Teach for America - Yoni Ben Simon - February 2012
From left, Rachel Davies, Nicole Hazan and Shani Wahrman, with Teach for America CEO Wendy Kopp at Beit Berl college last week. Photo by Yoni Ben Simon
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Three native English speakers are participating in an ambitious school program that is daring to cast inexperienced teachers into the cauldron that is the Israeli classroom.

"It was a shock for me, just a nightmare," said 24-year-old Nicole Hazan, an immigrant from North London, referring to her first encounter with 37 disadvantaged seventh-graders suffering from a litany of personal and academic problems. "But things have straightened out somewhat," she said. "I'm starting to win them over."

Hazan is among 89 participants in the Teach First Israel Program - modeled after the 20 year-old "Teach For America" program - that places young Israelis in some of the country's toughest inner city and periphery schools while offering them on-the-job support, training and leadership development. Each of this year's three Anglo participants are working in Israel as English teachers.

Now in its second year, with a total of 143 teachers serving 19,000 students, the program was co-founded by Israel's Education Ministry, JDC-Israel, the Hakol Hinuch Movement for the Advancement of Education in Israel; and the Bedford, New York-based Naomi Foundation. It is also supported by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.

Like many of the program's participants, Hazan, who immigrated to Israel over a year ago, entered the program with relatively little teaching experience. After earning a degree in English and creative writing at England's University of East Anglia in Norwich, she worked as a project worker for Maccabi Great Britain's Streetwise educational and community outreach program. But nothing, Hazan says, could have prepared her for the past six months in Bat Yam, where she has dealt head-on with the troubled, turbulent, lives of 120 youngsters.

Over time, Hazan has learned of some of her students' chilling back stories - parents serving time in prison, abandonment, and emotional and physical neglect. Her challenge as an English teacher is daunting: to lead her students to matriculation and bolster sub-standard reading comprehension matched by bouts with low self-esteem and lack of motivation.

"Many of my seventh-graders can't read an English sentence," Hazan laments.

Racheli Davies, a 26-year-old immigrant from Bergen County, New Jersey, describes her initial encounter with a class of more than a dozen unruly Jerusalem high school students as "a horror story."

"I had to push myself hard to make it to the end of the day," says Davies. Although she had been forewarned by colleagues about the "battle for survival" for first-year teachers, she is determined to learn from the experience. "It's not always going to be like this," she says.

A broader incentive

The two-year mentored program, which culminates with a teaching certificate, requires each participant to undergo an initial five-week summer session at Haifa University. One day of training each week supplements the teachers' four-day work week, which includes classroom, group, one-on-one teaching, and lesson plan preparation.

The trainees, who are employed by Israel's Ministry of Education, and who receive an additional stipend from Teach First Israel to cover their weekly training, earn a combined salary of NIS 6,000 - the national average for starting teachers, according to Sagit Lehman, a spokesperson for Israel's teachers union.

Trainees in their second year teach full-time and are eligible for two years of fully funded graduate study in Israel in any field of their choosing.

"The program is very intricate, but there is a broader incentive," says 25-year-old Shani Wahrman, a participant in Teach First Israel.

Wahrman, a native of Israel who grew up in the United States and England, traces her interest in "changing lives" to her visit to a Teach For America-affiliated school in Jackson, Louisiana - though that model, like the one here in Israel, is not without its critics.

Teach For America officials cite studies showing that their program produces teachers who are more effective than other beginning teachers. Yet critics contend that the program replaces veteran teachers with young trainees with insufficient experience, thrusting them into disadvantaged school districts while paying them beginners' salaries.

Wendy Kopp - founder and CEO of Teach For America, who visited Israel last week and met Teach First Israel participants - dismisses those concerns, stating that participants are not displacing veteran teachers. She said there is "vigorous" evidence to suggest that the program produces highly effective teachers and improves student performance.

Wahrman also is not concerned about her lack of training.

"You can study, but nothing in the world will prepare you for standing in a classroom in front of 40 students with the door shut," she says. "You learn from the experience."

Though the program in Israel is in its infancy, some educational experts are cautious.

"The introduction of young fresh teachers with no burn-out into a very challenging teaching environment offered by the periphery is a very complex matter," says Dr. Daniel Tropper, a former adviser to Israel's education minister, and president of the Gesher movement, which attempts to bridge gaps between various segments of Israeli society. "It involves a trade-off between professionalism and enthusiasm, and this can go either way." Tropper noted that employing Anglos, "for whom the complicated Israeli cultural context is foreign, makes it all the more difficult."

Teach First Israel is already recruiting for next year's class. An estimated 1,800 applicants will vie for 120 positions, said the program's director of development and communications, Danielle Israel.