Years of conflict with the teachers should be a learning experience - editorial

Israel's teachers are once again in a struggle for better conditions and are threatening not to open schools on September 1.

 TENS OF thousands of teachers demonstrate in Tel Aviv, May 30. (photo credit: ANAV SILVERMAN PERETZ)
TENS OF thousands of teachers demonstrate in Tel Aviv, May 30.
(photo credit: ANAV SILVERMAN PERETZ)

Although the school year is meant to start in just 10 days’ time, the threat of a teachers’ strike still looms over the school system. Parents, children and staff do not yet know whether the school bell will ring and lessons will commence on September 1, or whether classrooms will remain empty after the two-month summer vacation. The fact that this happens almost every year is scandalous. Children should not be held hostage as part of a battle between the Education and Finance ministries and the various teachers’ unions. What lesson does this convey to the young school students? How do you explain to six-year-olds who are meant to be festively starting first grade that they might have to wait an unknown amount of time for their big day? 

Young schoolchildren, don’t forget, have already had two years of their lives upended by the COVID-19 lockdowns that kept them out of classrooms on and off for two years.

It is indeed regrettable that the education system did not use that period as a learning experience – to reduce the size of classes, focus on the important aspects of education, rather than the race to keep up with bureaucracy and exam requirements and to place more power in the hands of local municipalities and school principals able to solve specific problems.

Israel's shortage of teachers

Israel is suffering from a severe shortage of teachers, but this didn’t suddenly happen. The Education Ministry and teachers’ unions should have been taking action long before now. Bear in mind that to train qualified teachers with a graduate degree and a teaching diploma takes several years.

 Yaffa Ben-David, head of the Teacher's Union at a protest of Israeli teachers demanding better pay and working conditions in Tel Aviv on May 30, 2022. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90) Yaffa Ben-David, head of the Teacher's Union at a protest of Israeli teachers demanding better pay and working conditions in Tel Aviv on May 30, 2022. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

When discussing the causes for the drop in the number of teachers, the focus has largely been on pay and work conditions. Would-be teachers and current educators considering their professional futures do not compare their salaries to other professions in the public sector such as nurses and social workers, but to the high income they could potentially earn in hi-tech and the private sector. In a country where the cost of living is high and constantly increasing, people aren’t looking for long-term job security, but for immediate remuneration – and respect.

Teachers should be respected as professionals in a vocation, not as glorified babysitters.

Yaffa Ben David, head of the Israel Teachers Union, has warned of the impending crisis on the one hand, while on the other, regularly using the threat of a strike and dragging out talks on solving the crisis.

What are the obstacles?

Increasing salaries, as has been proposed, would go a way to help solve the problem. Ben David, however, has been insistent that veteran teachers, and not only newcomers to the profession, should also receive a wage rise. There is some logic in her demand: There is no point in encouraging people to become teachers if they will drop out after a few years, unable to see any room for future financial and professional progress. Veteran teachers should be rewarded for their experience and ongoing professional training. The Finance Ministry, however, is also correct to ensure that it does not overstep the spending of taxpayers’ money.

The political quagmire only worsens the situation. The endless round of elections means that education ministers (like other ministers) come and go quickly and want to leave their mark with a quick reform rather than a long-term plan whose results might benefit a political rival, a successor further down the line.

Ultimately, it is not simply a matter of wages but also ensuring that teachers are given conditions in which they are able to teach: smaller classes, less Education Ministry intervention, less being subject to the whims of a parade of education ministers, and – above all – greater respect from parents and society at large. This would also improve behavior of students in the classroom.

Getting a job as a teacher should not be considered a last resort, but an attractive and satisfying profession with scope for growth and personal advancement.

It is a clichéd truism to say that children are the future. We should be very careful about what they are learning from the way the school system is run.