How can administrators determine when educators should move on?
Rabbi Strauss clocks in at 8:30 sharp, as he’s done every day for the past 31 years. His step is a bit slower these days, his briefcase heavier, but he enters the classroom with a bright smile, eager to impart a love for Yiddishkeit to the next generation.
But by 9:45, he wonders, Is it me, or are boys today less capable of sustaining focus on a sugya? Do they squirm more than they did 15 years ago? And why is this irritating me more than it did last year? How many weeks are left in the school year, anyway? He leaves the classroom with that same bright smile — he’s doing what he loves and he knows he’s still good at it — but a sense of disquiet niggles: Are these thoughts hints that his days in chinuch are numbered?
The whys, whens, and hows of rebbeim and teachers retiring are complex, delicate, and not something many people were willing to speak about on the record — expectations, money, and difficult past encounters can be a flammable mix. But there is strong reason we should want to get this right: to ensure both students and teachers the fairness they deserve, and to tailor circumstances so that teachers can walk away with smiles on their faces and peace in their hearts.
Everyone on the planet, if they live long enough, eventually experiences a functional decline. At the same time, there’s no formula for when that decline will take effect, and no way to predict when a teacher will no longer be able to do their job well. Indeed, a well-known kindergarten morah in Monsey pranced around her classroom with vigor into her upper nineties.
Rabbi Sholom Binyomin Ginsberg, an educational consultant in Toms River, NJ with 37 years of experience in chinuch, shares a personal experience. “When I was a principal in Seattle, I was on the phone with my father-in-law in New York a few days before the school year started. I sounded uptight, and he asked me what was wrong. ‘I’m still missing an eighth grade rebbi,’ I told him. ‘Interview me!’ was his response. He was close to 70, a retired rav with no classroom experience, but I gave him the job on the spot. He moved in with us, and saved the year for these boys — he came in fresh and did a phenomenal job. The boys loved him, and many kept up with him when he returned to New York at the end of the year.”
But while earlier for some and later for others, there are certain skills that tend to be impacted by age. Vibrancy — the ability to jump around and keep kids’ interest —wanes with age, mechanchim say, as does tolerance level.
The bigger issue, they say, is burnout. The term implies the loss of a flame once present.
To understand what’s missing, look at the qualities that should exist to begin with.
“Who should be teaching our kids? People who truly care about children and are absolutely committed to the success of their chinuch,” says Rabbi Eliezer Stern, CEO of Yeshivah of Spring Valley, who has a background in classroom chinuch as well. “Energy is very helpful; the more they have, the greater the excitement they can bring to the classroom. Passion and creativity are instrumental. Chinuch is, above all, about heart and intuition.”
But doing the same thing over and over and over requires tremendous stamina and grit, and sooner or later the well of energy, passion, and creativity begins to run dry. Age and burnout tend to work in tandem, simply because an older teacher has generally been in the classroom for many years. But they are not synonymous: Many, many teachers maintain freshness and enthusiasm despite numerous decades of teaching, and others burn out after relatively few years on the job.
What are the flares that signal burnout?
The signs are clear to Rabbi Yochonan Wosner, who has been a rebbi and Jewish History teacher at Yeshivah of Spring Valley for 36 years: “When a snow day is a yippee! When there’s only a week left of summer vacation, or Chol Hamoed is almost over, and you dread going back to yeshivah. An energized rebbi is excited to return to his students after vacation.”
Others add, “When every day drags,” and “When you feel like you’re just holding onto your job.”
When a teacher isn’t interested in being there, there’s no hiding it — those vibes are broadcast to the class. And if the teacher has no interest, good luck getting the students to learn.
Complacency and resistance to change are also giveaways. “I’m currently writing the 17th volume in a series of books, and there’s no question my attention is different now than it was when I was working on the second volume,” says Rabbi Ginsberg. “Growing complacent is natural. But if a 30-year veteran teacher thinks she knows it all and nothing needs to change, she’ll lack the drive to develop herself professionally, and she’ll grow stale.”
You Gotta Get It
There’s another factor that partners with age. Can a teacher who went to school in an era that demanded perfect decorum, raised in a low-tech society where leisure activities exercised the brain rather than hampered it, relate to the challenges of 2021 youth?
