Israel's teachers, education crisis: A look at the struggle

“I don’t understand how a teacher making a salary of NIS 8,000 can raise a family, and pay the mortgage and bills when prices are going up for everything."

 TENS OF thousands of teachers demonstrate in Tel Aviv, May 30. (photo credit: ANAV SILVERMAN PERETZ)
TENS OF thousands of teachers demonstrate in Tel Aviv, May 30.
(photo credit: ANAV SILVERMAN PERETZ)

In May, Israel experienced one of its largest teacher protests in recent history. More than 20,000 teachers, including this writer, participated in a massive demonstration in Tel Aviv on a humid evening. Organized by the Teachers Union, the demonstration was one of the measures taken to pressure the Finance Ministry to negotiate a raise in teachers’ salaries and improve employment conditions

My colleagues and I from Zin Elementary School at Midreshet Ben-Gurion near Kibbutz Sde Boker traveled for two and half hours to get to the demonstration. But there were teachers from as far away as Eilat and Metula, who, undeterred by the distance and drive, chose to participate in what many felt was a historical rally that put Israeli teachers back on the map.

Walking among the throngs of teachers who filled the square, you couldn’t help but feel the friendly camaraderie and optimistic spirit among the demonstrators. There were teachers who brought drums and other musical instruments to electrify the audience, amid the hundreds of signs with slogans like: “How can we put students first, if we put teachers last?” and “Mom of two, third-year teacher, salary of NIS 4,200.” 

“We feel that the changes that we teachers have been waiting for all these years are finally going to happen. There was no way I could miss a demonstration like this,” said Osnat, a veteran teacher from Gedara. 

“We feel that the changes that we teachers have been waiting for all these years are finally going to happen. There was no way I could miss a demonstration like this.”

Osnat

Israeli classrooms overcrowded, teachers underpaid

Last year, the annual report of the international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, “2021 Education at a Glance,” found that classrooms in Israel are among the most crowded in OECD countries (Israel ranked 35 out of 38) and that Israeli teachers are paid less than average in comparison to other OECD countries

 SEVENTH-GRADE students perform a Hanukkah play at Zin Elementary School in Midreshet Ben-Gurion.  (credit: ANAV SILVERMAN PERETZ) SEVENTH-GRADE students perform a Hanukkah play at Zin Elementary School in Midreshet Ben-Gurion. (credit: ANAV SILVERMAN PERETZ)

The OECD report found that elementary school teachers in Israel earn on average $41,952 per year compared to $45,687 for the OECD average. Middle school teachers earn $44,754 compared to $47,988, while high school teachers earn $47,706 compared to $51,749. 

Indeed, the starting salary for Israeli teachers working full time in the beginning of their careers currently stands around NIS 6,800 in elementary schools and about NIS 8,000 in high schools. However, many schools hire  these teachers only on a part-time basis, due to tenure considerations

Another interesting point highlighted in the OECD study was that students in Israel learn more days than their OECD counterparts. On average, Israeli elementary school students learn 214 days a year compared to an OECD average of 186, middle schoolers learn 205 days compared to 184 for the OECD, and high schoolers study 194 days compared to the OECD average of 182.

A massive teacher's shortage

As for the upcoming school year, low teacher wages and poor employment conditions have made their mark. The Education Ministry has stated that it is expecting a shortage of between 3,000 to 4,000 teachers.

“If the Teachers Union is able to implement the changes it is aiming for and reach a final settlement, there could likely be a positive turnaround in the teacher’s shortage, which also affects the field of English teachers. But a significant turnaround will take time,” Dr. Tziona Levi, head of English studies at the Education Ministry, told the Magazine. 

Indeed, there is a shortage of English teachers across Israel. According to Levi’s data, there are around 400 missing teachers. “The Education Ministry is focusing on teacher retraining programs to bring more English teachers into the fold,” she added. 

IN ADDITION to the low salaries and attractive financial positions in hi-tech that discourage native English speakers from pursuing English teaching careers, Levi stated that native English speakers also face a number of other challenges in the Israeli school system. A vastly different educational culture from their countries of origin, and Hebrew language barriers, are among those factors.

