When I was in eighth grade, Christa McAuliffe, a middle school teacher from New Hampshire, was selected from among 11,000 teachers to be the inaugural teacher in space. In her application she wrote “I want students to understand the special perspective of space and relate it to them.” Of course, Ms. McAuliffe never had the opportunity to teach her students from space. On January 28, 1986, I was in English class when the Challenger shuttle exploded on launch, killing its seven-person crew. I still have a clear memory of emerging from my classroom, finding students and teachers crying in the halls. I also remember feeling glad that I was at school, which was a place I felt well cared for, and well understood.
For those who are lucky enough to have teachers, principals and other school professionals who truly see them, school is a haven. But there is no school without teachers, those who have devoted not just their careers, but really their hearts to help children of all ages learn social skills, develop empathy and critical thinking and discover their core values.
Several years after the shuttle explosion, sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the term “the third place” to refer to a place that exists alongside home and work for spending time exchanging ideas and building relationships. To extend Oldenburg’s theory, if we think of family and friends as the primary relations of a child or teen, a teacher is most often their “third person.”
A great deal has been written about the acute mental health crisis facing today’s youth. Mental illness and the demand for psychological support are at record highs. Our kids are socially isolated, afraid of climate disaster, exhausted by years of school disruption, and often internalizing their parents’ stress about work, housing and care of sick loved ones. When schools re-opened for in-person learning, we had an opportunity to embrace the notion of teachers as a critical third person, but in most cases, this has not been the reality.
To succeed in today’s school climate, and to meet their students’ needs effectively, teachers must be lifelong learners. They must continually refine their skills and adopt new practices. As the CEO of a Jewish organization whose mission is teacher development, I have a balcony view of teachers’ day to day experience. While those in Jewish organizations are perhaps not under assault in the same way secular school teachers have been, they are exhausted, neglected, under-resourced and of course, perennially underpaid. Education Week recently reported that teacher satisfaction is at a historical low. While we have come to understand our medical personnel and clergy as essential, teachers and educational leaders remain at the bottom of most priority lists. Unsurprisingly they are leaving in droves.
The recruitment and retention crisis in Jewish education is well documented. A quick search of jewishjobs.com reveals 420 open teacher positions in North America — ranging from religious school teachers wanted in Columbia, Maryland to a transitional kindergarten teacher needed locally in a Bay Area day school.
These 420 individuals — and those who run their schools — are essential to the well-being of children and teens. Where will we find them? How will we train, support and nurture them once we have identified them? And equally important, how will we pay for this?
Perhaps we might start by simply asking teachers what they need today to do their jobs. What support might they prioritize? We need to recognize that teachers are not a homogenous group, but rather a set of unique individuals, doing uniquely difficult jobs. It is incumbent on us to treat them as the lifelong learners they are, and to offer them a continuum of support throughout their careers, from coaching to training to networking opportunities. Finally, we must persuade the philanthropic community to dig deeper — to provide funding opportunities for Jewish education, to see beyond urgent welfare and geopolitical needs, and to make a critical investment in teacher growth and well-being.
We must do better. Our children will need their “third people” both to sustain them through difficult times, to bolster their resilience, and to accompany them as they grow into adults who can tackle complex societal problems. When I walked out of my classroom on that January day, it was a teaching assistant at my school who gave me a tight hug and helped me process what had happened to the first teacher in space. We have remained in touch, and I am grateful for the many things I learned from her. She, along with so many others, is part of why I am a teacher today. Therein lies the ikar, the essence, of Christa McAuliffe’s most famous declaration — “I touch the future, I teach.” May her memory be a blessing, and may her life inspire us to strengthen our commitment to teachers.