Karen Tal: The school ninja of South Tel Aviv

Today, teachers and principals are unsung heroes, battling to maintain learning and kids’ morale under near-impossible conditions. They are ninjas, too.

 Karen Tal (photo credit: KAREN TAL)
Karen Tal
(photo credit: KAREN TAL)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

In Channel 12’s popular Ninja Israel TV program, muscular athletes compete by completing a difficult obstacle course in minimum time. The word ninja is Japanese and refers to a feudal warrior who engages in spying, deception, and surprise attacks. Ninja has come to mean anyone who excels, especially against long odds.

Nearly a decade ago, writing in Haaretz, Dalia Karpel described an unusual Ninja: a school principal she called “the Ninja from Bialik-Rogozin” named Karen Tal.

This is Karen Tal’s story, in her own words. It is timely, because today, teachers and principals are unsung heroes, battling to maintain learning and kids’ morale under near-impossible conditions. They are ninjas, too.

But first, some background. 

February 21 marked the two-year anniversary of the pandemic in Israel. In early 2020, a woman tested positive after returning from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan. Since then, 3.5 million Israelis have contracted COVID – more than one person in every three – and over 9,800 people have succumbed. The toll rises daily. 

Cruise ship Diamond Princess is seen anchored off the Yokohama Port, after ten people on the cruise liner have tested positive for coronavirus in Yokohama (credit: REUTERS)Cruise ship Diamond Princess is seen anchored off the Yokohama Port, after ten people on the cruise liner have tested positive for coronavirus in Yokohama (credit: REUTERS)

There have been many heroes. Foremost among them are our healthcare professionals. On March 19, 2020, Israelis under lockdown went out en masse to their balconies to salute the medical teams battling corona.

But there are many more unsung heroes. Foremost among them, I believe, are our teachers and school principals. I found the most accurate praise of educators in a South African website, dailymaverick.co.za. Every word applies equally to Israeli teachers:

“What struck me, though, at the end of an exceedingly challenging year in schools, was the seemingly scant regard for a truly remarkable group of people who gave so much to make a profound difference in the lives of so many; people who despite their own legitimate concerns showed what commitment and service are.

“The educators who made so much possible deserve our unstinting praise. It was teachers who listened and nurtured and cared. They were the ones who supported pupils amid grief over yet another family member who died. It was teachers who encouraged pupils not to give up on their future and dreams in the face of a parent losing a job or having to deal with the very real implications of salary cuts.

“It was teachers who found the most effective ways to connect with pupils. These are the people who taught the same lesson twice, even three times, a day so that each group they taught could be safely small. It is teachers such as these who spent hours after the regular school day on WhatsApp and other platforms to ensure pupils who were not at school received work. Teachers who sourced relevant material and shared it in innovative ways, often with little in the way of fancy resources. Extra lessons after a busy day, responding to individual queries and requests from pupils, often late into the night. Smoothing nerves and helping pupils keep their focus, after such a disruptive year.

“These are but some of the sacrifices that were made, often at great cost – financial and in many other ways. Sometimes the emotional and psychological toll was almost too much to bear, but they continued, not complaining or expecting thanks, their exhaustion all too evident.”

As I write this, we are nearing the peak of Omicron, the fifth wave. It may be too early to canonize our schoolhouse heroes; they are still in the heat of battle. The right time will come.

Meanwhile, I have chosen to bring readers the story of the Ninja from Tel Aviv. Karen Tal did the near-impossible in 2005 when she became principal of a moribund school in South Tel Aviv due for closure. This account is drawn from a talk she gave recently to a group of school principals:

“I call you, not principals, but socio-educational leaders and entrepreneurs. That you chose to do this stressful job, at this time, is indicative of this. My journey as principal of Bialik-Rogozin School – and my vision:

“I became principal of the school in South Tel Aviv, a kindergarten through Grade 12 school. The school was destined for closure. A group of parents prepared signs and went to demonstrate in front of Tel Aviv City Hall. They shouted, “you are closing our school because of who we are!” – mainly parents of migrant African work-seekers.

“In the summer of 2005, I chose to lead the school. At the time a sword hung over my head: if the school does not vastly improve, then, closure looms. We had to raise the low 28% matriculation rate – the percentage of students who succeeded in gaining a matriculation certificate.

“There were 38 teachers and only two students in Grade 7; many students had left. The state of mind was that of survival. I had to do something. But where do you start?

“I had only a few days before classes were slated to begin, on September 1. I put my vision statement on the wall in the teachers’ lounge and in it asserted that Bialik-Rogozin will become an ‘educational jewel’ – and we will place our students on a trajectory of success.

“The teachers resisted. ‘Who are you anyway? Some of us taught in a democratic school. You can’t decide by yourself on a vision’.

“But we persisted. Three years later, we had built a school that was like a home. It shaped and created a community and provided educational, social, emotional and community solutions. The student body was challenging. Many were migrants, labor-seekers; some, new immigrants; and many, third-generation poverty.

“When I first saw this diverse mosaic of students, I saw the famous United Colors of Benetton ad. I knew that if I wanted to move the students from the lower rungs of society and raise them higher, the school must become the beating heart of the community.

“The basic idea was very simple. I will now describe the method I employed. But first: what motivated me to enunciate the sweeping vision and to persevere and remain at the school?

