The Bottom Line / Math 101 for Teachers

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

I doubt whether civil service negotiations have ever addressed a raise as high as 30 percent, especially with respect to a sector as large as that of teachers. Israel has somewhere between 130,000 to 150,000 teachers. 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 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 percent, therefore, does little more than close the gap between remuneration of teachers and other higher-education 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 percent?

No, not really.

Two things act against the teachers. One is their great number. It's both their strength and Achilles' heel, because any change in their employment terms becomes a macroeconomic issue. A 10 percent raise for teachers would cost taxpayers between NIS 1.2 billion and NIS 1.75 billion a year, depending on how you count the teaching sector.

A 30 percent 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. Other academics in the public sector who earn at least 50 percent more than teachers, work much harder, typically no less than 40 hours a week. Teachers are considered working full time if they complete 30 hours a week at primary school, and 24 hours a week at secondary schools.

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

Teachers who prepare their pupils for matriculation (bagrut) get a virtual time addition for every hour they teach. Homeroom teachers (mechanchim) 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 allows precious little room for increasing pay.

These are the figures that underlie the fierce dispute between the Finance Ministry, the Education Ministry and teachers groups.

The Finance Ministry does not dispute that teacher salaries are unreasonable: It just argues that their working week is just as unreasonable. Anybody demanding a 30 percent 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 home, 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. Particularly when it is added to all the other ills in the education system, such as promotion based on seniority, not merit; tenure, which safeguards the place of terrible teachers in the system (very few are fired for sheer incompetence), and the relatively low quality of people who choose teaching as a career.

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 a fundamental change in the way they work, including the hours they work.