Don't Soften the Edges of Jewish Education

August 25, 2021

Just last week:

  • A congregational school principal called me and said that he knows the community is focused on the declining numbers of students, but he is relieved by his lower enrollment. If he had 10 new families suddenly express interest in Jewish experiences, he would not be able to find anyone to teach the class.
  • A group of day school principals in a meeting lamented that young women no longer have a sense of obligation to teach. Long ago, fueled by passion for the subject matter and by a drive to give back to their communities, they would commit to at least a year in the classroom- without even being asked. Those same young women are now apt to enter a more lucrative field such as Occupational or Physical Therapy. Even though it would be ideal to have someone with a longer-term commitment to teaching, it would relieve the incredible staffing pressure if the young, enthusiastic and relatable teacher was to join the ranks and stay even for one year.
  • An early childhood director commented on a chat that she had three interviews scheduled. Two were no-shows and one cancelled five minutes before the interview. The director wanted to know if anyone else had leads for teachers, instead, the other directors all shared their own recruitment horror stories.

At the end of the day, the learner's experience depends heavily on an educator's facilitation. It doesn't matter if there is a "flipped classroom", an experiential setting, with block scheduling or a philosophy of Reggio Emilia, learners always need role models; skilled and trusted adults. Ensuring that our community's children have the most outstanding facilitators of Jewish experience is an essential issue to tackle. It could not be more urgent. Where are the avocational congregational school teachers, passionate young day school teachers and professional early childhood educators? Do they no longer exist?

In addition to the critical insights that Mapping the Market provides about the supply and demand sides of the educational market, it also points to a curious phenomenon. While we always laud educators for strong positive relationships with students ("text people rather than textbooks"), this singular approach seems to be substituting for content, training and pedagogy. Knowing what we want students to learn and achieve and providing students with robust experiences requires training, ongoing support and professional development. It seems that we are trying to soften the edges of Jewish education. Perhaps the educators of the past no longer exist because we have dramatically shifted our focus.

Educational theorist Joseph Schwab called the key elements of an educational setting "commonplaces". He posited that there is always: (1) a student, (2) a teacher, (3) a milieu and (4) content. Schwab contends that each of these four needs to be equally weighted and success hangs on their balance. It is a disservice to students if we overly emphasize one of the four areas. According to Mapping the Market, very few institutions desired their teacher hires to have mastery of the subject matter. A low percentage desired that their teachers have teaching credentials. While the ability to be creative and flexible is absolutely necessary (especially in our COVID era), in the research, it trumps mastery of instructional methods.

Our Jewish communities would not tolerate anything short of excellence in their doctors or lawyers or physical therapists. We need to treat the transmission of our Jewish heritage as seriously. The meaningful relationships teachers build must be bolstered by knowledge and skill. Our children in all educational settings and our communities deserve it. Our future depends upon it.

Amian Frost Kelemer is CEO of the Louise D. and Morton J. Macks Center for Jewish Education