Two of the biggest challenges for children today are summoning the requisite zitsfleish to learn long hours and exposure to outside influences, mechanchim say. Technology actually changes kids’ brains, making it harder for them to sustain attention than in the past, and older teachers may not relate to that struggle. Once a teacher is in his sixties, the generation gap is large enough that understanding his students becomes more challenging. But if he’s determined to really understand them and to keep up with the latest innovations, it can be done. For example, utilizing technology to teach is one way to compete with the influences our kids are dealing with, but it might require a teacher to learn new skills.
Mrs. Esther Buxbaum, retired long-time teacher and principal at Avir Yakov, a girls’ elementary school in New Square, New York, says that if a teacher feels she can’t relate to today’s generation, she has to question if she’s in the right place. “If a kid has sensory issues and her therapist wants her to keep a fidget toy in her desk, and you can’t relate to the problem or try to understand the solution, you’re missing the boat. If you think the whole school is wrong on today’s issues, it’s a sign you’re probably out of touch. Putting yourself on the level of your students — really understanding where they’re coming from — is the only way they can learn from you.”
Rabbi Weinberger, a menahel at a New Jersey yeshivah, puts it this way: A rebbi is involved in an evolution. Children evolve over the course of the year, there are differences from one year to the next, and certainly from generation to generation. Insisting on doing “what worked for me until now” is a hardened approach that can signify it’s time to move on.
But age, burnout, and the generation gap creep up slowly; at what degree does it become unacceptable? This question was posed by a menahel to Rav Steinman z”ztl, shares Rabbi Steinberg, a rebbi of 29 years. His answer to the menahel was, “When you hired him, you knew he’d be great at 32, fantastic at 37, good at 45, acceptable at 55, and workable at 65. You have to take the whole curve, as long as he’s doing his job adequately. You can’t ask him to leave just because he’s not as good as he was earlier.” And then Rav Steinman turned to the aging menahel, probably with a smile, and said, “Why do rebbeim get older, but menahelim don’t?”
Some indications that “workable” has turned into “inadequate”: an unpleasant classroom atmosphere, overall negative interactions between the teacher and students, intolerance for typical classroom behaviors, test scores that consistently indicate flagging teaching skills, and not relating to the challenges of kids today.
But when an older teacher has the drive and adaptability to stay on top of her game, she offers something more priceless than a fresh face. “A teacher from a previous generation can demonstrate a level of emunah and yiras Shamayim that is hard to find today. She’s spent many years working on herself, and children see what the results of those efforts look like,” says Mrs. Buxbaum. And a warm bubby-or-zaidy-like figure can supply a kind of tender affection and nurturance that will be uniquely remembered.
“A rebbi becomes a different person over time,” Rabbi Steinberg says. It goes much deeper than just perfecting his craft. “A person teaching Torah to children for 30 years is a kadosh. He’s spent decades walking into a yeshivah, thinking about his students, davening and crying for them… and to move him on just because he’s a bit older is to miss that appreciation. A rebbi done right is a national treasure in Klal Yisrael, and that has to be put into the equation as well.”
The Day Before
An exit strategy must start early and be gradual. “If a teacher is caught by surprise when told it’s time to leave, the principal hasn’t done his job beforehand,” Rabbi Ginsberg says. When signs of fatigue appear, accommodations should be offered: teaching fewer hours, getting an assistant, or switching to a small remedial class can either inject a tired teacher with new life, or ease the transition toward retirement. A change in subject matter can be helpful, as well; switching grades can sometimes make burnout burn out.
Presenting a flagging rebbi with the opportunity to have a mentor is a bold step that can be quite effective. It’s a strategy that has benefit whichever way it goes — it can either help a stale rebbi turn around and become vibrant, or it can crystallize to him that his time really is up.
“Many years ago, we had a rebbi who was close to 70 and really struggled with basic classroom management and effective teaching,” Rabbi Steinberg says. “I got him a mentor, and I spent countless hours brainstorming with him on how to improve the way he ran his classroom. This rebbi didn’t want to throw in the towel, and was open to having a younger rebbi in the classroom with him many hours a week. He did effectuate a certain degree of change, but through this process he came to the realization that it wasn’t enough, and when I ultimately had to let him go, he understood it. Today this rebbi is a close friend and doesn’t miss a simchah of mine, because he felt how much I cared for him and invested in him.”
