year without it.”

First- and second-year teachers meet each week with their mentors, who also sit in on classes and give constructive feedback and support. “That has been very powerful in helping new teachers become more skilled and feel more comfortable in the classroom,” said Kahan.

The school also provides optional monthly workshops for new teachers focusing on different aspects of pedagogy and classroom management presented by veteran faculty members.

“It is well known that many teachers enter the field feeling ambitious and excited, but when they don’t get the support they need and deserve, they get frustrated,” said Rabbi Jonathan Knapp, principal of Yavneh Academy in Paramus, one of the JNTP pilot schools. (See sidebar.)

Knapp said Yavneh’s mentoring program has become a draw. “Initially, when I raised this possibility to potential new teachers, they looked at me quizzically, but now people are attracted to our school because they’ve heard about how successful JNTP has been at Yavneh. In the seven years since this program began, I don’t recall any teachers who’ve been through it who have not stayed and grown as educators.”

Dr. Elliott Prager, principal of The Moriah School of Englewood, said several administrators and two veteran teachers have been trained by JNTP to mentor new teachers in their first two years.

Safety net

“We have found that it makes a very big difference in teacher retention,” Prager said. “There are two primary things that mentoring contributes to retention: actual skills and methods, so the teacher is constantly learning and growing in pedagogical excellence; and constant feedback from mentor to teacher. Most important, the mentor is there psychologically as a safety net for the teacher for specific questions and general support in that first year or two that is so difficult.”

Prager noted that about a dozen teachers have been on staff at Moriah for longer than 30 years. Rabbi Neil Winkler, about to begin his 34th year as a Judaic studies teacher in the middle school, conceded that the first few years were tough.

“When things get hard, you have to close your eyes and say, ‘What am I doing this for? What am I trying to accomplish?’ My secret is that I love kids and I love Torah,” said Winkler. “I go to school each day and I’m a kid again; I’m energized. I really love to impart to them the strong feelings I have about the subjects I’m teaching.”

Meryl Feldblum, 29, is a Moriah and Frisch School graduate who began her teaching career in a New York City public school. Following four years in Israel, she is about to begin her second year teaching English at Frisch, a coed yeshiva high school in Paramus. She considered going back into the public school system for its better security and pension, but decided against it.

“I very much believe in the educational and Jewish philosophy of the school, and enjoy being part of the Frisch community,” she said. “And as a Jewish mother, it’s best for me since my kids are on a yeshiva schedule. I have also found that the administrators of Jewish schools tend to be more understanding of the needs of parents of young children,” which she appreciates as the mother of two preschoolers.

Frisch does not offer formal mentoring, but her department head met with her regularly during the first half of the year. She has not hesitated to ask veteran teachers to share curricular materials, and even to observe her and provide feedback. “I had a mentor in public school my first year, but I found the other teachers were much more helpful than the mentor was,” she said.

Meanwhile, Shira is looking for a different job and said that “in order to stay, I would need a decent pay increase.” She says she is not the only young teacher who feels this way.

However, Rabbi Simcha Schaum, a Yavneh teacher going into his sixth year, said that salary issues are not enough to send dedicated teachers packing.

“I can recall one specific instance in which someone said, or told someone who told me, that he wasn’t staying in education because of the pay scale, but if memory serves, he wasn’t ever planning to stay in education to begin with,” said Schaum.

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