Teacher’s Salary Crisis
December 16, 2021
Are we asking the impossible of our teachers?
We have come to expect their utter devotion to their students and their constant availability to parents, tutors, and therapists. We take for granted their beautiful sheets, well-structured lessons, and positive, stimulating energy. They provide all this faithfully, unfailingly, while bringing home a paycheck that cannot cover even basic expenses.
Many teachers are their families’ sole breadwinners, and these busy mothers are forced to take on late-night or early-morning side jobs just to survive. Today’s salary structure drives dedicated teachers out of the field and deters potential morahs from entering it to begin with.
Where did we go wrong, and what can we do to fix it?
Join our roundtable discussion as we tackle these and other issues.
Mrs. Sori Rottenberg*: Former girls’ elementary school teacher, mother of three, husband learns in kollel
Mrs. Rochel Kraus*: Girls’ elementary school teacher, mother of five, husband learns in kollel
Torah Umesorah: By developing and providing extensive resources and programs, Torah Umesorah ensures that frum children everywhere benefit from the highest standards of Torah education.
TVOL: Is money the main problem when it comes to teacher retention?
Mrs. Rottenberg: Absolutely yes! I supported my husband in kollel while teaching for five years. During that time, I was constantly searching for ways to supplement what was, unfortunately, a pitiful salary. That included working side jobs at night, staying late at school to tutor, and taking on as many paid responsibilities as the school offered. Teaching—a position that was a goal for me since my earliest years as a student—was fast becoming unsustainable. Between the hours I was investing in prep, marking, and phone calls and the side jobs I was juggling while attempting to run a home, there was no way I could stay in the field. Although I loved my job, I eventually realized that it couldn’t realistically support a family, so I left.
Mrs. Kraus: Not necessarily. Limudei kodesh teachers tend to keep their jobs for years, while English departments generally face higher turnover rates. The limudei kodesh teaching schedule is a fantastic one for mothers; they get home before their children and enjoy the perks of working on a school schedule.
Because their jobs are so fulfilling and mesh so well with their home lives, kodesh teachers are often willing to make do with the low paychecks. I believe a factor in English teachers’ high turnover rate is related to the difficult schedule.
Torah Umesorah: Teachers are some of the highest-caliber people in Klal Yisrael; they are selfless, idealistic, and wholeheartedly committed to their students. As time goes by, classrooms become more complex and demanding places than ever before; one teacher shared that she speaks with eight students’ therapists a week! Our teachers are some of our greatest talents and role models, yet they settle for so much less compensation than their skill sets deserve. Based on our research, it costs about $150,000 a year for a family to live modestly. Teachers cannot dream of making near that amount, no matter how long and hard they work. Our teachers are doing the hardest and highest work and we repay them inadequately.
TVOL: Why are teachers’ salaries so much lower than they should be?
Mrs. Rottenberg: Schools aren’t businesses; they have limited funds. Despite this, I believe that if salaries were prioritized over other, less necessary school expenses, morahs would walk away with significantly higher paychecks.
Mrs. Kraus: In a business, if an employee does their job exceptionally well, they bring in more money, and the boss can afford to pay them more due to the increased value they bring to the business. Schools don’t get more funds unless they charge more tuition; no matter how fabulous the teacher is, there is no extra cash coming in as a result of her expertise.
Torah Umesorah: Schools are generally places of deficit. Therefore, properly compensating teachers requires a lot of fundraising, budgeting, discipline, and hard work.
TVOL: What is the fallout of the low pay?
Mrs. Kraus: It’s a loss for schools when they have to replace teachers. You cannot compare a teacher with experience to one who is new to the school, the grade, or the job in general. Training teachers is a huge investment, and losing teachers is a massive blow, one that directly affects the students.
Torah Umesorah: There are several negative effects of the paltry paychecks:
- Overworked teachers. Most morahs are forced to take on side jobs that have them working early in the morning or late at night. The fallout is felt by the child behind the desk who is not getting the refreshed, rejuvenated teacher she deserves and needs.
- Graduates are looking for better paying jobs. Teachers are leaving, and schools are scrambling to find competent replacements.
TVOL: What can parents do to help their children’s teachers go home with a more respectable income?
Mrs. Rottenberg: When it comes to teaching, there are innumerable unpaid hours. If your child’s teacher is devoting extra time to your child’s care—whether by giving her attention, helping her with classwork, or communicating with her tutor or therapist—those hours should be acknowledged and reimbursed. We are all short on time, and the fact that morahs are giving so much more of themselves than they have to should not go unnoticed or unpaid.
Mrs. Kraus: If you can afford it, give generous gifts and checks. As a teacher, I never have extra, unaccounted-for cash, so the gifts are a real treat, and they are very useful and appreciated.
