The most powerful weapon

The various ways in which Israeli education is unique.

Nelson Mandela (photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
Nelson Mandela
(photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
Being schooled in a new school system in Israel “KNOWLEDGE IS Light” – that was our school motto in the South African city of Durban when I was a child. The importance of education was made clear to us from as far back as I can remember. It wasn’t taken for granted. A good education was a privilege.
To this day, I shudder when I hear stories of schools, universities or libraries being vandalized. Places of learning are sacrosanct. As former South African president Nelson Mandela said so beautifully: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
If there was one change we weren’t fully prepared for in Israel, it was the different schooling system. Firstly, our children go to school six days a week. Granted, Friday is a shorter day and many high schools have a five-day week, but for us at this stage, our bodies are still confused when that alarm clock goes off early on a Sunday morning! School uniforms, as we’ve always known them, are a thing of the past. There are no gray pants, white shirts or ties, and there are certainly no blazers. It’s distinctly more casual. Children here wear a T-shirt – any color – with a badge ironed on the front.
Then it’s tracksuit pants, jeans or shorts for the boys, and skirts for the girls. Any type of skirt – flared, straight, denim, striped or spotted! Gone are the days of racing to buy “Bata Toughies” at the end of each school holiday. Children here wear “running shoes” – better known to South Africans as “takkies” or “sneakers” to Americans.
The comfortable shoe concept makes perfect sense, because most children are either walking or cycling to school. (From the age of 9, a child can legally cross the street alone.) Seeing so many children chatting together as they make their way to school each morning, with their oversized backpacks, still makes me smile. Older children in elementary school are given traffic duties – they stand at the pedestrian crossings in bright yellow vests, making sure cars stop in time. They’re given responsibilities from an early age. It’s an exciting new normal.
A less exciting new normal was adapting to the new school culture. Teachers and parents here often comment about the “extremely polite South African children.”
They generally speak softly, listen to instructions and wait their turn in a line. Here it’s clear, one might need to ‘toughen’ up a little if one wants to be heard, to ask a question or secure a piece of birthday cake at a party. More than once, I’ve explained to our children that while we might be integrating into a louder, more outspoken, more “assertive” culture, the so-called South African manners are here to stay! There is far less emphasis on homework, certainly at elementary school level. Children don’t seem to be under too much pressure.
Their after-school banter seems to focus on soccer, basketball and the latest video games. If they choose not to work, it’s their problem. You also don’t seem to hear stories of mothers staying up late to help finish their children’s projects – each child must make their own deadline, finish their own project, or not. It seems decidedly more laid back than the school system and enforced discipline we knew before, but we’re told the focus on actual results happens down the line.
As new olim (immigrants), our children are part of an “Ulpan” Hebrew class, which is given during school hours. They join other new pupils – from the US, UK, Brazil, France, Spain, Italy and Turkey – as they focus on their language “catch-up” program.
One of the advantages of arriving here with young children is that they are like language sponges at the age of 9 and 10. They aren’t concerned about mispronouncing words or using the wrong gender – they just speak, and the progress is fascinating to see.
Despite glaring early differences in the schooling priorities, one has a sense that the system simply must work. This is after all a country known as the “Start-Up Nation,” with regular stories doing the rounds about the latest hi-tech company to shatter global expectations. The advantages of the more casual system are becoming more clear each day – children make their own decisions about their schoolwork, their arrangements and what they do in their free time. They also don’t seem to sweat the small stuff. It almost makes up for the early morning Sunday alarm clock. Well, almost!