Israel's school year is about to start and everyone is clueless

EDUCATION AFFAIRS: In quiet classrooms around the country, teachers are hanging decorations, organizing lessons and preparing a year’s worth of daily education.

 THE LOCKED gate of a Jerusalem school. Will it open up next week?  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
THE LOCKED gate of a Jerusalem school. Will it open up next week?
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Like an annual ritual, parents and teachers are hoping the school year begins on time next week. But, of course, nobody knows if it will

As the school year draws ever nearer, children and parents storm shopping centers for back-to-school supplies, families flood beaches in an attempt to eke out the last dregs of summer vacation, and little siblings everywhere inherit oddly odorous backpacks from their older counterparts.

Meanwhile, in quiet classrooms around the country, teachers are preparing for the school year as well by hanging decorations, organizing lessons and preparing a year’s worth of daily education for their students.

“I do so many things for school, even in my own private time. I spend my money for school, I buy games, I buy decorations for class. Sometimes the school will help me out, but I do a lot of things just on my own – because I want to, because it’s important to me."

 Ainav Michaeli, a teacher with 18 years of experience 

Everyone is going through the motions assuming that on September 1, the gates and classrooms will open and the nation’s classrooms will once again be filled with some two-and-a-half million inquiring minds.

 YAFFA BEN-DAVID, head of the Teachers’ Union, greets teachers participating in a demonstration in Tel Aviv in May demanding better pay and work conditions. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90) YAFFA BEN-DAVID, head of the Teachers’ Union, greets teachers participating in a demonstration in Tel Aviv in May demanding better pay and work conditions. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

Of course, almost like an annual occurrence, everyone also knows that the chance of the school year beginning on time is in jeopardy.

This year, like so many previous years in the country’s history, teachers are prepared to leave those classrooms locked on the first day of school – their decorations unseen, their lessons unlearned – until they start getting what they think they deserve.

The Teachers Union has declared that it will stage a strike, postponing the beginning of the school year, unless the Finance Ministry is willing to agree to provide better salaries and work conditions for the nation’s educators.

The issues the union wishes to address are plentiful, but they stem from one simple fact: Israeli teachers just aren’t paid well enough.

Detailed in a recent report published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Israel’s teachers are among the lowest-paid education workers of all OECD countries – even though, as a result of Israel’s six-day school week, they work more hours than average.

The report also found that Israel has one of the world’s biggest gaps in teachers’ salaries, with veteran teachers such as principals earning as much as NIS 25,346 per month, while starting teachers can make as low as NIS 5,880.

The issue of insufficient pay has led to another core issue plaguing the field: a severe shortage of teaching staff. At the end of July, the Education Ministry announced that Israel faces a shortage of almost 6,000 teachers. Such a vacuum is illustrative of the plight of young teachers, many of whom, soon after joining the field, leave it because of substandard work conditions and prohibitively low salaries.

For these reasons, the union has made it quite clear that it is willing to bring the entire school system to a grinding halt unless the Finance Ministry agrees to improve the industry’s financial conditions.

In a word, the negotiations process is going badly. While deliberations for better terms started at the beginning of the year following the dissolution of the union’s previous agreement with the ministry, the latter party has dragged its feet significantly in moving the discussion toward a solution.

Speculation suggests that the ministry’s sluggishness is due to fear that raising one complaining industry’s wages would cause a domino effect of several government-supported fields demanding livable wages. According to Liberman himself: “There are countless wage claims. Everything that we sign with the teachers, by extension, will also affect others.”

After the Teachers Union announced its strike last week, the Finance Ministry suddenly began to take negotiations very seriously, presenting what Liberman referred to as a “generous offer” to the union, which centered around a higher starting salary of NIS 9,000 for beginning teachers, and aimed to grant bonuses to teachers based on merit, rather than seniority.

That last point was an enormous red flag for the union, which called it “vague” regarding what constitutes merit enough to deserve more money, and claimed that basing raises on merit rather than seniority is insulting to the teachers of the country, who have stayed within the system for years, despite the clearly less-than-glamorous conditions.

The union refused the ministry’s offer, and shortly thereafter – due to pressure from the head of the Teachers Union, Yaffa Ben David, as well as Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton and other government officials – Prime Minister Yair Lapid waded into the mess in order to sort things out.

However, following days of meetings with individual parties and several combinations, Lapid’s intervention (which was starkly criticized by Liberman) has proven to be ineffective.

As of the time of writing, the union and ministry are still at a standstill. The latest word from the Finance Ministry came via a statement issued on Tuesday, which announced that a meeting was held between Liberman and Ben David during which “the parties clarified the importance of signing a fair wage agreement and starting the school year as planned.”