“I truly wanted to succeed. I wanted to state a vision and make it happen. Where did this drive come from? I grew up in a neighborhood that was no different from South Tel Aviv, where our schoolchildren came from. When I saw the children, I saw my own neighborhood where I grew up, where everyone gave up on the kids. Some became criminals, rather than upstanding citizens with a place in society. I myself was blessed, because I had parents who did not give up on us, who gave us core values, and I had an amazing school principal, Alice Shalvi, who was my role model. I too would become a leading principal, I decided, for my school and for my community.

“When I posted my vision for the school, there was strong opposition. At the time, there was no WhatsApp or Facebook; a coalition of teachers was totally opposed. You come here to a school where only 28% matriculate, they said. There was daily opposition. But I did not give up.

“I explained: we need to work hard. We need to see the children in a wide 360-degree vision. We must gather data and we must find the students’ strengths and create those strengths. To create a wide variety of solutions for the children – not solely based on pedagogy. As a special education teacher said, let’s find where they excel – and find how we can develop this and strengthen it! We created a ‘flywheel’ – a device to generate and sustain momentum.

“First, I created an organizational structure, against the massive opposition of the teachers. I created five administrative units and appointed a head for each, for instance kindergarten, elementary school, Grade 9, high school, and the ulpan.

“This structure was a game-changer. I myself came from outside the school. But from within, I built a cadre of leaders, a management team, who interacted daily with the teachers. They were part of the peer group. All my messaging I gave to the management team. Emphasis, direction, briefings, I gave to the management team, gave them the responsibility and budgets.

“Second, I decided to keep the school open until the evening. All day long. The people at Tel Aviv City Hall felt I was totally out of my mind to do this, but they were not opposed. They just said: don’t ask us for more money!

“Why was it important to keep the school open for long hours? Simply, because I did not want the kids to loiter at the Central Bus Station but instead to have them in school until late hours. At first, none of the teachers wanted to remain. I myself set a personal example. I stayed on myself, every evening.

“Third, cleanliness. I wanted the school to be spotlessly clean. I personally stooped to pick up scraps of paper from the floor. When I visit schools that belong to our Tovanot NGO, I still stop and pick up scraps of paper.

“So the school stayed open until evening – but what will the children do then? The first activity we created was a center for culture and for sport. I asked the children themselves: what would make you remain in school until evening? They told me their wishes and we opened the center.

“To build the team, I went to each teacher and asked each of them: what is your own personal dream? I want to help you achieve your dreams. If I had not helped them do this, I could not have achieved my own dream.

“Every teacher needs to grow and develop their skills, continually. And they need emotional support. I met with the teachers weekly, supported them, and found ways to help each teacher develop. I brought professional training programs into the school. My unit heads did not have master’s degrees. I told them: if you join me in this journey, each of you will become a principal with a master’s degree. I often had to work harder, and fill in for them, when they took graduate courses and gave up my day off for this purpose.

“Often, in schools, we see parents in two different extremes. Either they overly interfere with the school, or they are utterly indifferent and uninvolved. I saw the mothers from the Philippines, Eritrea, etc., who cleaned houses for a living. I saw them as a great asset. I asked, what can we learn from them?

“So I gave them leadership training, for the parent committee. I made a point of learning about their religions and cultures. I asked them: how can our school help you? They asked for a parents’ ulpan and we opened one.

“We held a Purim adloyada [parade]. The parents dressed up in their national costumes, traditional dress, and we went out into the street to parade. There was much applause! We enlisted volunteers to come to teach the kids and their parents.

“David Grossman wrote a wonderful book, titled Someone to Run With. I too needed some people to run with me. I always sought them, as a management backbone. From day one I knew I had to find partners, supporters, to achieve our vision. One of them was Dr. Yossi Vardi, a legendary Israeli entrepreneur and angel investor. To this day, his group of 200 volunteers supports the school. They are a major asset. We learned to respect them and to harness their immense energy. We made these volunteers an integral part of our school activities.

“Infrastructure. When I took over, the school building was not fit to occupy. You could not even use the bathrooms. I served in the Israeli Air Force. There, I learned that if you have an idea, you write it down, make a multi-year plan and bring to your commanding officer. I did this and submitted a plan and a budget to Tel Aviv City Hall to improve the physical appearance of the school. I stressed that the physical building is a key part of our pedagogy. The Fund for Tel Aviv helped.

“We created a music room. I wanted to give the students a voice, literally. We launched a choir. It became famous. The choir appeared not only at school events but all over Israel and even abroad.

“For the six years 2005-2011, we had crises daily. But we promised each child a key to success in life – and a matriculation certificate was part of that key. In six years, the percentage of students matriculating rose from 28% to 87%. The percentage of those eligible to serve in the IDF who enlisted rose from 26% to 79%. Among the teachers, only two of them chose to leave the school rather than stay on with us. And at parents’ meetings, when initially only 5% of the parents showed up, within six years, 90% of them came. And there was a sharp decline in violence.”

Today, Karen Tal directs an NGO named Tovanot B’hinuch (Insights in Education). It seeks to provide “the tailwind school principals need to generate an educational and social revolution in the educational centers led by these principals” – like the one Tal led in Bialik-Rogozin.  ■

The writer heads the Zvi Griliches Research Data Center at S. Neaman Institute, Technion, and blogs at www.timnovate.wordpress.com