Attracting and Retaining Great Teachers

by Dr. Jerrold I. Katz, Head of School (2013-2017)

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Jerrold I. Katz, Head of School (2013-2017)

Each year, I expect to be asked questions by prospective parents about aspects of life at RSS that appropriately go on “behind the scenes” and outside of the view of most current parents at the School. Often, I get questions at admission coffees about what we do to attract and retain great teachers. It’s self-evident that nothing is more important in determining the quality of student experience at any school, and we put a great deal of time, energy, financial resources, and thought into the hiring, evaluation, and annual reappointment of teachers at RSS.

During their first two years at RSS, teachers are observed on multiple occasions by their division head. They receive ongoing feedback and support, as well as a summative assessment of their performance by early spring. Upon entering a third year on the RSS faculty, teachers are placed on an every-other-year evaluation schedule. In years when they are not being formally observed, they continue to be expected to pursue professional development opportunities and to reflect on ways to continue to strengthen their classroom practice. Teachers at RSS consistently report that they value working in an environment where there are high standards and a system for accountability.

Teaching is both an art and a craft. The knowledge base on excellence in teaching is broad, and a great deal of what excellent teachers do is observable. However, strong instruction is not achieved by mastering a particular set of strategies and skills. Master teachers have a wide repertoire of approaches, and they know how to match them appropriately to the differing interests, needs, and learning styles of their students. While division heads at RSS have been conducting formal teacher evaluations for many years, in 2014-15, we stepped back as a school to rethink our evaluation process and to bring greater clarity and consistency to work across all three of our academic divisions. Formal evaluation of teaching at RSS now focuses on measuring performance in four areas: a) knowledge of content and pedagogy; b) instructional delivery and learning environment; c) contributions to the school community; and d) commitment to ongoing professional development. While the standards for teaching at RSS are high, the School is committed to supporting adults, as well as children, in efforts to progress towards excellence. If necessary, an improvement plan is developed and specific changes are required over a reasonable period of time to ensure continuing employment at our school.

Of course, in parallel to our formal evaluation process, division heads and I receive frequent informal feedback about teaching performance, both complimentary and critical, from parents. While outside of the boundaries of the School’s evaluation process, this feedback certainly needs to be heard and taken seriously. Sometimes, where there’s smoke, there’s fire, although it is imperative to say that equally often, upon further investigation, division heads and I do not agree with parent perceptions of what’s going on at school. Our role then becomes to help reconcile differences in perception to ensure that students feel consistent expectations and support.

While conversations with teachers about potential plans to resign, retire, or otherwise not return to RSS for the upcoming academic year begin as early as December, I ask all returning teachers to sign their annual employment contracts by late February, so that we can accurately identify openings on our faculty prior to the beginning of the annual hiring period for NYC independent schools. In a “typical year” at RSS, there may be turnover of 6-8 head teaching positions or about 10% of our faculty. Through unsolicited applications, networking, connections with area graduate school programs, and affiliations with national teacher placement services, RSS has access to hundreds of applicants for teaching positions each year. I work closely with the academic team throughout the hiring process, ultimately meeting each “finalist” and being the only person authorized to extend an offer for employment at RSS. In addition to interviews, we ask all candidates to teach a demonstration lesson, to complete a writing sample, to provide us with access to their former employers, and to agree to mandatory background checks as a condition of employment at our school.

There is no single type of teacher that we look for at RSS. In fact, one of the strengths of our faculty is that it is made up of individuals from different backgrounds, at differing points in their professional careers, with differing strengths and styles. About 30% of our faculty and administration do not identify as Jewish, although all embrace RSS’s mission as a Reform Jewish day school. In particular, what binds our teachers together is their passion for working with children, their demonstrated instructional skill, and the value they place on working in a close-knit community that is committed to raising children who will seek to make a difference in the world.

By early May, each year, we make every effort to have our faculty firmly in place, prior to beginning the process of assigning teachers and advisors for the upcoming academic year.

So, there’s a little “walk behind the scenes” of faculty evaluation and hiring at RSS. There truly is no single more important key to sustaining excellence in education, and all of us at RSS appreciate your continuing confidence and support.

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