Wanted: An English teacher

Amid a looming economic crisis there is still one job in Israel that desperately needs more workers.

teacher 88 248 (photo credit: Debbi Cooper)
teacher 88 248
(photo credit: Debbi Cooper)
There is one profession in Israel where there are lots of jobs available. The dire shortage of English teachers made headline news in August of this year, just a week before the school year was about to begin, when the Education Ministry panicked and offered a crash course for anyone with a degree who would agree to take up the challenge. Already in June 2006, the ministry was short of over 300 English teachers and began to outline a plan to encourage the immigration of Jewish English teachers by offering special benefits. In addition, 250 English teachers in the Israeli school system were not certified, but gained employment because some sort of teacher is better than none. As many ambitious parents consider that their children are not making satisfactory progress in English - an important subject for the children's future careers - they engage a private tutor after school hours if they can afford it. And as the financial crisis squeezes high-tech companies out of business, the Education Ministry is now calling on the newly unemployed to retrain as teachers. Should those who are fluent in English try this path? "In America, doctors, lawyers, generals, actors, television people and politicians are admired and rewarded. Not teachers. Teaching is the downstairs maid of professions," according to Frank McCourt, who won literary prizes for Angela's Ashes in 1996 and wrote a gripping memoir, Teacher Man, about his experiences teaching English for some 30 years in American public high schools. In Israel, too, the status of the teaching profession is at rock bottom. Why should anyone want to join "the downstairs maid of professions?" And does a BA and a teaching license really qualify a person to educate a class of 40 unruly kids in the Israeli school system? Pearl arrived in Israel from the USA 26 years ago, hoping to teach art. But when she looked for a job, she was told that Israel needed English teachers, not art teachers. If she became an English teacher, said her future employer, she would be fulfilling a Zionist need, as Israel needed people who could speak and write in English for its contacts with the outside world. She could do a course and get a license for free. "I like challenges, I am adaptable, and I came here to fulfill a need," says Pearl, admitting that "I still see this work as shlihut [a mission]." When she began to teach English to sixth-graders, she spoke almost no Hebrew and couldn't understand why the children laughed at her. "They ate me up at the beginning," she recalls. Many foreign-born English teachers who joined the school system before they had a working knowledge of Hebrew have had the same experience. Notwithstanding their university degrees, a high level of courage and a naive optimism, the classroom experience shattered them at first. However, as they learned to become Israelis, they learned to teach Israeli children. "It was very difficult - very, very difficult," affirms Michele, who also started teaching a few months after she arrived in Israel from the UK with a degree in French and German. In her own grammar school education, she addressed her teachers as "Sir" and "Mrs." and climbed the stairs on one side, descending only on the other side. She gained her qualifications as an English teacher while she worked, and eventually increased her workload by becoming a homeroom teacher as well. But however difficult it was throughout her 37-year career, she felt she was doing something important. "English, as opposed to many other subjects that children learn in school, is a life skill. I feel that by teaching English I am doing something useful," she says. Liz, another veteran English teacher who has taught high school as well as university students, confirms this feeling: "I feel that I am giving my students something they really need in life, a tool to live in the modern world." This feeling of purpose helps English teachers persist in the job, even though the pay is low and the conditions are frustrating. "Most English teachers could get another, easier job outside the education system," says Caroline, who came to the classroom after working in computers and as a tour guide. "Those who stay in the school system are dedicated, optimistic people who want to make, and do make, a difference." Pearl, Michele and Caroline have learned to make their lessons relevant to the children's lives, to get to know the kids individually, to thoroughly prepare for each class and to give praise where it is due. "The English teacher has a syllabus and excellent books, made and published in Israel for Israeli children, but nevertheless we have the freedom to be creative in the classroom. We can make our lessons meaningful, and we try to give our pupils individual attention," says Pearl. "However, the reason to teach English is not to push children through exams, although we have to do that, too." These teachers agree that the reason for teaching English is to motivate children to learn the