Tapping a reservoir of teachers

In the Arab sector, there are too many teachers for the available teaching positions; in Jewish schools, the opposite is the case. A new program seeks to redress the balance and change cultural perceptions en route.

Nedaa Rabie helps a student with math at Gvanim Junior High School (photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH 90)
Nedaa Rabie helps a student with math at Gvanim Junior High School
(photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH 90)

A SIXTH-GRADE MATH teacher Nedaa Rabie, 27, steps back from the whiteboard on which she has just written an equation.

“OK,” she says. “Who wants to solve this exercise?” A few students raise their hands.
“Extra credit points for whoever does it,” she adds.
More hands go up, and, quick to smile, mischievous dimples appear on Rabie’s cheeks as she surveys the waving arms and selects a girl in the back of the room for the task.
After class, some of the students at the Gvanim Junior High School in the town of Kadima, near Netanya in the center of the country, admit to have been somewhat surprised to be faced with Rabie as their teacher at the beginning of the year. An Arab teacher wearing a robe and a hijab in their math class? An Arab teacher for Arabic class was OK, but for math? “It just seemed very weird,” said Ofri Silony, 13.
“I didn’t understand how an Arab teacher could teach us math,” added Maya Klomer, 13. “Then I realized that she can teach just like any other teacher.”
“She is a good teacher, so it doesn’t make any difference,” piped in Ron Levy, 14.
From the northern Jezreel Valley village of Taibeh, Rabie spent three years after her graduation searching for a teaching job in the Arab sector, where there are too many teachers for the available teaching positions.
In Jewish schools, the opposite is the case.
Ahead of the current academic year, with the launch by the Education Ministry of an Arab teacher integration project, in partnership with the Merchavim Institute for the Advancement of Shared Citizenship, Rabie was one of the 700 Arab teachers who applied for teaching positions in Jewish schools.
For many young educated Arabs, the education and teaching profession is one of the few fields easily accessible to them as Arabs, along with medicine, nursing and pharmacy. Having already studied and worked in different jobs with Jews, the integration process was easy for her, Rabie tells The Jerusalem Report.
“It’s not just teaching math. The students ask me about my holidays; they ask intelligent questions [about Islam and Arab society] and I answer,” she says. “They are always interested in learning about a different culture and I am always willing to answer. This is breaking preconceived ideas they may have about Arabs.”
Although the Education Ministry oversees all schools, which have basic curriculum requirements, there are several separate education tracks, including the secular track, religious schools that incorporate religious subjects, and Arab schools at which classes are taught in Arabic.
Roughly seven years in the making (and similar to another joint MerchavimEducation Ministry project initiated some 10 ago with the purpose of placing Arab Arabiclanguage teachers in Jewish elementary schools), the Arab Teacher Integration Project aims within the next five years to integrate some 500 qualified Arab teachers into the Jewish junior-high educational system – not only as Arabic teachers, but also in the core subjects of English, science and math¸ for which there is a shortage of teachers.
According to a 2009 study commissioned by the project leaders, there are between 8,000-10,000 unemployed qualified Arab teachers and at least 1,000 are teachers of subjects for which teachers are needed in Jewish schools, notes Mike Prashker, founder and director of Merchavim. Many of the Jewish schools looking for teachers are located in regions of the country where Arab teachers need jobs, he tells The Report.
Though stalled for a while when the economic recession hit Israel a few years ago and attempts were made to retrain and place laid-off Jewish hi-tech professionals in the classrooms, a pilot of the integration project was launched some seven years ago in a few selected junior-high schools, including Gvanim, which has 586 students.
The aim eventually is to have at least two Arab teachers in each school.
The concept of retraining was an economic waste of time, Prashker maintains, particularly when the country already had an entire available cadre of overlooked and dedicated teachers who had chosen the career out of conviction rather than out of necessity. Figures from early 2013 show that the cost of paying unemployment benefits to Arab teachers together with the cost of the retraining programs for hi-tech personnel would have amounted to NIS 300 million over the past five years, he says.
In 2002, the government announced its goal of having 10 percent of all employees in the public sector come from the minority sectors of the population, including in schools, notes Gila Nagar, deputy directorgeneral of the Education Ministry. Last year, Education Minister Shay Piron, from Yesh Atid, decided to adopt a national plan of Arab teacher integration, in conjunction with Merchavim. The project also includes a teacher training and support element.
“There are many talented Arab teachers who do not have work,” said Nagar. “The students get very good teachers, while at the same time the program contributes to integration and a shared common life in the country.”
According to Nagar, the Education Ministry, together with Merchavim, the Prime Minister’s Office and RAMA, the National Authority for Measurement and Evaluation in Education are following the project to assess its success and effectiveness.
“We all have the same goal of integrating Arab teachers into Jewish schools and we have built a very extensive program,” she tells The Report. “The program is significant and will continue doing good [even at its conclusion], though perhaps not at the speed we would like. But we have to change the paradigm of our thinking. There are all kinds of stigmas that we have to check and deal with.”