At Yeshivah of Spring Valley, when talented rebbeim are presented with outside opportunities, they are encouraged to pursue them, as these opportunities can serve as an eventual exit ramp (although rookie rebbeim are encouraged to solely focus on and master their teaching skills.) Indeed, the school will use its connections to foster such opportunities.
Rabbi Steinberg takes it a step further: “If a yeshivah has a real interest in teachers leaving with a smile — if they genuinely care for the teacher’s future — they should help them develop another skill early on, such as computer proficiency or tutoring. Yeshivos can say ‘It’s not our problem,’ but when a teacher feels like he was given an opportunity for a new parnassah, he’ll look back on his yeshivah, his career, and his retirement in a much more positive way.”
A menahel needs to be a personal advocate for his teachers, to embrace them as his own, Rabbi Weinberger says. It’s a relationship that’s been built over years, and when done successfully, the difficult conversation at the end will be one of mutual respect and understanding.
“Our teachers can’t be hired and fired the way a CEO of a corporation deals with staff — the demands on our teachers are tremendous, and they deserve better,” he says. If there’s a fear they’ll be put out to pasture the minute they’re past their prime, the most talented among us will take their skills elsewhere — but we want and need them teaching our children. It’s in the best interest of our entire educational system for schools to convey clearly to teachers that they have their backs, and to do what they can to help teachers stay vibrant as long as possible.
“A principal’s job is to treat his teachers fairly, even at the cost of his own job,” Rabbi Ginsberg says. “I know of a principal who was threatened by the school board: Let this rebbi go, or we’ll let you go. The principal believed the rebbi was doing a good job and refused to fire him; he lost his own job protecting his rebbi.”
Long-time principal of Bais Yaakov of Montreal and current principal of its seminary, Rabbi Shneur Aisenstark, has only fired two teachers in the 54 years he’s been principal: one for coming into class tipsy, and the other for slapping a child across the face. His fealty to his teachers is unmatched. It’s a mesorah he received from his former employer and mentor, Rav Pinchas Hirschprung ztz”l.
“I’ve watched an entire community be torn in half when a principal was let go, and not everyone agreed with the decision,” he shares. “Everyone took sides, and the ramifications are felt until today, many years later. Recently, I got a call from a teacher in another city, begging me to take one of her students. Their principal had been recently fired, and it led to such a war that the entire school closed down, leaving their girls stranded. Firing so often leads to machlokes, and when teachers know they can lose their jobs, it affects the simchas hachayim in a school.
“When a teacher is no longer pulling her weight, I use the strategy of ‘divide and conquer,’ spreading her across more classes, to minimize her time in each one. I might reduce her overall classroom time, or even switch her to an office position, but I generally won’t fire her.”
A Dignified Departure
Mrs. Buxbaum adored her job as principal, but she harbored a secret goal: to leave while she still had the ability to develop a new skill with which to help people.
“I was 59 and going strong, when one day I sensed it was time,” she relates. “As soon as I had this thought, someone randomly suggested I’d make a great life coach. Very shortly after, I was in an exercise class, and women were talking about how to get certified as a life coach. Suddenly, the word was written on every wall: coaching, coaching, coaching. Eight years later, I’m loving my second career.”
Everyone agrees this is the very best way to go, but teachers don’t always have the financial or emotional wherewithal to make that happen. At some inevitable point, there will usually be two people, face-to-face, in a charged room. Key is ensuring that that charge is a positive one, and that’s best achieved when the teacher comes to the understanding that it is, indeed, time to move on.
“There should always be a trail of conversations that have led to this point,” says Rabbi Weinberger. “When things start going in the wrong direction, the impulse is to blame it on a hard class or other external factors. Those factors are usually valid, but they just bring to light the underlying problem, that the teacher is unable to manage them as he should. When there are ongoing discussions about the difficulties the teacher is facing, in a compassionate and understanding way, then when they’re finally pushed into a corner they can acknowledge what they already know deep down — and there’s often a real sense of relief, and even appreciation.”
One such rebbi was so grateful that he came over to his principal’s house that Friday with wine and cake, thanking him for putting him out of his misery. He ultimately found the courage to pursue a degree in special ed.
