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Israeli education system needs structural reforms

The Israeli education system is in crisis, and the severe shortage of human resources is only one of its symptoms. Teacher’s Day, marked yearly on the 23rd of Kislev (this Saturday), is an opportunity to raise the discussion about the changes that are necessary for the system. The good news is: change is possible. 

When I became CEO of Chotam-Teach First Israel, I asked myself if I wanted my son to be a teacher. My answer was “no.” As the leading person of an organization that is responsible for teacher training, how could I say that I don’t want my child to be a teacher? It was like a punch in the stomach.

I asked myself why I felt this way. The answer, far beyond the question of financial reward, involved the degree of autonomy, influence and sense of meaning that the teachers have today. This situation must change in order to make the Israeli education system one of the most advanced in the world.

Teacher’s Day is an opportunity to salute those educators who dedicate themselves entirely to our children’s education. Teachers work daily to promote equal opportunities for every child, to develop their identity and character, and accompany them in the questions and challenges of childhood and adolescence – the critical years for their development. 

Teacher’s Day is also an opportunity to stimulate discussion about the role of the teacher, the role of the school, and the harsh reality of education in Israel. The severe personnel crisis that exists in the system exposes the dearth of teachers on all educational levels, from kindergarten up to high school.

Teachers had a tough struggle this past year

During the past year, teachers have had a tough struggle to secure an appropriate and fair raise in their salaries. The salary negotiations reflected a profound problem in Israel’s priorities, as education is neither a first, nor second, priority. The wage agreement was an important first step in changing the situation, but it is not enough to change the reality of the country’s education system.

The required change in the education system is infrastructural, fundamental and moral. In recent years, Israeli society has experienced political instability and social polarization, which further attest to the vital need for a good and strong education system throughout the country. Education must be defined as a national mission of the highest order; advancing the status of teachers is the first step toward that goal.

The quality of education depends first of all on the quality of the teachers; they are the beating heart of the system. To promote the status of the teacher, it is necessary to take three immediate steps: give more autonomy to teachers; improve the physical conditions in which teachers operate, and update the modes of learning in school.

BACK TO my son. As a teacher, I would like him to feel responsible for the society he lives in, and to be able to express it in his work. I would like him to be able to make the society of children and teenagers at school a better place, and have the students influence the community around the school. Teachers should have a part in shaping the pedagogy of the school, the culture practiced in it, and the community of teachers that operates within its framework. 

Although teaching is one of the most significant roles in influencing the souls of children and youth, most teachers feel that they are currently working despite, and contrary to, the direction in which the education system is going. The most important things they should be doing in contrast with the cultural system that instead encourages competition, grades, purposeful learning and memorization.

Between their crowded classrooms and the limited number of teaching hours, teachers also suffer from a lack of autonomy. The Education Ministry makes too many decisions regarding education and teaching methods, which are presented to teachers as fact. But teachers, and not necessarily the Education Ministry, know what is happening in the field. Teachers should have greater autonomy in the decision-making process.

In Finland, teachers are given a very high level of autonomy regarding subjects of study, teaching methods, evaluation methods and more. These have been seen as the factors that contribute to Finland’s excellent public education system. Israel should be competing with Finland for the top spots when it comes to the quality of education. We have excellent teachers here, and they should be given more freedom to educate. 

THE SALARY agreement reached for teachers is good, but not enough. The wage structure in the teaching profession is not adapted to the changing employment world and the education system. The agreement is not enough to attract young people to the most important profession in the country. A career in education is unlikely to be a person’s first choice. 

The education system today is built on people who feel a mission and urgency to engage in the profession. They are entitled to receive adequate wages and better physical conditions since that is where they spend most of their hours and years.

The structure of the teachers’ work week does not allow them to complete their many functions and missions. The high numbers of students per class, and the limited number of teaching hours make it almost impossible for a teacher to educate. Teachers do not have time left to make personal connections, be introspective, and develop their skills. Being a good educator requires conditions that will allow these to happen.

The school is a complex system. A group of educators is needed to lead it. The school’s leading staff holds key roles, such as pedagogical coordination, management of age groups, and more. It’s a demanding, around-the-clock job. Their remuneration is negligible to the point of being insulting. 

We need to create a new, fundamental approach that rewards those who take on additional and important roles for the success of the school. On a purely physical level, teachers need appropriate spaces where they can conduct personal meetings with students, an office to work in, and workshop areas where special projects can be held. 

THE WORLD is constantly changing, yet schools are left with the logistical and organizational structures of the last century. We didn’t need the COVID-19 pandemic to realize that educational institutions are almost the last to remain “immune” from any changes. The educational system should place special emphasis on real encounters between teachers and students, and on inspiring educators who can help students find their way. Those groundbreaking schools that create a different reality have almost no teacher shortages. 

New teaching methods should be introduced into schools: project-based learning, promoting independent thinking, involving students in choosing subjects of study, forming a community that sees the school as a home for creativity, learning in nature, participating actively in the community around the school, and more. 

The craft of teaching is a mission, and good teachers who come to the system with great motivations often hit stumbling blocks. Schools reflect the social gaps in Israeli society and are not provided with tools to change those disparities. Sometimes the school widens the gaps.

Have we given up on creating equal opportunities for every child in Israel, no matter their background – whether they come from the center or the periphery; or their religion, gender and social status? Education can be a real tool for social mobility, and is the main route to social reform in Israel. 

The writer is the CEO of Chotam (Teach First Israel), an organization that specializes in reducing gaps in education through the training and accompaniment of teachers and principals. 

Dana Pyenik