With Qualified English Teachers in Short Supply, Israel’s Jewish Schools Start Courting Arabs

The fact that Arabs are being recruited straight out of teachers college shows just how severe the shortage of qualified English teachers in Jewish schools has become.

11th graders in a Tel Aviv high school taking an English test.
Nir Kafri

After completing her certification as an English teacher, Reeda Kabha, a resident of the northern Israeli Arab village of Umm al-Qutuf, began the obligatory job hunt. Much to her disappointment, she discovered no positions were available for English teachers in any of the Arab schools within commuting distance of her home. So after making some inquiries, she learned that a Jewish high school in nearby Hadera had an opening. Kabha applied and was hired on the spot.

Next month, the 23-year-old will join a small but growing number of Arab graduates of Israeli teaching colleges hired to teach English in Jewish schools around the country.

“I’m excited, but also nervous,” says the recent graduate of the Beit Berl College. “For me, English is a third language, and I will be teaching it to Jewish students, for whom it is a second language. So that just adds to the challenge.”

It is rare to find Arab teachers in Jewish schools in Israel, all the more so teaching subjects like English. The fact that graduates like Kabha are being recruited straight of out college, administrators say, indicates just how severe the shortage of qualified English teachers in Jewish schools has become.

“And it is only getting worse over time,” observes Elite Olshtain, a retired professor of language education from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who co-authored a landmark study two years ago on the status of English teaching in Israel. “It is felt in every school, but especially in the geographic periphery of the country.”

An internal report recently commissioned by the Ministry of Education from the Central Bureau of Statistics shows that the chronic shortage of qualified teachers has contributed to a consistent drop in English-language proficiency among Israeli high school graduates over the years.

According to the Central Bureau of Statistic, roughly 14,000 English teachers are employed in the Israeli school system. English is mandatory from Grade 4 on, and in many schools even earlier. The Ministry of Education was unable to provide figures on the number of unfilled English teaching positions, but evidence of the shortage abounds.

According to Orly Haim, head of the English teaching department in the Beit Berl faculty of education, the fact that her students are being offered jobs even before they have completed their studies proves how dire the situation has become. “I don’t remember anything like this happening in the past,” she acknowledges.

English Teachers Network in Israel (ETNI) is an online forum that serves about 4,000 English teachers in the country. At last count, it had close to 500 advertisements for English teaching jobs – both in the school system and in the private sector – posted on its website.

David Lloyd, manager of the site, says a key factor behind the personnel shortage is that many trained English teachers are being lured away from the classroom, as new and more lucrative job opportunities arise that require good English-language skills. “In the last few years, more and more work opportunities have appeared for the English speaker in the private sector – whether it be such things as translation, teaching adults, editing English materials or marketing English materials,” he notes. “The pay is much higher and working conditions are usually much more inviting. Many experienced English teachers feeling burnt out have taken advantage of such possibilities.”

This trend is not evident, however, in the Israeli Arab community, where, according to Haim from Beit Berl, “the teaching profession enjoys a much higher status.” That may explain why there is no similar shortage of English teachers in Arab schools, she says.

Another explanation, says Lloyd, is that Israel no longer has a pool of native English speakers it can rely on to teach in the school system. “The wave of English speakers who came to live in Israel in the late 1960s because they identified with the country,” he notes, “they’ve all begun to retire.”

Olshtain was in charge of the English teachers certification program at Tel Aviv University back in those years. “We had 25 openings for English teachers at the school right after the 1967 Six-Day War and 90 applicants for those spots,” she recalls. “That’s what a huge influx there was.”

Today, by contrast, a large share of the English teachers in the Israeli school system are either native-born Israelis or Russian-speakers, many of whom arrived in Israel during the mass immigration wave of the 1990s. In both cases, English tends to be their second language rather than their native tongue.

Teachers college students in Israel are typically less likely to specialize in English than in other subjects, says Haim, because it’s more difficult. “If you’re not a native English speaker, you’re going to have to work very hard to achieve the level of proficiency required for certification,” she says. And even those who do complete the certification process, she notes, are difficult to retain – not only because of the temptations outside but also because of the unique challenges they face in the classroom. “In a typical English classroom in Israel, there’s a wide diversity in proficiency levels – some kids speak fluent English, while others don’t speak a word,” she notes. “These sort of gaps, which make the classroom environment very challenging, don’t exist as much in other subjects.”

Recent changes in the Israeli high school English curriculum have made retention even more difficult. Under a new system introduced several years ago, the English literature program now serves as the main platform for teaching critical thinking skills in the Israeli school system. This has required a complete overhaul of the high school English language curriculum, and in recent years, many teachers opposed to the change have opted for early retirement.

“To a certain extent, this can also explain the teacher shortage,” says Olshtain.

To address the problem, the Ministry of Education says it has begun providing extra funding to teachers colleges around the country so that they can train more English teachers. In addition, it has made new scholarships available to teaching students who specialize in English.

Asked to comment on the shortage of English teachers in the Israeli school system, the Ministry of Education sounded extremely upbeat. “The ministry invests a lot in absorbing and training professional English teachers,” a spokesperson said. “With the start of the new school year, there will be no shortage of teachers.”

One cause for optimism cited by ministry sources is the growing number of mid-career Israelis transitioning into teaching in recent years – many of them high-tech dropouts sick of life in the fast lane. This appears to be borne out by evidence on the ground: The majority of students studying to become English teachers at Beit Berl today, as Haim notes, already have academic degrees and at least one career under their belts.

These born-again teachers, the Education Ministry hopes, will ultimately help stem the flow in the opposite direction.