By: Yael Harari, TalentEducators Chief Operating Officer
“I guess since you teach high school students, you must know something about your subject.”
“You went to Columbia, so why are you teaching?”
“You know, my daughter who is incredibly smart also decided to become a teacher, and she could have done anything. I am still not sure why she chose teaching.”
“Do NOT get a masters degree in education. It’s a waste of time and money. Get a masters in something else, you can always teach regardless.”
“Did you always want to be a teacher? I always pegged you for something more — like a lawyer or an architect.”
Those are some of the comments that I got when I told people that I was a high school English teacher. Some, like the one about the masters degree in education, were made by colleagues, and others were made by friends. And, we are probably all familiar with the derisive, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” While George Bernard Shaw was referring to revolutionaries when he made that statement, it has become commonplace to highlight the ineptitude of teachers.
Let’s get something straight. Teaching is a calling. Those who enter the classroom are almost always led there by a sense of purpose and mission, yearning to create meaning and fulfillment. I love the classroom. For over a decade, I provided students with academic skills required for the rest of their lives. I also personally interacted with them on a daily basis. My classroom was (I hope) a community, one in which literature, ideals, and respect reigned.
I come from a family of educators and grew up believing that teaching was a skill: one that was crucial and essential. Yet, I often found myself on the defensive end of questions and comments devaluing the decisions I had made and the work I was doing. It’s not that people didn’t think teaching was important, it’s just that the people around me thought that if you had potential to do something else, there was absolutely no reason to go into teaching.
After more than a decade of teaching and after making aliyah in 2014, I now work at TalentEducators, a joint project of Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Ministry and The Jewish Agency, founded in 2019 with the goal of addressing the growing challenge of recruiting and retaining high-quality educators in Jewish education.
One of the main obstacles, aside from low salaries (which is a topic for several more posts), that we find when recruiting people to Jewish education is the same thing I encountered more than 15 years ago when I began a career as a teacher. The general consensus is that if you are talented, you will “do” rather than teach.
I, of course, stand firmly opposed to this sentiment. First, I hope that if there’s one thing this pandemic has taught us is that teachers “do” a lot. Not only that, but teaching requires a specific set of skills that one must learn and acquire. It is not just the deep knowledge base that you must have in order to impart ideas, but the pedagogical skills to scaffold and support application and synthesis.
We need to approach teaching as a profession, one that people train for and receive specialized instruction in. If we want talented people to enter the field — and we know that’s what we need for the next generation — we need to reframe our perception of educators. We need to not only view them as essential workers, but also as specialists. We need to change the way that parents, employers, decision-makers, funders, and teachers themselves think about the profession. The more that the field is professionalized, the more talented people will join, kicking off a new cycle of prestige and talent. Passion and talent are particularly important in Jewish education as these educators are responsible for building blocks such as knowledge and skills, but additionally for cultivating Jewish identity. Second only to parents, educators have the unique ability to impact and change lives. There are few better ways to imbue your life with meaning aside from working with the next generation of Jewish students.
We need to reframe the question. Instead of asking talented people “Why would you go into teaching?” let’s start asking, “How can you miss this incredible opportunity?”
This article was originally published in The Times of Israel blog.