For many striking teachers, wage woes just the tip of a deeper malaise

Young teachers are shockingly underpaid, but other systemic problems also stymie the goal of raising teaching standards

Israeli teachers protest as they demand better pay and working conditions, in Tel Aviv on May 30, 2022. At forefront is Trachers Union chief Yaffa Ben-David (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Israeli teachers protest as they demand better pay and working conditions, in Tel Aviv on May 30, 2022. At forefront is Trachers Union chief Yaffa Ben-David (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“Working as a teacher gave me a sense of purpose, I was educating the next generation, helping children succeed, connecting with them and making a difference to their lives,” says Chen Peleg, a former English teacher of ten years who quit teaching last year.

“Eventually though that wasn’t good enough for me because there was so much negative energy surrounding the job that I decided I didn’t need it in my life anymore. So I quit.”

Although Peleg, who asked that her real name not be used, insists the low salary she earned, typical of junior teachers, was not the only reason she walked away from teaching, she said it was a key factor in her decision.

Peleg’s story is similar to that of many young teachers in Israel who start off on an ideological journey to help school pupils succeed and end up so disenchanted and disappointed with their profession that they simply leave.

Her experience teaching for a decade in the Israeli education system serves as the backdrop to the crisis that unfolded this week in Israel, in which 1.5 million preschool and school children were left at home as teachers went on strike — initially for a few hours a day, but on Wednesday and Thursday for the full school day.

But although these strikes focused on pay raises for teachers, the problems in the education system appear to run far deeper.

View of an empty school in Tel Aviv, during a strike by the Teachers Union, June 19, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Listening to teachers it is easy to understand why many decide to give up on their chosen profession.

The pay is poor…

Net salaries for new teachers and even those who have been teaching for over ten years are extremely low in comparison to the national average wage, while the demands on teachers from parents and school administrators, as well as the workload in all its aspects, are extremely high.

The average salary for new teachers, who are often only employed part-time, is just NIS 5,287 (some $1,530), according to figures from the Finance Ministry.

Increasing seniority in the profession does eventually lead to salaries of as much as NIS 20,000 ($5,800)  a month, but it can take decades to earn such sums, and many young teachers languish for too long without a living wage.

Peleg, for one, said her salary of just NIS 7,000 ($2,000) by the end of her time in teaching was simply not sufficient for the needs of her family.

Such sentiment is common.

Robi Naon, a ninth-grade teacher at the Katzir School in Holon, described his NIS 8,000 ($2,300) salary after 12 years as a teacher as “a slap in the face” to him and the profession in general.

Robi Naon, a ninth-grade teacher, in his classroom at the Katzir School in Holon. (Courtesy)

“I chose to be a teacher because I am a values-based person, I believe our future depends on education, and I think it is holy work and it’s something that gives me a lot of satisfaction,” said Naon, who has been a leading activist in the teachers’ union’s demands for wage rises.

But he argues that the low salaries for many teachers lead them to leave the profession for more remunerative careers, and adds that attracting talented individuals to teaching in the first place is extremely difficult for the same reason.

Salaries are not however the only concern for many teachers.

… but that’s not all

For Peleg, the intense demands of the job and what she felt was the lack of appreciation by all parties for the work of teachers was an equally weighty consideration in her decision to leave the profession.

After the school day, and after taking care of her own young children and putting them to bed, she would need to prepare lessons and tests for her pupils, work on assignments for supplementary courses which teachers are encouraged to take in order to advance in their careers and increase their salaries, and contend with teachers meetings and communication with parents.

And she found the attitude of many parents and principals, who would both blame teachers for the poor performance of their pupils, difficult to stomach.

“None of them would accept that there are systemic problems like classrooms with too many pupils, or that the pupils themselves and the parents have any responsibility for how their child does in school,” said Peleg.

Ruti, a principal for 30 years of a prestigious Jerusalem school who declined to give her real name, concurred with Peleg’s assertion that the teaching profession is not respected in Israel and argued that incorrect and negative attitudes towards teachers are in part responsible for the current situation.

She says stigmas about teachers not being intelligent or hard-working enough to succeed outside of the education system persist, and that parents generally do not understand the heavy investment of time and energy teachers make outside of school hours.

“The low salaries teachers get are directly tied to this lack of appreciation for the profession,” asserted the principal.

This is a widely held position, including by the teachers’ unions, which have made pay rises the focus of their negotiations with the Finance Ministry that began some six months ago.

The unions have demanded a 44 percent pay rise for new teachers and, according to Naon, 20% for more senior educators, although the Israel Teachers Union did not comment on the second figure. The union says that the Finance Ministry’s refusal to provide concrete responses led to this week’s strikes.

“We have been warning for nearly two years that educational staff are abandoning the education system,” Israel Teachers Union secretary-general Yaffa Ben David said in an interview with Ynet at the beginning of this week.

“This situation is going to blow up in our faces because educational staff are fed up with being disparaged and exploited and having to work for low wages.”

The Finance Ministry has balked at the high pay rises for senior teachers in particular, since starting from a far higher base their salary rises would incur significant costs on the treasury.

And at the same time, the ministry has also demanded that pay rises be made in parallel with deep reforms to the education system.

The ministry is demanding that a budget be provided to school principals which they can disburse to teachers who excel thereby incentivizing teachers who perform well, take initiative and provide added value to the school.

In addition, the ministry has demanded that the process for dismissing underperforming teachers be made easier for principals, to enable them to jettison failing members of the educational staff.

The teachers’ unions have so far rejected these proposals, demanding that salaries be raised first before other issues are addressed.

