Re-energizing the Teaching Value Proposition

How can we retain mid-career teachers amid historic shifts in the educational labor market?

When Marc, a mid-career teacher with a full slate of Judaic and general studies classes, was offered an enticing job working at a Jewish nonprofit last year, he was initially torn. He loved the classroom, but the past two years had taken their toll. He saw his responsibilities at home and work increase, but not his pay. He watched as his friends cozied up in sweatpants as they worked from home—and receive generous salary bumps—and thought, “Frankly, it would just be nice if I could use the bathroom when I need to.”

Marc, like so many of our Jewish educators, sees teaching as his calling. But the so-called “great resignation,” the ubiquitous term coined in 2021 by NYU’s Anthony Klotz, had him doubting the long-term viability of his choices. LinkedIn has tracked a significant increase in teachers updating their profiles with jobs outside the teaching field. Federal job numbers back up LinkedIn’s findings; more teachers are abandoning their professions than in any other industry. Marc left the classroom. How many more will join him?

Why Stay?

Jewish schools have relied on the intrinsic value of Jewish education to retain talent inside the classroom. To quote the classic teacher workroom poster, “It’s not about the income, it’s about the outcome.” For an increasing number of mid-career teachers I spoke to about this article, many of those intrinsic values that drove them into this career have since waned. More pressing anxieties have since filled the void: “mortgage, kids, car payments and quarantines” as one teacher put it. Yet others felt “stuck in the middle,” without a clear vision of where they see themselves. They were “treading water” in their personal and professional growth.

One consequence of the great resignation is a newfound emphasis on extrinsic job motivators: personal autonomy, job flexibility and growth opportunities. I spoke to nearly a dozen mid-career Jewish educators from several schools in both I-95 corridor suburbs and smaller “out of town” communities (but not in my school, Ida Crown Jewish Academy). I wanted to speak to mid-career professionals because they often form the backbone of school faculty, are established in their communities and are under the pressures faced by young families. They are also no longer novice teachers and have a more seasoned understanding of their careers.

Focusing on this context might yield areas of future research and action. I employed a phenomenological approach, as defined by Sharan Merriam and others, to steer the conversations and to attempt to derive meaning from these shared experiences. In speaking with these teachers, I wanted to see whether the national conversations about employees’ relationships with their jobs had trickled down into the world of Jewish education. Indeed, they had.

This cultural and labor market moment should force Jewish schools to better articulate the value proposition of this continued career path compared to other opportunities. To put it bluntly: teachers can exit the classroom and make more money working from home. In their sweatpants. “I did my time,” one teacher told me. “Why stay?”

Competing Value Propositions

For teachers, a successful value proposition reflects the complete compensation package, values and experiences that they can expect from their schools. As we think about the shifting sands in the labor force at large, it’s worth articulating the most salient value proposition for Jewish teachers.

For all: summer break, short Fridays, sick days, vacation days, Jewish holidays off; the chance to impact the lives of young people; the chance to enrich the next generation of Jewish children. For most: shorter workdays, tuition benefits, healthcare benefits, retirement benefits, life insurance, family leave; curricular autonomy, continued professional development; long-term relationships with students and the chance to impact the larger community. For a few: autonomy inside the classroom, the chance to move into more senior roles, the chance to drive schoolwide decisions, the chance to change the trajectory of the larger community.

For the mid-career professionals I spoke to, these extrinsic and intrinsic value propositions seemed compelling. For many, they remain compelling. Yet other values and, importantly, new anxieties and challenges, have eroded what was once an ironclad commitment to the profession. These new worries are worth exploring.

For all: a worry about the rising cost of housing, camp, cars and household necessities, and the inability of schools to commensurately raise salaries; health protocols; increasing numbers of students with complex emotional and learning needs. For many: increased scrutiny and distrust from parents, the inflexibility of the job coupled with the need for flexibility at home. For a few: a disappointment with the lack of kavod—respect and dignity—that they thought would be afforded to them for choosing this path; the fear of being stuck with few options down the road if they felt the need to switch careers.

