In September, I’ll begin my tenth year as a Jewish Day School teacher. I have taught Judaic Studies to almost every level from kindergarten through twelfth grade, and I feel lucky to have found a career path that enables me to spend every day engaging with Jewish texts in a rewarding and purposeful way.
There’s not a lot of glory in day school teaching. It’s not prestigious work. People assume that they could walk into our classrooms and do our jobs for us, forgetting — or not believing — that we are skilled professionals. The highest-achieving students in day schools and colleges are encouraged to pursue careers in law, medicine, finance, maybe even the rabbinate — not in day school teaching. When promising young teachers arrive at new jobs, they often insist that this is just a starter job before they find their real career or advance to a higher role in their school. I was one of those teachers, until I realized that I didn’t want to work anywhere but in a classroom.
Among parents who believe that full-time immersive Jewish education is the best choice for their children, and who take on the immense financial burden of day school tuition, there is a conversation taking place about how to make the day school commitment more manageable for families. There is talk about how to address the tuition crisis, and — more recently, in these pages) — about how to make the day school schedule more accommodating for families with two working parents. Without a doubt, it is difficult for couples to manage two careers and the day school calendar. My husband and I have just begun to deal with this ourselves; our older son is in his first year of Jewish nursery school and we’re trying to figure out if either of us will be able to attend his first model seder.
When we suggest changes to the day school system that would help middle-class families — a longer school day, events on Sundays, fewer cancellations — we need to consider who the adults are who will be arriving at school at 7 am, staying until 6 pm, directing siddur plays on Sundays, giving parent-teacher conferences on weekday evenings. Day schools teachers work longer hours for far less pay than our colleagues in public schools. Your children’s teachers work tirelessly to instill Jewish values in your children, but they don’t earn enough money to send their own children to the schools where they work. (It’s true. How much is a year of full-cost tuition at your kid’s school? Depending where in the country you live, your kid’s teacher might not earn much more than that number. I certainly didn’t in my first year of full-time work in New York City.)
If we want our day schools to be staffed by teachers who are skilled in pedagogy and in their subject matter, and who are able serve as a model of intentional Jewish living, we need to start talking and thinking differently about the work that they do. Given the current tuition crisis, we probably aren’t going to raise teachers’ salaries any time soon. But even without paying us more, there can still be meaningful change. We need to recognize that having good teachers is critical for achieving positive educational outcomes, and that good teachers don’t just walk in off the street. We need to recognize that teachers cannot do their exhausting work for more than eight or nine hours a day, and that if we want them to be Jewish role models, we need to allow them time on Fridays to prepare their own Shabbat, and on erev Pesach to clean their own homes.
I am not asking that we solve all the problems today. They are systemic issues that require large-scale change, and I don’t have the answers. I am suggesting that by calling for longer school days and fewer days off, without mentioning the teachers who would need to provide these services, we reinforce the notion that teachers are dispensable. Tamar Snyder writes “I encourage heads of schools and principals, lay leaders and parents at Jewish day school to consider incorporating the suggestions mentioned above and brainstorming additional ideas. Convene a working parents group at your day school and bring the conversation about the realities facing working parents to the forefront” — yes. The conversation about how to make the day school commitment more manageable for working-class families needs to be happening. But if your child’s school initiates such a conversation, please make sure teachers are invited.