language, to give them practice and fluency in speaking and understanding, to enlarge their vocabulary and to encourage reading as a hobby. "My goal is to educate my students to be human beings," says Evelyn, who teaches in a Kfar Saba high school. Irit, who is not a native English speaker but qualified as a high-school English teacher, takes the same view: "My aim is to teach my students good work habits, reading, writing, understanding, and above all to be human beings. This is especially important in the face of the violence in our society today." "You can't just follow a text book," says Evelyn, "you have to use the material imaginatively." Michele agrees that "you can't just open last year's lessons and deliver them again. You have to be creative." For example, Michele asked her pupils to keep a "dialogue journal" in which they could write in English about whatever they wanted. She read the journal once a week and replied. In this way, she fashioned a private dialogue that enabled children to talk to her. She noticed that not everyone wanted to do it, but many enjoyed the opportunity to express themselves, and a few used it to ask for help. She noticed that writing in English, not their mother tongue, gave them a certain freedom and privacy that they wouldn't have in Hebrew. Pearl likes to make use of films, turning off the sound and getting her students to imagine what the characters on the screen are saying. Then she lets them discover what the actors are actually saying, and the class discusses the differences and similarities between the imagined dialogue and the original. Evelyn enjoys teaching poetry, and she eats a plum slowly and sensually as she introduces her students to William Carlos Williams's To a Poor Old Woman (munching a plum…). Daphna, a young native Israeli with an MA in English linguistics and a teaching certificate, teaches English at the high-school level to mixed-ability classes and to pupils with learning difficulties. "The advantage of being a native Israeli teacher is that you know the children's culture and their specific problems with the English language," she points out. "For example, in Hebrew there is no perfect tense, so it is hard for Israelis to grasp the perfect tense in English." But she says it's not enough to have a good working knowledge of English to teach the language. "You have to be a role model to your class. Your English vocabulary and grammar have to be excellent, not just good. And you have to know how to stand before a class and manage a class. You can't become an English teacher in an Israeli school without a good degree in English language or literature and proper teacher training. It's not a job that just anyone who speaks English can do." English teachers in Israel have formed a professional organization, the English Teachers Association in Israel (ETAI), a forum for sharing professional knowledge. ETAI enriches, supports and provides a platform for English teachers through its regional conferences and many other local events. Three times a year, two ETAI volunteers produce a 48-page journal with academic articles, ideas for the classroom, book reviews and useful Web sites. In addition, the English Teachers' Network in Israel (ETNI) provides a virtual community for discussion and an informative Web site. Both ETAI and ETNI are run entirely by volunteers. "I like my colleagues," says Evelyn, who appreciates the networking and support that English teachers give each other. Irit also praises the teamwork between teachers, which she finds helpful. The bonds between teachers often grow into strong friendships based on mutual admiration and respect. Michele speaks for her colleagues as well when she says that for every hour spent teaching, there are two more hours spent out of the classroom preparing lessons, checking papers, speaking to pupils and parents, and attending meetings, among other things - and this doesn't take into account in-service training courses and reading professional literature. "A full-time job of 24 teaching hours in the junior-high or high school translates into 72 hours a week on the job, at least," she says. "This is not an exaggeration." And yet, the job is never boring and is always a challenge. Many teachers burn out, some survive and make do, and some shine on the job and leave their mark not only on the children in their classes, but on other teachers, parents and the community. Farida, who teaches English at an Arab junior-high school in Acre and served as her school's principal, says, "If you love the language, want to teach, and believe that what you do is important, teaching English at school is not so difficult, even when the children are problematic. Your colleagues will support you. Teaching English makes me feel alive; it's a constant challenge and a privilege." Sheila sums up what many English teachers have told me: "I'm still in the classroom because I believe in the kids and the future, I love teaching, and I learn every day from my pupils. I just wish the government would understand the importance of investing in the future generation by reducing the number of children in each classroom and giving teachers respectable pay."