Rachel Rosenthal teaching students and their parents in the Dr. Beth Samuels Drisha High School program
I had my first teaching experience as an 8th grader, leading groups at my synagogue. I was immediately in love. The person I became when I was teaching — confident, funny, charming, and able to command the attention of small children and their parents — amazed me. I went on to volunteer as a tutor and teach Hebrew School throughout high school and college, so when I had to face the realities of graduation, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I would move back to New York and become a teacher.
What I forgot was that New York is expensive, and teaching is not lucrative. When I accepted a job teaching at a Jewish day school in 2006, I found out that my salary would be $28,000 for the first year, without benefits. Although the low number shocked me, research showed that it was standard across the board. After paying for health insurance and having taxes taken out of my paycheck, that meant that I received $762.50 on the 15th and 30th of each month, for a total monthly take home pay of $1,525. This was for my full time job, 10 months a year, 7 and a half hours a day. The take home number is above minimum wage, but not by much. This is what we are paying the people we are trusting with educating out children.
In her piece “Making Jewish Day School Work for Working Parents,” Tamar Snyder highlights a number of challenges faced by working parents when it comes to schooling, including hours that don’t easily allow for 9-5 jobs and many days off. Her points are important, and especially as we continue to discuss the tuition crisis, will only become more relevant unless something dramatically changes. However, it is equally important to remember that the teachers in those classrooms, the ones we are trusting with creating a love of Torah and a knowledge of multiplication in the next generation, often cannot take on more time in school, because they have to work other jobs to make ends meet.
When I was a full time teacher, I had three side jobs during the year, in addition to working in the summer. I tutored, I stayed after school to do paperwork for other teachers, and I led groups on Shabbat. I worked at camp over the summer. I took the occasional babysitting job. I lived in a tiny little room to keep my rent low, and thought twice about every expenditure. I was constantly stressed about money, and I am certain that those competing commitments and stresses were sometimes an impediment in my ability to do my job properly. I suffered for it, and I worry that my students did as well. (Ironically, I am far more financially secure as a graduate student and part-time educator outside of the day school system, than I ever was as a full time educator within that system.)
So yes, it would help to move school events to Sundays or first thing in the morning, to expand the school year, and offer aftercare options. However, without thinking about how we can better support, and compensate, our teachers so that those expansions are viable, the conversation will always be incomplete. Until we pay our teachers according to their worth — until we offer them the respect and compensation they deserve — these expansions, changes and accommodations will only put further stress on some of the most important people in our children’s lives.
The gemara in Sanhedrin tells us that anyone who teaches someone, it is as if he or she has created him. I think we can all understand the sentiment behind this idea, because we have been lucky enough to have teachers who helped shape us into who we are today. In Judaism, teachers are traditionally among the most valued in society, deserving of the same respect as one’s parents. And yet, we have built a system that does not suggest that we value them at all. Our teachers can’t afford to send their kids to the schools they teach in, and they are forced to choose between making ends meet and giving their students their undivided attention. So yes, let’s work on accommodating working parents, and on giving kids more chances to learn and grow. But let’s also start showing our teachers that we value them as part of that process. Let’s put our money where our mouths are.
Rachel Rosenthal is a PhD candidate in Rabbinic Literature at JTS and a member of the faculty at the Drisha Institute, where she teaches Talmud.