Monday, March 17, 2008

Those Who Can - Do. Those Who can't -Teach?

Do people go into education only if they are not capable of succeeding at anything else? That is the way some people think. But it is a grossly unfair generalization to say that and in my view it isn’t so. At least not for the majority.

If it were mankind would be doomed to live in the dark ages. Too few people would be able to overcome the odds of being given a poor education. And in the Torah world there would be far less Jewishly educated students and far more dropouts from observance.

This does not mean that all teachers are qualified for their positions. There are plenty who aren’t. The question really should be how many are really qualified and among those, how qualified are they.

There is a much debate about this issue of the competence of teachers in the Torah world. One side of the argument is any incompetence is due to low salaries. Torah teachers are underpaid do not therefore attract the best and brightest people. The thinking goes that those that can’t make it in other jobs default down to the lower paying teacher jobs. That is the argument for the secular world and even more so in the Torah world.

But the matter is far more complex than that. I suppose there are those people who go into teaching because of their inability to succeed at other jobs. But in the Torah world I think that is a minority.

In my experience at least, most of those who go into Chinuch are highly motivated to do so. They do it L’Shma. The teachers listed in my bio above prove my point. Each one I mentioned is a giant in education and revered by thousands of former students – from the very young ones, to young married ones. For those Mechanchim money was never the motivation. For them, Chinuch was or still is a calling.

Most of the teachers I have come into contact with as a student, parent, or board member in various schools are truly dedicated to their craft. Their goals are to help young people develop their full potential.

This does not mean to say all are equally qualified. Of course they aren’t. But in my experience most are.

My own daughter serves as an example. She teaches both Limudei Kodesh and Limudei Chol. Classes she has taught over the years have included high school AP courses in biology, chemistry and physics. She has also taught regulars and remedial courses in those subjects. Currently she also teaches Navi as well.

Her qualifications? She has gone through all of Tanach on her own several times with many Meforshim. This is in addition to her two years in an Israeli seminary for women in Israel. Her Limudei Chol credetials include a bachelors degree with a double major in education and biochemistry. She is certified by the state in all of the disciples she teaches. Her motivation is high and she continually upgrades her skills by attending teaching seminars.

She has had opportunities to teach in suburban high schools for far more pay than she receives now plus full health care coverage. Science teachers are in high demand and short supply - so the salaries offered her are pretty high. She turned them all down.

She wanted to teach Jewish children how to be good Jews. And she is exactly the role model to do it. By teaching Limudei Chol to young bright minds while being a fully observant she is a role model for those students. And she is not the only one like that in her school.

Of course there is always some incompetence in any major school system. Every school has teachers that shouldn’t be teaching. But it is not the majority, in my view.

It is also true that if salaries were higher Jewish education would attract better teachers. But it isn’t only about the money. Although certainly part of it - it is the lesser part in my view.

Part of the problem is the source of many Mechanchim. Most of those who go into Chinuch are from the Charedi world of Yeshivos where opportunities to pursue other professions are either closed or discouraged and made difficult to pursue. One must be highly motivated to leave the Charedi Yeshiva system and get a higher education which is required for many of these professions. Chinuch then becomes the default profession. That is the natural choice for people whose lives have been involved in learning Torah full time. Chinuch’s greater attraction to Charedim perforce increases both the percentage and the numbers of applicants.

This is truly a problem. Not that all Charedi Mechnchim are bad. On the contrary. The ones I know are quite good. But greater numbers of applicants due to the limited career choices will inevitably produce a greater number of incompetent teachers. Many of those are ill prepared to actually teach. And the students end up paying the price.

The problems in Chinuch are a lot more complex than I have presented them here. I have only scratched the surface. For example there is the gross inequity of pay between male and female teachers. There are Halachic issues about firing teachers who are not grossly incompetent. The bottom line is that the system is not as bad as some believe it to be. But it is in desperate need of some major repairs. How to fix it? Good question.