Editor’s Notes: Listen up, class, this is important

By David Horovitz October 19, 2007

Don’t think of the teachers’ strike as a familiar demand for raised salaries. It’s more a howl of outrage at a collapsing system

My 10th grader really wanted to learn this year.

Always a pretty good student (though lessons, it should also be acknowledged, had sometimes been a bit of a distraction from his vibrant social life), he had chosen his two specialized subjects, in which extra time and effort would be invested over the coming three years. He had spent the summer getting his math up to speed. He had internalized that he was entering the crucial final three high school years that would determine his matriculation standard and thus which undergraduate doors would be open to him.

But he’s not been in school for ages now. It’s not quite Alice Cooper territory (‘Out for summer/Out till fall/We might not go back at all/School’s out forever…’), but it’s an open-ended, all-out strike by the membership of the Secondary School Teachers Organization.

The portents, for those of us who would rather like not to be home-schooling our children more than we’ve had to do in any case to supplement the long-standing deficiencies of the education system, are not good:
The main teachers’ union, the Histadrut’s National Teachers Union, has already signed a salary hike and reform package with the Treasury, which the government is reluctant to jeopardize by offering better terms to the SSTO. The SSTO’s leader, Ran Erez, is, to put this gently, not the most charismatic or articulate of advocates for his members’ cause. The education minister, Yuli Tamir, is politically weak and seems embarrassingly irrelevant to the whole dispute. Parents, to judge by my own experience, have not been assiduously wooed to help press for the teachers’ demands – not even unassiduously wooed, come to think of it. And at the same time, the union says it has prepared strategically for this resort to labor action, and will stay out for months if necessary.

A potent recipe for deadlock.

In trying to assess which of the disputatious parties has right, or at least less wrong, on its side, a crucial question relates to the deal agreed by the NTU: If it’s a good agreement, why is the SSTO balking at it? And if it’s a bad one, why did the NTU go along?

Putting that question to various teachers and other insiders this week initially muddied the picture. Some said it was a reasonable enough deal for elementary school teachers, but much more problematic for those teaching older pupils. Others said it was a lousy deal, period, requiring more work hours for less hourly pay, noted that the NTU had selfishly signed up only on the condition that its members also get any additional benefits that the SSTO might manage to extract, and asserted that many NTU members are deeply unhappy with it. Some muttered about the purportedly grandiose egos running wild at the helm of the SSTO; still others cited dark political ambitions that had ostensibly motivated senior figures at the NTU.

But ultimately, the picture has clarified. The NTU may have believed it was signing the best deal it could get, but the high school teachers think it’s a disaster, because incremental improvements are not what’s required here. The education system in Israel is collapsing, a long gradual slide downhill now accelerating into freefall.

Low pay means embittered, unmotivated teachers, and keeps charismatic new blood from joining the educators’ ranks. Classrooms overflow with 40-plus students and classroom hours have been inexorably cut back, so kids aren’t actually learning so much as desperately being crammed for exams in which they are faring ever more poorly. Schools are collapsing physically, because of inadequate budgets. And the people of Israel just don’t seem to care.

THE COMMON theme in the various conversations I’ve had with teachers this week, indeed, was that while, yes, the teachers want ‘x’ percent more pay, ‘y’ percent fewer pupils per class and a host of other highly specific demands, this is not so much a strike as a wail – a deep, agonized howl about a failing system; a cry of outrage at the contempt in which the teaching profession is held by government, and by extension, by an electorate that allows government to get away with it.

‘Yes, salaries must be higher. I can only afford to do this because my wife is the main breadwinner. But this is not, absolutely not, just about money,’ stresses David Graniewitz, a London-born English and history teacher with 20 years experience here. ‘Teachers in some downtrodden schools get up in the morning feeling like rags. They are treated like dirt. And society seems to have no regard for what we do. You get kids coming into class and saying they can’t afford the books, as they brandish the latest mobile phone.
‘I’m offended,’ Graniewitz rolled on, the anguish audible, as it was in every conversation I had. ‘I’m offended that the government has not turned in desperation to the Labor courts to force us back to work. Don’t they care? Does nobody care?’

In an opinion piece in The Jerusalem Post earlier this week, Graniewitz noted that this part of the school year, immediately following the Succot break, ‘is actually the most critical time… a period largely undisrupted by religious festivals, days of commemoration and bagrut [matriculation] exams. For two months, until the Hanukka vacation… I actually feel that I am doing the job for which I am trained rather than merely babysitting in between vacations, or helping my pupils cram for exams. Knowledge can be imparted and class discussions conducted in a relatively relaxed atmosphere…’

End of year bagrut exams can always be rescheduled, Graniewitz elaborated when we spoke. ‘But these weeks, these real learning weeks, they can’t be made up. Every day that’s lost now really is lost; it’s gone for good.’

