11,000 Arab Teachers in Israel Unemployed While Jewish Schools Face Teacher Shortage

Many educated Arab teachers wait over a decade for to be offered a position. In the meantime, they work without proper benefits, salaries or job security

An Israeli Arab teacher who has waited 13 years to be placed by the Education Ministy.
Gil Eliahu

Haneen (a pseudonym) is an Arab woman who teaches in a community in northern Israel. She received her first placement in the public education system last year. But unlike most first-year teachers, Haneen graduated from teachers college and earned her teaching certification a decade earlier. Since then, she says, she had waited in vain every year for the Education Ministry to offer her a position; in the meantime, she worked for a private educational program, without benefits or job security.

“One day a principal called me and offered me a 30-percent position,” recalls Haneen, who is now in her late 30s. The job didn’t really meet her expectations. “It’s not easy to teach in a school, I’m not 25 anymore,” she explains. “After internalizing the deep despair, it’s hard to be enthusiastic and motivated; it’s too late. And of course it doesn’t help that the salary is laughable.” This year she has a half-time position, but continues to work in the private program to augment her income.

Haneen’s story could be told by another 11,000 women Arab teachers, most of them from the north, who have been waiting for years for a placement from the Education Ministry. Thousands more have given up. Every year the ministry places 30 percent of the teachers waiting to be hired, but according to figures obtained by Haaretz, a teacher can wait as long as 13 years for her turn. While they wait, they work in day-care centers, in private programs without benefits or tenure, or simply leave teaching entirely and take jobs as secretaries or as house cleaners. Some simple stay home and forget about paid work.

“Education Minister Yuli Tamir called this ‘a life of endless waiting’ for work, and called on Arab parents not to send their children to study education,” says Ayman Agbaria, a senior lecturer in education policy and politics at the University of Haifa, referring to the former Labor Party politician who served as education minister from 2006 to 2009. “Since then more than a decade has passed, and the system is still turning out teachers for the unemployment line.”

Agbaria says it’s difficult for an Arab teacher to get a simple teaching position, let alone to advance, because of the demarcation between the Arab and Jewish school systems. “There’s a very strange situation here; on the one hand there’s a shortage of teachers in Jewish society while there is a surplus of teachers’ college graduates in Arab society. It’s one of the only instances in the world in which the same educational system has a surplus and a shortage at the same time.”

According to Agbaria, this isn’t merely questionable management. “It’s a very strong statement about the level of educational segregation in Israel,” he says.

He concedes that there are cultural reasons for why so many Arab women study education even though there are few jobs and they may not even be interested in teaching.

“The teachers’ colleges are a compromise,” he says. “It’s a middle point at which young Arab women are prepared to compromise between their academic ambitions and the pressure to complete their studies quickly and start a family.”

Arab society is willing to deal with the consequences, Agbaria adds. “It accepts their unemployment. Working a one-third a position is perfectly fine, and if there’s no work and they stay home, also fine.”

Prof. Mahmoud Halil, the head of the Sakhnin College for Teacher Education, isn’t prepared to let the government off the hook so quickly. “If the Education Ministry would give the same number of hours to Arab education as to Jewish education, increase the number of classes and reduce to number of pupils in each of them to a normal level, I assume we wouldn’t have a teacher surplus,” he says.

Nevertheless, he doesn’t believe fewer students should be admitted to teachers’ colleges. “I wouldn’t want to give up on a women’s chance at higher education, even if she only ends up educating her own children,” he says.

Some Arab teaching graduates try to beat the system by seeking work far from home. After waiting 10 years for the Education Ministry to place her in the north, where she lives, Malak found a job in the south. “Three years ago I understood that I had no choice and I went to work as a teacher in the south,” she explains. Unlike in the north, in the south, and particularly in the Bedouin communities, there is a shortage of teachers in Arab schools.

“I worked in a school in Hura three days a week; I slept there one night and on the other days I spent half a day on the roads,” she says. “It was hard, but I wanted to continue there and get tenure. But after a year they had no hours to give me.” Until she gets some other teaching position, she is working for the Hila program for children at risk, which has been privatized by the Education Ministry and whose employees have been struggling for years over their employment terms.

The Arab-Jewish barrier

Ostensibly there is a simple solution for the surplus of Arab teachers. As part of a project launched under former Education Minister Shay Piron together with the Merhavim Institute, Arab teachers are placed in Jewish schools to teach subjects suffering from a shortage of teachers, like English, math and science. According to the ministry, since 2013 some 350 teachers have been placed in these subjects and another 350 have been placed in Jewish schools to teach Arabic. Despite the achievements, the ministry is reluctant to describe the project as a success.

“It’s an important program from a social perspective, but we aren’t meeting the goals we set for ourselves,” explains an Education Ministry official. “There are three main problems: The vacation schedule differs between the [Arab and Jewish] systems, women teachers don’t want to teach in Jewish schools because they are far from where they live, and of course, there’s the Israeli political reality. This project aims to change it, but there are principals who don’t want to join the program for those reasons.”

Some of the teachers who spoke with Haaretz said they wouldn’t object to teaching in a Jewish school, but they were concerned about cultural gaps and the children’s response. “Our mistake is that we ask to be placed only in the Arab sector,” says Miral. “It’s easier that way. To come to a Jewish school means dealing with the language, different conditions and different children and a different culture. There’s a real difference.”

And indeed, such difficulties are also a reason the number of Arab teachers in the Jewish system is limited. “There’s no chance of placing an Arab teacher in a state-religious school,” says Agbaria. “The leaves the state system, in which the options for placement are primarily through specific educational initiatives. There are a few nonprofits that are trying to encourage this, but these are points of light that are failing to create a beam.”

Last year the Education Ministry tried to reduce the number of Arabs studying education by proposing to cut the funding for students in Arab teachers colleges in half, but the Justice Ministry nixed that move. Since 60 percent of Arab education students attend colleges that are not Arab, it isn’t clear that would have helped much, while it could have led to the collapse of some Arab colleges. The ministry has launched a program to retrain Arab math and science teachers for high-tech jobs, but the ministry couldn’t supply any data on how many teachers were in the program and the degree of its success.

Even as they continue to apply for placement every year, the unemployed teachers have a strong message for Arab girls hoping to study education: Don’t.

“Someone told me last week that she was planning to study education and I told her she was making the mistake of her life,” says Nur. “I would recommend studying cosmetology or anything that will let you open your own business. Just not education.”