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Inverting the Triangle: Reimagining This So-Called Profession

♦ by Barbara Rosenblit

Covenant Award winner and widely admired Jewish educator Rosenblit here offers a potent challenge to Jewish day schools and the educational field more generally: to envision what it would look like to take teaching seriously as a profession.

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, How can we know the dancer from the dance?

W. B. Yeats, “Among School Children”

Paul Simon gave a series of lectures at Emory University this fall about being a songwriter. He talked frankly about his Inner Critic, strong of voice and purpose, who discourages his best efforts and mocks and criticizes him and about that tender, mysterious and vulnerable place in which the soul of the artist floats, just out of view. I was struck, listening to him over three days, by how much the life of the teacher imitates the life of the artist. We, too, work in a public sphere, subject to our own Inner Critic’s whining admonishments, always exposed, visible, vulnerable, the audience invited to criticize, yet we too can be deeply transformative—or, as our Inner Critic warns, shruggingly ordinary.

The professional path of a teacher, though, is better understood using the metaphor of the assembly line. The drone working at the conveyer belt, doing what he’s asked, if successful and willing, progresses from lineman to shift manager to site manager to supervisor, perhaps to boss. Salary increases are promised at each juncture, and that pinnacle offers social respect as well as financial reward. Those drones left behind, productive though they may be, clearly lack ambition or they would have been promoted, set free from the drudgery of “the line.”

My point? Once a “profession” is understood as a first step to something else—lecturer, director, curriculum designer, head—then it is no longer a profession: it is a placeholder. It is a first step up a professional ladder that, by its very structure, devalues its own. What a peculiar inverted career ladder: professional and financial reward for a teacher means leaving the classroom behind.

Thus we witness and bemoan the dismantling of the teacher-as-artist by constructing a career ladder that celebrates management over classroom acumen. We are rewarded for moving “up and out” because “out” is where we have placed money, status, public recognition and agency for those in education. And herein lies the problem: initiatives to keep the best teachers engaged and satisfied for the long haul can’t work until the top rung of the ladder is peopled by the best teachers, not by their managers.

Do I need to make the case for great teaching worthy of capping the pinnacle of the pyramid? Did you never have one of “those” teachers? Your own Mr. Yglesias who swooned as he read us poems and we saw that teaching can look like levitation, can even lift you out of your seat and transfix you in midair? Your own Mr. Grossman who called us his flock, called himself our shepherd, and herded us through that valley of shadows known as biblical poetry? Your own Mr. Bernstein, whose art history courses uncovered what was hidden in plain sight, who gave us eyes? Your own Dr. Blumenthal, who insisted we take hold of holy texts and gave us license to add our voice to the conversation? Does any teacher come to mind for you? If not, you are the poorer. How could you know, then, that teaching is not interchangeable line work but aspires to virtuosity—slow, measured, skilled, purposeful, and profoundly beautiful.

“What we need more than anything else is not textbooks,” Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “but text people. It is the personality of the teacher, which is the text that pupils read: the text that they will never forget.” We say it. We quote it. We repeat it. We give talks about it. We elegize it. We talk and talk and talk the talk. But we don’t walk the walk. If we did, teaching would be a profession that elicits awe and respect when disclosed. More familiar is the response, “Still in the classroom? I thought you’d have moved on and up by now!”

Can we talk about real schools? Our managers create a laundry list of expectations for those still on the line. Besides “teaching,” a partial list of expectations includes counseling and weekly check-ins and phone calls and meetings with parents, tutoring during lunch and before and after school, staffing tefillah programs and shabbaton weekends, club advising and articles for the website, summaries of student progress and updating online grades each week, attending sports events to show support, monitoring lunch and detention duty, designing programs for potential parents or current grandparents or prospective students, running advisory programs that assume expertise in drugs or bullying or sexting.

And beyond that, we are asked to demonstrate the skills of the generalist: to teach all students equally well, ranging from those with extensive learning and behavior profiles to the most intellectually able, to guide students at every level, to never lose patience and to always inspire, even in subjects in which we may have neither interest nor expertise because, we are told, there is “no one else” to do it. And we mop up extra time in the day covering absent colleagues’ classes as uncompensated “in-house” substitutes.

The salary structure assumes that one can’t afford to stay in the classroom without serious financial compromise. Compensation of teachers unapologetically assumes a second family earner who, ideally, can also provide decent benefits and retirement security. Our profession devours its own.

Educators across fields, and that include ours, wax loud and eloquently about teachers who know their fields and model for students what a lifetime of curiosity and intellectual fireworks looks like. But mostly we no longer aspire to virtuosity and we don’t ask the questions that deserve long and self-reflective answers. Let’s face down the elephant that has taken up permanent residence in the faculty room. We insistently bemoan mediocrity, criticize current teaching models, think about how technology will enliven and encourage learners who do or don’t care, navigate our way through the briars and pinpoint where the bells and whistles stop and the engagement begins.

