Judy Willner began her career in education 40 years ago at a public school in Camden, New Jersey.
When she went on maternity leave, her plan was to eventually return to teaching at a public school. But when the opportunity to teach at a Jewish day school — first at Caskey Torah Academy, and then as a JCC preschool teacher — came up, she took that instead.
“I absolutely loved it,” said Willner, who recently retired from teaching. “I did. I loved going to work every day. It was local. My boys went there for preschool. During my lunch break, I walked back and saw them.”
Much has been written about the pros and cons of sending children to a Jewish day school versus a public school. But the two environments have differences for the educators teaching there as well. While day schools may offer more flexibility and more opportunities for teachers to be creative in their classes, public schools offer better pay and benefits.
Public schools have strict guidelines about what teachers make. The national average public school teacher salary for the 2017-2018 school year was $60,477, according to the National Education Association. In Pennsylvania, that average was higher at $67,535. In the School District of Philadelphia, teacher salaries for this upcoming school year vary from about $45,000 to $90,000, depending on experience, education and other factors.
In contrast, Jewish day school teachers make around $50,000 to $60,000 a year, said Zipora Schorr, the director of education at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School in Baltimore, who has taught classes on education administration and leadership and Bible studies at Gratz College.
But where public schools really beat day schools is the benefits, Schorr said. At public schools, benefits include a pension plan, in addition to health insurance and time off including summers.
“Benefits are something that Jewish day schools cannot compete with public schools on,” Schorr said. “If you look up what public schools provide, it’s very pricey, and I’m not even sure the Jewish community can sustain that.”
That difference in pay and benefits is not exclusive to Jewish day schools. Teachers at private schools don’t make as much as teachers at public schools in general.
Despite that difference, teachers may still have their reasons for preferring to work at a Jewish school, Schorr said. It could fit into their lifestyle better, or they may not want to be limited by a rigid curriculum at a public school, or they may feel that a Jewish day school mission aligns more with their personal interests.
“If the teacher is interested in contributing to continuity in the Jewish community and truly believes that day school is one of the primary ways that we’re going to ensure Jewish identity, Jewish continuity, Jewish connectedness, then teaching is a Jewish day school is much more than a job,” Schorr said. “It’s a calling.”
Ayelet Seed, who belongs to Mekor Habracha, an Orthodox synagogue in Center City, values the Jewish aspects of teaching at a day school.
“The biggest thing is the sense of community that you have teaching at a Jewish school, and that you, even though we have non-Jewish students, you have that sense of Judaism embedded throughout the whole day,” said Seed, who teaches at Albert Einstein Academy in Wilmington, Delaware, and has also taught at Perelman Jewish Day School. “Some of those values of Judaism are just felt throughout the school. You just get a different vibe, I feel, teaching at a Jewish school. There’s also the perks of having the holidays off. But it’s also just nice to have some of the freedom of integrating Jewish and general studies and showing the students that some of the stuff we learn in the Jewish curriculum can also transfer over into our daily lives.”
After more than a decade at Jewish schools, Willner started teaching at public schools again. The better pay and benefits were a big part of her decision to go back. Her pension was what allowed her to retire in June, she said.
While teaching at public schools, she found another draw. She felt she was able to make more of a difference for her students there, compared to her students at Jewish schools, who “were going to succeed no matter what, no matter who their teacher was, because of their home lives,” Willner said. “In the inner city, you do make an impact. You can really change some children’s lives, and I like to think that I really, really did.”
Another reason teachers choose to teach at private schools rather than public schools is that private schools don’t require the same certifications.
That was why Mark Levy, a social studies teacher at Lower Merion High School, applied for jobs at private schools when he first moved to the Philadelphia area from England. He had been a teacher in England, but his certification didn’t carry over to the United States. So in 1999, he started teaching at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, then called Akiba Hebrew Academy.
Levy was able to eventually get his certification in the United States. In 2006, he got a job offer from Lower Merion High School, and the salary and benefits were so good, he felt he couldn’t turn it down.
“I would have stayed at Akiba forever if it didn’t make sense when I’ve got kids or whatever to move onto the next stage,” Levy said. “It is a big jump, I have to admit.”
Though the demographics at Barrack and Lower Merion High School were quite similar, Levy still found differences between the two schools.
Jewish schools have more flexibility for teachers to teach what they want, Levy said. Even if he’s not teaching to a test, he still needs to align with what the other history teachers are doing.
There’s also a difference in culture.
“What you get more of at Barrack is you can walk into the lunch room and just start chatting with kids and get into political conversations,” Levy said. “In a public school, to a certain extent that happens, some kids walk into your room and you can chat with them, but for the most part, you teach in your room and there’s less of that piece.”
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