Torah Umesorah: Generous checks and beautiful letters give teachers a lot of chizuk, and the extra cash goes a long way. Parents can also get together and make parlor meetings to raise funds for teachers. Remember that everything the morahs give over impacts your children and your future generations; view tuition as a privilege rather than a burden.
TVOL: Can raising the price of tuition work?
Mrs. Kraus: Charging more tuition will ultimately hurt teachers. If tuition costs—and as a result, teachers’ salaries—are raised, teachers will be left paying more for their own children’s tuition, and they’ll be just as poor as they were at the outset.
Torah Umesorah: Tuition hikes can be implemented on a sliding scale. Families with means should pay tuition that is closer to other communities’ prices, while those who can’t afford it should be granted scholarships.
TVOL: What can schools do to help their teachers make more money?
Mrs. Rottenberg: Everything adds up. Free tuition, aid when making a simcha, and other benefits can go a long way toward easing teachers’ financial burdens.
Mrs. Kraus: Raising the price of tuition is the not the answer. Klal Yisrael needs to put together a fund to help our teachers.
Torah Umesorah: Torah Umesorah has been working tirelessly to solve the salary crisis. We have spoken with myriads of teachers, principals, and administrators and explored dozens of innovative options in an effort to improve the state of affairs for morahs—and ultimately, for our children and our nation’s future. Schools, parents, and concerned Jews of any age can participate in the following soon-to-be-launched initiatives:
- The Superfund
Torah Umesorah will give a certain amount of money to supplement teachers’ income. The funds will be granted to schools that commit to paying their teachers an agreed-upon salary. Besides the raises in salary, the Superfund would include weekly teachers’ training and enrichment so morahs can develop strategies and consequently experience more growth, development, and job satisfaction.
- Handpicked teachers
A second solution focuses on providing teachers with tools for success even before they begin their careers. While they are in seminary, menahalos will work to identify the girls who possess the skills and idealism necessary for teaching. These girls will get training while still studying in Eretz Yisrael.
Upon returning home, they will receive a few weeks of pre-service training before being granted a teaching certificate. Schools who accept graduates of this program will get well-prepared, well-supported teachers. In their first year of teaching, teachers will receive weekly Torah Umesorah training, observation, and feedback. The schools will thus appreciate obtaining “experienced” teachers and offer them post-entry-level salaries.
For the girls who do not secure teaching positions in their first working year, we will form a substituting agency that all local schools can access. These young women will have the opportunity to teach all over Lakewood and benefit from coaching and training as well as Torah Umesorah observation and advice. Armed with a year of training and teaching experience, members of this group will be first on the list for the following year’s teaching opportunities.
- Chasdei Lev for teachers
Chasdei Lev provides rebbe’im with food and household essentials at drastically reduced prices. Right now, the organization cannot accommodate female teachers, as it has a national waiting list of 200 schools. However, if there would be a fund that could get teachers included in the much-needed program, it would be a great financial relief for hundreds of families.
TVOL: Most teachers invest just as many hours—or more—of work at home as they do in the classroom. Their responsibilities include marking, preparation, communication, bulletin board design, classroom setup, annual productions, and more. How can schools make teachers’ jobs easier and less time-consuming?
Mrs. Rottenberg: Many schools utilize their office and maintenance staff to help teachers with bulletin boards, copies, and book distribution.
Mrs. Kraus: In my experience, schools are doing a fine job of offering great resources and support as well as appreciation, compliments, and gifts to their teachers.
- Schools can delegate any technical and repetitive duties like copying over marks and hanging posters—anything that doesn’t directly influence the students.
- Every so often, students can be supervised by others so teachers can take care of preparation and communication during work hours.
- On-site day care is another perk that can save teachers lots of time and stress.
There will always be people who prefer to shove issues under the rug, those who believe that when ignored, problems either solve themselves or slowly fade into oblivion.
Then there are the problem-solvers, the dauntless pioneers who are unafraid of backlash, the men and women who stop at nothing to ensure our nation’s growth and endurance.
And so, we turn to you, the reader.
In your way, with your resources, be a part of the answer.
Reach out to your schools.
Give back to the teachers.
Find a way and make a difference.
Help us bring change by writing in with your experiences and solutions. The Voice will compile and bring these solutions to Torah Umesorah and Lakewood Bais Yaakovs in the hope of implementing and facilitating real change to the current teacher-salary crisis.
*Name has been changed
From the Trenches
“We survive on nissim,” many Lakewood morahs say in regard to their financial situations. In these true stories, local teachers share the ways they make their meager salaries work. (Note: All the teachers featured below are their families’ sole breadwinners, as their husbands learn in kollel.)
