From coast to coast, headlines are sounding the alarm about critical shortages of teachers in both big cities and small towns. But in Jewish communities, the concern runs even deeper: there simply aren’t enough Jewish educators to serve as stewards of tradition and guide the next generation of Jewish families. The shortage is felt acutely, as parents and community leaders alike worry about the impact on the future of Jewish education and the preservation of cultural heritage, especially in Jewish early childhood programs.
Framing the issue as a teacher shortage may not accurately capture the complexity of the situation. Such language could potentially narrow our perspective and hinder our ability to find effective solutions to the problem at hand. The challenge isn’t simply a lack of available teachers for Jewish early childhood programs; rather, it’s a shortage of individuals who are motivated to pursue a career in this field as educators.
Consider the scenario of hiring a carpenter to construct an extra room in your home. If you propose to compensate them at the minimum wage, fail to provide them with the necessary tools to build the room, and even ask them to build it in a manner that is flawed, the result will be a room with a roof that leaks and floors that buckle. Who would ever enter a profession knowing they have an almost certain likelihood of a poor future earning potential and failing?
This is precisely what’s happening in early childhood programs. Across many states, the requirements for teaching during the critical developmental years of children are minimal, if they exist at all. In California, for example, a teacher only needs to have completed four specific courses, with none in special education. As a result, teachers enter the classroom with little or no training in classroom management, curriculum development or other essential skills. Despite the significant responsibilities of caring for young children and their families, pay rates are often minimum wage based with little or no employer benefits.
In addition, many Jewish schools are failing to keep pace with current research and developmentally appropriate practices for young children. Because they may be under-resourced or lack general knowledge in the field, administrators and teachers alike rely on outdated methods for teaching young children and integrating families into Jewish communities. They often cling to a “this is how we’ve always done it” mindset that does not account for shifts in the educational landscape. By failing to embrace new ideas and techniques, these schools risk falling behind because they miss out on opportunities to enhance the quality of education they provide. Moreover, this reluctance to evolve can deter passionate and skilled educators from joining the field, as they seek environments that prioritize professional growth and embrace best practices.
In reality, the issue at hand is not really a teacher shortage. Rather, we are facing a shortage of mandated teacher requirements that adequately prepare individuals for the demanding work of early childhood education, coupled with fair and appropriate compensation for this work. Additionally, there is a need for programs that cultivate and develop teachers as skilled professionals who are passionate about their work and feel supported by their administration, communities and stakeholders.
In addressing the challenges that lie ahead, it is clear that mere words are insufficient. It is in this context that the work being undertaken at the American Jewish University assumes even greater significance. Our institution is committed to cultivating effective leadership and advocacy through our early childhood education B.A., M.A., and Ed.D. degree programs, which are specifically tailored to address the critical issues of teacher training and community building.
However, the pursuit of our mission requires collaborative efforts with other Jewish institutions, including synagogues, JCCs and day schools. Together, we can strive towards a shared objective of enhancing teacher training and retention by making direct investments in the educational pursuits of aspiring teachers. By establishing scholarships, these institutions send a resounding message that “early childhood education is a pivotal gateway to thriving Jewish communities. We understand the immense importance of early childhood education, and we are committed to empowering you to strengthen our Jewish communities. Together, through scholarships and collective efforts, we can shape a brighter future, fostering a strong sense of identity and belonging for generations to come.”
Let us join forces and invest in our teachers, empowering them to shape the lives of our youngest generation and fortify the foundations of our Jewish communities.
Tamar Andrews, Ed.D., is director of early childhood education programs at American Jewish University.
This blog originally appeared in eJP on June 22, 2023.