Intruder in the classroom

To mark the end of the school year, Metro takes a look inside the system.

teacher 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
teacher 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
'I'm exhausted," the teacher mutters to herself as 30-plus kids shriek in broken English and Hebrew. Every 45 seconds the lesson stops so another child can be scolded and told to "Quiet down!" One child draws on his desk. A few stare off into space or converse among themselves. The teacher, her shoulders slumped, tries to continue, but most of the children just aren't listening. Several sit fully turned around, their backs to the board as they chat with their friends. One pupil even bobbles a soccer ball beneath the desk. The ones who are paying attention demand 50 things at once. "What's this mean? Can you repeat the question? Where are we?" They scream on top of each other, their voices a cacophony. Throughout this verbal barrage, the teacher at this western Negev school - a soft, sweet woman with cheerless bags beneath her eyes, merely shrugs - in the face of youthful rebellion, she appears defeated, like a general whose troops have gone AWOL. "I do my job as best as I can," she says in tired frustration, standing in her empty classroom. She refuses to be named out of fear of harsh reprisals. "I have a curriculum. I work by it. That's all I have to do. It's not the best [way], but I don't have a choice." The frustration in her voice doesn't make her unique; her reaction is shockingly common among teachers who struggle daily with the same difficulties. But these classroom challenges aren't an aberration in some school in the Israeli periphery: the same situation exists in Kiryat Gat, in Netanya, in Beit Shemesh, and most everywhere else. Teachers interviewed for this article told Metro that in many schools, pupils stay in one classroom throughout the day, while the teachers move from room to room. This enables the pupils to control the classroom, as if the teacher were an intruder or an enemy invader, they say. "Days are very rough. I run from class to class. I have no time to sit or have a drink," Tammy Schmidt, a science teacher at the Tzur Yigal primary school, says. A sense that education in this country is disintegrating is nothing new to Israelis. Reports about failing standards and a sinking educational rank among industrialized nations have appeared in a number of publications, including the Economist. While debate continues about how to improve the school system, the reality teachers face in the classroom is often left out of the mainstream discussion. For every teacher who agreed to discuss in-school problems for this article, there were several who were not willing to talk out of fear of retribution for speaking badly about their schools. "They pour out their guts to the students, more than is required by law," Principal Peter Sorek, an administrator and teacher at Hugim High School in Haifa, exclaimed when contacted by Metro. The teachers interviewed said that, yes, they often have to play several roles - including that of nurse and counselor - in addition to teaching. "The first two years are hell. You gain experience, but I would go home crying," Sharon Bakst, an English teacher at the Sharett High School in Netanya, told Metro. Recent news coverage of problems in the school system, especially during the two-month high-school teachers' strike at the start of this school year, focused on the teachers' demand for better pay. "I don't think it was worth it," Bakst said of the strike. But salaries are far from the only issue teachers have with the system. When teachers are asked about the difficulties they face in their jobs, compensation isn't the first problem they mention. "You can't really demand a lot. Well, you can, but you won't get it," Sorek said. He also decried what he sees as a lack of expectations from students. Sorek isn't alone in his frustration. Bakst, who has been teaching for 17 years and speaks angrily about what she sees as the lowering of educational standards, says that "[The pupils] think the teachers should do everything for them." Plummeting standards have also sparked the ire of Secondary School Teachers Association head Ran Erez, who said that teachers have lost their focus on individual pupils' needs. Nowadays, Erez says, they are forced to spoon-feed students lessons that will "test" well. "Teachers have to 'chew' the test material for the students," Erez told Metro in an e-mail. Erez also addressed schools' overwhelming focus on the bagrut (matriculation exams.) "All of us - in the Education Ministry, parents, teachers, principals, students - worship the golden calf," the annual exams, Erez explained. In his opinion, teachers are forced to dedicate a great amount of class time to a very narrow curriculum that is geared to getting students through their exams - and not much after that. Erez may have a point. According to the 2008 Economist article "Miracles and Mirages," Israel is falling behind the rest of the world in education. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which invited Israel to membership talks in 2007, ranked Israel last out of 57 nations in terms of the education gap that exists between the country's best and worst pupils, while also ranking Israeli 15-year-olds 39th out of 57 total countries in science education. "If you look at the statistics," Sorek said, "we aren't doing as well as Europe." But most of the teachers stuck in the trenches don't cite figures and reports - they speak from the heart about their own classroom experiences. Bakst cited "materialism" as the cause of the schools' falling standards, while Schmidt called today's children "spoiled." Erez himself said the problem stems from a drive to get students a full high-school matriculation certificate for university, which 50 percent of high-school students don't receive, he said. Sorek opined that kids today don't have the "intellectual curiosity" that