'When a Class Has 43 Students, Just Taking Attendance Takes 10 Minutes'

Jane Berman has 43 students in her English class at the Leo Baeck high school in Haifa. She complains that just taking attendance and getting her students to pull out their books takes more than 10 minutes out of every class.

"By the time we go over the homework and everyone copies from the board, another 15 minutes have passed," she said at the striking teachers protest tent in Jerusalem during the height of the strike six weeks ago. "How much time is left for the students to practice what they learned and to speak in English?" she asked rhetorically.

Berman's experience is replicated in classrooms across the country, and such scenarios serve as the basis for one of the teachers key complaints: overcrowding in schools has made quality education - involving teachers who pay attention to their students and get the chance to actually teach - virtually impossible.

The teachers union's demand to cut the number of students in the classroom has the support of parents and students as well as the teachers themselves.

Starved for personal attention

"The teachers' struggle is also our struggle - for classrooms that are less packed and for more personal attention," Yotam Frost, a student at Jerusalem's Boyer high school, said at a rally organized by students in support of the teachers.

Perhaps sentiments like Frost's are what Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had in mind when he said Monday that "the teachers union has managed to touch the most sensitive chords of Israeli society and generate spontaneous sympathy from many."

There are more than 35 students in nearly half the middle-school classrooms and a quarter of the high-school classrooms in the Jewish secular public school system this year, according to Education Ministry data. Nearly all middle-school classrooms - 81 percent - have more than 30 students, as do 47 percent of 10th to 12th-graders. The Arab school sector suffers from the greatest rate of overcrowding.

Shortly after the strike began, the teachers union highlighted its demand to reduce the maximum number of students in a classroom from 40 to 30 within six years. The teachers suggested several ways of doing so, such as a gradual decrease of two students per classroom per year.

Along with the demand to restore instruction hours that had been reduced in previous years, the demand to reduce overcrowding has become proof, from the teachers' perspective, that their fight is a social struggle aimed at achieving broad goals. It goes far beyond just another public-sector struggle for higher pay.

After a not-small number of futile sessions, the teachers union managed to get the government to commit to a plan to reduce overcrowding, although the concrete details - such as the maximum number of students per classroom, the time the process will take and the budget allotted - have not been made public.

A government decision stated that the education and finance ministries will present a multi-year plan within 75 days to reduce overcrowding and increase instruction hours. The teachers, though, had a tough time believing the decision, primarily because of the caveat that the budget allotted for the plan "will be examined in accordance with the restraints" of the state budget.

The Education and Finance ministries' opposition to release details about the plan is rooted not only in pedagogic and economic considerations. It also stems from their opposition to the teachers union's participation in governmental policymaking. The treasury sees the teachers union as a regular workers' union suited only to discussing wage, not policy, issues.