Top Marks for Toeing the Line

A year ago, Haaretz interviewed three novice educators about to embark on their first year of teaching. Despite the well-known difficulties and low wages in teaching, they spoke passionately, at times downright ideologically, about their hopes for changing the education system and offering pupils a new kind of learning experience. A year later, however, one of the teachers decided to quit, while the remaining two speak of job satisfaction but seem somewhat disillusioned.

"I've made my peace with the system's demands to 'toe the line' and be like everyone else," said one, off the record. "I never imagined how strong this pressure could be."

According to Central Bureau of Statistics figures, every fourth teacher in Jewish state elementary schools leaves the profession in the first year on the job. In high schools, the teacher dropout rate is 28 percent and in junior high schools - 32 percent.

Inbal Reznik-Haisson, Tsofit

"I don't like the word 'teacher,'" says Reznik-Haisson, 28, who taught second grade last year at Beit Hinuch Tsofit in the Sharon region. "I am an educator first - of manners, sensitivity, tolerance, accepting differences. I made an effort to speak to the children not from a place of authority, but at eye level. This was reflected in the simplest things as well, such as saying at the beginning of the class, 'take out your notebooks please.'" She tried as best she could to freshen up the usual teaching methods a little, if only to correct her own negative experiences. "I wanted my pupils to remember school as a positive experience, that any day you don't learn something new is a bad day. I hope I succeeded."

For Reznik-Haisson, the greatest challenge was the workload. She would take a half-hour rest after school, then begin work on the next day's lesson plans, preparing worksheets, attending school meetings, contacting parents. "Teaching is with you seven days a week, 24 hours a day," she says. "It takes over every aspect of your life."

Then there is an equally endless frustration: "There is a large gap between the public perception of teachers and the feedback I received over the year from pupils and parents. I'd come home worn out, and encounter a response like, 'but you only work until 1 P.M.' People don't get how stressful this job is, how you have to maneuver and take care of the scholastic, social and emotional aspects of the children, constantly be with your finger on the pulse. When the school year ended, I joked that I was ready for my sabbatical."

Sundus Watad, Arara

Sundus Watad, 23, from the village of Jatt in the Triangle, moved to Be'er Sheva this past year. After failing to find work near home, she was forced to head south, where there is a shortage of teachers in Bedouin schools. The daily commute to school in Arara took 45 minutes. "The beginning was very hard," she says. "Everyone treats the new teacher like an alien creature. In the opening days of the year there were even some parents who asked to transfer their children to the other class, which had a veteran teacher. The other teachers also had prejudices about people from the North. Fortunately, the principal backed me up."

In her first-grade class, Watad faced unfamiliar norms. "When I asked one of the boys to sit next to a girl, they gave me funny looks because school is co-ed among the southern Bedouin, but it is not customary [for boys and girls] to sit together," she says. "When the parents came to complain, I explained it would actually help with their studies, because the kids would not speak to each other, so there would be more time to study."

Watad says she managed to earn the trust of the pupils, parents and faculty. At the end of the year, she distributed a brief video and wrote a few personal words to each child, "so they will want to study next year too. They told me at the school that this was the first time a teacher had given her pupils such a memento."

Bentzi Selkman, Hadera

Bentzi Selkman, 33, of Kfar Yona, initially seemed the most idealistic of the novice teachers, but after a year at Hadera High School-Beit Eliezer, he broke. As opposed to the other teachers, who tell of successes and difficulties primarily with their pupils, Selkman says the school's stringent demand for uniformity is what broke him.

He told his pupils he would not be dictating the material to them, prompting complaints from pupils, "who are not used to being somewhere that demands activity, but also from the other teachers at the school, who asked how I dared deviate from the official study plan." Selkman had "violated the hidden rules of the school, which is a dangerous situation to be in. I managed to persuade pupils that it is possible to study another way, that they can create quality knowledge themselves, but teachers kept telling me I had to hurry up and get to Page 52 in the textbook." He sought to teach skills, rather than "material," he says, and wound up "the laughingstock of the history team at school."

He has not given up on public education and is looking for a new school, but the past year taught him that bringing about change is beyond the powers of a single teacher. "It takes a whole team dedicated to the cause," he says, "but then we'd be out of the public framework."