School Matters /The Day After the Strike

A group of high-school teachers is taking advantage of the time off to create a discourse on the fundamental nature of education in Israel.

"The teachers are like the battered woman who keeps looking for reasons why she is no good, and keeps taking more and more blows. In our daily duties, we are alone. Every one of us has his own troubles and tries to persuade himself he will manage: We will teach another class because the principal requested; we will teach mainly toward the matriculation exams because that is what must be done; we'll go to special pedagogical meetings in the afternoons because we must; we'll check tests in the early morning hours because that is the only time we have. We're constantly looking for ways to survive in the system, and no one ever asked why we must work under such conditions. And then suddenly the strike changed all that. Because of it, I understood to what extent my plight is shared by all teachers."

Carmella Farber, a high school teacher from Ramat Gan, says this quickly, sounding pained, and then she stops. Other teachers sitting at the table nod their heads in agreement.

"Suddenly a teacher gets up and feels he is a nation," says Liora Timinker, a teacher at the Har Tuv high school at Tzora. Her colleague Yael Guron adds, "The internal dialogue this strike fostered between the teachers gives me much more strength than the question of whether we will get some kind of raise. On the day after the strike, I'll enter the classroom with this strength, not only with the fight's formal achievements."

The key words here are "the day after." Farber and Guron are part of a group of teachers trying to build a new organization, full of good intentions and a feeling of renewal. The group is seeking to change the nature of the educational system. They still have not agreed how to behave in class after the strike, and they may not reach a consensus on this. But they have the will to make the teachers' voices heard, loud and clear.

"The Education Ministry plans reforms, but doesn't ask the teachers' opinions," says Tamir Jacobovitz, a teacher from Jerusalem. "They treat us as if all we do is carry out their commands. We discovered we are the silenced voice of the educational system."

Over the last few days, the group decided to hold the country's "first educational congress," due to take place in a few weeks. The teachers plan to look for a body to organize the convention for them. "We are doing exactly what we do in class - creating something from scratch," Guron says.

"We have to exploit the momentum and the awareness that this strike has created among teachers and the general public, and to advance change," the group writes in its first statement of intent. "The public education system will not improve only due to the strike or its achievements. A long-term process of this kind requires long-term action, and who, if not the teachers, should help lead and direct it?"

The group seeks to address four fundamental issues: the image of the public education system, teaching conditions, a suitable work space, and the ideal image of a teacher. The convention will address questions such as whether studying is a goal in and of itself, or whether it serves other goals (such as preparation for military service or university, or merely as a "baby sitting service"); the influence of corporations and money on the education system; teachers unions' status in fixing educational policy; the number of classes teachers have; the relationship with students; teaching heterogeneous classes; the attitudes of teachers toward their time and duties; and the degree of autonomy teachers must be given in their work.

Following the commander

Every teacher puts a different emphasis on the problems that trouble him. Timinker, for example, says she is particularly worried about "the herd mentality teachers have," which she believes springs from the growing gap between the desire to teach and the constraints - for example, teaching only toward the matriculation exams. "I tell my pupils that they have to study for the matriculation as if there were no general knowledge, and to study general knowledge as if there were no matriculation," she says.

Jacobovitz speaks about the lack of basic conditions in the schools, such as up-to-date libraries and study corners. And Farber stresses how Sisyphean the teacher's work is: "The fact that you prepared a good lesson doesn't make a difference. The system's beating heart rings every 45 minutes, and then you have to switch classrooms."

The group currently has several dozen members from various parts of the country and from a variety of schools. They communicate mostly by e-mail. They have not yet found a name for their organization; "Teachers on the way" and "Taking education into our hands" are being considered. The group is in a slightly sensitive position regarding the Secondary School Teachers Association. It fully recognizes the organization's leader, Ran Erez, whose leadership of the association and the strike were essential to the group's creation, but some of the teachers feel the conflict is making it more difficult to hold a complex discourse about education. They think there is still a great deal to be said, beyond the declarations about reducing classroom size and reinstating teaching hours.

"The strike gave us free time to think about things. In our daily lives, we are drowning in work, and have no chance to think about how the education system should work," says Guron. "We realize that to promote pedagogical thinking, we have to sit down and talk now. When we go back to school, the sky will fall on us, and the pressure from parents and students will only increase. This is what gives us the feeling of urgency. However, Erez is the man who led us to the strike and as in any war, we have to follow our commander. We are trying to walk the fine line between protesting at junctions and going to demonstrations, and our new thinking."

Other teachers who are active in the struggle have chosen not to join the new organization, saying that it could weaken the teachers association in its talks with the government.

"There is no disagreement over the need for a workers' union, and I don't want to be even more alone," says Guron. "At the moment, we are not a player on the negotiating field, but we do want to be players in a future debate determining the nature of the educational system. Some of us think we need to set up think groups inside the teachers' association, and others believe we should operate on the outside, as an independent body. We know how to teach. We are still learning how to get organized."