In the classroom shark pool

star-teacherA teacher who ‘drowned’ offers a new paradigm

In the classroom shark pool By DAVID GUY
Originally published in the Jerusalem Post 07/08/2009 20:46

Israel’s children are in their summer holidays and the teacher’s unions are threatening their traditional strike to delay the opening of the school year. I thought reprinting this op-ed I wrote almost exactly five years ago would be appropriate. We all know teachers recycle lessons.


We’ve all seen teacher dramas. From The Blackboard Jungle to Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds and even School of Rock, the inexperienced teacher wins over the impossibly difficult, rowdy class by dint of character, personality and instinctive teaching greatness.

So let me come clean. Without a competent Hollywood scriptwriter, most teachers fail to cope with the Israeli classroom, and their pupils fail with them. I put myself in that category. The following proposal does not claim to be a solution for all the problems in the Israeli education system – just one. It addresses the unacceptable turnover of new teachers by exchanging the present ‘Sink or Swim’ paradigm for one of apprenticeship.

Instead of dropping a new teacher behind enemy lines, so to speak, he or she will be given three years to learn the trade as a teacher apprentice or assistant.

Some background before I start. These are the observations of a ‘trained’ secondary-school teacher, no longer in the system, with a two-year nightmare behind him. Like the recruits that the Education Ministry now deludes itself will relieve the teacher shortage I came, wide-eyed and optimistic, from a background in hi-tech; degree in hand; convinced my native English, maturity, gender, experience with my own children and one year’s teacher training would allow me to make a major contribution to English education in this country.

How deluded I was. THE BASIC PARADIGM of teacher training and indeed teaching/class management is badly flawed, and as a result not only do potentially excellent novices (and many expert veterans) leave the system, but our children are terribly shortchanged. Until this basic attitude is changed, any short-term solutions, such as the already unraveling plan to recruit unemployed hi-tech workers, is doomed.

Don’t get me wrong. I have the utmost respect for teachers who through personality or experience successfully manage their classrooms, inspire their pupils and, yes, teach. Education in this country would collapse without them. But there are simply not enough of them to go around.

On the other hand, I also respect former Director-General of the Education Ministry Ronit Tirosh’s ‘teachers whose contribution to the education system is low.’ They undergo daily abuse for a salary less than a baby sitter’s because without them, the ‘good’ teachers would be attempting to manage, inspire and teach classes of 80 or more.

How can ordinary teachers, without exceptional native ability, learn to educate your children?

At least part of the answer will come from changing the almost universal ‘Sink or Swim’ model. This is the practice, introduced at the dawn of compulsory education, in which a novice teacher completes his (or mostly) her training and is thrown directly into a classroom shark pool with little or no supervision. Almost half the teachers don’t remain in the system even the two or three years that theory says is necessary to learn how to cope with the zoo atmosphere in Israeli classrooms.

The children pay the price of this pedagogical learning curve as inexperienced, frustrated, alienated and often incompetent teachers follow inexperienced, frustrated, alienated and often incompetent teachers. Aggravating the problem, seasoned teachers don’t want to deal with undisciplined pupils, so first-year teachers are often given the most uncontrollable classes. Already suffering from a grievous lack of basic skills, the problem kids then have to suffer the teacher’s inability to control the class and communicate the information she is paid (however pitifully) to convey. Plummeting education standards are not surprising.

HERE IS A WIN-WIN, paradigm-breaking solution. Teachers should start as teaching assistants for the first three years, gradually taking individual classes first with and later without supervision. Very few teachers would fail to benefit from a competent teaching assistant in their classroom, and when the novice graduates to a class of their own they would be a known quantity. Currently teachers enter a new classroom with the enormous disadvantage of knowing nothing of their charges’ backgrounds, personalities, strengths, weaknesses or even their names.

Although some Israeli schools already have a mentoring program in place, the hands-on experience of working with an experienced teacher and seeing how she manages in real-time is far better than discussing a problem later. In addition, apprentice training beats mentoring in that the older teacher gains a real benefit from the presence of the assistant.

Such a fundamental change requires the cooperation of the Ministry of Education, the Teacher’s Unions, the teachers themselves, and let’s not forget the Finance Ministry or some other source of funds, but unlike the controversial Ofek Hadash and Dovrat recommendations does not demand changes in school infrastructure, alter the hours teachers are expected to work, threaten anybody’s job or their salaries. It does not demand changes in curriculum, and is applicable to all subjects at all levels.

It might even save some money. When a teacher spends a number of years at a subsidized institution and then doesn’t go on to work in the profession, the money may as well be thrown away.

Give those who enter the system a fighting chance by not imposing them on a class before they are ready. For the good of our children, our teachers and our state let there be fewer inexperienced, frustrated, alienated and incompetent teachers.

About David Guy

B.A./B.C.A. (Communication and Media Arts) University of Wollongong, AUSTRALIA M.A. in Government (Diplomacy and Conflict Studies) Inter Disciplinary Center, Herzliya, ISRAEL Twitter @5MFI
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