Allies in the Fight

Principals backing strike argue pursuit of better educational conditions would benefit all.

Last Tuesday, Ram Cohen, the principal of the Ironi A High School for the Arts in Tel Aviv, was hurrying to a session of the National Labor Court in Jerusalem. The state's request for back-to-work orders for the striking secondary school teachers was on the docket, and a sworn affidavit from Cohen was part of the response of the Secondary Schools Teachers Association (SSTA).

In the end, the discussion did not deal with the question of matriculation exams, and after a few days the state's representatives notified the court that they had decided to postpone the request for back-to-work orders.

But for Cohen nothing had changed. He was already deep in the teachers struggle for the last month. A few days ago he organized a protest activity with teachers from most Tel Aviv high schools on the bridges over the Ayalon Freeway.

Mostly teachers have filled the protests over the past few weeks, and sometimes even parents or students. The principals' presence is felt less, and not just because they are few in number. One of the reasons is the lack of clarity of the position of the principal, many of whom are torn between their commitments to their friends in the teachers' staff room, and between their responsibility to the Education Ministry and the municipality.

As far as Cohen is concerned, there is no question. "The achievements of the teachers strike, when they come, will serve the principals no less than the teachers," explained Cohen. "The teachers will enjoy higher salaries, will have more teaching hours, and will be more satisfied. Therefore, the principals have an interest in continuing the struggle. Their salaries are linked to those of the teachers, and they will benefit from all the salary increases achieved."

Since the strike broke out on October 10, the principals have continued to work and receive their salaries. "If they are not striking, at least they should come out clearly for the right to strike. If principals are meant to be the leaders of the teachers, then they have been disappointing in their silence," Cohen said.

According to Cohen, some of his colleagues prefer to send the teachers to protest and demonstrate in public, rather than to take a stance themselves.

"The principals need to be at the front of the struggle. All the principals know very well that classes are overcrowded, there are too few teaching hours, and that there is a deterioration in the level of instruction," added Cohen. "In the past six years, 400 teaching hours have been cut in my school, art classes have been cut by tens of percent, as well as remedial hours for the weaker students. And we have not heard anything about it from the principals, who have accepted the cuts and kept silent. The struggle is for all of us, and the principals cannot be present and at the same time absent."

In some secondary schools, mostly those with a high percentage of teachers from the National Teachers Union which is not striking, the principals have changed the regular schedule and created a weekly schedule that basically has classes spread out over three or four hours every day. The reasons vary from pressure from worried parents to through a lack of solidarity with the striking teachers.

Despite the official announcement of the National Teachers Union that its members would not break the strike, in practice the strike in those institutions has lost its effectiveness. "It is hard to understand the principals who allow this," Cohen said. "Instead of holding informational assemblies to encourage teachers to go out and demonstrate, and even to help by buying shirts and hats, these principals are hurting all of us," he explained.

Most principals belong to their own union, which is under the auspices of the National Teachers Union, not the SSTA. "The principals stand in the front line at every demonstration. Without our actions, their would not be such enthusiasm," said the head of the principals' association, Dr. Aryeh Loker. "Coping with the budget and teaching cuts falls on the principal. We need to lead the struggle, together with the teachers," he explained.

But not all principals agree with either Loker or Cohen.

"It is hard to divorce the strike from personal conflicts and rivalries between the two teachers unions. If it really was a purely educational struggle, I would be the first to join," said a principal who prefered to remain unnamed, given the pressure to support the strike.