Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Who will teach Religious School?

Last Spring, I participated in a panel convened by JESNA to discuss its recently released study of Educators in Jewish Schools.


The report confirmed what we had all already suspected - that just as Religious Schools are finally being taken seriously by the Jewish world, and as we are starting to see increased investment in their success, we are facing a teacher shortage. This may not sound like new news: After all, since at least as far back as the 60s we have heard that there are not enough qualified teachers to go around. What has changed is that now its becoming harder to find people who even WANT to teach in a Religious School (or a Day School), qualified or otherwise. JESNA cited all the reasons you would expect - low salaries, a general lack of respect for the position, and so on. Another segment of the panel presentation is posted here, in which I express my concerns about competition between institutions for a shrinking number of qualified professionals and note the trend towards individuals working as "home tutors" rather than school teachers.

Here is my favorite section of the JESNA report:

Teen Labor. These are the 32% of Jews in Jewish work who first entered the sector through part time or summer jobs held during their high school and college years, and who have continued in Jewish sector work ever since. If we include those who left Jewish work for some period of time before returning, the majority (52%) of Jews working in our six Jewish communities started when they were in high school or college. Most of those who held jobs as teens were camp counselors (35% of all Jewish workers) and/or religious school teachers (27%) and/or youth group advisors (14%). Not many held internships (5%).

We regard this finding as especially significant. Camps, religious schools and youth groups are American Jewry’s primary gateway into Jewish sector work, providing Jewish communities with about half of their Jewish personnel. Although designed as educational venues to socialize children, these organizations have a substantial, perhaps unintended, consequence for American Jewish life through their role as employers of teenagers and young adults.

One idea that I'm increasingly hearing being floated is the creation of a Jewish "Teach For America," that would attract students just out of college to spend a year or two teaching in a Jewish school (Chabad, as usual, is ahead of the curve with their "roving rabbis" shlichut program, which places rabbinical students in various under served Jewish communities). While this idea is quite attractive, it would face a number of significant challenges (besides funding and organization) - most importantly, perhaps: Ensuring that the participants have not only a support network but also a peer network (teaching can be a lonely business, after all).

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