“Teaching is the hardest job there is, and not everyone can do it for a lifetime,” Rabbi Ginsberg says. “Just like a doctor working in the demanding environment of the emergency room for 20 years may need to switch specialties, the same is true in education.” A burned-out teacher with a passion for Jewish education should understand that steering his kochos in a new direction — curriculum development, for example — isn’t a sign of failure, but is part of a natural progression.
Seeking daas Torah is critical before the final decision is made. Not only because a family’s parnassah rests on a school’s shoulders; but also because it reinforces to the teacher that nothing is being done haphazardly. One principal told a rebbi who had to go, “I don’t like doing anything without asking daas Torah. I want to involve you in the discussion, so let’s go together to the rav of your choice.” The rebbi felt so respected that he trusted the principal to proceed on his own.
Many yeshivos are instituting what they believe is a great idea whose time has come: a mandatory retirement age for rebbeim, around 65. The students benefit, and it also saves the rebbeim a lot of hurt, knowing that everyone retires at the same age. But there are also downsides: rebbeim still going strong are forced to leave, and if you offer selective extensions to some, like some schools do, the uniformity underlying the whole idea is undermined. Plus, knowing you come with an expiration date may discourage signing on in the first place.
Beyond parnassah, what teachers want most is for their efforts and commitment to be appreciated. Schools can provide this with no money, little effort, and a tad of creativity. Consider this: A rebbi recently wanted to give a gift to two colleagues who were leaving. He tracked down the contact information of former students and asked them to submit letters describing what their rebbi meant to them. “There were stories that could make you cry,” he shares. “‘Because of you I’m frum today,’ said one. ‘When I went through a rough time, I kept something you gave me in my pocket to remind myself that you loved me,’ wrote another. The retiring rebbeim both said that these letters made it all worth it.”
The Day After
There’s a fear that runs even deeper than financial security, Rabbi Ginsberg says, and that’s what if I wake up and have nothing to do? Will my life lose meaning?
Many retiring teachers are too young or energetic to wind down. Others simply need the money. Either way, the best parting gift from a school to a teacher is assistance with the day after.
One school administrator says he looks at the skills of his rebbeim and helps them identify well-suited opportunities. “One rebbi did amazing work with boys one-on-one, and we encouraged him to become a social worker; he’s in school for it now. We steered someone else to get a mortgage broker’s license. In another case, we sent a rebbi to a job coach, who got him a position in a business. When that didn’t work, we stepped back in and helped him find a job in another field, which lasted for years.” Finding something that works is often very challenging, but mechanchim stress how important it is for a rebbi not to feel abandoned by the yeshivah he gave his heart and soul to.
Mr. Avi Shulman is a life coach who himself worked as a rebbi and at Torah Umesorah; he has helped many a graduated educator chart a new course. His advice: Prepare yourself in advance, and leave on top. “A principal I know went into business after 20 years, and he felt tormented that he was no longer in chinuch. I helped him view it differently — he served his tenure in chinuch well, and now he’s starting a new venture. If the decision is made by choice, when you’re energized enough to go full steam at something new, the transition is a much more positive experience.”
He points out that skills developed in the classroom are transferable and valuable across markets: Teachers have excellent people skills, are adept at making information understandable, and are expert preparers.
Beware the Pitfalls
Timing is everything.
Rabbi Shea Ryback, director of the National Conference of Yeshivah Principals at Torah Umesorah, describes a scenario he comes across often. Mrs. Gross is 70, and in the view of her principal, not up to the demands of her job. He won’t renew her contract for the following year, but there’s no need to tell her before June, he decides. At her age she won’t be looking for another job anyway, so why hurt her earlier than necessary?
“The principal has the best intentions,” Rabbi Ryback says, “but it’s the wrong approach. I’ve seen teachers in this situation actually look for new employment. It’s not up to the principal to decide when someone’s career is over. By waiting until June, he may be doing just that.”
Torah Umersorah states in its guidelines: A teacher should be given notice by the 20th of Adar, and a principal by January 31st.
Sensitivity is also paramount.
One rebbi in Canada was still on a high after his son’s bar mitzvah in July, when a letter on school stationery came in the mail. “Your employment is terminated for the coming year,” he read. In one minute, his parnassah was totally gone, and it was too late to look for another job. But even worse, he says, “I went through an intense period of shock and trauma. I taught in this school for 25 years, and they didn’t even bother with a conversation. I agonized for months — maybe I was a terrible rebbi all these years?”
