Sunday, January 06, 2008

Why would a nice kid like yourself want to be a Jewish Educator?

I'm not exactly breaking a news story when I share my concerns about the dearth of qualified Jewish educators, from heads of day schools to religious school teachers. Back in 2003, in a report on recruitment and retention for JESNA, Paul Flexner and Sandra Gold wrote:

"...There is a chronic shortage of Jewish educators at every level and in every setting. Schools, camps, and youth programs are constantly seeking staff, ranging from entry-level teachers, counselors, and advisors to the senior personnel necessary to administer institutions and programs. In an open society with few barriers for Jews, not enough young people are choosing to become Jewish educators, and not enough of those who make this choice stay with Jewish education as a lifelong career."

A positive spin on this situation could look as follows: Since there aren't enough qualified Jewish educators to go around, those who ARE qualified are going to be in greater demand. This will result in greater competition among institutions to hire those individuals. Increased competition will drive up salaries and benefit packages for Jewish educators, and those individuals will command greater respect from their colleagues in the clergy and from their lay leaders. As Jewish education becomes a more viable career path, some number of years from now we could expect to see people who otherwise would have gone into other careers instead becoming the new generation of Jewish educational leadership.

In their article in the Fall 2007 issue of Jewish Education News, Richard D. Solomon, Elaine C. Solomon, and Hana Bor observe that there are "many excellent programs designed to train candidates to become skilled Jewish teachers, administrators and leaders," and they list a dozen different academic programs around the country for this purpose. In their analysis, the challenge is to build a career ladder that will attract people into the field in the first place and provide them with step-by-step opportunities to advance in their careers (if you are a teen reading this, this is the real-world version of "leveling up"). They offer the following graphic organizer depicting "a seven stage ladder of career development for Jewish supplementary and day school teachers:"

As part of the Lookstein Center's ongoing series on "creative solutions to educational challenges," the Lookjed list recently posted Richard D. Solomon's expansion of this idea, in which he provides detailed suggestions for how each of the stages in the ladder might be organized. For example, Solomon distinguishes between the madrich/a "student aide" of stage 1, the "student teacher" of stage 2, and the "co-teacher" of stage 3 as follows:

"...The madrich or madricha is an 8th, 9th or 10th grader who is trained to serve as a paid teaching assistant and role model . . . During the 11th grade selected madrichim take course work in Judaics [and] pedagogy . . . These madrichim will be paid additionally to receive this instruction and can earn college credit for successfully completing the course requirements.

". . . At the end of the 11th grade, a select group of madrichim will be invited to become paid student teachers . . . [they] now be observing, reflecting and doing some small group teaching in the classroom of a trained mentor teacher [with the goal of acquiring such skills as lesson planning, managing student behavior, and communicating with parents].

". . . During the second semester of the 12th grade, if deemed successful, the student teacher will be invited to take on the role of a co-teacher . . . at the beginning of the second semester, the co-teacher and the mentor teacher will be engaged in co-planning. co-instructing and co- reflecting upon their learning activities. They may be engaged in team teaching where they alternate instructing the whole class, or they divide the class into small learning groups which each one directs. Upon successful completion of this stage, the co-teacher should receive a teaching certificate from the sponsoring institution . . . indicating that this teacher candidate has meet the requirements to teach specific courses at a supplemental school while attending college."

Clearly, Solomon is advocating here for the kind of systemic change that would require a partnership between schools, central agencies, academic institutions, and funders. Which is, of course, terrific, so kudos to him.

I'd suggest that we throw a few additional ideas into the mix:

  • allow for greater fluidity between religious schools, day schools, summer camps, and so on - each providing a valid route by which individuals - especially high school students - can learn the skills necessary to become Jewish educators.
  • build our youth programs to give greater leadership responsibility to the teens themselves, empowering them to take ownership for the success and failures of their events and activities.
  • look at these rungs as important stages for individuals entering the field at any age: Just because a teacher is a 2nd year rabbinical student doesn't necessarily mean that they are going to be a more competent teacher than an 11th grader. Let's look at this ladder as a potential guide for the training of any new faculty.
  • think about the additional roles, alongside teaching and mentoring, that could be played by individuals at the higher rungs of this ladder, so that they can hold full-time positions. These could include family education, running youth groups, teaching adult education classes, administrative work.
  • extend this ladder so that as people become mentor teachers, there are in turn being mentored to become school administrators. To this end, require our school leadership to provide such mentoring as one of their key job responsibilities.

As always, I welcome your feedback and thoughts about any of the ideas presented here.

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