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Itai Kramer, 33, has been teaching for four years. His take-home pay is NIS 4,500 a month. Y.L., 41, has 15 years of experience, yet her take-home pay is not much higher: NIS 4,860 a month. These figures go to the heart of wage negotiations between the Finance Ministry and the teachers unions. Both sides agree that the new agreement should include a significant raise. But the unions want a 50-percent hike, while the treasury plans to offer 20 to 25 percent.

Data culled by the Teachers Union from the treasury's most recent report on public-sector wages, which covers 2004, shows that teachers' average gross pay is the lowest in the public sector: NIS 7,202 a month, compared to NIS 18,695 for doctors, NIS 13,082 for engineers and NIS 10,237 for social workers. That average is for a teacher with 15 years' experience and a master's degree. The union also says that teachers' pay eroded 18.4 percent over the period from 1995 to 2006.

According to the Association of Secondary School Teachers, most of whose members are not state employees, its members' gross salaries average only NIS 6,000 a month.

Moreover, Education Ministry data shows that 9,000 of the 95,000 public-sector teachers, most of whom teach elementary and junior high school, are on welfare, because their take-home salaries are below the minimum wage of NIS 3,585 a month. These are mainly beginning teachers, whose basic monthly salary is NIS 2,801, but who happen to be ineligible for supplements that would raise their pay above minimum wage.

Kramer said that he decided in advance to teach for only five years, because "I knew that it is impossible to continue for many years with such a ridiculous salary. When young people build their career path, salary is a very significant parameter. My army buddies are jealous of my work [content-wise] ... but if my wife did not earn her private-sector salary - more than twice what I make - I could not afford to continue teaching."

Low salaries, he added, mean that those who do not quit teaching entirely after a few years take second jobs, which prevent them from giving their all to their students. "All the talk about 'sacred work' is important, but insufficient," he said.

Y.L., who has a bachelor's in science and works in upper-crust north Tel Aviv, said that her monthly salary would not even reach its current NIS 4,860 if she did not also work as a grade coordinator, responsible for social activities, disciplinary problems and other tasks. "The main problem is damage to motivation," she said. "In the teachers room, the dominant mood is that it's simply not worth making an effort for such a sum. The good teachers leave the system, and those who remain prefer to do the minimum."

Y.L. said that she always wanted to be a teacher and "I'm not quitting. But how long can you say you're doing it for the students, out of a sense of mission? It's pathetic.

"The government doesn't understand that if they give teachers more money, the good teachers will stay [and] new ones will join," she added.

The treasury is conditioning any wage increase on reforms of the education system, and the teachers unions have agreed in principle to this, though the specifics remain in dispute. However, the size of the pay raise remains a crucial issue. According to one source involved in the talks, even the 25 percent proposed by the treasury would cost some NIS 4 billion a year. But Association of Secondary School Teachers chairman Ran Erez argued that since one of the proposed reforms is that teachers would teach more hours per week, the treasury proposal "would not change teachers' hourly rate at all."