More love, more flowers and fewer thorns

Education, says Benzion Nemet, head of the Jerusalem Education Administration, must be a life's work and an ideal. If it is not, society will fail.

nemet (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As head of Manhi (the Jerusalem Educational Administration), Benzion Nemet must have one of the hardest jobs in the country. Daily, he must deal with an impoverished system, inadequate facilities, demanding parents, government neglect, diverse populations frequently in conflict with each other and the fact that nothing in Jerusalem, not even education, can escape the conflict and the symbolism of this city. He says he loves this job, every single day. And he is very convincing when he says so. "I deal with education and that is the most amazing thing in the world. Every day is like a day in the delivery room, like giving birth to a child. From the first day of the first grade until the last day of the 12th grade - we have the opportunity to teach children. I cannot think of anything more worthwhile or more exciting." Nemet is a heavy-set man who expresses himself powerfully and expansively. His speech is rich with associations that range from organizational theory to the Bible, yet he is focused and direct. At the Jerusalem municipal press conference, Nemet dealt with specifics and presented a slick power point presentation, filled with numbers and details, on the system's challenges and achievements. In an exclusive interview with In Jerusalem, he chooses to talk about ideals and goals: "The opening of the school year is a celebration, a holiday. I know that you reporters take everything in this city cynically, but, please, for a moment, let's not be cynical. I don't have the privilege of being cynical. If we don't succeed in educating the future generations, then we have no future in the State of Israel. "One of the most difficult problems of this country is the lack of a sense of mastery, the lack of a sense of capability, the conviction that we can get ourselves out of difficulties and solve problems. "You ask yourself, what is the difference between a 'good school' and a not-good school, between a school that parents want to send their children to and a school that they don't. I come from a background of organizational theory, and I used to invest my time and effort trying to understand. But now I've learned. "Go into the teachers' lounge. See if the principal treats the teachers with respect. Listen to their language. Listen to how the teachers and the principal approach problems, how they feel about the challenges they face. If they feel that they are capable, have mastery. If they do, they will transmit that to the children. "See if they feel that their work has meaning. Because there is no value to life or work without meaning. Principals must invest in their staff. The teachers must feel that they are important, that this is their life's work. "Instead, too often, teachers feel battered and beaten down. And they transmit that to their students. "Oh, yes, we are a cultured society, and many of us know how to articulate ourselves very well. But how many of us know how to genuinely touch a student? "Many of us still remember our first teachers, our kindergarten teachers. Those who truly left a mark on our lives. That kindergarten is called Havatzelet's kindergarten, or Ruthie's kindergarten. It's not called Manhi's kindergarten. And rightly so. Because we head the system, but it is the teachers who must touch the student, shape his or her thinking." Recognizing that "education does not exist in a bubble," Nemet cites some of the most serious challenges the education system faces, and connects between them and the large society in which education takes place. With regard to education and equality, he says, "The education system is a reflection of society. If the general message in society is everyone for himself, then the question of integration just isn't relevant anymore. "And yet I don't think that volunteerism and good will are over. Look at the Bereshit school in Kiryat Menahem, based on ideology and commitment [established by the "Urban Kibbutz"]. These people set up a school in a neighborhood that didn't seem to have a chance. But they have ideals and they believe in themselves - and now this school is pulling in the strongest population." What about violence in the schools? "There is violence in our society, so there is violence in our schools. But this is not because of integration, and the violence is certainly not restricted to the lower socioeconomic groups. There is plenty of violence and serious vandalism in some of the most prestigious schools. We must attend to violence every day. All the time. We must eat every day and we must work to change the violent character of our society every day. "Some of the vandalism comes from the fact that children do not appreciate property any more. They have everything they want, and the parents give them everything they ask for." The balance between equality and the promotion of excellence is also one of the most complex challenges facing the system, Nemet continues. "We have to simultaneously push from below and pull from above. We have to take care of the weaker sectors of society. That is the responsibility of the society. But we also have to pay attention to the stronger ones, to the exceptional, gifted children. "We are doing this by broadening the definition - we offer extra programming not only for the exceptional, but also for the 'very good.' We have developed a unit to pay attention to these children. And we also must remember that outstanding students can come from the lower socioeconomic levels, too. There's a correlation between excellence and socioeconomic background, but it's not 100 percent." With regard to school payments, Nemet declares that, "Manhi will follow the guidelines determined by the Education Ministry." Most schools, he insists, don't demand more than the law allows. "But the problem is that in many cases, the schools demand payments because the parents are willing to pay. The parents say, 'I want more Jewish content, or more art, or more sports, or whatever, and I am willing to pay for it.' This isn't a simple question, because the parents who are willing to pay are doing the best for their own children and are paying voluntarily - even if it's true that the system is forcing them to pay." Nemet believes that every school must be in constant dialogue with the parents. "The parents are our true partners. The days in which parents were simply rubber stamps for the principal and the teachers are over, and it is good that they are over. But parents have to understand that their children cannot correct their mistakes and that we cannot prevent our children from making mistakes, from falling, getting up and falling again. That is how they will learn. "And the parents must also know that children must have the chance to rebel, to define themselves separately from their families. Otherwise, they will not be able to develop as individuals. "But school can't do it all. We face serious questions in our society, questions of values and meaning, and as parents we have to supply these answers. The school can't do it alone. And it shouldn't." He acknowledges the chronic lack of funding and Jerusalem's shrinking income. "I know that some of you may say, so what, even if his ideas are good, they'll just cut the budgets and nothing will happen. But good things do happen. Good things will happen. "This is a time of doubt about public institutions. We have just been through a summer that has left us all bruised and in deep doubt. Our challenge to enable children to believe in the public system again - to open the school year with all our heart and all our soul, so that the children will learn and grow and believe in public institutions. "I wish for our children that we all learn to be more giving, more tolerant, more understanding of each other. Our society is so full of barbs and thorns, I want us to have more flowers. More love. I want schools to be a place where children feel emotionally safe, challenged and loved. "And to love a child, you must love yourself. The teacher cannot love a child if he or she doesn't feel loved. I hope this year will be a year with more love, more flowers and fewer thorns."