Math 101 for Teachers

Teachers receive NIS 7,200 a month, on average, which is roughly the average wage. Almost every agrees that they should earn much more, tens of percent more. Assuming the negotiations center on a raise of about 30%, teachers would gross NIS 9,500 a month on average.

I doubt whether any civil service negotiations have ever addressed a raise as big as 30%, especially in respect to a sector as big as teachers. Israel has somewhere between 130,000 to 150,000 of them. Put otherwise, the treasury's negotiating position is about as generous as it could be.

Yet even if the teachers' demands are met in full, their average wage will remain far inferior to the average for other academics in the public sector, who gross around NIS 10,500 to NIS 11,000 a month.

A vast raise of 30%, therefore, does little more than close the gap between remuneration of teachers and other higher-ed graduates in the public service. Therefore, as a nation that places education on a pedestal, should we be considering an average raise of say 50%?

No, not really.

Two things act against the teachers. One is their great number. That is their strength, and their Achilles' heel, because any change in their employment terms becomes a macroeconomic issue.

A 10% raise for teachers will cost taxpayers between NIS 1.2 billion to NIS 1.75 billion a year, depending on how you count the sector of teachers.

A 30% raise will cost between NIS 3.6 billion to NIS 5. 5 billion a year. That's a sum that the budget will have difficulty absorbing. Also, because of their great weight in the economic sphere, any raise for teachers could upset the entire balance of pay throughout the public sector, triggering a spiral of pay hikes.

The second thing acting against teachers is the limited nature of their working day. The other academics in the public sector that earn at least 50% more than teachers do, work much harder, typically no less than 40 hours a week. Teachers are considered to work full time if they do 30 hours a week, at primary school, and 24 hours a week at secondary schools.

But those aren't the hours they actually work. In practice, they work less.

Convenient hours

Teachers who prepare their pupils for matriculation (bagrut) get a virtual addition of time for each hour they teach. Home-room teachers (michanchim) also get extra hours, and so on and so forth.

The result is that the average job at a primary school is 24-25 hours a week, on average, while at high schools it's 16-18 hours a week, that's all.

Yes: a high school teacher may actually teach only 16 hours a week and be considered as holding more than a full-time job, and that's not even getting into their long vacations during the year.

No question about it, teachers' wages in Israel are low. But that also reflects to no small degree the fact that they work very little. Productivity of 16 hours a week at high schools cannot be considered reasonable, and it gives precious little room to increase pay.

These are the figures that underlie the fierce dispute between the Finance Ministry, the Education Ministry, and teacher organizations.

The Finance Ministry doesn't dispute that teacher salaries are unreasonable: it just argues that their working week is just as unreasonable. Anybody demanding a 30% raise costing NIS 5 billion a year had better knuckle down and work harder.

Israel's teachers will probably not appreciate being told they're slackers. For years they argued that every hour of frontal teaching followed two hours of preparation at hoe, and that there's nothing more exhausting than standing for dozens of hours a week before a class of 40 noisy, unruly children.

They have a point, but still, that figure of 16-24 frontal hours a week, on average, is a figure that can't be ignored.  Mainly, when it adds to all the other ills in the education system, such as promotion based on seniority, not merit; tenure, that leaves terrible teachers safe in the system - very few are fired for sheer incompetence; the relatively low quality of people who choose teaching as a career, because of its combination of low pay, and low criteria.

Teachers like to ascribe the erosion in their status solely to the erosion of their pay. But reality is more complex. Any attempt to rescue the status of teachers in Israel by raising their salaries must be accompanied by fundamental change in the way they work, including, the hours they work.