We talk day and night. But let’s stare down the fact that the best and brightest aren’t interested in ending up in a dead end job with endless expectations and few enhancements. We can wax poetic about our calling, but without a paradigm shift, nothing substantive will draw great talents in and make it inviting to stay.

The National Council on Teacher Quality described teaching as “an industry of mediocrity.” Are our concerted efforts at creating a Jewish teacher corps of talented, able, trained, intellectually curious and professionally engaged young people paying off? On many measures, the answer is yes. There are now post-collegiate opportunities to both learn and be taught to teach Jewish subjects in Jewish schools, to sharpen and even practice the craft. The value of intensely mentoring new teachers is no longer a new notion (though schools’ ability to provide what they promise new teachers is often exaggerated). But I am always somehow caught off guard when I hear how we, like proud parents, brag about the ones who have moved “up.” I myself am sad when the great ones, or at least the ones with great potential, leave to become directors or heads or whatever else forces them out of the classroom.

And with further irony, when the great teachers are tapped and leave for administrative positions, they suffer. I’ve been there, and I know. Succumbing to the arguments that one can impact more children by teaching other teachers, by running a program, by designing curriculum, by giving workshops on how to teach (now that you no longer do), I have been prey to those lures. And I have been surprised at how easy these jobs are to me compared to the demands of daily, ongoing classroom life. But I ricochet back, not because I am a masochist looking for hard, often maligned and always exposed (yet in many ways invisible) work, but because teachers have the power to launch the students they teach up, away, and out, beyond us.

Come now and imagine. Imagine with me what teaching would look like if we truly believed that teaching is not a place to begin but a place to be.

Teaching’s career ladder would encourage only the best and brightest on the first rungs because the very best would hold endowed chairs with compensation matching any administrator’s.

Teaching would provide regular and heralded opportunities for funded sabbaticals, from which you would return renewed, revitalized, ideas alive, recharged.

The teaching day would be structured so that time would no longer be the foe of learning, cushioning the pressurized day of public visibility with private time to become self-reflective, self-corrective, self-aware teachers. There would be time to meet, to talk, to think, to muse, to imagine, to create, compose, engage, invent, and to connect.

Teachers would be on a continual path of serious learning. For the best teachers, stretching intellectually is as vital as breathing. Yet we regularly infantilize teachers with what we offer as educational opportunities. One of the most reliable jokes for an audience of teachers attending a “professional development” workshop is this one: “Dear Lord, please let me die at a staff development workshop. The difference between being alive and being dead is so indiscernible that I probably won’t even notice I’ve died.”

In my own perfect system, energy would vibrate around the idea of curriculum; it would be the jewel in the school crown, organic and fluid and malleable, not be a puzzle where separate pieces lock together but a collage, where seemingly unrelated ideas juxtapose, shifting over time to make new meaning. There would be time for curiosity, for charged conversations, and tolerance for risk-taking among teaching colleagues. With the freedom to erase the boundaries between disciplines, the word “text” would expand beyond Mikrah or Mishnah. A Yom Kippur text could become a Rembrandt self-portrait, a Bereshit text a Haydn oratorio, a text about exile and exodus—a canto from Dante, a Jewish history text—a vintage handbag and the woman who carried it.

Teaching would no longer be viewed as a gladiator sport, with young teachers thrown into the lion’s den trying to survive through their wits. There would be time to watch the masters work and we would come to know what it looks like when students want to be in the room.

The best and brightest would be teachers. Supporting and compensating them and their artistic gifts would be an essential vision of the school.

Can you now imagine what teaching would be if we truly believed that teaching is not a place to begin but a place to be? Surrounded by like-minded souls and hovering in that zone where disciplines overlap and ideas create new bonds, where there was time to think and create, where teachers would be specialists and not generalists, the line work done by paraprofessionals, teachers would find paradise. Can you imagine such a place?

I can.

It would cost money. And in my ideal system, inverting the pyramid means that money would shake out as it upends.

Indulge me a final image. When all is said and done, a teacher as artist is allowed only two stage props, a mirror and a window. With the mirror, teachers can see their own reflections and see who they are. And through the window they train their eyes to what lies beyond themselves. Can we employ these mirrors and windows to both examine and energize our profession? Or are the influential guardians of the pyramid they have constructed going to protect and maintain, at all costs, the structure over which they preside?♦

Barbara Ellison Rosenblit, a humanities and Bible teacher and director of mentoring at The Weber School, was one of the recipients of The Covenant Award in 2004. barbararosenblit@gmail.com

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