Abe Katz teaches junior high students at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Leah Streslin teaches kindergartners at the Navajo Nation reservation in New Mexico.
Both are part of a 70-member Teach For America delegation in Israel this week, on a special leadership development program. What has struck them most, they say, is that Israeli educators face challenges that are unexpectedly similar to the ones they themselves face.
"When we visited the Bedouin the other day, we learned that one of their major challenges is retaining tradition while existing in modern society," said Katz, a graduate of Middlebury College in Vermont with a degree in Middle Eastern politics and Arabic. He noted that the Bedouin village he visited even physically resemble American Indian reservations.
During a visit to a school that caters to children of migrant workers, Streslin found that teachers were trying to figure out how to integrate these outsiders into Israeli society, and at the same time, preserve their unique cultural identities. "It's a question I often struggle with myself on the reservation," said the Georgetown University graduate.
Teach for America is an elite program that recruits outstanding U.S. college graduates to teach for a minimum of two years in low-income communities around the States. The program has become such a draw for idealistic young Americans in recent years that according to The New York Times, it's tougher to get accepted to Teach for America these days than it is to get into some of the country's top law schools. Teach For America announced last month that the number of first- and second-year corps members who will be teaching this coming school year will top 10,000 for the first time ever.
REALITY Israel, a program supported by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, and the Samberg Family Foundation, has been bringing a Teach for America delegation to Israel each summer for the past few years in an effort to build bridges between educators in both countries. Most, but not all, of the participants on the 12-day trip are Jewish.
As part of that effort, the Teach for America group met this week with 100 participants in Teach First Israel, an Israeli program launched in 2010, based on the American model. Teach First Israel also accepts only a small fraction of its total applicants and places them throughout the country. But unlike Teach for America, it has, for the most part, remained under the radar so far.
Following a day of team-building activities on Michmoret Beach that helped participants break the ice, the Americans and Israelis brushed off sand from their arms and legs, and in shorts and t-shirts, sat themselves down to an informal dinner in a tent on the sand. The Israelis who were there are still in training and will only begin teaching when the next school year begins, so they were eager to get tips from their American counterparts, most of whom had already completed at least one full year of teaching.
Alexa Cohen, a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem with a degree in biology, said the informal meeting reassured her about her upcoming challenge. "One of the things they don't talk about at our training sessions is what happens if you really mess up, which is something I'm really concerned about," said the 28-year-old Jerusalemite. "But the Americans talked to us about situations in which they messed up, so it was nice to hear that even Americans mess up sometimes."
The Americans said they are also going home with valuable lessons, as well as new teaching tools. "I teach math to high school students with very bad behavioral problems, and there's always lots of conflict in the classroom," said Eli Smukler, a UCLA graduate who works in the Washington D.C. public school system. "Israel is a country that has to deal with conflict every day. The other day we met with members of a group that promotes Jewish-Arab coexistence, and I said to myself that I'm going to talk to my students back home about what they do here to build community. Maybe it can work in the classroom as well."
Jeff Wetzler, the executive vice president of teacher preparation, support and development at Teach For America, has been involved in these cross-cultural exchanges for several years now. "In one of our first meetings, our Israeli counterparts challenged us by asking us why we put so much focus in America on dramatic academic achievement and didn't expand our focus to personal growth as well," he said. "It really got us thinking."
But Wetzler also said he was shocked by conversations he had with Israeli parents and grandparents while here with the delegation. "Israel is the Jewish state, and Jews are known to put so much emphasis on education. But everyone here is telling me how disappointed they are with the educational system and how teachers are at the bottom of the scale. I ask myself how can that be in the Jewish state?"
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