Last week, seven days into the high school teachers' strike, our staff room at Hebrew University High School was packed - not with teachers about to go into classrooms but with over 150 representatives of 10 Jerusalem high schools. We had gathered for an impromptu grassroots level meeting to discuss what could be done to get the message across: that the education system is in serious crisis mode and this strike isn't about a cost-of-living salary increase but about the need for true reform across the education continuum. The energy of the teachers in the room, their non-stop round of suggestions and the feeling of volunteerism and urgency surprised even the Secondary School Teachers Organization representative who looked slightly shocked, and remarked that he was surprised at how many people had showed up. So maybe even the union doesn't get it. This strike has gathered a momentum among teachers and students that has nothing to do with rhetoric and empty political slogans. We know better than anyone else that the heart of the system has been seriously damaged by ignorant mistakes made by a bureaucratic system that is not governed by facts in the field, research studies or academic innovation in the international arena. While the governor of Illinois signed a bill in 2006 initiating class size reduction to 15 students in a class (class size reduction being most effective when classes are between 15 and 19 students), our country has allowed (and mandated) acceptable class size to become 40 students in a class! The Education Ministry has also reduced teaching hours in high schools by 8.5 hours, which means that students receive fewer instruction hours in crucial subjects. At our school, English classes have been reduced from five hours to four hours a week and teachers have had to increase their workloads so that they are now teaching between 150 to 200 students a year. It is not just teacher intuition that tells us students suffer from the lack of attention they get when they are one in 40 or, more accurately, one out of 200 students that the teacher must motivate, encourage and intellectually challenge. Well-known research studies such as Tennessee's Project STAR and the SAGE Program have demonstrated that "no other educational reform has yet been studied that would provide such striking benefits [as class size reduction]" (see Biddle and Berliner, What Research Says About Small Classes and Their Effects, 2002) yet it is the last item on the strike agenda of the Education Ministry. Of course, teachers don't expect radical change overnight but we have asked for a three-year plan of reform as outlined by the teachers union. Most teachers, I think, would agree with the American Federation of Teachers that "small class size is not a panacea. Reducing class size is a significant means of improving student achievement, but it is not the only piece. High academic standards and a challenging curriculum, safe and orderly classrooms and qualified teachers are no less significant..." (AFT Policy Brief, June 1998). The strike is all about getting and keeping qualified teachers in the classroom. It is not easy to protest out on the streets as the days tick by without salaries, without students to teach. So why don't we all just stop making such a fuss and go back to school? Because the grassroots movement in support of this strike is also based on the reality of trying to earn a decent wage in Israeli society. Teachers, many with advanced degrees, are now earning well below the average national salary for full-time positions. The Education Ministry has offered a supposed reform program called Ofek Hadash (New Horizon), which incorporates aspects of the long-running National Teachers Union reform program, Oz L'tmura, but which subverts its basic premise. The NTU's proposal (successfully instituted in several schools on a trial basis) was simple: Recognize the actual demands of the job and pay the teachers a full-time salary based on the national average and demand that they stay at school a full day (8 a.m.-4 p.m.) and do all their preparations, marking and teacher-student conferences during those hours. But the ministry is demanding that teachers both stay at school a full day and add more teaching hours to their schedule so that they will have to put in even more preparation time outside of school and get paid less per hour than they are getting paid now. How is this a fair deal? So why do teachers still want to teach? Despite the low regard in which Israeli society seems to hold the teaching profession (at least at the elementary and high-school levels), research confirms what teachers have always known instinctively: What we do does matter for the youth of our country and it matters before they get to university. As Naomi Nahmias, an experienced EFL teacher who teaches at the Hebrew University High School, points out: "Cutting-edge research in neuroscience presented at Shaare Zedek Medical Center's Pediatric Neurological Department by Prof. Gross-Tzur found that important neural pathways are developing in the 'teenage brain'... the volume of white matter in the brain increases dramatically during adolescence... but this can only take place when learning goes on.... "The Education Ministry knows our weakness: that teachers want to teach and even during a strike, it's hard to let those 'teachable moments' go by, wasted. We miss our students." In Jerusalem this week, teachers have been holding daily vigils outside their schools and teaching classes in an "Alternative School" tent erected opposite the Knesset. Ceremonies and sing-alongs for students and teachers were planned for Yitzhak Rabin Day in the tent. As my colleague, Debora Siegel (a teacher with over 25 years of experience, and the department head of the seventh grade at Leyada) says: "I have been at home now for almost two weeks. For the first time in years, I have completely cleared my desk. I've caught up on the backlog of papers to mark. I have a stack of pre-planned lessons ready for action in the event that we return to work in the near future. I have no curriculum to finalize, no reports to complete, no parents to call, no tests to write, no worksheets to create, no events to plan. The house is clean, papers are filed... I can't remember the last time I had so much time on my hands. And you know what - I'm hating it. I want to be back at school. I am longing for that meaningful contact with the kids, shaping their lives as they shape mine, growing and learning together - that is what gives color and flavor to my life and I don't want to be doing anything else." But the strike has given us time to reflect not just on what we do as teachers but on what the system is doing to us. Young teachers burn out fast and leave for other professions; good teachers become more and more exhausted as the years go by and decide on "early retirement." As Debora adds, regretfully: "The school system is going to lose one of the best teachers it has ever had - because teaching is my life, my dream, my mission." With contributions by colleagues of the Department of English, Hebrew University High School.

Relevant to your professional network? Please share on Linkedin

Think others should know about this? Please share