Ministry Quashes Principals' Complaints About Lack of Guidance Counselors

Over the last few years, stories have been rampant about violence in the education system, and one of the most notable elements is the rapidly decreasing age of those involved in violent incidents. But unlike the situation in secondary schools, the Ministry of Education has never allocated positions for guidance counselors in elementary schools.

Counselors are supposed to handle a range of issues, including identifying and treating learning disabilities, behavior problems and incidents of violence. The ministry estimates that around 50 percent of Israel's elementary schools have no counselor at all, whereas the remainder employ a guidance counselor part-time, often at the expense of funding designated for classroom hours.

This year, Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar has spearheaded a new policy for dealing with disciplinary problems and violence in the schools. This policy, which is anchored in binding guidelines issued by the ministry director general, grants principals broad authority to deal with these problems.

"The new policy is good, but the weak link in the program is the shortage of guidance counselors," said a principal in the south of the country. Another principal, from Tel Aviv, agreed, saying, "without guidance counselors, dealing with violence remains primarily on the level of 'sticks' alone."

But while educators bemoan the shortage of counselors, it seems the Education Ministry is trying to silence those who argue that this problem needs to be addressed. Thus when one school principal wrote a letter recently in which she argued that it is necessary to hire guidance counselors for elementary schools, she was reprimanded by her immediate superiors and is now expecting to be called in for a "clarification conversation" with the ministry's Jerusalem District supervisor.

Around two weeks ago, the ministry's Jerusalem District held a one-day seminar on the new policy. During this seminar, attended by all public school principals in the district, several principals spoke of the need to create positions for guidance counselors.

The principal of the Hayovel School in Modi'in, Geula Citrinowitz, even organized a group letter on this subject to the minister.

But a few days ago, the principals were stunned to receive a letter from Citrinowitz - who serves as their representative to the Jerusalem District - containing the following update on the ministry's response to their initiative: "I regret to inform you that the district director, Meir Shimoni, chose to see this action [i.e., the dispatch of the letter] as an improper act, to put it mildly. Shimoni sent the supervisor to inform me that 'I had gone off the deep end.' In light of the unfortunate fact that a principal has gone off the deep end, a meeting has scheduled for me with the district director."

Citrinowitz declined to be interviewed for this article.

"Educators are supposed to take a more open and democratic approach that encourages dialogue, not to use a threatening approach intended to silence dissenters," complained a senior official of the principals' chapter of the elementary school teachers union, Histadrut Hamorim.

The Ministry of Education said in response: "After checking with the district director, the supervisor and the school principal, it turns out that the principal was invited to a meeting to discuss ways of furthering the issue."