It is difficult to survive in the Israeli classroom, or any classroom for that matter. Many new teachers, Israeli and olim alike, leave the education system within three years,” she said. “Often, the necessary support system just isn’t there for new teachers. Classroom management is not easy.”

“Teacher retention was a problem before COVID, but post the pandemic, the problem has only increased, also among teachers later in their career,” said Nicole Broder, a national counselor for English at the Education Ministry. “Both students and teachers did not come back the same after COVID; the job environment changed in education as it did in many other types of jobs. 

“However, we do see that English teachers who have been able to get through the early years of their career remain passionate and dedicated,” Broder said. 

She cited the recent “Education Biennale: Come Design the Future 2022” in Jerusalem as an example. There were many English teachers among the hundreds of educators presenting their work from across Israel, who spotlighted their innovative language projects and classroom initiatives at the large-scale event. 

Organized by the research and development department of the Education Ministry, the biennale was held in parallel with the annual OECD International Education Conference, from May 31-June 2, which included the participation of 250 OECD representatives from 48 countries around the world. 

Among the biennale presenters was veteran English educator Howie Gordon, who taught elementary school English for 27 years at Kibbutz Tzora, where he lives. Gordon, 56, today works as a national counselor for English teachers at the Education Ministry, and lectures to student teachers at Jerusalem’s David Yellin Academic College of Education. 

He also runs the Learn-in-Tune program, a special nationwide music program that trains elementary school English teachers to utilize music in the classroom. This coming year the program will expand to junior high schools. Thousands of English teachers and their students have taken part in the program in schools across Israel. 

One of the Learn-in-Tune program’s highlights took place last year, when 2,500 students from 30 schools in the northern district gathered at the Beit She’an amphitheater to sing in English along with an orchestra. 

“I had goosebumps, watching this huge group of thousands of kids sing and smile,” said Gordon, who grew up in Johannesburg, and studied music and English at the University of Johannesburg. “This is what English teaching is all about for me.

“I remember as a fourth grader in South Africa, I had an English teacher who would play the guitar for us. I was mesmerized by those classes. The music left me feeling so happy as a kid.

“Later, when I taught elementary school in Tzora, I would strum the guitar every day during English lessons. When kids hear music, they experience the classroom in a totally different way,” said Gordon, who was active in the Habonim Dror youth movement in South Africa. “To this day, I still have adults who come up to me and say that they remember learning these songs in English way back when they were in elementary school.” 

As for the recent teacher protests and union demands, Gordon has another take on the situation. “Teaching for me has never been about money. I work hard but I wake up with a purpose each morning. I always wanted to be an educator and I am truly happy with what I do. That’s beyond what any salary could ever give me.”

FOR OTHER teachers, however, an increase in their salary could make all the difference in making it through the month. “I don’t understand how a teacher who makes a salary of around NIS 8,000 can raise a family, pay the mortgage and all the bills when prices are going up for everything, including gas,” said Ya’ara, 37, a middle school teacher from Dimona who has been an educator and science teacher for 13 years.

Ya’ara, a mom of two, who asked her last name not be used, did not go to the Tel Aviv demonstration. “I really didn’t feel that any change would come out of this demonstration. It was a great way to communicate the message to the media, but there is still no agreement, and teacher wages at this point have not increased.”

She feels that if salaries are raised, there will be a positive ripple effect in the world of education in Israel. “I don’t think teaching anywhere in the world is as underappreciated as it is here in Israel,” she told the Magazine. 

“The moment teachers earn a respectable wage, then parents, students, the media, and Israeli society in general, will view us with more respect. More people will want to work in this field, and academic standards in colleges and universities for student acceptance will be raised for education,” she said.

“People will finally realize that not just anyone can be a teacher. And those who have dreamed of becoming teachers will be able to financially support their own kids respectably as they teach Israel’s next generation.” 

The author made aliyah from Maine in 2004. She lives in Midreshet Ben-Gurion with her family, where she teaches English and writes in her spare time.