Hearing this dysphoria was difficult but in no way surprising given the constraints and pressures from the last two years. Yet in speaking to these teachers, few could point to school programs that attempted to directly address these issues. Schools pivoted hard to address student concerns and rapidly increase student support. They “asked teachers to rapidly change,” one teacher told me, “but then dropped the ball in terms of longer-term support.”

Mid-career teachers valued and worried about their short-term working conditions and their long-term rewards. They also recognized schools’ limitations of financial and human resources. Yet even within these limitations, several focused interventions emerged from these conversations as a possible roadmap for reinvigorating the career’s value proposition for mid-career teachers.

These proposed interventions represent nudges rather than systematic restructuring. This list specifically sidesteps questions of compensation; as Stanford Professor Linda Darling Hammond noted in a seminal work on the subject, the pay scale is both the most effective form of support but also the least likely to change. It also sidesteps more amorphous concepts featured in various listicles across the Internet (think “build relationships” or “understand the value of time”).

Interestingly, the first series of recommendations I heard from teachers fit into what job satisfaction researcher Frederick Herzberg calls “hygienic factors,” whose absence yields dissatisfaction. They are important to maintain basic job satisfaction. My conversations also revealed so-called “motivating factors” in job satisfaction. These are factors teachers found to increase their satisfaction and desire to stay. Added together, these six granular and somewhat out-of-the-box changes may change the calculus for teachers in the field.

Hygienic Factors

Tactful Transparency. The teachers I spoke with felt comfortable, even relished, in what Dan Lortie (in his Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study) calls the symbolic “closed door” between them and administrators. Having “done my time,” as one teacher told me, “it was great to have autonomy inside my classroom. To feel trusted.”

However, when social-emotional issues arose, teachers who could rely on administrators to deal swiftly and transparently with student issues felt highly supported. With student mental-health issues on the rise, tactful transparency with teachers can help educators feel informed and sympathetic. “I know that I’m a subject teacher and not a social worker, but I also know that I can better support a student if I know about their difficult background,” an elementary teacher told me. “Don’t keep me in the dark,” another teacher said. “I know there are difficult cases. It would have made a world of difference if I just knew what was going on.”

Administrator Response Times. A strong administrative team is, of course, a key element for teacher satisfaction and retention. But drilling down on this concept revealed a pinch point: Lackluster response times to teacher emails and concerns deeply frustrated teachers. When administrators “punted it back and forth,” it “just drove me crazy,” an ex-high school teacher said. Some teachers pointed to monthlong issues that were left to fester as one reason for them contemplating leaving.

“In a supportive school, salary is important, but we knew the limitations going in, we make it work,” Yoni, a seasoned ex-teacher told me. “But if things are not going well, if the stress is high and the support nonexistent, you look at the check with frustration.” Yoni, like many teachers I spoke with, pointed to a responsive administrator as a key to making the work feel sustainable.

Substitute Teacher Systems. “It was almost easier to come in sick than to organize a sub,” a middle school teacher said. His experience mirrored the experiences of many other teachers. Interestingly, substitute-teacher systems—and the anxieties and frustrations with failed systems—kept floating to the top of many of my conversations. Clearly, more pervasive working-from-home benefits have put job flexibility on the front burner.

A mother of two young kids said that her school set up a “subbing system so that it was difficult and cumbersome to use.” She said the biggest frustration was “the unspoken judgment” she got after consecutive days of supporting sick kids at home. “It felt like I was constantly letting my school down, but I also didn’t want to let my family down,” she said.

Schools might consider permanent substitutes, competitive teacher compensation for class coverages (with various added benefits to school climate), and, most importantly, a clear and consistent system for arranging subs. This removes one important professional roadblock that can otherwise leave teachers resentful during stressful family situations.