This doesn’t indicate much progress, as both parties have explicitly stated their hope that negotiations will quickly be resolved and that school will start on time.

A shared goal

IN FACT, it seems that pretty much everyone would like the school year to start on time.

“I have no problem if teachers want to strike, but I am not okay with it impacting my kids,” said local parent Gabriel Aaronson.

In a text conversation with me, he expressed his frustration at the need for government intervention in the equation whatsoever.

“If the teachers in my kids’ school aren’t getting paid enough, then I expect the school to raise their salaries. If the teachers want too much money, then they should go teach at a different school,” he said. “It should be the responsibility of [a school’s] principal, not the Education Ministry, to ensure teachers are paid properly. Chaining my school to the Education Ministry’s pay rates means my kids get hit by their mismanagement.”

He doesn’t blame the teachers for striking – in fact, he went as far as to say that he’s ready and willing to back up his word with what matters most to the responsible parties: his vote. “If there is a strike, I will be very displeased with the Education Ministry, and vote for whichever party is going to reduce their control over local education,” he said.

With the notion of a delayed school year looming, some parents are contemplating whether it makes sense to take matters into their own hands and commit to teaching their kids themselves, at home.

Efraim is a working parent from Pardess Hanna. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, he and his wife have been homeschooling E., their eldest daughter and soon-to-be sixth grader.

“She didn’t do well at all with distance learning. And we said, ‘The books are already all here. She’s not picking up anything. We can do this ourselves.’ We were both already working from home, so we’ve made that work,” he told me over the phone.

Their son N., on the other hand, is about to enter the second grade, and his parents were looking forward to sending him to school to broaden his social horizons. In the event of a strike, N. would likely be fine so long as his parents coordinate a few playdates and outings, but they may need to add him to the homeschool program if his education is at risk. For Efraim, the added logistical strain on the household from doing so seems difficult to manage.

“We’ve already found that homeschooling our daughter is disruptive to my schedule,” Efraim said. “Adding another kid to the mix makes it harder to do anything to the [standard] that we’d like to hold. I don’t think it would affect him too much; but for us, it’s certainly not optimal.”

The last piece of the puzzle

THE FINAL PIECE of the story is the teachers themselves, who have been instructed to prepare for a strike while Ben David doggedly pursues better conditions for them in the meeting rooms of the Finance Ministry. Some have criticized Ben David’s aggressive approach, but there are others who believe that her position necessitates a fierce attitude.

“She’s very tough, very aggressive. That’s not the way I would do things,” said Ainav Michaeli, a teacher with 18 years of experience under her belt. “That being said, she’s a woman; she’s standing in front of a majority of men who are very strong, and I think that, unfortunately, if she were a really nice woman standing around and not [fighting] for what she believed in, it wouldn’t go anywhere. I wish it could be different, but I feel that she’s doing her job [well].”

Despite the unsubtle approach of her union’s representative, Michaeli believes that Ben David is making the right call – including the decision to dismiss Liberman’s aforementioned “generous offer.” As a veteran teacher herself, she was among those offended by the ministry’s insistence on awarding “merit” over seniority.

“I’m seriously hurt by what they offered. How could it be that if I have a new teacher coming in this year, I’m the one that’s going to help her and guide her and train her – and she’s getting more money than I am? It wouldn’t be that way in any other workplace in Israel.”

Michaeli told me that she – like many Israeli teachers – is a member of the Teachers Union in a very passive sense. After being advised to join at the beginning of her career, she has experienced very little communication with the organization. Despite this, however, she feels well represented by the union in terms of its agenda.

“I do believe that the Education Ministry is probably [working with] a very big budget, and it may not be divided properly,” she said, adding that other changes must be made, like making classes smaller.

As well, she agreed with the core call to raise teachers’ salaries, adding that teachers are paid remarkably little for their relative importance in society.

“I love my job. I love being a teacher. I’m not the family’s main income – but that’s not fair. Why shouldn’t that be possible? People that work for the electric company are government workers, and they earn a lot more than I do; but I don’t work any less than they do,” she said. “I know very many teachers in our school who are dedicated and do so much; they deserve to get paid more. Our children deserve to have teachers who come to class happy and feeling like they’re getting paid properly for what they do.”

She pointed out that despite the poor conditions, low salaries and lack of recognition, many teachers like herself are committed to their classrooms to a personal degree.

“I do so many things for school, even in my own private time. I spend my money for school, I buy games, I buy decorations for class. Sometimes the school will help me out, but I do a lot of things just on my own – because I want to, because it’s important to me,” she said.

“I enjoy being a teacher – it’s part of who I am. And I feel like the Finance Ministry is taking advantage of that.”