Around the table in the teachers' room

How the reform plans, cuts and overcrowding play out with veteran educators.

teachers 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
teachers 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A month into the high school teachers' strike, The Jerusalem Post sat down with four veteran teachers from the Jerusalem area this week to hear a firsthand account of the challenges they face every day in the classroom. They tell a harrowing tale. It is a story of dedicated, professional, and educated women who try to achieve the impossible despite the vicissitudes of national politics, of reform plans that come and go, of education ministers that are here and gone in the blink of an eye, while they remain, year after year, to try and educate our young as best as they can. Shoshi Ayash, Cohi Hamburger, and Genia Sasson are all teachers at Gilo Meikif. Yvonne Marciano teaches at ORT Minkoff. All of them belong to the Secondary School Teachers Organization (SSTO) and have been on strike for over a month now. They are not green teachers, still wet behind the ears. Each one has years of experience and it shows. They are confident in their abilities and adamant in their demands. They show no signs of wavering in their determination to strike until a sensible reform plan is agreed upon and they are paid a respectable salary. Sasson stresses again and again, "those 24 hours the media keeps saying we work a week, those are just the frontal teaching hours. They do not include time spent one on one with individual students, time spent grading tests, time meeting with parents, let alone time spent preparing for class." The reform plan that the National Teachers Union signed on to and which the SSTO is reluctant to endorse calls for a work week of 36 frontal teaching hours. It also calls for another nine hours a week to be spent in the school building. "Instead of finishing to teach at about 1:00 p.m., after five to six hours of straight frontal teaching, and then going home to prepare for the next day and to grade papers, they want us to stay in school until 4:00 p.m.," Sasson explains, "In theory, we are supposed to accomplish everything in that time." "But the teachers' room is like a train station with so many people coming in and out. We don't have our own office, even our own table," Sasson says. "So grading papers will have to take place at home, too. Do you have any idea how long it takes to grade tests that prepare students for matriculation exams? There is a lot of writing that has to be gone over very carefully. "What about parent-teacher conferences?," Sasson asks, "are parents really going to come in to meet at two in the afternoon?! So, of course, those meetings will have to take place in the evening outside of the nine extra hours." They describe a tiring schedule with no breaks, no time to get to know individual students, and where they are mostly unappreciated. "It's either get a cup of coffee or go to the bathroom, literally," Marciano says. "I teach 12 classes of 40 kids each." Ayash worries that the amount of effort it takes to stand in front of a class and teach is not appreciated. "Five or six frontal hours of teaching is the most I can do. Towards the end of that, my head is spinning and I don't know what I am saying. It's five or six hours of total concentration," Ayash explains quietly. "And yet with 40 or more kids in a class, there isn't time anymore to get to know students on an individual basis." Hamburger complains that many parents consider teachers "babysitters," arguing: "Many of us have advanced degrees, years of experience, and we are still considered babysitters." Their "babysitting" duties are made even more complex by the fact that, in most classrooms, those with learning disabilities are mixed in among everyone else. "There are no special education classes for those with learning disabilities. Roughly a third of the class probably has learning disabilities," Sasson says. "That doesn't include those who come with emotional issues from their home life," Ayash adds. "In our profession, there are more people with advanced degrees than in almost any other," Marciano says, "but the starting net salary for a full-time teacher is NIS 2,800 a month." To compensate for the low salary, a process of creeping privatization has been occurring in the school system. There has been a surge in "gray education," where those parents who can afford to do so pay for more hours of private study to make up for what their children aren't getting in school. "The result is that the rich advance and those with learning disabilities fall behind," Marciano says. There are also private foundations who bring in teachers to teach supplemental classes not covered by the Education Ministry budget. But those teachers do not teach the main subjects required for matriculation exams and over the last decade the number of teaching hours has been cut again and again. Eight and a half teaching hours [a week] have been cut, which amounts to an entire school year, according to the teachers. Each teaching hour costs the Education Ministry millions of shekels. "The hours have been cut but the curriculum has not been comparably pared back. That means that we have to teach in the most superficial manner and there isn't time to correct mistakes," Ayash says. The four are surprised the strike has gone on so long, but are committed to it since earlier measures did not make enough of a difference. "We did a slowdown for a while last year - no trips, no extra meetings - but no one even paid attention," Marciano says. "We are striking now to force significant change in the system," Ayash quietly stresses. The four veteran teachers are also painfully aware that the next generation of teachers will not be as good as they are because no one is willing to go into a profession with such a low salary. "Our children are anti-teaching. They look at us and how hard we work and how little we get paid and they say teaching is definitely not for them," Hamburger concluded.