A Teacher’s Plea
Rabbi Abby Sosland is an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program. She is the Morah Ruchanit (Spiritual Teacher) at Solomon Schechter High School of Westchester, but she is proudest of her role as a member of the Judaic Studies Faculty. She can be reached at email@example.com.
When I left my job as the assistant rabbi at Town and Village Synagogue in lower Manhattan, I felt ready for something different. As I considered job options, I thought about the most challenging aspect of the pulpit: teaching the teenagers in our high school program. Plus, I had missed finding time for learning in congregational life. I decided to take a year to try to get comfortable in the most uncomfortable setting I could imagine: the high school classroom. If I could master the art of teaching teenagers, it would undoubtedly help me in other areas of my life. I figured it would be a year or two, just to take some time “off.”
Nine years later, I still can’t get myself to leave. Teaching high school has turned out to be one of the most satisfying, exciting jobs I could imagine. Teaching—classroom teaching—building daily relationships with students over Torah, is endlessly interesting and challenging. Teaching Bible, Talmud, philosophy, and prayer, I am moved to laughter or inspiration many times each day, and the relationships I have built with young people are powerful beyond words. Almost once a week I hear from former students, as they call to check in, send me questions over email, or, more rarely, send me a thank you note for something they remember learning back in high school.
I know I’m not the only one who feels this sense of heightened energy in the classroom. Many friends and colleagues articulate their love of classroom teaching. There’s something so real about teaching, they say, and for many of us, the classroom connects us to the original reasons we came into Jewish professional life. We love the students who are eager to learn anything we have to say, furiously writing notes and challenging us with the most sophisticated questions. And we love the students who arrive in class with no interest, rolling their eyes and watching the clock until some moment in the discussion when their heads come off their desks and they lean in a bit closer. “Really?” they ask. “Jewish texts teach THAT?” We know that the classroom is the front line of the Jewish world, where teenagers will build lasting impressions that stick with them through life.
I feel extraordinarily blessed. But there’s a problem with all this blessing. It’s not really sustainable for most of my colleagues. It turns out that the classroom doesn’t have as much status as other jobs within Jewish professional life. And being a classroom teacher certainly doesn’t pay as much as it should.
I’m grateful to be at an institution which provides well for its teachers. Our administration and lay leaders take teaching seriously, and they are able to compensate us generously. But I’m also single, and I have no family to support. For those around the country who are the primary earners in their families, classroom teaching just doesn’t pay the bills. Many of my colleagues who would love to be teaching have left the classroom, moving to administrative positions or consulting work. These are important roles, and we need talented people doing these jobs. But for those who would prefer to be in the classroom, I am convinced that we are making a big mistake. We talk about our youth as a communal priority; the number of studies and special projects devoted to the next generation seems to suggest this. Why would we force our most gifted educators to leave the classroom when they could be inspiring young minds each day?
Our tradition, of course, puts teachers at the top of the status hierarchy. The Shulchan Aruch (the Code of Jewish law) demands that we are required to give teachers just as much respect as we give to our own parents, and when honor for our parents and our teachers conflict, the teacher takes precedence! The Talmud in Tractate Taanit relates that the great master Rav once tried to pray for rain in a drought, but his prayer was not answered. A simple man came and prayed, and it began to rain. Rav wondered what might have merited this man such a quick response from Heaven.: “What do you do?” The man answered, “I teach small children.”
Evidently, God values the schoolteacher. It’s time for the Jewish community to do the same.