- Mrs. S., a beloved limudei kodesh teacher for the past 12 years, works tirelessly to make her $30,000 teaching salary work for her family of seven. She runs a camp for 300 children each summer and works to prepare for it until midnight many nights of the school year. The family’s rent, tuition, and childcare costs total $34,500. Only one child is given free tuition in the school where Mrs. S. teaches.
- Leah, a mother of six children, has been teaching sixth grade for the past 17 years. A superstar limudei kodesh teacher who is known for her dedication, Leah struggles to survive on her $28,000 salary. She teaches from 9 a.m. until 12 p.m. and juggles a second job from 7:30 a.m. until 9:00 a.m. and from 8:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. To offset expenses, her husband tutors at night.
- Sara makes $30,000 as a third-grade teacher with 19 years’ experience. With nine children to provide for, Sara mentors five teachers in addition to running an eight-week summer camp. Sara shares that she is feeling completely depleted and doesn’t know if she can continue living this way.
- Mrs. Cohen is an amazing limudei kodesh teacher with 18 years’ experience. Because she is only paid $24,000, she teaches boys in the afternoons. Unsurprisingly, she plans to leave teaching next year.
- Devorah has been teaching eighth-grade Navi for 17 years and helps every graduate in her school get placed in a high school. She is paid $30,000, which includes $3,000 for running a highly professional in-school program. She tutors every night, including Motza’ei Shabbos and Sunday, to cover her three sons’ tuition, and she makes a midwinter day camp and works in the summer, too. During the summer months, Devorah’s older children babysit the younger ones as she cannot afford day camp. Her entire salary and the basement rental pay the family’s mortgage and utilities. In her words, her family doesn’t have “a penny to their names,” and Devorah is seriously considering leaving teaching next year.
Crunching the Numbers
When looking at tuition prices across the country, it is easy to see why Lakewood’s schools struggle to pay their teachers respectably. Comparatively, Lakewood’s tuition is far, far lower than tuition at other locales.
Far Rockaway: $14,000
As the prices of rent, clothing, and food increase each year, we are stuck in an old model when it comes to teachers’ salaries. Teachers are paid almost the same amounts today as they were paid a decade ago. Any changes are negligibly tiny.
Average teacher’s salaries
First-year teacher in 2011: $13,000
Teacher with 10 years’ experience in 2011: $25,000
First-year teacher in 2021: $10,000–$20,000
Teacher with 10 years’ experience in 2021: $28,000 (caps at about $32,000)
The gap between teachers’ salaries and those of rebbe’im and office workers is stark.
Average rebbi’s salaries
First-year rebbi in 2021: $35,000
Rebbi with 10 years’ experience in 2021: $70,000
Starting salary for an office position in 2021: $34,000
An Administrator Speaks
Rabbi Kalman Katz, dean of Neemas Bais Yaakov, shares his view of what some have been calling the “Teachers’ Crisis.”
If you calculate the number of hours spent teaching each year, you will notice that a teacher’s salary is actually not bad per hour. The average teacher works 20 hours a week for 40 weeks of the year and makes $20,000 a year, which comes out to $25 an hour. Her friend who works in an office may be bringing in $35,000 or $40,000 a year, but although she is making the same $25 per hour, the friend is working more hours of the day and more months of the year and is therefore bringing home a higher paycheck. Torah Umesorah calculates the current average salary for a teacher with 10 years’ experience at $28,000, which equals $35 an hour, a rate that is comparable to many office jobs even in today’s market.
However, a devoted teacher doesn’t look at her job as an hourly occupation, but as an achrayus to her students. This transforms teaching from a three-hour-a-day job to a 24/7 responsibility. A good teacher who sets a goal that no student should fall behind and does everything she can to help all her students reach their full potential is signing up for much more than any hourly job demands.
Raising tuition is a solution that has been suggested numerous times, but is it a sensible solution? I would assume that 75% of any school’s parent body struggles to pay current rates, and we must realize that our teachers have children in schools too, and this would affect them adversely as well.
At Ne’emas Bais Yaakov as well as many other wonderful local schools, we appreciate that our rebbe’im and morahs are indispensable for the continuity of our mesorah, and we reap the benefits of properly compensating our morahs. We pay our teachers significantly more than the average salary and as a result, we get more applicants and see more dedication. Our teachers don’t feel like volunteers; they feel that they are being paid the value of their work, and they have a sense of obligation to push themselves further for their students. We, too, go the extra mile to show appreciation beyond the teachers’ salaries.
Parents can also do their part to make a difference, first, by showing their personal appreciation to teachers, and second, by being attentive to teachers’ advice and concerns regarding their children, so that they feel the parents’ support and partnership in their child’s education. The teachers will thus see the results of the efforts they invest in their students, giving them the sipuk they need to continue in their unparalleled avodas hakodesh.