From a recent conversation with a group of my fellow teaching volunteers, I have come to the realization that most Israeli teachers, administrators and staff (save for the school guard and maintenance man) are female. Though the extent of it feels exaggerated here, this cultural influence is not unlike in the United States, where, for example, public education jobs also tend to be low-paying and underappreciated. My other observations of the basic Israeli school framework have revealed many other parallels. But during my time volunteering in an Israeli elementary school, I have gathered quite a few striking differences from my own memories of going to school in the U.S.
When I began teaching English here four days a week, I was nervous that my lack of “business casual” attire would be problematic. Luckily, the dress code at my school allows for far more expression than the conservative blouses and half-inch loafers of my memory. I am happy to get away with wearing nice jeans and a simple top, though it also means I am far less fashionable than the Israeli teachers. Flowing shirts and flashy sweaters with bedazzled jungle cats, shimmering leggings and high-heeled boots are normal statements of our teachers’ wardrobes. Their makeup is equally stellar, with blue eyeliner and red lips – a must. And their hair is dark, thick and long (like all young women in Ashdod). I admire the independent spirit and self-directed power of these Israeli women and that no one would dare challenge their qualifications as teachers based on their appearance.
The kids, on the other hand, must wear shirts with their school insignia as a uniform. Classes of 30 or more sit closely around the tables of small classrooms, the walls of which are decorated with student work, pictures of the current Israeli leaders and Garfield the cat. But don’t let this facade of order fool you. I learned quickly the meaning of the word “balagan,” used to describe the “mess” of yelling, laughing, fighting, crying and overall drama that is the classroom’s natural state.
Teachers have to be fierce to control the balagan, and this strict but motherly hard-love approach creates a strong emotional bond with the students. I felt this expectation immediately from many of my students, that we would push and pull in our struggle to teach them English, but always in it together.
Between every two 50-minute periods, students charge through the halls and blast through the doors for an outdoor break. I happen to teach my small group lessons in the hallway, meaning I am bombarded with enthusiastic greetings of my name being yelled, wacky smiles and flailing arm-waves, and rushed hugs and high-fives as I bid the running kids off to recess. Since Israeli students don’t have a lunch at school, the first of these hafsekoht breaks also includes a “mid-morning snack.” Most popular, by far, is a homemade chocolate sandwich. Yes, it is exactly as it sounds – two slices of bread united by a generous portion of chocolate spread. Not that American potato chips and Hostess snacks are much healthier options, but the sugar demons still make for a challenging recovery of order.
Especially in the city of Ashdod, where there was constant missile fire just last summer, I was surprised to find remarkably few emergency drills. Yet after being here, it somehow makes sense to let these realities vanish from school psychology. Securities like the bomb shelter in the basement of the gym, the locked gate that encloses the grounds and our school guard, who wields both the gate keys and a handgun at his hip, drift casually into the background of the daily noise, drama and overwhelming energy of the students. It is the teachers, however, who provide the greatest reassurance of safety through powerful emotional protection. Their strength, confidence and poise have become essential for the students to feel safe amid any threatening situation.
The Israeli teachers I’ve come to know and work with demonstrate a rare blend of high-expectations and compassion, planning and quick-thinking, while treating their students as both pupils and growing, emotional, individual human beings. It is an incredible task to pass such an abundance of both discipline and knowledge, and I’m impressed day in and out by the teachers’ contributions and dedication. Though my fellowship teaching at Renanim will conclude in June, I feel that I have already learned so much from these remarkable teachers, the staff and the school’s community as a whole. At first I was shy to ask for help, but the teachers were not afraid to make my business their own and encouraged me to feel comfortable asserting myself to get what I needed to succeed. I hope that the months to follow will only continue to help me become a more effective teacher as well as a leader…. And maybe someday I, too, can be a master of controlling the balagan.
CHLOE J. NEWMAN grew up in Providence, attended The Wheeler School and received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. While currently volunteering in Israel, Chloe continues to pursue her career in the arts. Her trip was partially funded with a travel grant from the Salmanson Fund established at the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island and with funds accrued through the Gift of Israel program.