The Morning After (Extract)

Israel's longest-ever education strike is over, but not so the anger and anguish of thousands of secondary school teachers

20 jack (photo credit: Esteban Alterman)
20 jack
(photo credit: Esteban Alterman)
Extract from an article in Issue 20, January 21, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. For full story please subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here to subscribe. Jack Pillemer, 52, has been teaching English language arts at the secondary school level since 1981. These days he chairs the English department at the Boyar School, a Jerusalem high school with some 800 pupils, a third of whom are boarders from peripheral towns. Proud of his professional choices, Pillemer nevertheless has a clear-eyed view of his vocation. He does not idealize teaching as a sacred or romantic mission ? la Hollywood's "Goodbye Mr. Chips" or "To Sir With Love." Portraying a teacher as a 'special person' just invites him or her to be perceived as a martyr. I want to do my work well and expect to be properly acknowledged and compensated like any other professional." But that is not the case. After two decades in the profession, Pillemer classifies himself as "lower middle class" and feels that the teaching profession is widely looked down upon by an increasingly capitalistic Israeli society. "Over the years I get less and less respect for being a teacher from students, parents and society as a whole," he laments matter-of-factly. The epic 65-day strike, which left Israel's secondary school teachers with a moderate pay raise and a vague promise to reduce class size, did little to buoy Pillemer's spirits. The strike ended with a December 13 agreement signed between the Secondary School Teachers Association and Education and Finance ministries, just minutes before court injunctions ordering teachers back into the classroom would have gone into effect. Pillemer, a middle of the road activist who stood on street corners with protest placards, says he was relieved that the strike didn't compel him to choose between "obeying the law or my conscience." It's too soon to tell whether the fight was worth it, he says. The strike was "never just about the low wages and difficult working conditions." Teachers, he goes on, had reached their boiling point over "many different issues;" wages and conditions were merely the most prominent complaints. But the other issues were hardly publicized, he says, and now he fears that the agreement will create a false sense of calm and leave Israel's educational malaise untreated. Pillemer hardly alone in expressing this view. "The national uproar over the strike completely failed to address the heated issues," says Dr. Eli Gottlieb, head of the Jerusalem-based Mandel Leadership Institute, which runs a two-year educational leadership training program for education professionals. "The wage issue was serious, but the agreement put a Band-Aid on a huge bleeding sore." Serving some 1.5 million pupils from preschool through 12th grade, in 3,300 schools, with some 45,000 teachers, Israel's sprawling public education system is widely acknowledged to be deeply decayed. Despite a 33-billion-shekel budget and numerous declarations about educational reform, Israeli students (split into four separate educational streams: secular, religious, ultra Orthodox semi-private and Arab) perform poorly on domestic and international exams meant to measure scholastic aptitude. (Israeli 15-year-olds recently ranked 39th out of 57 countries in the international PISA math tests.) Reasons for the degraded public school system include: repeated budget cuts by the Finance Ministry, which translate into poor wages; the proliferation of "gray" education in which well-to-do parents subsidize enrichment classes for their children; a surfeit of different, sometimes conflicting, pedagogical visions at the Education Ministry reflecting the ever-changing carousel of politically appointed ministers; an increasingly diverse student body, including a growing number of children with special needs in regular classrooms. A typical Israeli classroom these days may include "non-Jewish Russian immigrants with almost no knowledge of anything Jewish; Ethiopian immigrants who have trouble understanding the text; and kids with attention deficit disorders and hyperactivity," says one Jerusalem teacher speaking anonymously. Just taking care of their needs can preoccupy a teacher for a whole lesson, she says. But most egregiously, says Dr. Neri Horowitz, also of the Mandel Institute, the Education Ministry has done little to enhance the status of the teaching profession, and has been lax in enforcing minimal standards for teacher qualification. That the September-November strike seemed like a dispute over wages is not without reason. A beginner teacher's salary can start at 3,500 shekels ($875) per month and the monthly take home pay for a secondary school teacher with a master's degree and 15 years experience wavers between 6,500 and 7,000 shekels ($1,625-$1,750). Many teachers, including Jack Pillemer, who is married with four children, hold additional jobs to make ends meet. Extract from an article in Issue 20, January 21, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. For full story please subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here to subscribe.