The Shirettes, five peppy women clad in jeans and T-shirts, sang a good morning song complete with hand motions, as one of them strummed along on a guitar. The audience applauded heartily -- only instead of the local singing group's usual nursery school audience, the crowd consisted of the teachers of their regular fans.
The singers kicked off the 22nd annual Early Childhood Institute with an air of youthful enthusiasm that lasted throughout the conference, which was sponsored by the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE) of Greater Los Angeles, a beneficiary agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
More than 900 preschool teachers and directors from Southern California gathered at the Warner Center Marriott in Woodland Hills on Monday, March 18. The event included 57 workshops on topics such as preschool curriculum, child behavior, Judaic studies and time management for teachers. While attendance was high, bureau administrators are extremely concerned about a shortage of teachers.
"It's not just a local issue; it's a national issue," said Marsha Novak, chair of BJE's Early Childhood Committee. "There is teacher shortage across the board in all areas of education. Money is an issue, and we need more training for these teachers."
The problem also extends to a need for more Jewish teachers. "What we'd like to do is bring this issue out of the backroom and into the public eye," Novak said, "We want to bring in all the people in the Jewish community, particularly in the synagogues, where most of our schools exist. We want to get the clergy and the leaders of the congregations involved so they can understand how important and crucial it is."
Rabbi Stephen J. Einstein of Congregation B'nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley is among those who are already aware. At the conference, he held a workshop called, "Children Without Four Jewish Grandparents," which touched on how the Jewish experience is passed on through family.
"Jewish preschool teachers are scandalously underpaid," Einstein said. "If you consider that what we value is what we pay for, then one would get the impression that we value preschool education very little. Now I know that the preschools that we have are not endowed institutions, so we can only charge so much for tuition, and we have to cover all the expenses." He sympathizes with the teachers' dilemma and feels their need to move on in order to support themselves is justified.
It's not just the teachers who are subjected to anxiety-provoking situations. Ronald Mah, a licensed marriage and family therapist from the Bay Area, did several presentations on child psychology, including a workshop on childhood stress. In his lecture, Mah gave teachers pointers for promoting emotional well-being in children.
"Children need to endure many things to become strong," Mah said. "[Caregivers] can actually interfere with that by feeling that [children] are weak. Assuming that they're strong, and allowing them to endure this with sensitivity and support is a real powerful way to build strong children who will become strong adults and strong members of the community."
There were several arts-oriented workshops, including "Tot Shabbat with Cantor Marcelo," featuring Cantor Marcelo Gindlin from the Malibu Jewish Center. With some help from preschool teachers and older children from his congregation, the cantor performed a play about preparing for Shabbat. The presentation included original songs from his new CD. "[At our synagogue], we create and recreate Judaism through the arts,"
While shaking maracas to the beat of one of the Cantor's songs, Marla Osband, a preschool director at B'nai Tikvah in Westchester, greeted a colleague she recognized, commenting, "It's so nice to be with other Jewish educators and to feel the synergy." For Kelly Harrington, a first-year preschool teacher at Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, the conference was about gaining more knowledge. "I want to learn more about different tactics about play and creative materials for the classroom," she explains.
Esther Elfenbaum, the BJE director of Early Childhood Education Services, said she feels that knowledge is the first step in resolving the teacher shortage. BJE's Professional Development Committee is already planning new initiatives promoting this awareness.
"We're working on informing the community and letting them know about the shortage," Elfenbaum said. "We're going to be having meetings with different temples and rabbis to get them to join us in recruiting, training and retaining teachers." In the meantime, the bureau has a teacher mentoring program, an accreditation process, poster sessions to share curriculum ideas and classes on new methodology.
While money is a problem, many teachers continue to stay in the field because of their love for the children. After teaching at a synagogue in Culver City for over 10 years, Esther Abraham decided to stop working. "I thought I would be retired, but I missed the kids!" she said with a laugh. "I just love doing it." Abraham is now teaching preschool at Temple Beth El in Aliso Viejo.
Unfortunately, not all teachers have a strong enough passion or deep enough pockets to stay in the field. Through events like the Early Education Spring Institute and creating awareness in the Jewish community, BJE hopes to make changes to the perception of these teachers. "Early childhood education is not babysitting," Novak said, "It's the future of our Jewish children. It's the future of our synagogues. A lot of the synagogue memberships emanate from these programs. This is what we're trying to address and we're just beginning the process."