For now, 49 Arab teachers have begun to teach in 61 Jewish schools through the program, with two teachers in math classes, 12 English teachers, nine science teachers, and the great majority, 26, Arabic teachers.
Most of the teachers are recent graduates.
Nagar says they were hoping to find more schools willing to accept the teachers and become part of the program.
The project also provides special training and enrichment programs for the teachers to prepare them for the encounter, which may raise various scenarios ranging from innocent curiosity to racist remarks, notes Nagar. Counselors from the Education Ministry also monitor the teachers and are available to them to respond to any questions or concerns, she adds. In addition, the schools also go through a preparatory training course to help in the successful absorption of the new teachers.
At first, there was concern whether parents would allow their children to come to school, but, with a little bit of time, “normalcy set in,” says Prashker.
It has not always been a smooth transition, he adds, and some Arab teachers have inadvertently been locked out of the school by overzealous guards who could not grasp the concept of an Arab teacher coming to school, while others have been mistaken for the school janitor.
Arab teachers have also encountered some challenges at times, when there have been terror attacks for example, and issues such as how to relate to Independence Day have to be looked at, but the training is designed to help deal with these types of situations, Prashker notes.
“Change is always frightening,” he says.
“The perception of math, English and science is also different from the perception of Arabic, which is not part of the matriculation requirements and not viewed as highly important. Schools are more nervous about stepping into the unknown. People find it hard to make transitions to the unknown, and they need to be supported and helped.”
The effect on changing ethnic perceptions is a two-way street, notes Tarik Murad, the Education Ministry’s national counselor for the project. “We look not only for good teachers but for excellent teachers with the ability to integrate in a Jewish school and who believe in co-existence and are ready to be agents of change – [not only in the Jewish schools] but also in Arab society when they go home,” he tells The Report.
“The teachers expose their society to Jewish schools and Jewish society to their communities as well. Our vision is to have a multicultural Israel where Arabs and Jews can live together. We don’t want to view this project as something out of the ordinary. We want it to be a normal part of our joint life here so that it doesn’t seem strange to have an Arab teacher in a Jewish school. We want people to see this as normal.”
At Gvanim – unique, in that it already has five Arab teachers among its staff thanks to the support of school principal Ronit Rubanenko – science teacher Husam Biadsy, 43, from Baka el-Garbiyeh, has become a favorite, even among students who are not in his class. As a sports fan he always is willing to stop in the halls and discuss a game with the guys.
In addition to enjoying the friendly relations with the students, he also appreciates the open atmosphere of the school between the teachers and the principal, he says. “The program doesn’t just throw you into the classroom, it gives you a lot of tools,” Biadsy, who has worked within a Jewish framework before, tells The Report. “We don’t feel like strangers here.”
The school needed teachers in all subjects and once the initial experience with the first Arab Arabic teacher was a success, Rubanenko explains to The Report, she enthusiastically requested more teachers through the project. “There is a cultural difference, but it is a wonderful thing that each one of us comes from our own world,” she says. “I don’t know the project very well in depth; I just know it works.”
Still, in other schools which are just joining the project for the first year, teachers like A, who is teaching in a school in the center of the country and asked not to be identified, have had to face both outright and unintended racist statements and attitudes from the students as well as from fellow teachers.
Another Arab teacher at the school has not even revealed that she is an Arab to her class or the other staff in order to avoid the comments, says A, 25, who comes from northern Israel. It is not easy, she says, but she has persisted and has turned numerous times to the project counselor for support and advice on how to handle the situation. And now, at the mid-mark of the year, she has begun to see a shift in attitude in some of the students, she tells The Report.
“It hurts me in my heart and sometimes I want to cry, but even some of the hardest students now tell me I am the best representative for Arabs. I want to do even more of this, to put more effort into these programs,” she says. “Nobody appreciates the importance of these programs.”
On the other hand, says Gvanim Arabic teacher Arwa Maghdlawai, 30, some of her Arab friends ask her how she can work in a Jewish school. “I am an emissary here in the school and also for the Arabs in my community. I teach the students here about our holidays and when I go back home, my friends ask me to tell them about the Jewish schools,” she says.
Nevertheless, says Prashker, with all the challenges the project faces, they feel a great deal of good will come of it in the majority of the schools.
For Shahak Musai, 13, being exposed to Arab teachers has given her the courage to speak up when she hears people saying racist things against Arabs. “Sometimes I used to ignore it when people said things, but now I can’t distance myself from it. I say you can’t insult everyone like that, and that happens a lot here in Israel now,” says Musai.
“We are learning about [Arab citizens in Israel] in a way most [Jews] do not get to see.”