And yet, he reiterates, the strike is being allowed to continue, the dispute to fester, the children to lose irreplaceable time. Save us from ourselves, is the essence of Graniewitz’s message, because, sure, we teachers are hurting and we teachers are hoping to negotiate better terms. But it is your children who are really suffering. It is your children, and their future, we’re really striking for.

A telephone conversation with Ilana Schanin, who’s been teaching the sciences to 7th-, 8th- and 9th-graders in the same Rehovot school for more than a quarter of a century, reinforces the message. Hers is a familiar diatribe, but no less poignant for that.

She says she’s witnessed the decline in standards. ‘Israel used to be in the top 10 internationally in the sciences,’ she recalls. ‘Now we’re 33rd or 34th. The children are great, most of them. They’re what keep me going. Them and my colleagues and my own conviction that what I’m teaching is important – nutrition, genetics… things that truly matter. But the kids give superficial answers. Often they don’t understand the questions in class. They don’t have the vocabulary, let alone the knowledge. They just don’t have the tools. And that’s a consequence of failure from Grade 1, of a failure in society.

‘We try to maintain the standards,’ she continues with passion, ‘but the children can’t reach them anymore. And then you get angry parents. And then you get angry principals. So you lower the bar.’

Schanin laments the gradual reduction of teaching hours amid budget cuts down the years. Less time to teach. Less time to help the weaker students.

She laments the collapsed discipline. ‘In the past, the fact that I showed that I was angry would be enough to quieten the class. Not any more.’

And yes, she laments the appalling salaries. ‘I teach 22 hours a week, and spend at least that again to prepare classes, and mark tests, and speak to parents. I could rely only on two end-of-semester tests to give marks, but I don’t want to. Maybe a student has an off-day. So I set lots of little tests through the year. Seven classes, 30 kids a class. That takes a lot of time to mark. So of course, we need more money, to keep the good teachers and attract the good teachers.’

In answer to my question as to why, then, the NTU signed its deal, Schanin says she simply doesn’t understand. ‘We need to unite into one union,’ she says, much more in hope than expectation. There needs to be a thorough reform of the whole education system, including the distribution of money within that hierarchy, she urges. And the strike simply has to be won.

‘I think the Treasury realizes our salaries are an embarrassment,’ she says. ‘And there’s no justification for the claim that if they give us more they’ll need to reopen wage deals in other sectors. This is a separate case.’ It is, she means, a historic, self-damaging wrong that Israel must urgently put right.

BUT THAT’S not all. Celia Merlin-Atias, sister of one of my closest friends, with a first and second degree in teaching and 25 years experience, adds a few more factors to the mix.

She, again, cites the ‘luxury’ of being able to stay in the job because her spouse is the main salary earner, and stresses that higher pay is vital to attract better educators. She, too, bemoans what she estimates is a loss of about seven hours a week in classroom teaching over the years, which means ‘we barely have time to focus on ‘Doing Well on the Bagrut,’ let alone delving into the wider educational values our system should be providing to all sectors.’

But she also raises the problem of the low salaries meaning teaching is overwhelmingly a women’s profession – which she says means it has less clout, the root of many of its difficulties, and also that young male students lack the positive role model of a man at the front of the classroom.

And then she cites the wider problem – the exacerbation of Israel’s social and economic divide because of the poverty of the education system. ‘Those who can afford to, fill in the gaps in their children’s education with private tuition,’ she says. ‘In my school’ – Tel Aviv’s Ironi Heh – ‘I can see who can and who can’t close that gap. We’re perpetuating a divide, and that’s just not fair. Think about the plays and the museums to which schools used to take their classes, trips that have gradually been eliminated. Again, the poorer parents can’t compensate.’

If the strike is not successful, says Merlin-Atias, ‘we’ll lose lots of potential teachers. I see in my classes those students with the charisma and drive and sense of humor to be great teachers; they won’t be unless the system is overhauled. And, with time, we’ll either have private schools and a gaping social gap, or people will move abroad because of the standard of schooling. It’s dire and it’s getting worse.’

I’M FURIOUS that my son’s not gone back to school since Succot, but I have a lot more sympathy with the teachers, having spoken to some of them, than I did a few days ago. And a lot less for their splintered union representation and the government suits who have allowed things to deteriorate this far.

I don’t know if they’re going to prevail in this struggle. I’m not even certain that their demands go far enough to address the devastating root problems.

And I think their spokespeople have done a lousy job of elucidating what is at stake. Yes, it takes a lot to shake the public out of its inertia. But these are teachers, after all. They ought to be better at getting their lesson across.

Still, if we don’t heed it, the failure will be all of ours.

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