Israel’s teacher strike highlights cracks in the system
As much as he’s been wanting to complete his master’s degree in history, David Graniewitz would rather be standing in front of a classroom, teaching history or English to junior high and high school students.
Instead Graniewitz, who has taught in Israeli secondary schools for almost 20 years, has spent the past couple of weeks glued to his kitchen table, focusing — or trying to focus — on his own studies.
“I like being with a class,” Graniewitz, a 46-year-old father of four, said in his homey apartment in the southern neighborhood of Talpiot, surrounded by mounds of folded laundry. “I’m finding being home difficult. It’s boring.”
Graniewitz is one of the more than 40,000 teachers taking part in a strike launched by the Secondary School Teachers Organization (SSTO) on Oct. 10 to demand higher wages and better working conditions. Organizers say the strike, which is affecting some 400 junior high schools and 1,200 high schools in the Jewish sector according to the Ministry of Education, could end tomorrow or last for months. The Arab sector joined the strike two weeks ago.
Some secondary school teachers, who belong to the Israel Teachers Union, are not on strike because their union forged a deal with the ministries of Finance and Education several months ago. The result is a hodgepodge of teaching hours and a great deal of confusion.
As of press time on Tuesday, SSTO and Israel’s education minister had resumed talks, with Union of Local Authorities serving as a mediator. While sources on both sides say the gaps remain large, the parties agreed to negotiate intensively to try to end the strike, Ha’aretz reported.
The Israeli public, which has been less than sympathetic to the demands of highly paid striking dockworkers and electric company employees, does not dispute that the country’s teachers are vastly underpaid and subjected to poor working conditions.
“Teachers in this country are getting shafted,” said Jody Zaviv, a Jerusalem property manager whose 14- and 16-year-old sons have been home due to the strike. “I’ve heard their average take-home pay is 4,000 to 6,000 shekels [roughly $1,000 to $1,500 a month] and you can’t raise a family on that. I hold it against the government for refusing to pay a decent wage.”
Teachers, in fact, may earn even less than the figures quoted by Zaviv, according to Keren Shaked, an SSTO spokeswoman.
“A new teacher earns about 3,300 shekels [$825 per month], minimum wage before taxes,” and this is after three years of university. Teachers working 20 years average less than 6,000 shekels [$1,489].”
Independent studies confirm that Israeli teachers earn very little compared to educators in other countries. A survey of 2005 wages conducted by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 30 countries placed Israeli teachers in 29th place, above Hungary but below Slovenia, Iceland, the Czech Republic and Mexico.
Further, data released by Central Bureau of Statistics in July 2007 revealed that Israeli teacher salaries averaged only $1,464 pretax per month, while the average overall Israeli salary was $1,968. Monthly salaries in the electric company averaged $4,537; $2,658 in the industrial sector; $2,259 in the transport field; $1,603 in the health field, and $911 in the catering and hospitality sector.
“Honestly, I don’t know why anyone would become a teacher,” said Shaked, a teacher. “The teachers colleges are crying out for students.”
With few exceptions, Shaked said, Israeli schools “look a lot like prisons. If there’s air conditioning it’s because the parents raised the money. During the past few years, the rate of violence and drugs and dropping out has skyrocketed. Slash money from the education budget and this is what happens.”
Shaked said budget cuts imposed during the tenure of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon have meant that teachers who once taught history or the Bible several hours a week to a classroom of students are only allotted two to three hours weekly.
“Teachers may be teaching the same subject in five or seven or even 10 different classrooms” in order to fill their quota and make ends meet, Shaked said. “More students mean more papers to prepare and grade, more students and parents to meet.”
To take home $1,863 per month this past school year, Graniewitz, an immigrant from England, taught matriculation-level courses in three separate secondary schools.
“The city cut back the hours it was willing to pay, which meant that a syllabus that used to take six hours to impart has to be condensed into three hours. You can’t do this and also hold discussions and do group work. Today everything is geared at passing the bagrut [matriculation exams]. There’s no time to impart values. I know it sounds pretentious, but we’re here to educate.”
Graniewitz said the teaching environment has deteriorated in recent years.
“I’ve been teaching in a school in a poor neighborhood, and you would think parents would appreciate teachers for helping their children get out of their rut. That isn’t happening. The amount of antagonism and aggression is shocking. Every day is a struggle. You don’t know if someone is going to throw a firecracker through the door or if your car is going to be vandalized.”
Standing under the protest tent set up by striking teachers within shouting distance of the prime minister’s office, Yael Pulvermacher, a 38-year-old special-ed teacher, said the $1,043 she comes home with every month “isn’t even enough to pay for the music school my sixth-grader wants to attend. I left a high-tech job to go into teaching, but unless something dramatic happens I won’t be teaching next year.”
Despite the many challenges facing Israeli teachers, Graniewitz said he is aching to get back to teaching.
“It’s my fix,” he said, smiling broadly. “Even with the bad parts, I’d still like teaching kids in Israel more than I would in, say, America. Most of our problems are universal problems,” he said.