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OP-JED
OPINIONS ON JEWISH EDUCATION

The Economics of the Year-in-Israel Job Market
by Rabbi Dani Goldstein

The purpose of this essay is to raise questions that, to the best of my knowledge, have not been addressed in a systematic way: namely, how we asses the current economic status of One Year Program mechanchim. Let me say from the outset, that the issues I'd like to raise have nothing to do with salary. Mechanchim know what that they are not going to earn more than the market rates will allow their administrators to pay. No one goes into this "business" thinking they are going to get rich.

Yet, there are ancillary issues which affect the life of One Year Program mechanchim, issues that relate to respect and professionalism more than anything else. But before I outline these, a brief statement of context is in order.

It is no secret that the One Year Program market is fiercely competitive, and administrators are very sensitive to keeping their students happy. One way that administrations have dealt with the need to please is to create a smorgasbord of classes and teachers. The constant choice not only caters to the student's sense of empowerment, but also keeps them from being too unhappy. Of course, this places younger, cool teachers and younger, cool classes at a great advantage.

Whether or not this is sound education is up for debate, but presumably that is a decision for administration rather than the teaching faculty. But certainly faculty, administration, and the community at large should be very worried about the impact that the current economic realities of the one a year programs have on those who have chosen chinuch as a life's mission.

The First Impact: The Rebbe-Talmid Relationship

Yiras Shamayim, once upon a time was communicated through the relationship between Rebbe and Talmid. As Rabbi Akiva adduced: "es Hashem Elokecha Tirah- l'rabos Talmidei Chachamim." I remember from my Yeshiva days the balance between approachability and reverence. Now, short of not being called by a first name (for men) and not hanging out with students on 'Emek', reverence does not define the relationship. The moment distance is imposed, many students will not be drawn to the class. Once class enrollment wanes, a teacher is in trouble. Members of faculty know they are seen as a 'dime a dozen.' There is always a young kollel guy or wife eagerly looking to break in. In short, teachers must constantly work to make themselves more and more popular among the student body, which has a detrimental effect on their ability to be professional teachers.

The Second Impact: Teacher as "Day Laborer"

The vast faculties and array of choices offered, along with the supply of potential teachers, has enabled administrators to relate to teachers as day laborers. This has several severe economic drawbacks. First, in some institutions teachers are paid in cash, off the books, which is clearly unacceptable. Second, many teachers do not receive a set salary, paid out over twelve months. Rather they are paid on an hourly basis - they are paid for any given hour that they teach, but are not paid for an hour that, for whatever reason, they do not teach. Being paid hourly has several disadvantages:

  1. A teacher does not have the peace-of-mind to budget in advance. A two day tiyul on the same month as an unexpected dental bill could have a serious impact on a family.
  2. A teacher might be forced to make choices between, for example, working and taking a child to the doctor.
  3. Teachers who are working per class often have no idea of their rights under Israel's labor laws, which include a right to a pension plan, reimbursement for transportation, severance pay when they are laid off, as well as other things Usually, teachers who are paid a regular salary are made more aware of these issues.
  4. Despite being paid for the hours of teaching, these educators are often not reimbursed for the time that they spend working during shabbotonim, advising students, or hosting students in their homes.

The Third Impact: Lack of Stability

The most serious issue confronting the mechaneich in One Year Programs is job stability. One of the most difficult situations is to offer a course for which, for whatever reason, no one signs up. This might lead to a cancellation of the course and a loss of wages. Even if the school will come to some kind of interim agreement, every teacher knows that this is a situation which cannot repeat itself. Obviously, no one expects to collect a check for sitting in an empty classroom. But if a professional mechaneich and a professional administrator met and agreed on a certain course, then the course should meet. And, if the course does not meet or is not particularly successful, the administration should share responsibility for the problem. In one year programs, administrations often do little by way of teacher mentoring or professional advancement. Rather than offer a senior mentor to help the teacher improve, the threat of being fired serves as the best incentive to improve teaching. A struggling teacher is left on his or her own to solve any problems, with the threat of being fired hovering menacingly overhead.

Moreover, there is no standard, short of enrollment, which measures teacher performance. Thus, a very professional teacher, with a clear educational vision and classroom skills, may or may not be popular. For reasons known only to the students in the school, a teacher may find himself or herself with reduced hours or no job the next year, with no real understanding of why.

Indeed, in a the era of terms of employment that are renegotiated year to year, no teacher can safely assume that he or she will be maintained on the same level, even after a successful year. While everyone recognizes adjustments must be made in light of enrollment fluctuation, teachers have no way of predicting who will be cut (partially or altogether), despite seniority and even positive teaching. Thus, teachers must contend with several problems:

  1. Students voting with their feet might cause loss of parnassah.
  2. Job security is "like a fiddler on the roof". From year to year, a teacher's work hours will fluctuate, depending on the fickle criteria of his or her popularity the year before.

