Elul is a month of spiritual growth and introspection; a time especially devoted to delving into our relationship with Hashem and teasing out the improvements we endeavor to carry with us throughout the year. Schar (reward) and onesh (punishment) are fundamental to our understanding of G-d’s workings within our physical world. Our actions determine our eventual outcome – mitzvos engender positive reward, and transgressions result in negative consequences. Rather than simply serving as a behavior modification model, this structure enables us to make informed decisions. The consequences are not immediate; they are experienced in another dimension. But we are given the parameters in order to motivate us to choose life, both in this world and the next. So while we ideally should be spurred by our deep love for G-d, we are more often influenced by fear and awe.
Similarly, our interactions with other humans rely on this principle. When we experience positive feedback, we are encouraged. When we encounter negative feedback, we are discouraged. This is a reality, a human condition. Whether or not this idea should be implemented as a strategy in our relationships—parenting for example—is an entirely different discussion (spoiler alert: NO!).
This feedback can be manifested in words, attitude, monetary compensation, or any “currency” that speaks to your motivations. It gives you a sense of your performance, and the value of your contribution as perceived by the other person. With this information, we can adjust our efforts, change course if necessary and meet the expectation of ourselves and others.
So given this idea, what does Elul mean to me as a teacher? Deeeeeep breath—this is not an easy sentence for me to write, but I feel strongly that it needs to be said. I can’t definitively say that I speak for every educator, but if the regular venting sessions I have with my peers are any indication, then I’m in good company regarding the following sentiment: I don’t feel valued or appreciated by society at large, or by the religious community that claims they can’t function without the likes of me. Now, before you all jump down my throat (it’s getting crowded in there!), let me clarify. I love my students and they (most of them, anyway) love me. I derive immense satisfaction from what I do, and I resist switching career paths, even though it’s tempting to be in a field that is more financially lucrative, and yes, prestigious. As my mother likes to remind me any time the topic of a PhD comes up, “It’s not too late!”
I’m not even specifically talking about teachers’ salaries, especially female teachers’, which should embarrass us as a community, and are definitely reflective of the way we perceive our educators. (I once made the mistake of calculating the number of hours I spent on preparation, PTA, attendance at school functions, speaking with students and oh yeah, ACTUALLY TEACHING, and came to an hourly rate that made my cleaning lady seem like the 1%! And while she’s worth it to me, and I just gave her a substantial raise….you get my point.) I’ve been on the receiving end of untold impassioned expressions of gratitude and chizuk. I’ve been encouraged and energized, inspired and applauded. But I have yet to feel as if this is anything more than well-intentioned lip-service. If I’m truly the first responder, on the front lines of today’s fight against apathy and assimilation of our youth, the resource we absolutely cannot be without—why do I still need to “choose between appetizers and dessert”, as one of my colleagues aptly put it. Why can’t I afford to pay full tuition for my own children? WHY DON’T I FEEL LIKE A PROFESSIONAL?
This is not an exclusively Jewish issue. Teachers across the country are underpaid and undervalued. I don’t even blame the administrations or the parent body specifically. I blame the cultural influence that “those who can’t do, teach”, the pervasive notion that teaching is something “anyone can do”. If this is the case, I dare you to give it a shot. My own parents have expressed concern over my chosen vocation, thinking that I could do better, do more. They’ve since recognized my unique contributions, but they (and my husband) do wish that appreciation for these contributions would be expressed in more tangible ways.
It cannot be overlooked that this notion is exacerbated by the fact that we regularly place untrained, though well-meaning and even talented, personnel in our classrooms. We assume that mastery of a subject is mastery of delivering said subject. We don’t treat our educators as professionals because we don’t perceive education as a profession. We don’t associate teaching with the mastery of a skill set the way we do with medicine, law or mental health. And until we do, our students and our children will continue to be the ones who pay the greatest price.
Too many of my peers are burning out or pursuing similar fields that make use of their talents, while offering more substantial compensation and prestige. The director of a mental health referral organization told me the story of a gifted individual who worked as a Rebbe in the morning and therapist in the afternoon. At a certain point, he needed to make a choice—where would he invest his efforts? Which profession would he wholeheartedly pursue? I interrupted the narrative. I didn’t need to hear the end to know the answer. Are there principled educators who pursue this profession—because it is a profession—passionately? Of course. I count myself among them.
Yet in this month of Elul, when we endeavor to synchronize our minds and hearts, our thoughts and actions, let us rethink the way we regard our educational professionals, and actually put our esteem—and our money—where our mouths are.