Falling standards

Worryingly, the performance of Israeli pupils in standardized international tests is the lowest among the countries in the OECD group of developed economies.

Israeli pupils scored below the OECD average in reading and mathematics in the 2018 PISA exams. Extremely poor results in the Arab-sector education system were partly responsible for these unfavorable outcomes, but even when evaluating Hebrew-language education system results, they were barely above average.

According to an analysis by Prof. Dan Ben-David of the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research and Tel Aviv University, the PISA results of pupils in Israel’s secular school system were significantly better than those in the religious system, and would place the former just inside the top ten for results from 25 of the most developed OECD countries.

Prof. Dan Ben-David (Courtesy)

Nevertheless, there are still severe systemic problems within Israel’s general education system, Ben-David points out.

One commonly cited problem is that of large classroom sizes.

But Ben-David notes that there is actually no lack of teachers. Although average class sizes are significantly higher in Israel in both primary and secondary education than in the OECD, the number of pupils per teacher in Israel is either the same or lower than the OECD average.

And data from the Central Bureau of Statistics actually show that the number of teachers in Israel continues to grow every year while the number of pupils per teacher has decreased over the last two decades.

Part-time problems

So why are class sizes still significantly above the OECD average, and why do the teachers’ unions persistently complain of teacher shortages?

The problem appears to be that many Israeli teachers, particularly those with less than ten years’ experience who comprise nearly 40% of all teachers, are only employed part-time.

Not only does this suppress their already low salary, but it also apparently restricts the ability of schools to have permanent access to the educational staff they need to keep classes at a reasonable size.

And there is another systemic problem that not only lowers teaching standards but also contributes to the high number of teachers in part-time positions: the severe difficulty to fire an underperforming teacher.

According to a 2021 Finance Ministry report, it takes fully 300 days, some ten months, to complete the dismissal process since it is impossible to fire a teacher from a school without revoking their teaching license as well.

One former principal, Tzvi Yannai who headed the Hartman boys school in Jerusalem for 20 years, said the process was so difficult and took up so much of his time and energy that he eventually stopped trying to get rid of poor teachers.

These circumstances have created a situation in which, according to the ministry report, just three teachers were fired in the entire education system in the whole of the 2019-2020 academic year.

According to the report, since it is so difficult to fire full-time teachers with tenure in particular, many principals hire young, untenured teachers who can more easily be let go if they do not perform as they should.

Inadequate incentives

Yannai also complained that his inability as a principal to incentivize good teachers was another severe obstacle in raising teaching standards.

“If we want good teachers we have to show them there is a horizon for which it is worth doing this job,” he said.

“Quality teachers provide added value to the education system and we need to cultivate and develop them.”

As a result of much of this, Israel’s teachers themselves rank extremely low in rankings for the international PIAAC exams which test adult suitability for the job market.

In the 2012 series of exams, the last to be published, Israeli teachers came third from last in comparison to teachers from other OECD countries.

Ben-David points out that the vast majority of Israeli teachers obtain education qualifications from non-academic institutions and that their psychometric test results are on average significantly below that of university students.

Given all of this, the poor academic achievements of many Israeli school pupils cannot be considered surprising, says the professor.

The issue of raising salaries is therefore frequently seen as critical for attracting and advancing gifted young people to the teaching profession.

Yannai agrees with this perspective, describing salaries for young teachers as “insulting and offensive” and argues that the situation provides no incentive to teachers to really invest themselves in the job.

Dani Buller, a maths teacher and member of the Teachers Leading Change group, which has opposed the Israel Teachers Union strike, similarly insists that young teachers’ salaries must be increased.

But he opposes the high pay increases also sought by the teachers’ union for teachers with seniority who are often earning above the average national salary.

And, like Yannai, Buller says that excellence must be promoted through special budgets for principals to disburse to high-performing teachers, something the union also opposes.

Buller argues that the entire teachers’ salary model, which reflects only seniority and in which teachers with seniority can earn 3.7 times as much as junior teachers, is not reflective of the relative quality of such teachers and must be changed in order to bring real improvement to the education system.

“More experienced teachers should earn more, but the gap with more junior teachers is far too high,” he said.

But Naon, who strongly backs the teachers’ union’s positions, argued that such proposals for achieving this, such as incentivization budgets, could be open to abuse by principals who favor some teachers out of non-professional considerations.

Buller argues this would be self-defeating, and therefore unlikely to occur, since such principals would lose their best teachers in this way and their school’s performance would inevitably suffer.

Teachers from the Teachers Union protest over low salaries, in Tel Aviv, May 25, 2022. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The union also opposes making the dismissal process easier, with Naon arguing that teachers are already in an economically vulnerable position and that it was unreasonable to expose them to further vulnerability in such circumstances.

“We need to first ensure that all teachers get the wages they deserve, and then other issues such as promoting excellence can be discussed,” said Naon.

But those in the teaching profession insist that the systemic problems are not only those related to salaries.

Out of touch

Yannai argues that the pedagogical approach needs to be adapted for the modern age, and that teachers need to have the skills to “lead in the classroom” and “grab the souls” of pupils to make education important and relevant to them.

Teachers need to be innovators and, in particular, empower pupils to study for themselves and acquire knowledge for themselves instead of perpetuating the spoon-fed model which is predominant in many Israeli schools.

Integrating modern technology into the education system is also critical, Yannai said, and is a task for which the younger generation of teachers is more suitable than those with seniority.

“If you don’t make these changes then you will be leaving the education system dry, boring and old, and good teachers won’t join because such a system is not interesting for them, they won’t be able to develop themselves there professionally and in terms of remuneration,” he added.

“We need to dare to change things and to be brave. But we need money for this too.”

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