Trying To Fill The Teacher Gap


Recognizing the shortage of qualified teachers as one of the most serious problems in Jewish education, a group of major funders has launched a $3 million national fellowship program, starting in Boston and Los Angeles, to attract, train, inspire and retain top-quality educators in day schools.

The program, known as DeLet — Day School Learning Through Teaching, and Hebrew for “door” — this month began training 18 teachers through an intensive 13-month initial phase designed to provide them with summer preparatory workshops and practical experience in the classroom as well as collaboration with a network of professional colleagues.

In the second phase, fellows will be asked to commit to teaching two more years in a day school while pursuing an advanced degree, either a master’s in Jewish education and/or a state teaching credential. In return, DeLet will pay them $10,000 toward tuition costs.

Josh Elkins, executive director of Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE), a collaborative initiative of major philanthropic partners to strengthen Jewish day schools, said the real problem is not finding teachers but retaining them — particularly at a time when more day schools are being built, especially non-Orthodox ones, and the need for teachers is more acute.

“The way we induct them can be horrific and they tend to leave within five years,” according to Elkins, who believes the DeLet program “is one of the most promising developments to come along” because it is trying a different approach. “The idea is to invest heavily in high-quality people and get them in the door. We haven’t see that kind of bold vision and entrepreneurial spirit applied to retaining good teachers in five decades.”
DeLet is the brainchild of Laura Heller Lauder, who was inspired by her participation several years ago in the Wexner Heritage Foundation’s training program for laypeople in Jewish education and leadership.

Lauder, of Palo Alto, Calif., “hated Sunday school” as a child and did not go to a day school. But as a result of the Wexner experience, she became involved as a parent in the local Jewish day school and came to believe in the importance of providing children with a strong Jewish identity through day school education.

In October 2000 she attended a PEJE conference and asked Elkins and Jon Woocher, president of the Jewish Educational Service of North America, what one thing they would change about day schools. They spoke of the teacher problem, which led to numerous other conversations and, eventually, a plan to address the issue in a thoughtful and meaningful way, combining motivation, practical skills and the means of funding the program that became DeLet.

Using the PEJE model of philanthropic partners, Lauder attracted about 10 other major philanthropists to participate with Lauder, including Charles and Andrea Bronfman, Edgar Bronfman, Michael Steinhardt and the Crown family. The initial budget is $3 million for the pilot project.

Ideologically as well, DeLet is a natural outgrowth of PEJE, believing that day schools are the best way to transmit pride and interest in Judaism in the next generation. One challenge, Lauder said, is to convince funders who have had no personal experience with day schools in the value of that mission.

A critical element of the program is that all the fellows will be trained in teaching and integrating Judaic and secular subjects in the curriculum.
“So teaching about the holiday of Thanksgiving could include talking about freedom in America and the Exodus of the Jews,” said Lauder. “We’re looking for teachers and schools comfortable with that concept.”

Glenna Halperin, 21, of Westchester, found that model one of the appealing aspects of DeLet.

“I want to bring my excitement for teaching to others and incorporate Jewish values,” said Halperin, a recent graduate of Haverford College who is a DeLet Fellow. She said she was also attracted to the program because of its academic atmosphere, instant network of professional colleagues and arrangement where she can learn from, and be critiqued by, a mentor-teacher.

Ten fellows are based at Brandeis University in the Boston suburb of Waltham, which is offering courses for DeLet, and eight are at the Rhea Hirsch School of Education of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. Each will teach in nearby schools affiliated with the program.

Halperin will intern this year in a first-grade class at the Rashi School in Newton, Mass., one of the nine day schools in New England and California working with DeLet.

Though she attended Jewish schools from nursery through bat mitzvah, Halperin said Judaism only became central to her life after traveling in France two summers ago and finding the need to connect with Jews while far from home. Last summer she enjoyed being a counselor at a Reform camp, where she says she grew in spirituality and Jewish knowledge, and now wants to make a career in Jewish education.

“I’ve heard that there are no health benefits when you retire,” she said, “but to me, a happy way of life is more important than money.”

Her attitude is not uncommon. While low pay is often cited as the major reason why it is so difficult to find first-rate teachers for Jewish schools, experts suggest that the larger problem is insufficient recognition and support to allow educators to feel valued and appreciated.

The key, according to Sara Lee, director of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education, is “to make sure these fellows will be prepared for success rather than failure and disappointment.” Low salaries are a long-term retention issue, according to Lee, who acknowledges that teachers need “a livable wage.” But she added that there are other types of rewards, and that successful schools are the ones that “invest in teachers” by treating them with dignity. That includes “building a culture around teaching,” like providing professional development and creating a vision and environment of excellence, in addition to practical assistance, like offering good medical benefits.

Lee, the co-chair of DeLet’s academic and professional advisory committee, said there is “a tremendous dropout rate of day school teachers who don’t get sufficient support to grow professionally.”

DeLet is not the only new program addressing the shortage of Jewish teachers. This fall the modern Orthodox group, Edah, will recruit 15-18 young college graduates to teach Judaic studies in Modern Orthodox and nondenominational schools in the San Francisco area, Chicago and South Florida. Called the Jewish Teacher Corps, the program — funded by the Avi Chai Foundation — will offer mentoring and training for people who commit to teaching for two years, starting in fall 2003. Unlike DeLet, which hopes to train career teachers, the Jewish Teacher Corps is focusing on people who are considering other professions but would like an opportunity to serve the community first. The hope is that a small percentage will be inspired to continue as teachers, and the rest will use their teaching experience to become more sensitive Jewish lay leaders.

Officials with the University of Judaism in Los Angeles are also discussing a teacher recruitment program, one that might target birthright israel alumni and other young Jews to teach for a few years in day schools and congregational schools. However, that program has not yet secured funding.

Past efforts, Lee noted, have not joined teachers “to a serious training program or provided them with mentoring in a structured way that really supports them.” DeLet offers both, she said, through an intensive summer program to prepare the fellows for the classroom, then a full academic year as an intern in the classroom, followed by another summer of academic and practical training. Throughout this time, the fellows will be meeting with each other, with experienced mentors and teachers, and participating in seminars and workshops.

Daniel Bar Nahum, 21, the only male among the DeLet fellows, enjoyed teaching Hebrew school while in high school and during college. But recognizing that “there’s a big difference between teaching 40 hours a week in the classroom and three or four,” he wants to see if he’ll still enjoy the experience as much as he has until now. He said DeLet will give him the chance to find out “if teaching is the career for me,” and to be mentored along the way.

Bar Nahum, who graduated this spring from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., will be an intern in the elementary grades at the Alperin Schechter day school in Providence, R.I.

“I’ve always wanted to do this and I hope I can make a difference,” he said, noting that he hopes to teach sixth- through eighth-graders because “they’re the most impressionable, and maybe it’s the last age you can still make that impact on them.”

Jane West Walsh, executive director of DeLet and the key recruiter in the program, notes that all of the fellows share “a deep passion about serving the Jewish people, and many have had powerful Jewish learning experiences themselves.” They are enthusiastic and they want to transmit their idealism, she said.

Walsh and the other educators realize that the day school teaching problem will not be solved overnight, and they caution against unrealistic expectations. But they are hopeful that DeLet could lead the way toward a new sense of professionalism and respect among Jewish teachers, not only attracting people who might otherwise not consider such a career but retain them by integrating them into a community of what Walsh calls “caring educators and lifelong learners.”