Motivating Factors

Differentiated Adult Learning. Teacher professional development often takes the form of prescriptive, faculty-wide learning and one-off seminars. For mid-career teachers, this learning felt insufficiently personal: “Those PDs never changed my practice. It felt more like a ‘we need to do this because this is what we did last year’ kind of thing,” a high school teacher told me. One teacher said it more bitingly, “I hear nonstop that we need to differentiate with students, but I never see us being differentiated as teachers with different learning needs!”

However, mid-career teachers did light up when given the chance to discuss a longer-term project or professional learning community they engaged in or led. Some of these projects spanned more than one year, helping to break the yearly “reset” cycle that frustrates some teachers. The learning forged new relationships with students and colleagues. “Leading my PLC made me a better teacher and it made me feel that I had something unique to give to my school community,” a middle school teacher said. These PD opportunities helped entrench teachers in long-term commitments to their schools. Nonetheless, creating these multiple avenues for teacher professional development complicates school norms and schedules. Schools might consider PLCs, teacher-specific PD budgets, longer-term outside coursework and differentiated PDs to better support adult learners.

Tiered Leadership, Not Just Added Responsibilities. All the experienced teachers I spoke to had nearly full or full teaching loads in addition to various school-support responsibilities. These included grade or faculty leads, curriculum oversight or student-activities supervision. While these roles initially helped teachers engage in school decision-making, some of these roles grew stale and the responsibilities scattershot. “I knew I no longer had a passion for being the grade-level manager, but I also knew that I didn’t want to lose out on the money, so I kept it,” a teacher told me.

Schools might consider creating a new tier of leadership that sidesteps more traditional department chair, grade-level chair, teacher coach or grade-level activities coordinator. Instead, these team leaders might rotate across these roles year-to-year depending on areas of interest, growth and need. This allows teachers to partake in “job crafting” to better align their jobs with their shifting personal needs and skills. These team leaders would further distribute leadership across the school while allowing veteran teachers opportunities to sharpen their skills. Importantly, these experienced teachers wouldn’t feel “locked-in” to their previous roles.

Driving Toward a Goal. “At the beginning of my job, my head of school asked me where I imagine myself going, what my dreams are for teaching,” an ambitious teacher, now in real estate, told me. “Yet she never asked me again after that.”

Many of the mid-career teachers I spoke to felt they lost a sense of purpose that they had in their first few years of teaching. They felt comfortable in the classroom and had built up curricula they could rely upon. However, instead of feeling on their way to mastery in their craft, some felt that they were simply slogging through the mud. “Instead of supervising me,” an elementary teacher told me, “I wish my administrator understood where I wanted to grow as a teacher and helped me get there.”

Administrators might consider using classroom observations and one-on-ones to help teachers formulate both pedagogic and professional goals (as opposed to more immediate and fleeting teaching issues) so that teachers feel they have a goal in mind. Teachers can use coaching time to reflect on ongoing coursework or larger questions of teaching philosophy. “Does my principal really need to talk to me about petty classroom stuff? Does she think that still interests me?” a high school teacher confessed.

Working to Change the Calculus

Will these six shared recommendations change the calculus for teachers? “Sure, these might have kept me teaching for one or two extra years—maybe,” an ex-teacher from Florida told me. “But ultimately it comes down to what a teacher feels is best for them and their family.” At the conclusion of our conversations, many of the ex-teachers felt the same way. They were prioritizing their family’s financial futures or their own sense of professional purpose. Yet each teacher also mentioned that had schools proactively worked to update the value proposition of classroom teaching, they would have considered a few more years.

These conversations confirmed that the historic upheaval in the education labor market, and the subsequent ways it has reordered teacher priorities, has trickled down into Jewish schools. The question is not whether schools will react, but whether this reaction will be a scramble—lower standards for open positions, strained existing staff, increased class sizes—or an active articulation and modernization of the value proposition of this career path.

Author
Gavriel Brown
Issue
Value Proposition
Knowledge Topics
Professional Leadership
Published: Spring 2022