Am I my teacher's keeper? Reclaiming the status of Israel's educators - opinion

The education system is now in a state of uncertainty due to the teacher shortage and the reform, which will, undoubtedly, shake up the system at all levels. How can we keep teachers in the system?

 Israeli teachers protest as they demand better pay and working conditions in Tel Aviv on May 30, 2022 (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
Israeli teachers protest as they demand better pay and working conditions in Tel Aviv on May 30, 2022
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

An interview with Prof. Ami Volansky, former Chief Scientist at the Ministry of Education and winner of the Israel Prize, was recently published in the Israeli media about the country’s teacher shortage, drawing further attention to the critical situation in which the education system finds itself and highlighting the necessity to make fundamental changes to the system. Prof. Volansky warned that, "In the long run, a salary of NIS 9,000-9,500 will not be enough. We must change the status of the teaching staff. This cannot be done with salary increases that will quickly erode, inevitably leading to the continuation of the disturbing trend of growing numbers of teachers leaving the profession. The status of teachers is constantly being undermined – on the one hand, we are not raising teachers' salaries, and on the other hand, we continue to call them 'freeloaders who enjoy an abundance of vacation days’."

Reforming the System

In the meantime, another far-reaching reform was announced by the Israeli Ministry of Education, promising to be the catalyst that will finally revolutionize old-fashioned learning methods. The new methodology will strive to provide students with true knowledge by giving them the tools to develop practical information-gathering proficiency, research abilities, and presentation skills. In short, multiple matriculation tests requiring rote memorization – out, and meaningful learning – in. But wait a minute, wasn't "meaningful learning" another reform...?

We need to hope for the success of the matriculation reform. The intentions are good and the program is varied and impressive, even though all of the details have not yet been finalized. There is no denying that learning methods must develop in the spirit of the times; we need to prepare our youngsters for the challenges of the modern world that await them in the future. Will the reform succeed? For the future of our children, we very much hope so, but is it truly a solution for the dire situation currently plaguing the Israeli education system? I very much doubt that. 

The education system is now in a state of uncertainty due to the teacher shortage and the reform, which will, undoubtedly, shake up the system at all levels. These changes will require flexibility and a willingness to adapt as needed—not for the first or even the second time—in a relatively short period. Unsurprisingly, the process of reform is also creating tension during the salary discussions that the teachers' organizations are holding concurrently.

Tomer Samarkandi - CEO of Village Way (Credit: LIAT MANDEL)Tomer Samarkandi - CEO of Village Way (Credit: LIAT MANDEL)

In the passionate conflict over employment frameworks, wage increases, the education system’s vacation schedule, and other issues, as well as the public debate regarding the matriculation reform for the humanistic subjects, it seems that the most significant issue, which goes hand-in-hand with the issue of education, is missing – the status of our educators. Without serious and deep consideration for this aspect once and for all, we are in danger of abetting an education system where constant shuffling and instability constitute the norm, regardless of any new reforms that are implemented.

The Impact of Distance Teaching During the Pandemic

The success of any reform depends first and foremost on our educators. The new reform is facing an exhausted teaching system, which, following all previous reforms and frequent ministerial changes with all that this entails, is also trying to recover from more than two years of pandemic-related struggles and accompanying government mandates.

Much of the education system suddenly found itself forced to rely on distance learning, creating challenges that lasted for many months and required teachers to exert tremendous effort that is still underestimated and undervalued. Educators and students alike have had to quickly adapt to a completely different (and sometimes technologically challenging) kind of learning; teachers found themselves in the position of having to address the complex emotional needs of their students as well as their own, and simultaneously mobilizing all their strength to maintain education and teaching quality.

Data being collected for studies like one currently being conducted by Dr. Tony Gutentag and Prof. Christa Asterhan, both from Hebrew University, indicates a clear correlation between prolonged teaching from a distance or from home. These studies show that this method is detrimental to the teachers' occupational and mental well-being, and leads to a significant negative impact on their quality of teaching as well as in empathy for the students. They also reflect a decrease in the teachers’ sense of commitment and belonging to the profession and the system.

Making the Choice to Leave

A clear expression of erosion prior to the pandemic and even more so after it can also be seen in Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics' annual teaching reports. The latest report, published in March, indicates that although more than 10,000 new teachers joined the system this year, this is actually a decrease of more than 10 percent when compared to the number of new teachers last year. In addition, the number of those leaving the system is constantly increasing; in the last year alone, more than 8,600 teachers chose to leave.

The shortage of educators in almost all subjects is both severe and immediate. In Tel Aviv, for example, there is a shortage of no less than 500 teachers. The number of students who choose to study education in academic institutions is also shrinking, and school principals are desperately turning to teaching students and people without any background in education who are willing to sign up to work as substitutes in an attempt to alleviate the shortage.

"In the long run, a salary of NIS 9,000-9,500 will not be enough. We must change the status of the teaching staff.

It is difficult and unfair to blame our educators, who suffer from burnout and frustration. Many of them were drawn to teaching out of idealistic motives. However, they find themselves facing young people with declining attention thresholds, addictions to cell phones and social media, and a need for instant gratification. In addition, they face a demanding, unrewarding education system that repeatedly challenges their commitment to the ideals that led to their decision to become teachers in the first place.

How Can the System Move Forward?

To implement reforms, educators must be given the guidance, support, and tools they need to adapt to a changing reality, enabling them to find their educational compass and trust in their ability to facilitate change among their students – first and foremost, helping these young people to believe in themselves. We mustn't take for granted their ability to be flexible and adapt to any new, original, and creative reform.

A truly significant reform that can attract new teachers and keep experienced teachers in the system must also lead to a change in the status of educators – those in whom we place our trust to move the future generations and society forward. This does not require another complex reform, but rather an authentic expression of respect for educators and the different areas of knowledge to which they feel committed, as well as conveying a genuine, vital message that they are viewed as playing a role in shaping the education system – not just blindly implementing its decisions simply because they are required to do so. In this way, the teachers' sense of belonging will be established, and it will be possible to build a foundation for an autonomous teaching space that enables creativity. This will communicate the important status of educators to Israeli society, and the students will benefit as a result.

Dr. Chaim Peri, who led the Yemin Orde Youth Village for almost three decades and is a two-time recipient of the prestigious "World of Children" award (often cited as the Nobel Prize for Children's Advocates), defined the status of teachers as "nation builders". The 80-year-old Peri, an educator with every fiber of his being who began teaching in the new immigrants’ camp in Sderot in the 1960s and continues to this day, has had the privilege of teaching at a time when teachers were still well-appreciated. He knows what Israeli educators are capable of if they receive the guidance and answers they need, and now is the time to close that circle for all of us.

The writer is the CEO of Village Way Educational Initiatives, which works to change Israeli society through education that is empowering and creates a sense of belonging. Village Way accompanies and guides thousands of educational communities, educational leadership development programs, and gap year preparatory programs in the social and geographical periphery of Israel.