Why Are Teachers Always to Blame?

New book published in the U.S. reflects Israel's problems, too: Israel also experiences 'moral panic’; for example, the teacher who criticized the army and the teacher who put nude photos of herself on her tablet.

Yarden Skop
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Israeli students in class.
Israeli students in class.Credit: Nir Kafri
Yarden Skop
Yarden Skop

Why do we love to hate teachers? Why instead of talking about dwindling resources in education, low pay and difficult conditions do we see teachers as the source of the system’s problems — or salvation? Are teachers really the main people responsible? These questions are posed by a new book out in the United States, “The Teacher Wars.”

The author, journalist Dana Goldstein, argues that teaching is the most controversial profession in America. In her view, education there is often discussed in terms of moral panic: Policy makers and the media demonize a certain group or class, holding it responsible for a societal problem.

It’s hard not to notice parallels in Israeli society; for example, the teacher whose nude photos were discovered by her students when they looked at the tablet computer she had forgotten in class.

In that affair, calls abounded for the teacher to resign, including at the school where she worked, while the students weren’t punished. The teacher was at the center of the affair; few dealt with the social-moral issues raised by the use of tablets in class. Some critics simply preferred to blame the teacher who photographed herself nude.

The case of civics teacher Adam Verete is another example of moral panic, the kind based on a single statement by a teacher in class. Whereas it might be possible to claim that the Israel Defense Forces is not a moral army, many people were infuriated that a teacher dared say such a thing to his students. Whether the teacher should have been fired became a national question.

Prof. Esther Herzog, a social anthropologist and lecturer at the Levinsky College of Education, says the main problem is that most teachers are women — and lack influence. “Women teachers are a weak group politically, so it’s easy to accuse them, hurt them, discriminate against them and throw the education system’s failures at them,” she says.

Dr. Ornat Turin, head of the Communications Department at the Gordon College of Education, notes that while the state puts 40 children in a class, the teacher is the one who has to educate them. And it’s the teacher that the parents see. “The teachers is an easy punching bag because he’s right in front of them,” Turin says.

The media have a decisive influence, Turin adds, because schools tend to make headlines only when something criminal like graft or sexual harassment happens. “We see very little focus on other things, because educational issues are complex and it’s hard to make news items out of them,” she says.

Dr. Arie Kizel, head of the Department of Learning, Instruction and Teacher Education at the University of Haifa, notes the positive side to the spotlight on teachers. “I would be happy if teachers took advantage of the opportunity society throws at them to raise their salaries — but also their value and leadership.”

According to Kizel, in recent decades teachers have taken on the role of the victim. “The teacher knows he’s doing important work but doesn’t feel he’s doing important work. Most people will say this is society’s fault, and that’s partly true,” Kizel says.

“But the other part is that they are partners in their own abasement. They bought in too quickly to the idea that they’re unfortunate and humble. Already when they’re interns, they lack the professional pride of interns in law or medicine, for example.”

A., a civics teacher from central Israel, adds another factor to the equation. Parents and teachers see education as a consumer item, he says, in which “the teacher does or does not give me the product I’m supposed to be getting, and if she doesn’t meet these expectations, she’s giving bad service, so I should complain about her.”

According to A., “Parents today feel that if the principal doesn’t intervene right away, the school doesn’t know how to take care of problems. The lack of communication creates alienation between teacher and student.”

A. is a member of the Teachers Movement, a group of young teachers from central Israel who want teachers to have a greater impact on the system.

“A big part of the problem is that most of the discussion about fixing education doesn’t come from the teachers, it comes from the outside, from educational associations, the wealthy, high-tech, the army,” he says. “Teachers aren’t the decision-makers. There’s a large gap between the decision-makers and the people who have to implement the decisions. “

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