Where have all the teachers gone?
EducationLocal schools struggle with ‘difficult market’

Where have all the teachers gone?

“It’s been hard to hire teachers,” he said. “It’s getting harder and harder for the past five, six years. Every year, there are fewer responses to our ads."

Photo by Brigitte Werner.
Photo by Brigitte Werner.

Good help is hard to find. Just ask Adat Shalom Synagogue Executive Director Lisa Rothstein.

The congregation has had a large turnover in its religious school staff this year — partly due to retirements and teachers moving away from the area. Rothstein said she’s struggling to replace them.

“It’s just an odd coincidence of factors coming together, which is unfortunate,” Rothstein said.

The executive director posited that location might be one reason for the hiring difficulties. Adat Shalom is in Cheswick, near Fox Chapel. That means a half-hour drive for anyone living in Squirrel Hill.

And while the drought is felt across all teaching positions, Rothstein said the school is hardest hit in its Hebrew instruction.

“I find that there are fewer that are able to teach Hebrew,” she said. “We can be more creative with teaching Judaica but not with Hebrew.”

National trend
Adat Shalom isn’t alone in its struggles. The trend appears to be national and is affecting not only synagogues but day schools and non-Jewish educational institutions, as well.

According to Labor Department statistics, more than 1,400 workers quit their jobs in April. Those numbers are in line with a February article in the Wall Street Journal that explained that “the rate of people quitting jobs in private educational services rose more than any other industry in 2021, according to federal data.”

In an article published by weareteachers.com, 55% of teachers surveyed by the National Education Association said they were now planning on leaving the profession earlier than they had planned.

“Approximately 45% of new teachers leave the profession within the first five years,” Rabbi Mitch Malkus, head of school at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School of Greater Washington, told eJewishPhilanthropy.

The cost of Jewish living
Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh Principle and Education Director Rabbi Sam Weinberg said that while the day school he oversees isn’t looking for new teachers, he acknowledged that, generally, schools are facing a tough market.

“The teaching climate is very difficult — it’s harder in Hebrew — but even general studies, it’s a really difficult hiring market,” he said.

Weinberg pointed to fewer people going into education and, for those who want to, the high cost of Jewish living can be an obstacle.

The principal isn’t simply pontificating on possible causes — he’s speaking from experience.

“It’s been hard to hire teachers,” he said. “It’s getting harder and harder for the past five, six years. Every year, there are fewer responses to our ads. Some of the major graduate programs have been graduating fewer and fewer people. It’s definitely a difficult time to hire teachers.”

Help wanted signs
Like Adat Shalom, Congregation Dor Hadash is looking for several new teachers. Those who are leaving the Reconstructionist after-school program aren’t feeling burnt out or seeking larger salaries; they are leaving Dor Hadash to enter rabbinic school.

Trying to fill the gap created by these future rabbis is a challenge for Principal Karen Morris, especially when it comes to potential college-aged teachers.

“For some, it’s a scheduling issue,” she said. “They have to figure out if their school schedule will allow them to work. They can’t have a class at 4:30 p.m.”

Morris doesn’t think there’s a lack of people qualified to teach Hebrew, though.

“Young people have multiple jobs already, and some don’t want to take on another teaching job,” she said.

“A two- or three-year tour”
Rabbi Larry Freedman is the director of the Joint Jewish Education Program, a collaborative, pluralistic religious school that includes Rodef Shalom Congregation and Congregation Beth Shalom. He’s had luck filling teacher positions with a balance of local college students and parents. Of course, he could always use more.

“I would love to have more parents do a two- or three-year tour,” he said. “I’m happy to have them rotate out. It’s not a permanent job. Finding Hebrew teachers is trickier. The good news there is that there are teachers who are young and energetic and know Hebrew. They’re young though, so there’s a different form of coaching I need to do.”

Unlike the expectations of a private school education, synagogue programs like J-JEP and those at Adat Shalom and Dor Hadash are geared toward b’nai mitzvahs. As a result, Freedman noted, a college student connected to Jewish life will often have enough skill to teach the Hebrew required for the students to learn the prayers.

“Some of them are really into their synagogue youth group and very connected,” he said. “They’re smart. They’ve learned Hebrew. It’s likely that some of them take Hebrew in university.”

Creative solutions
Despite, or perhaps because of, a difficult hiring market, some congregations have developed creative solutions for their educational needs.

Adat Shalom and Dor Hadash have launched a cooperative effort, sharing teachers.

“It’s great because we’re a Sunday/Tuesday program, and Dor Hadash teaches on Wednesdays,” Adat Shalom’s Rothstein said. “It was a nice carrot because we could work with teachers if they wanted more hours.”

The relationship, she said, is “symbiotic.”

She fears, though, that both time pressures and the rising cost of gas might prevent some teachers from being interested in teaching at both locations.

Beth El Congregation of South Hills Director of Education Rabbi Amy Greenbaum said the Conservative congregation is fully staffed and that she works hard on retention. The religious school, she noted, took a hard look at how it was preparing students for b’nai mitzvahs during the pandemic.

“We were meeting on Zoom on Sundays, and then our kids were getting one-on-one tutoring on Zoom in Hebrew,” Greenbaum said. “It was so effective that we continue to do that. Now, we’re in person on Sundays but we’re on Zoom for 25 minutes, one-on-one, once a week with a teacher, and it’s incredibly effective. For that, some of our teachers aren’t here. We have teachers in New York and D.C.. That also frees us up, so we have a wider pool of teachers.”

Weinberg said Hillel Academy works hard to remain competitive.

“We try and deal with the hand we’re dealt through signing bonuses, retention bonuses, stuff like that,” he explained.
Other communities have various creative strategies that could be emulated here, some educators say.

Morris said that when she lived in Chicago in the ’90s, there was an organization called the Board of Jewish Education that served as a conduit between teachers looking for work and institutions hiring.

“That’s how I worked,” she said. “They took my resume and served as a teacher recruitment service.”

The religious school principal said she would love to see the same type of service established in Pittsburgh.

The teacher shortage, Weinberg said, is two-fold: People are retiring and leaving the field, and not enough people are entering it.

“It’s something we’re aware of,” he said. “We realize we have to make sure to keep recruiting and keep pounding the pavement.”
Like any good teacher, Weinberg stays optimistic.

“It’s harder but not impossible,” he said. PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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