When Arye Sufrin graduated from the Sy Syms School of Business at Yeshiva University, his future looked bright: the new graduate got married, spent a year in Israel, and was set to return to the United States to work at Deloitte and Touche as a certified public accountant.
But things did not go as planned for Sufrin, who is now 24 years old. While in Israel, he began teaching students in a yeshiva and found the work more rewarding than he could have imagined.
So when he returned home, instead of beginning a lucrative finance career, Sufrin enrolled in the Legacy Heritage Teacher Training Fellowship, a project of the Institute for University-School Partnership at Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration. With funding from the Legacy Heritage Fund Limited, the fellowship provides new teachers with three summers of coursework at Azrieli culminating in a master’s degree in education. Fellows teach for the two intervening school years at Orthodox day schools where the need for highly trained teachers is greatest, outside the New York metro area. The fellows receive a $3,600 stipend in addition to their tuition and salaries.
“Financially, I left a lot on the table,” said Sufrin of his decision to forego finance to become a teacher. “But I’m getting a lot in return.”
Like others from his cohort, Sufrin has spent the summer finding his footing in a profession known for low pay, low benefits and poor retention rates. Come September, the Florida native will be teaching ninth and 10th graders at Yeshiva University High School of Los Angeles (YULA).
“Teaching is more than just giving off information; it’s about building relationships,” Sufrin said recently, sitting in a classroom at Azrieli after a summer course. “You always hear, ‘I hate school!’ but why can’t we hear, ‘School’s great!’”
During the course, Educational Methodology, the five fellows and their classmates from the education school sat around an oval table, several taking notes on laptop computers, one spinning a wedding ring idly.
“So many teachers do it wrong — what should you not do?” asked instructor Laya Solomon about how best to lead a classroom full of students through a biblical text discussion.
“Read it,” someone said.
Solomon nodded, explaining that calling on just one student to read, translate and talk about a text ensures that the rest of the students will stop paying attention until they know it’s their turn. Better, she said, is to split the students into chevrusa pairs or call on people at random.
As class was letting out, Solomon urged her students, “go out and change the world — stay in Jewish education!”
Chaya Shochet, a fellow from Connecticut, will teach third grade in a day school there this coming year. She said her Jewish teachers inspired her in her youth and through Brandeis University, and she wants to ignite a spark in other students.
“[We learn] a lot on creating lesson plans, teacher models. Every time we practice anything I think about how this would be used in the classroom,” said Shochet, 23, of how she’s being prepared to become a first-year teacher.
The fellowship program not only prepares students through their own classes, but also provides mentors from the schools they will be teaching in to help them with the challenges of their first years. Mentors from across the country flew in to New York several weeks ago to meet and work with new teachers, and the mentor/protégée relationship strives to further ensure that teachers will have people to turn to when they’re overwhelmed, so they don’t easily burn out.
Shochet is grateful for the mentorship and said she is glad to be part of a cohort of other new teachers who can guide her.
“My classes have been more effective because they’re not theoretical but very practical. I got a sense of security; we’re given a lot of avenues for help,” she said.
Joey Small, a project coordinator at the institute, works with these fellows along with participants in the Give-Back fellowship, young people who don’t formally teach but are placed in schools around the country to serve as mentors and role models to students. He himself planned to attend medical school, but after a stint working at YULA where he attended high school he “caught the bug” of Jewish education and has been working in the field since.
“It’s bringing something unique to the field in terms of young, passionate role models to these communities outside the New York metro area,” said Small of the fellowship.
Raffi Rosenzweig, 24, who will teach eighth grade in Dallas in the fall, said one of the key things he’s learned about being a teacher thus far is to always be clear on your goals, so there is no question for students.
“Education’s always been important to me; I feel passionate about Jewish education and want to share it with others,” he said. “I want to be in a profession working with people and having an impact.”
Though many new teachers worry about the state of the profession, the pay prospects and the beleaguered state of day schools nationally, they remain optimistic about their own contributions.
“[The fellows program] teaches you how to teach and as passionate as I am, if I didn’t have the tools, don’t do it well, there will be a lot of cracks in the road and ditches I’d fall into,” said Sufrin.
“It’s scary, it’s not as secure as Arye’s CPA job would have been,” says Shochet. “Maybe it’s part of our young idealism, but we came in believing in Jewish education; we know going in what our lives are not going to be, but hopefully we’ll be strengthened and supported when the going gets tough.”
“The goal is to professionalize teaching, make it have high standards. There’s a perception that people might go into this because they have nothing else to do, but the fellowship attracts good people, and that promotes a sophisticated image,” he said.
Despite what he’s given up and the challenges he knows he will face come the start of the school year, Sufrin remains optimistic about his chosen profession.
“We’re laying down cement for the future,” he says of this program and his colleagues. “We’re creating a whole new chain of Jewish education that the world has never seen.