Israel severely undervalues teachers - opinion

In the economics model of funding for guns vs funding for butter, it’s understandable what lies on the top of Israel’s financial agenda. 

 TEACHERS DEMONSTRATE outside the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem, last week. Their signs say that they’re fighting for their rights and that poor working conditions have resulted in fewer teachers. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
TEACHERS DEMONSTRATE outside the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem, last week. Their signs say that they’re fighting for their rights and that poor working conditions have resulted in fewer teachers.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)

Despite my profound admiration for his significant contribution to the body of world literature, I have never forgiven George Bernard Shaw for his offensive slight to the noble profession of teaching. 

Little wonder that a photo of the artist who famously penned “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches” in The Revolutionist’s Handbook, appended to his play Man and Superman, hangs on the wall of many teachers’ lounges, generously decorated with darts, poison arrows and donkey tails. There’s no real way of knowing if the artist was being witty, sardonic, sarcastic or honest; he was equally capable of all four. Nonetheless, the sentiment was totally unbefitting and inappropriate and should have been retracted with an unreserved apology.

The attitude he cleverly expressed, however, is not by any means limited or constrained. The responsibility and challenge of teaching is all too much taken for granted, and while it is certainly debatable whether or not the profession is undervalued, there is little question, I think, that those to whom we give over our children to prepare them for eventual adulthood is underappreciated. This is, for the most, a never-ending circle that threatens the start of the school year on just about an annual basis.

Nobody, though, has yet managed to successfully explain how this came to be. Established religious organizations – Chabad and the Order of the Jesuits, for example – will provide financing for educational facilities and teachers before even the building of synagogues and churches. Teachers are expected to earn advanced academic degrees to reach the higher pinnacles of the educational system; our caretaker prime minister does not even have a high school diploma. Why, then, is the plight of teachers for the most part ignored, and only when strikes or sanctions are threatened does anyone pay attention.

Teachers have always had to adapt to the changes taking place in the environment and social structure in which their schools and communities are located. And while each generation will proudly claim theirs to be the most challenging and complex, what teachers are encountering in today’s digitalized world encompasses unprecedented changes involving not only the pedagogical aspect of education but the ongoing relationship and communication with both students and parents.

 YAFFA BEN-DAVID, head of the Teachers’ Union, greets teachers participating in a demonstration in Tel Aviv in May demanding better pay and work conditions. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90) YAFFA BEN-DAVID, head of the Teachers’ Union, greets teachers participating in a demonstration in Tel Aviv in May demanding better pay and work conditions. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

I have never engaged in the profession of teaching, but I have many friends and acquaintances who have. For some, admittedly, it was no more than a job, something to fall back on having been unsuccessful in launching a career in other areas such as engineering, law or business. For others it is the fulfillment of destiny; little could have made these teachers happier than the opportunity to share and pass on knowledge to the next generation. 

It’s fair to say, I guess, that most teachers are a hybrid variety that combines the characteristics and human aspects of both. Differences most certainly do exist, which is why some teachers understand how to motivate and excite their students while others hope to achieve from their students nothing more than a high rate of bagrut (matriculation) certificates.

Although by no means typical of teachers here in Israel (or elsewhere, for that matter), it might be worth giving a bit of consideration to three different members of the profession – the teacher born to teach high school students the fundamentals of geometry, the teacher who transitioned from education to hi-tech and the teacher whose frustration disappeared when instead of explaining English composition and grammar to unruly and uninterested teenagers provided that instruction to rapists, pedophiles and drug dealers.

The art – and heart – of a geometry teacher

For Shimon (real names have been substituted in the interest of privacy) nothing can be more satisfying than to make a 16- or 17-year-old grasp the concept of chords in a circle or the trick to computing the area of a trapezoid. Although he had hoped to teach physics, he accepted a temporary post in math and never looked back. He’s the teacher that comes to mind when the admirable qualities of the profession are featured in such Hollywood films as To Sir, with Love and Mr. Holland’s Opus.

Though his week involves commuting to three different schools between Netanya and Pardes Hanna and he finds it necessary to supplement his income with tutoring during the summer months, he could think of nothing else he would rather do. 

If even one of his students is sufficiently inspired by his teaching to pursue a career in engineering or architecture, it would, he feels, be well worth the long and sometimes frustrating hours. 

And the personal satisfaction he feels at the end of each day compensates – to some extent, anyway – for what he believes is inadequate compensation.

From the classroom to the cubicle

Shelly was a financial consultant before emigrating from Cape Town, but never found much satisfaction in number-crunching or analyzing balance sheets. Once in Israel, she studied for and received a teacher’s certificate and was assigned to a fourth-grade class in the Gush Dan area.

Although she found, at times, professional fulfillment in watching the youngsters she was in charge of gaining confidence in reading and math, the four years she spent in the front of a classroom were, for the most part, something of a struggle. In particular, she sorely missed the company of adults, finding the need to be overly careful and sensitive about what she said in the classroom more than a little constraining. 

She enrolled in a technical writing course, and not long after completion left teaching for an entry level position in a start-up and has been, for the last five years, steadily moving upward.

Israel, she says, needs good teachers, and until the salaries and level of appreciation improves, the ongoing labor disputes and current shortage of teachers will become more and more acute. 

And the fact that she herself proved to be less than entirely successful as an instructor is a clear indication that not everybody has what it takes to be a good teacher.

This school’s 3 R’s: Reading, ‘riting, robbery

Tzippy tried to work within the conventional educational system, she really did. She turned to teaching after a number of years in administrative and fundraising positions, and hoped that this new venture would make her feel it worthwhile to get up in the morning.

For several years she taught English to high schoolers in several religious schools in the Sharon area, but found her students – of both genders, by the way – unruly, undisciplined, unappreciative and every other un you can think of. While going through online postings for teaching positions, her eye caught something interesting: an English teacher was needed for the Hasharon Prison. Sounded different, to say the least. 

So, after a few interviews and a trial lesson with a room full of jumpsuited students, she was hired and for two years was never happier. Her students – some of whom were infamous for the past exploits – were polite, well-behaved and eager to learn. A car thief went out of his way to carry her briefcase up and down the stairs, and a cocaine pusher was the class apple polisher.

The program, unfortunately, lost funding and Tzippy was not eager to commute a long distance to another prison. But she looks back fondly at this experience and can attest that there are indeed some students who truly appreciate the efforts made by those who educate them.

I shake my head at the annual competition between the Teachers Union and the Finance Ministry. In the economics model of funding for guns vs funding for butter, it’s understandable what lies on the top of Israel’s financial agenda. 

But the teachers, I feel, are struggling for something more than a few extra shekels in their paycheck. They’re looking for the respect that society – and George Bernard Shaw – denies them. A travesty that must, sooner or later, come to an end.  

The writer is a retired technical communicator currently assisting nonprofit organizations in the preparation of grant submissions and struggling to master the ins and outs of social media.