Top Mathematician's Encounter With Haifa Junior High Leaves Scars

Just two months into his year-long commitment, Prof. Ron Aharoni threw up his hands and left.

A leading mathematician at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology got more than he bargained for after volunteering to teach a junior high school math class in the Haifa area last year. Just two months into his year-long commitment, Prof. Ron Aharoni threw up his hands and left, complaining that the students' disciplinary problems made instruction virtually impossible.

"No one prepared me for what happened," Aharoni explained. "My class quickly turned into a zoo - students would sing in class, get up freely, throw things at one another. Once a student even showed me a pornographic picture and asked me what I thought of it. Nothing I did helped, but on the other hand I wanted to use an 'iron fist' - even if I didn't know how to. After two months I grew desperate and left."

Aharoni is one of the founders of the Israeli Foundation for Math Achievement for All, a non-profit group whose mission is to "restore excellence to math education" in Israel.

Many of its methods are based on the "Singapore Method" of instruction, which the foundation's Web site describes as presenting mathematical principles as "systematically built upon each other, in a consistent and mathematically correct order with a gradual transition from the concrete to the abstract." The method has helped Singapore's students rank among the world's highest on math tests, and has in recent years been adopted by other countries around the world.

As part of the group's mission, Aharoni volunteered to teach math to a small junior high class of 14 students in the Haifa area for one year. The experience, he said, has left him scarred.

"I lost the feeling of omnipotence in education," he said. "It was a dispiriting experience, it took the wind out of my sails. It is very frustrating trying to forge a connection, encouraging students to succeed and failing in that. So I returned to the ivory tower, which is far more comfortable and remunerative."

Last week Haaretz published a blog written by an unnamed math teacher from an affluent community in the Tel Aviv area, in which he vented about the frustrations of his profession. Under the blogger name "Benny," he wrote, "I feel like spraying the classroom with a submachine gun just to get some peace and quiet." Later, after implementing strict disciplinary measures, he wrote, "Silence. I began teaching. It was a splendid class. Terror works."

The publication of Benny's blog postings aroused a flurry of responses, both positive and negative. Aharoni said he could identify with the blogger's frustration: "I was sure I would be able to teach, but apparently I was being naive. I was totally unaware of the fundamental problem - the absence of discipline among students."

Aharoni asked to teach a 7th grade class of average students, as part of his research for a math instruction book he was planning to author. "The first few classes were wonderful, but shortly thereafter everything went downhill," he said. "Because I didn't want to deliver the lesson with a heavy hand - 'Open your books and do some drills' - we came into conflict pretty quickly. Kids pick up on the slightest hint of weakness."

An Education Ministry study conducted several years ago found that half of all graduates of teachers colleges leave the teaching profession after only three years. A Central Bureau of Statistics study similarly found the highest rate of those leaving among junior high teachers.

"The truth is I left with my tail between my legs," Aharoni said.