Mysterious pitfalls of teaching English in Israel

Schools and the ministry blame each other for the current state of affairs; I have only experienced a similar level of chaos in third world countries limping along on non-existent economies.

By SARAH B. HEINE
June 4, 2013 21:51
Illustrative photo

Arab students 300. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

After volunteering as an English teacher in various schools for several months I was hired by a Druse school and a school in the Arab sector. The staff and children were welcoming to the point that I felt like a rock star most days.

Teaching English to such eager students, surrounded by mostly supportive staff should be pure joy. Unfortunately, month after month there was no sign of pay – instead more and more random paperwork was thrown at me by the schools and Education Ministry while I was patronizingly told to be patient. It was not until I started a mandatory six-month college course (about teaching English in Israel), where I met fellow (Anglo and Russian) English teachers that I realized we were all in the same sinking boat with no life jackets or preservers.

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One highly qualified and dedicated teacher’s creative response, after six months and no pay, was to politely tell the principal that he was leaving his teaching post, until he was paid. The principal surprisingly supported this move and even helped write the necessary Hebrew paperwork to the ministry treasurer and the school inspector.

Apparently the telephone is seldom answered at the ministry, so a call is not an option and someone must walk the paperwork over to the official, or it will be “lost.” The teacher was called back to work the next day and apparently paid his late salary immediately. The damage had been done, however, and one of the few male English teachers (who incidentally speaks fluent Hebrew) may yet leave the field.

Frustrating beyond belief is that nothing is negotiated and no protection is provided by the “must join” paid unions (staffed by Hebrew speakers who obviously cannot help English speakers navigate a complicated mess). However, if you try to resign in discontent this may be fiercely contested by the school principal and you may be told that there is a binding contract (even if you have not received one shekel in pay).

In fact, no contract is ever signed – at least not with olim teachers. We must work at least 10 hours a week at a school for three years to have any sort of tenure there. Pay is shockingly low (NIS 35 an hour is the flat rate). There is no functional English- speaking recourse to solve our many problems.

Forms and forums are all in Hebrew only.

It seems likely that any new teacher, in any subject, will be treated this way as the system is fundamentally broken, but they can also hopefully fend for themselves in Hebrew or Arabic. Ironically, Israelis young and old most (desperately) want and need to learn from English native speakers – so much so that I am starting an English conversation school.

EXCELLENT ENGLISH teachers fall through the cracks from sheer exhaustion after grappling with this system, and the problem is decades old, according to senior and retired English teachers.

Schools and the ministry blame each other for the current state of affairs; I have only experienced a similar level of chaos in third world countries limping along on non-existent economies.

If you are determined to teach English in Israel, be aware that there are mysterious pitfalls built in to the system that you will need to navigate on your own, in Hebrew, and even having done that you may simply not be paid, so plan on being self-sufficient for at least one year.

Prospective English teachers must first submit all their degrees and relevant work experience for evaluation, be interviewed (and insulted) by multiple ministry officials, attend a mandatory sixmonth college program about teaching English in Israel (only about 30 percent of this course is useful to native English speakers, however the Russian speakers in the north do enjoy receiving lectures from English speakers), then a literature course, then a course entirely in Hebrew (while many of us are still attending Ulpan 101) – in order to become certified to teach English in Israel (even if we are highly certified in other countries or have academic-level English). And then begins the hunt for a school that will even interview English teachers who are not yet fluent in Hebrew.

To date I have received back pay, and correctly adjusted pay, from the Arab-sector school, but the Druze-sector school conveniently “ran out of Council funding” so although ministry (reluctantly and rudely) paid its half of my matching salary, the Druse school will not pay me. This in spite of stellar job performance, confirmed by the principal, students and fellow teachers alike.

The inspector supported the decision: Game Over. Go home. Shut up. The ministry official (assigned to help olim English teachers) laughed and then argued vehemently with me against my rights. Another ministry official, addressing the English-speaking college class (in Hebrew only) made it quite clear that if teachers fought (legally) the existing system of no pay, late pay, incorrect pay – they would simply never teach again.

I am not sure how long my fellow teachers will fight the system, but I have recently made the decision to keep my sanity and dignity by teaching at the Arab school where I was warmly welcomed, (eventually) paid and where the principal actually demands that English be taught in English! I have stopped volunteering (mainly to demonstrate my ability at schools), as it is too easy for both the schools and ministry to gang up later and claim you were never hired, but volunteered all along. To supplement low school-generated income I tutor individuals at the going rate of NIS 100 for 45 minutes.

A fellow teacher-anthropologist, who is also trying to survive and contribute to Israel through teaching English, recently gave me a book to read (The Bookseller of Kabul, by Asne Seierstad) because there is a chapter at the end about education in Afghanistan. This describes a nightmarish Education Ministry with problems mirroring those in Israel. How, and more importantly why, is it possible for Israel to mimic a devastatingly poor, war-ravaged and exceptionally troubled country’s failing education system?

The writer is a new immigrant who has been living in Nahariya for approximately six months.


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