A good teacher is hard to find, and maybe harder to keep.
As the nation’s economy continues to sag, local Jewish day schools are fighting to retain their teachers through professional support, even working with outside sources.
“We fight [to retain teachers] on a regular basis. We often have to,” said Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld, dean of Yeshiva Schools in Pittsburgh. “We’ll often have teachers with us for several years, then move on to where they can get a better salary.”
According to the National Education Association, the average starting teacher salary in Pennsylvania is $38,229, with an overall average of $57,237.
That salary scale makes it that much more challenging to retain quality teachers in Jewish day schools.
“When teachers in Jewish schools have a family to support, that’s the moment when the money comes in,” said Amanda Pogany, associate director of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Israel. “Teachers often still feel committed to the field; they just seek another position in Jewish education.”
They also need peer support.
Last month, Pardes released the findings of a report conducted by Research Success Technologies based on the institute’s Educators Program, all leading to one major conclusion: there was a high correlation between teachers who had a mentor during their first three years in the classroom and those teachers who stayed in the profession.
The five-year Educators Program is split into two years of Jewish educator training, followed by three years of alumni/mentor support. Of 99 alumni of the Pardes Educators Program polled, the report found, 83 percent were still involved in Jewish education after their three-year mentor support ended.
Some of the study’s lessons are being employed in Pittsburgh, where support similar to that of Pardes alumni is coming right from the Jewish day schools themselves.
Community Day School has operated a peer-mentoring program for teachers for the past several years.
“New and veteran teachers get together throughout the year to observe each other and give feedback on things the observed teacher wants observed,” said Community Day Head of School Avi Baran Munro. “It’s not a job supervisor, but a colleague. We support them, giving them time and coverage to go into each other’s classrooms.”
Short of actual mentors, other schools strive to create, “an atmosphere of respect and care, which we are able to facilitate through constant communication and collaboration from faculty and [administration],” said Adam Reinherz, director of community relations at Hillel Academy. “We’re incredibly responsive to their requests for support or information.”
The actual problem of teacher retention varies year-to-year, school-to-school,” Reinherz added. Of the 50 staff at Hillel Academy last year, “we’re retaining 48.”
Likewise, the problem of teacher retention tends to fluctuate at Community Day, according to Munro.
“Sometimes it is [a problem]; sometimes it isn’t,” she said. “This past year, we had a lot of changes, some of which had to do with teachers’ life changes, other jobs that are more lucrative. Attrition is something we’re concerned about and we work to reduce it, because we invest a lot in each teacher. We hate to lose a good teacher.”
At Yeshiva Schools, “teacher retention is more of a problem in the secular department, where we are competing with public schools,” said Rosenfeld. “We don’t pay as well as they do, and that makes it difficult.”
At least one teacher new to Pittsburgh this year is an alumnus of the Pardes Educators Program. Iva Litvak will teach sixth- and seventh-grade Judaics at Community Day beginning Aug. 24, when the academic year launches.
Of the mentor support she’ll receive from Pardes, Litvak said, “I want to believe the support, which I know is excellent, will help me throughout the three years and hopefully even longer.”
Salary is, of course, merely one reason that teacher retention poses a problem to schools. Teaching is difficult, even after the first several years adjusting to classroom life. To counter teacher burnout, “our teachers are cared for, respected and promoted. They’re celebrated,” said Reinherz. “We have teachers who’ve been on staff for 30 or 40 years largely due to that fact.”
The schools that best retain teachers are those that recognize how challenging the job is, according to Pogany.
“No matter how much training you’ve had coming in,” she said, “knowing that people need support is a key component.”
The solution to the issue of teacher retention may lie in overhauling community views of the teaching profession.
“Teaching really is as skilled and demanding a profession as the legal or medical profession, but it’s never elevated itself to have the kind of long residencies, internships or mentoring of those professions,” said Munro. “Doctors have rounds; they critique each other’s work all the time. Teaching tends to be: you close the door and you’re expected to be an expert on day one.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)