Pensioners and volunteers won’t save education - opinion

The system is unable to support its teachers to cope with the cost of living, and with the growing challenges in educating Israeli children.

 ISRAELI TEACHERS from different groups of society take part in the Village Way annual conference last October (photo credit: YAAL HERMAN)
ISRAELI TEACHERS from different groups of society take part in the Village Way annual conference last October
(photo credit: YAAL HERMAN)

By coincidence, three items of interest recently appeared in the news in Israel. In one instance, the media ran several stories on the funds directed toward ultra-Orthodox education within the new state budget in order to “balance budgets,” to the tune of billions of shekels – an addition of hundreds of millions to ultra-Orthodox institutions that don’t teach basic skills like mathematics and English, as well as the creation of a new fund for ultra-Orthodox teachers, and many more clauses and transfers.

There is no doubt that ultra-Orthodox education is one of the biggest beneficiaries of the latest biennial budget that passed. This is without referring to the claims made by economists backing up their assertions with data from the Education Ministry, according to which today’s ultra-Orthodox students are not disadvantaged in most ultra-Orthodox schools. It also ignores the fact that the new salary agreement with the teachers’ union will soon be given to ultra-Orthodox teachers as well, even though most of them do not meet the academic and supervisory criteria required of teachers in the Israeli education system who receive the supplement.

In the second instance, the teachers’ union announced that it launched sanctions in order to improve teachers’ salaries, resulting in the immediate disruption of various activities, including year-end ceremonies and educational visits to Auschwitz for students. In the third instance, a media headline that received less attention highlighted a new, almost desperate plan by the ministry to recruit teachers for the public education system in “new and creative ways that have not been tried so far.” In other words, another program that tries to fill a bucket that has a hole in it, where the hole keeps getting bigger due to a system that suffers from a continuous and intensifying teacher shortage.

What are these “new and creative ways?” Among other things, the retraining of academics in a speedy, three-month process managed by the local authorities, a shortened degree program in education for veterans who served in the IDF’s Education Corps, the reinstatement of retired teachers to work, the recruitment of experienced instructors from youth movements and, of course, a campaign across all media platform, for how is it possible without a media campaign?

Coincidence? It only seems that way. How is it possible not to notice the clear connection between these three topics? How do the decision-makers not see the connection? With all the joy and solidarity over the abundance of resources and the improvement of conditions for teachers in the ultra-Orthodox education system – which, for the most part, avoids imparting the basic knowledge required in the 21st century for a citizen seeking to integrate into society and in the employment market – it is impossible not to shout about the public education system, the one that David Ben-Gurion considered to be the glue that will bind all factions of society around common core values and belonging to a Jewish and democratic state.

 A CLASSROOM at a Tel Aviv school is empty due to a strike called by the Teachers’ Union. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)
A CLASSROOM at a Tel Aviv school is empty due to a strike called by the Teachers’ Union. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)

The public education system believes, in line with its vocation in accordance with the law and also according to the worldview of the majority of its educators, in the need to train the citizens of tomorrow. However, here and now, the system is unable to support its teachers to cope with the cost of living, and with the growing challenges in educating Israeli children – something that has not gotten any easier over the years.

So the teachers’ unions are crying out, and the strikes in the public schools are already taking place, but the chronic budget drought continues, because when it comes to the distribution of resources, it once again became clear that there are other priorities.

Israel is running out of teachers

When this is the case, is it any wonder that Israel is also running out of teachers? that fewer and fewer people choose education as a profession for life, even if the sense of mission resonates deeply in their hearts?

Let’s put aside for a moment the huge gap between the ultra-Orthodox and the public school systems and focus on the ministry’s solution to the crisis in the public school system. The very attempt to solve the inherent predicament is of course worthy of praise. Perhaps this is a poor consolation, but at least it exists.

The problem is searching for the solution at the site of the problem, and at the same time not recognizing to the point of blindness the real solution that can clearly be seen. Instead of seeking teachers from other, unconnected professions and taking whoever comes (or more precisely, whoever agrees to come), wouldn’t it be better to focus on the existing, professional, experienced and worn-out manpower? Isn’t it better to finally focus on their troubles?

A comprehensive study done last January by the Knesset’s Research and Information Center regarding the teacher shortage that is based, among other things, on the results of a survey among nearly 600 administrators, points to the low salary as a major cause of the shortage, along with the status of the teacher, the terms of employment, workload, attrition, and difficulty in the teaching job. The writing is on the wall – recruiting more professionally qualified teachers who will suffer from the same fundamental problems will not bring relief to the shortage.

Israel as a system and as a society knows how to reward and cherish branches dear to its heart. Hi-tech, for example, is indeed suffering from a global crisis, but teaching staff with decades of experience can only dream of the salary and conditions that in the right industry are available to workers much younger than them, both in age and professional experience. The state is well invested in the industry in a variety of ways, and has also signed on to the generous remuneration.

But the very comparison between education and hi-tech involves the risk of being denounced, or at least laughed at, as being unrealistic. Why? One can speak for hours about the importance of education to train the future generations for construction and prosperity, but when the moment comes to put one’s money where one’s mouth is, suddenly there is silence. Maybe this is the real distortion? What is so absurd about paying a competitive salary to teachers in the public school system as well?

But even if teachers do not soon earn as much as employees in the hi-tech sector, it is clear to anyone who can see that, without adequate compensation and without training and support of the existing educational staff, it is only a matter of time before no worthy teachers will be left in the education system, and there will be no one to march Israel into the next decades at all in fields like research, medicine, security, education, welfare, society and culture.

In the hi-tech arena, there has already been talk about a plan to bring 10,000 programmers from India. If the state’s leaders fail to look far ahead and continue to act only according to a short-term political schedule that sees a ceiling until the next wage agreement, education will be the next field of employment that will need imports.

Education and teaching are professions and missions for life, which include the opportunity to touch the lives of young people, change their paths, and outline and ensure the future of an entire society and an entire nation. Accordingly, respect and deference should be given to those who choose to practice this profession.

The pensioners, volunteers and other magic solutions will not succeed in preventing the constant desertion of worthy teachers. Only a real attitude change that has budgetary, political and social impact will keep them in the system. Shortsightedness and a lack of understanding of the matter will undoubtedly have serious and fateful consequences for the future of our children and the future of Israeli society as a whole.

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. It accompanies and guides dozens of educational communities and thousands of educators, provides educational leadership development programs, and maintains gap-year preparatory programs in the social and geographical periphery of Israel.