The Fourth Impact: Inability to Handle Retirement

The scariest prospect of the current status quo is what will become of teachers as they reach retirement age. Instead of heading into security, the present system offers them anything but.

  1. The older a teacher becomes, the less attractive they will be to the mass of young people coming to Israel. They might be seen as a novelty to some committed students, but by and large, once they hit the generation gap and become unable to entertain, they might expect a falling off of popularity. Instead of years of service culminating in security, we will no doubt find teachers-of-age being scaled back.
  2. Some administrators, in an effort to cut costs, might find themselves less likely to reward age and experience. It is obviously cheaper to hire a young teacher who has fewer needs financially. Couple a cheaper asking price with the glamour of youth (and the ability to engage in cultural cross-referencing) and it's almost too good to pass up.

The dynamic is very clear. Schools have no vested interest in committing to a set faculty. The risk of having a bad mix one year, or simply not being attuned to student entitlement is reason for that approach. This sets in motion a dynamic that forces teachers into a secondary role within the school-one that by its very nature robs them of stability and the ability to plan in the long range. If this trend continues, professional educators with families to support might find that they are no longer able to contribute their talents to the One Year Programs.

When discussing this issue with a number of One Year Program mechanchim, the same objection was raised time and again: administrations may or may not want to solve the problem, but in practice they won't or can't be cause it is the market that is pushing them to treat teachers in this way. When there are tens of mechanchim available for every position, when costs are high and recruitment is tough, then teachers positions will be precarious and teachers will get short changed. Under these conditions, why should anyone change the status quo?

There is really only one answer: in Yahadus, what you can do isn't always the same as what you should do. The market drives much of our lives, but it must not drive our community's relationship to our mechanchim. Clearly, administrators, looking out for their institutions attempt to save whatever money they can, and in no way have anything but personal respect and admiration for their staffs. In this sense this essay is in no way meant as a criticism. It is, however, an attempt to suggest that the employment practices within the world of One Year Programs are not as progressive as those in virtually any other field.

I would suggest that administrations consider the following:

  1. Teachers should have a clear understanding of the pay scale from the outset.
  2. Schools should convert to a twelve-month pay-scale. If that is not possible, schools should pay a teacher when a class is cancelled by the school, and should allow for a minimum number of sick and personal days.
  3. Once a teacher and an administrator have agreed on a certain course in May, the teacher should not have to resell it in September. Administrators should think about scheduling to best help each teacher and class. (i.e., "The Beatles and Halacha" should not be against the "Wisdom of Ezekiel." Rather, "The Beatles and Halacha" should be up against "The Rolling Stones and Halacha", and the "Wisdom of Ezekiel" should be against "The Wisdom of Jeremiah.")
  4. Teachers be given a professional assessment of their performance, and that assessment should be based on a great deal more than registration numbers and rumors about students'happiness. The assessment should be designed, first and foremost, to sincerely help teachers improve their teaching, rather than for the sole purpose of making staffing decisions the following year. If teachers perform satisfactorily, they should expect to have the same amount of class time in the next year. If they do not perform satisfactorily, administrations should share in the responsibility and do their utmost to help the educator improve.
  5. Schools need to find a way to use the talents of veteran teachers. Perhaps unfettered choice of classes is something that needs to be readdressed.
  6. Payment "under the table" is not good for anyone in the long run.

A concluding thought: The Gemara says: "Said R. Joshua b. Levi: The Anshei Knesses HaGedola observed twenty-four fasts so that those who write Scrolls, tefillin and mezuzos should not become wealthy-for if they became wealthy they would not write." (Pesachim 50b)

I am not aware of any fasts directed towards One Year Program mechanchim, but if the Gemara were written today, the opposite conclusion might have been reached. In order to attract good people to a field, basic levels of stability and job security must be offered. Without it, we will find that the job of "professional mechaneich" will be a relic of the past. In its place we might find only people who are committed to other lucrative positions and want to teach "on the side", or young people who can still afford to be underpaid or do not yet realize all of the downsides of this line of work. While both of the latter, no doubt, add spice to a faculty, I am not sure that the enterprise called chinuch can do without older, experienced mechanchim. If a method for creating a progressive framework for mechanchim to find job security isn't found, we may find that it is, indeed, only the independently wealthy who can afford this line of work.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the thought of ATID. They are presented here out of a conviction that compelling ideas, frankly stated, are an important element in engaging the community of Jewish educators in critical thought about our holy work.

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