Or take the case of the teacher who, late in the school year, went home to Europe to sit shivah, and while there got a call from her principal in New York telling her not to come back — not even to say goodbye to her students. The sub, she was told, was doing a better job than she was, so she’d take over from here.
Passing the buck along is tempting, Rabbi Ginsberg says. “It’s the principal’s job to make this decision, and he needs to have been in the classroom enough times to say that he’s observed the problem himself — secondhand information is never okay.”
The bottom line is, when that day eventually comes for Rabbi Strauss — when with the dividends of his 401k he rides off into the sunset to sell houses or play with the grandkids or finally write his chiddushim — what matters most is that he feels immense satisfaction for having served the klal in this noblest of ways. The school has the power to make that happen. —
Dollars and Sense
There’s a firmly established minhag in America that yeshivos pay a retiring rebbi chodesh l’shanah, a month’s salary for each year worked; the minhag is entrenched to the degree that it’s commonly enforced by beis din.
Torah Umesorah has published a Code of Practice detailing its recommendations for how this should be executed. If a rebbi has a salary of $60,000, he makes a monthly sum of $5,000. If he retires after 30 years, according to chodesh l’shanah he qualifies for a total of $150,000. After he retires, he continues to receive $5,000 per month until $150,000 is reached (in this case, 30 months). He is entitled to request it either once he turns 65, or after 35 years in chinuch. If the school fires him before that point, he’s entitled to it as well.
Ideally, says Rabbi Shea Ryback, director of National Conference of Yeshivah Principals (NCYP) at Torah Umesorah, a 401k pension fund should be set up. The school’s contribution to the fund would cover at least a portion of the chodesh l’shanah, necessitating less desperate scrambling for money at the end. The interest accrued in the fund would lessen the burden on the school significantly.
But from what air, you’ll ask, can yeshivos struggling to pay basic salaries procure funds for pension plans?
“There’s no magic formula, but with proper planning, it’s definitely feasible,” says Rabbi Eliezer Stern of Yeshivah of Spring Valley, NY, who is responsible for his school’s budget, which includes a pension plan for each rebbi. “If we want talented people to go into chinuch we have to make it viable, and this must be prioritized within the budget.”
One idea utilized by some schools is for a portion of a rebbi’s raise to be put into his pension plan instead of his paycheck. He won’t be able to use the money for groceries each month, but his long-term financial health will benefit.
Rabbi Steinberg distills it down: In the business world, they probably don’t care about you, but by law or by perk they set you up with a pension, so by 65, you have what to stay afloat with. In the yeshivah world, they probably do care about you, but without a pension and only minimal savings, you’re landing without a parachute.
“Schools should look at chodesh l’shanah like an electric bill, not like a donation,” Rabbi Ryback avers. “So many rebbeim have told me they gave their neshamos to their schools, the best years of their lives, and have ended up with nothing at the end. A rebbi has to be treated with the dignity of an elder statesman.”
Often, a rebbi feels ready to retire but needs to chug along until 65 to qualify for chodesh l’shanah; this holding pattern benefits no one. Yeshivah of Spring Valley has tweaked the formula in a way they believe works even better. “We now pay out the chodesh l’shanah annually. This way the money is already in the rebbi’s pocket, and he can retire whenever he’s ready. Our solid pension plan makes this possible,” Rabbi Stern says.
Possible, that is, not only to pay the bills, but perhaps to fulfill a long-cherished dream, such as returning to kollel.
Clearly stipulating from day one what a teacher can expect spares years of agonizing over how it will all go down at the end. A rebbi who reads in his contract, “Age of retirement is 65, and you collect chodesh l’shanah whenever you decide to leave,” can teach with yishuv hadaas; constantly wondering when will my turn come, how much will I get, and what happens if I decide to leave on my own can leave a rebbi tense and unsettled.
Interestingly, while chodesh l’shanah isn’t the minhag for morahs, the need to send them off into retirement seems to be much rarer as well. Mechanchim say that women don’t struggle with burnout nearly as much as men do; whether the difference lies in their innate ability or in the different set of expectations upon them, it is common for women to teach successfully way past 65.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 875)
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