Research shows[1] that school contexts influence teachers’ career decisions and their effectiveness. From the mid-nineteen-seventies to the present, researchers have examined how the organizational contexts of schools support and constrain teachers and teaching. Based on extensive observations and interviews as well as large-scale surveys, a robust body of evidence challenges the belief that teachers’ career decisions and success are mainly related to the students they teach rather than the conditions under which they work.

We know, for example, that teachers who work in supportive schools stay longer and improve faster than teachers in less supportive schools. In supportive schools teachers can count on regular opportunities to collaborate with colleagues, receive feedback and instructional guidance from administrators, and experience an orderly school environment. This is especially true for beginning teachers who leave teaching at alarmingly high rates, often before they have a chance to grow into effective teachers. We know that principals play a critical role in creating these conditions.

So how do Jewish day schools stack up? A new report from the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University provides some answers.[2] Data come from a survey administered to 329 current and former day school teachers working in large and small schools representing a range of denominational affiliations. The report addresses three sets of questions:

  1. What kinds of support did teachers receive during their first year of teaching?
  2. What opportunities do teachers have for ongoing professional development?
  3. How satisfied are teachers with the leadership and professional culture of their school?

Here are some highlights:

Formal induction and mentoring are not just for struggling beginners. They are widely regarded as basic conditions for launching a successful teaching career. Yet less than half of the day school teachers said they participated in a formal induction program or that their school takes the learning needs of beginning teachers seriously.

A similar finding emerged around opportunities to collaborate with colleagues on the improvement of teaching and learning. Less than half of the surveyed teachers said they participated in regularly scheduled collaboration with other teachers on issues of instruction. Although research shows that “one-shot workshops” rarely lead to instructional change, teachers reported that attending stand-alone workshops, conferences or trainings was the most common type of professional development.

Finally the survey uncovered a puzzling gap. Approximately 3/4s of the surveyed teachers reported feeling appreciated or valued by school administrators but only a slight majority agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: “I consider the administration in my school effective.” Perhaps teachers experience school leaders as individually supportive but not always dependable sources of instructional guidance.[3]

Some support for this interpretation comes from a research brief by the American Institute of Research (AIR) based on a study sponsored by the Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education (CASJE). The brief sought to link day school leaders’ professional development with teachers’ classroom practice, especially the integration of Jewish learning into general education classes. Interviews with 36 day school leaders responsible for overseeing general and Judaic studies found that leaders neither received the kind of professional development that would prepare them to offer instructional guidance to teachers nor felt that they had time for such training.[4] At the same time, a survey of 330 teachers working in those leaders’ schools reported moderate to high levels of guidance on instructional practices from supervisors.

If day schools are to become places of learning for both teachers and students, then school leaders must foster a culture of collaboration and see that teachers at every career stage have regular opportunities to work together on instructional matters. Helping school leaders understand their role in promoting instructional improvement and learn the skills to provide such guidance should figure prominently in any leadership training program. Finally, day school leaders could broaden the sources of instructional leadership by tapping outstanding veteran teachers who might welcome the chance to combine classroom teaching with opportunities to help both beginning and experienced colleagues improve their practice.

[1] Lortie, D. (1975, Schoolteacher. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Johnson, S.M. (2004). Finders & Keepers: Helping New Teachers Survive and Thrive in Our Schools. San Francisco: Jossey Bass Press.

[2] How Jewish Day School Teachers Perceive School Conditions, Eran Tamir, Nili Pearlmutter & Sharon Feiman-Nemser, Jack Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, Brandeis University, December, 2016. This research was supported by the Jim Joseph Foundation.

[3] For a discussion of this conundrum as it affects beginning day school teachers, see BIrkeland & Tamir, 2012. For a set of on-line resources to use in teacher development, see, a project of the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education.

[4] See Research Brief, “Leaders as Learners: The Case for Continued Professional Development,” January 2017.