Making Israel ‘the Best and Brightest’

by Sharon Udasin

In the US, the post-graduated program Teach for America has become as difficult to get into as an Ivy League law school, as college seniors all over the country vie for coveted spots to teach in underserved urban and rural schools – now, in Israel, a similar yet still budding nonprofit organization is attempting to bring teaching the same sort of prestige and popularity here.

Hotam: Teach First Israel, part of the Teach for All global network, actively recruits talented university grads to teach in periphery schools that desperately need more instructors, and is currently in its second year of recruitment for next year’s 110 new positions. The teaching commitment is two years long, and program directors have already received 1,100 applications and are hoping to reach 1,200 by the mid-April application deadline, according to Asaf Banner, the CEO of the program. The program aims to encourage young and talented Israelis to go into teaching and take on the challenges that some of the most under-served schools provide allows Israel to move “toward the bigger mission of improving education in Israel,” which Banner calls “the basics for everything.”

“There’s the short-term of the project that really helps kids now in classes now,” Banner said. “There’s the long-term of having Israel become the best and brightest.”

Along with Teach First Israel’s chairperson and former director-general of the Education Ministry, Shlomit Amichai, Banner inaugurated the program last summer when the first round of new teachers entered their summer training programs to prepare them for teaching in September. Rigorous training continues on the job through the mentorship of veteran teachers, and a through a required simultaneous teaching certificate program provided by Haifa University and Beit Berl College, Banner told The Jerusalem Post a few months ago.

Funding for Teach First Israel comes from a combination of sources: Israel’s Education Ministry, JDC Israel, the Naomi Foundation and Hakol Chinuch. The largest chunk – about half – of the money coming from the ministry.

“We have government support that is really crucial to being sustainable in Israel,” Banner said. “The government support helps us keep on doing what we’re doing in a high level of practice. We know that at least for the next two years, we have funds coming from government sources.”

“We are still looking for a private philanthropists to get involved and do substantial work and help us diversify our funding to be even more sustainable in years to come, people who know the model in the US and UK and believe that kids in Israel deserve a better education,” he added.

Thus far, private, individual donations do not make up such a sizeable percentage of contributions to Teach First Israel, but Banner is certainly looking for such aid to increase.

“There are some that are not in large scale, but we work through the JDC,” he said, explaining that the JDC earmarks some of their direct donations specifically for Teach First Israel. “People can and we would love for them to join the effort. There are some people giving for different parts of the program.”

In addition to more individual donors, Teach First Israel would like to attract support from big businesses.

“There’s another layer of support we’re looking for – corporate. The other organizations in the [Teach for All] network are working a lot with corporations for funding,” Banner said, noting that already an Israeli insurance company is giving money to the program.

In terms of cost, funds needed to train these young teachers are no different than those required to pay for any other teacher’s preparation, according to Banner. Meanwhile, the teachers get paid their salaries directly from the schools, but because they only work 80% of a regular position’s hours – to save time for certificate studies – they receive a supplemental scholarship from the program for NIS 1,000 per month.

Banner hopes that Teach First Israel will be able to make significant contribution to narrowing the gap in education levels that plague Israel. In the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam, Israel ranked 41 out of 64 countries in both math and science, scoring 50 points below the OECD average, and also demonstrating “unequal achievement” levels among different socioeconomic levels of Israeli society, according to data from Teach First Israel’s website.

Other programs are also aiming to bridge the education gap in Israel – just a few weeks ago, Masa Israel Journey and the Education Ministry launched a volunteer teaching program for North American college graduates called Israel Teaching Fellows. Come August, 100 students will pay $1,000 to serve in a 10-month program where they will teach part-time, take Hebrew ulpan courses and receive a monthly food stipend. Meanwhile, OTZMA offers a similar program called Israel Teacher Corps, with a base tuition of $9,000, of which all except $1,500 is generally paid for by federal funds and a Masa grant, according to the program’s website.

But differently from these programs, Teach First Israel concentrates on building up the teaching profession within Israel, rather than adding to it from the outside. Currently, the teachers have the opportunity to teach at 22 different schools, located in inner-city or periphery areas, including Haifa, Holon, Beersheba, Jerusalem and the Druze village of Hurfeish. Coming September, the options will expand to Arad and Dimona.

“We’re going to go to the geographical periphery to keep working on the social periphery,” Banner said. “Each school has his own story.”

At a Bat Yam school that he visited two weeks ago, a quarter of the school’s population was new immigrants, and the principal did not have enough support to suit their needs, Banner recalled.

“She should have three classes of underprivileged kids in the lowest track in every year, but she can’t afford it – there are lot kids there coming from underprivileged backgrounds,” he said. “Fifty percent of our teachers are teaching in the lowest track classes. They are meeting the kids that need their help the most.”

While most of the students taught by Teach First instructors are Jewish, the program currently serves one school of mostly Arab students in Haifa, as well as the Druze school in Hurfeish.

Before this year’s application period, the program was most in need of English, math and science teachers – but there still remains a critical need for qualified English teachers at this point.

“A third of the applications are in math and science,” Banner said. “But in English we’re still really lacking. We are now trying to recruit among Anglos that live in Israel, but we have a high bar – you need to know Hebrew, you need to have your BA.” He’s trying to spread the word through Facebook and other social media because “the need in the schools is huge.”

Once in the classroom, Banner feels that the program participants have no more trouble gaining students’ respect than do any other new teachers.

“I think it’s one of the new challenges of new teachers everywhere,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if they come through the program or teach privileged or unprivileged kids. I think respect is something that you work for.”

One teacher recently told him about an interaction he had with the class bully, who had been terrorizing other kids in the class. During a personal conversation with the child, the teacher told him that there was no need for this behavior because he was intelligent.

“The kid burst into tears and it was a really influential moment for him,” Banner said. “I was yesterday in his class and I couldn’t recognize who the bully was. The kid had said, ‘No one had ever told me I am smart.’”

“Gaining respect is a journey that we’re going through,” he added.

On December 27, 2010, Teach First Israel received the Leadership Formation Award at an annual dinner hosted by the Wharton, Harvard Business School and Penn alumni clubs of Israel at the Dan Hotel in Tel Aviv, where the prized was presented by Elli Streit, board member of Wharton alumni club.

“This year we decided that in the education and teaching sector the key for changing the attitude toward the profession of teaching is to recognize Teach First which is putting the emphasis on the real issue of how to attracted young students to choose the difficult job of becoming a teacher which currently has low image and low pay. This is in our opinion the only direction in long term for improving the level of education in Israel,” Streit told eJewish Philanthropy, noting that previous winners in the award’s 10-year history have included the Wingate Institute, Atidim and Masa Israel Journey.

In terms of sustainability, Banner feels that Teach First Israel has just as much as – if not even more than – the comparable programs in the rest of the Teach For All network, like Teach for America and Teach First UK.

“I think that we are even more sustainable,” he said. “In terms of size, there are approximately 3,000-4,000 new teachers a year. Next year we are going to bring in 110, which is like 3%. I think in the US if you want to bring 3% you have to bring a lot more people. It’s influential.”

And Banner hopes that this influence will increase year by year, as he and his staff members continue “working toward Israel’s future.”