children used to, due to changes in the culture. "First of all, there is something called a computer," he said. In his opinion, computers draw pupils away from traditional study, inhibiting their preparation for future academic life. The high school educator is also concerned with early education. "You need to have excellent teachers in first, second, and third grade," Sorek said, in order to prepare kids for later on. But these insights don't do Sorek much good. He has other worries. "I don't think there is any point in talking about society in general," he said. "One has to take care of preparing children for the work world!" Teachers outside the public school system are noticing similar trends to what Sorek describes among their pupils. "They didn't know simple things [about English]," Shiran Terkel said. Terkel, 20, completed her IDF service as a teacher, working at a military-run after-school program in Haifa aimed at helping kids with learning problems. "Teaching [there] was different because those kids need special methods. They need us to test their attention. We had to teach them how to learn," Terkel said. But educational standards are not the sole concern. Complaints over the decline in standards are often coupled with a lingering sense of frustration over what has become the norm for student behavior. Teachers admit great difficulty in properly disciplining students who cross the line in class. "The Education Ministry takes the approach that the student is a customer and therefore prevents teachers and principals from taking an aggressive approach toward students and prevents setting boundaries, because the customer is always right!" Erez said. Teachers maintain that they are often overwhelmed by their lack of authority in dealing with pupils who become unruly in class. Frequently, teachers are limited as to how they can use the tools at their disposal to combat bad behavior, such as requiring students to stay after school and even suspension. Schmidt admitted that the harshest punishment a teacher can give for any infraction is a three-day suspension. Instructors' hands remain tightly tied in the face of disruptive pupils since they are required to go through the administration for approval of any disciplinary action. Sorek, who says his school doesn't have an inordinate amount of behavior problems, takes a hard line on school discipline. "Someone who curses at teachers can't stay in school. They have to be suspended," Sorek said. However, educators often have to justify their actions to administrators, parents and even to the kids themselves. "I know many school administrators don't want to deal with [discipline]," Sorek said. Terkel said that when she was teaching, she was able to exert her authority, because the program's supervisors would back teachers up without hesitation. This is in sharp contrast to the high school many of her students came from, where - according to Terkel - teachers rarely disciplined students and behavior such as cursing at teachers was common. But teachers who don't enjoy the backing of an IDF framework say that when they do get support from superintendents to discipline pupils, they sometimes have to contend with irate parents who disagree with their decisions. This, they say, creates a situation in which parents claim control over school-related matters, something the teachers greatly resent. Erez described parents in the same manner he did students - as customers - which makes it difficult to get their backing on contentious matters. "I am not sure most of [the parents] have the IQ to realize they are the main problem," Bakst concurred. The disrespect she encounters from her own pupils usually takes the form of general disruptiveness. When Metro visited her classroom, she ended one lesson early because the kids were exceptionally unruly. Bakst, who has taught for 17 years, makes only NIS 7,500 a month, while Schmidt - a teacher with nine years' experience, makes NIS 6,000 a month. Both hold master's degrees. Even Sorek, a senior administrator, said he doesn't even make double the average salary for a teacher with 10 years' tenure (about NIS 5,000.) "In our society people who are underpaid equals people who aren't worth much," Bakst explained. The lack of pay, according to Bakst, also forces certain teachers to offer private lessons for money. While the practice is discouraged, and Bakst herself refrains from tutoring, she explained that many teachers do so simply for the extra money. To add insult to injury, Bakst says she's been advised to quit teaching and move into a different, more profitable field - something she bristles at. "This is what I studied - you don't ask a doctor why he is a doctor!" she said with plenty of indignation. Erez is convinced that increasing teachers' pay would breathe new life into the profession. "New teachers would [enter] the system and stay… if there were better pay," he declared. Currently, according to Erez, starting salaries for teachers are well below average starting salaries in other fields. During their first few years, teachers can earn as little as NIS 3,000 a month. But many teachers don't hold out much hope for change, especially when problems in education are weighed against other crises facing Israel. "The government wants us to think we have a problem with security so the budget goes that way, so there isn't enough [money] for education," Schmidt complained. She said she doesn't see a reason for this and noted that while Israel has always had a problem with its neighbors, in the past it also managed to maintain a strong school system. Despite the difficulty, the teachers interviewed emphasized that they do their jobs because they love teaching, and don't have any plans to leave. "I couldn't sit at a desk, that would drive me crazy," Bakst said toward the end of the interview. And teachers still have more power than one might assume. "With one word, [teachers] can build a pupil or destroy a pupil," Schmidt admitted humbly.