Last week, I wrote an article for the Canadian Jewish News about what’s different for olim about the education system here in Israel.
That’ll be coming out in a couple of weeks (I’ll link to it here once it’s up), but due to word length limits, there were a whole bunch of ideas I just couldn’t cram in.
I interviewed 4 parents, who agreed to be quoted by name for my article. Because I didn’t mention using their quotes in a blog post, I’m going to use their quotes without attribution.
These 6 things came up, to greater or lesser degrees, in all of the parents’ comments. I hope you’ll read through them and if you’re here already, jump in at the end to share your own (and your kids’!) experiences in the comments section.
1. Shorter days, longer weeks
The first thing you may notice when you’re sending kids to school in Israel is the most obvious – the school week is 6 days, not 5 (from Sunday to Friday).
As I’ve already said here, this is actually less onerous than it sounds. Plus, if any of your kids studied in yeshiva-type schools outside of Israel, you may actually find the school day/weeks here a little shorter.
“It’s a shorter day but a longer week. He used to go 8:20-3:00 and then they’d have after-school programs. Here the bell rings at 8:15 and they finish at 1:30 but they go 6 days a week.”
“The system was created because people worked in the field, went to work early, picked up their kids early. It starts at 8, they’re done at 1:30-2:30 and then have idle hands all afternoon. But in older kids, idle hands are the devil’s plaything. I think it should be Sunday to Thursday, or Monday to Friday, with a little bit longer hours… and then you’d also have a family day.”
2. Run-down schools and bigger classes
Even though my son’s school is nice and new, it’s still bare-bones, and would probably barely pass muster in North America. Most classrooms lack the snazzy bulletin boards, ABC displays around the room and other accoutrements of school-based learning, North American-style.
As for class size, I was surprised more of the parents didn’t mention it. Classes here are actually allowed to contain up to 40 kids to a single teacher, though most seem to be around 30. This is not just a sign of budgets stretched drum-tight – I read somewhere that this is actually a formal teaching of the Rambam (Maimonides), that classes should contain about 40 kids.
On the other hand, most of the parents I talked to said that although money is tight, schools here seem to have their heads on straight in terms of how to allocate the limited funds they do have.
One said her kids’ school was in a shabby building but had a nice play structure outside. Two emphasized the schools’ emphasis on experiential learning, including trips and other experiences which add value and meaning to the textbook learning.
“The schools here are not as nice. Public schools here that I’ve seen, the buildings themselves are in much worse condition than they are in America. They’re designed differently, the kids are wearing their coats all day long in the winter – it’s cold.”
“The core problem is there’s 30 kids in the class… they don’t have time to do that [offer enrichment]. We’re coming from a class of 18 kids with 2 teachers at all times, which is a huge difference.”
[The school is] A little bit run-down, but they keep it clean; you see them mopping at the end of the day.”
“There’s no consistency, it’s not like a government-regulated facility… in Canada, there’s regulations of how many toilets and how many sinks and what you need. [Here], there’s no consistency with that.”
“The school where the two older ones are, it’s an older building, but they’re renovating and they’re working on it. The classrooms are small, with an air conditioner, heater, desks and chairs. At that age, you don’t need more.”
3. Less emphasis on reading / academics
This can be a harsh change for parents coming from North America, where – depending on the school – students are often pushed to excel from a very young age.
They don’t begin to teach reading before Grade One. This alone is a big shock for parents coming from a system where kids are expected to be reading a certain number of words by the end of kindergarten.
Yesterday, my son realized, with great surprise, that halfway through Kitah Alef (Grade One), he’s the only student in his class who can read at all – in any language, let alone two (he’s been reading in English since he was 3). The other kids actually hand him the assignments so he can read them the instructions.
Does this set the kids back? I don’t think so. At the other end of the education system, at the end of Grade 12, all kids have to pass a gruelling series of “bagrut” exams in a few mandatory subjects.
Mostly, they manage, and as one parent pointed out, the proof of the pudding is in the eating – or, in this case, the tremendous scientific and high-tech accomplishments coming out of Israel today.
“It’s not as intense an education as they were receiving in Canada.”
“The learning is not as innovative, it’s more “copy what we say.” This is not necessarily a great learning style for all kids. There’s no individualized way of reaching kids. In the English, you’d think that the English teacher would automatically give my son (from the U.S.) enrichment that she would mark separately. They don’t even consider enrichment.”
“I don’t think they’re encouraging kids to read. They used to have a designated library hour every week, they’d bring home a book. I don’t even known if he goes to a library here. The school library is small, pathetic, dusty, under-utilized. It’s just a problem.”
“[Gan] here is play-based , which has amazing amazing advantages. Children at such a young age shouldn’t be forced to be learning so much. In North America they do. Our 5-year-old last year already knew her ABC’s, her alef bet. She had an intense education with a report card and everything.”
“We didn’t want to give up on academics, we didn’t know how it was going to [be in Israel]. They’re not just teaching about derech eretz, they’re living it. And now, for example, it’s all about shmittah and they’re having dancing about shmittah, and dress up. They don’t just teach about what’s going on, but also live it.”
“I’m looking at all the unbelievable technology and cancer research and brilliance that has come from this country, that has run on this academic schedule forever. Obviously they’re doing something right. Once my children adjust to this new way of life, they’ll be given a greater opportunity for academic growth than they would have in North America just by seeing what’s going on in this country.”
4. Tough / independent kids
Kids here in Israel are expected to fend for themselves, period.
When my older kids were going to school in Toronto, whenever children were outside at recess, there was always at least one teacher in charge of what was going on in the yard. Here, when the kids are not physically in the classroom, they don’t seem to be the teacher’s responsibility at all.
On our pilot trip, we visited a nice family of former Canadians, and the father asked his kids what they’d do if there was a new child in school. Essentially, it seemed like they would give them the cold shoulder. They wouldn’t necessarily want to, but that’s what all the other kids would be doing.
Nice – this did not reassure me. But the truth is that most kids do adjust, and the playgrounds are not a Lord of the Flies free-for-all.
“There’s no supervision at recess, there’s no way of truly tracking bullying or any inappropriate behaviour. There was no teacher on site for [my daughter] to go to and say this is happening and to intervene right away.”
“If there’s a problem with other students, there’s less discipline involved. There’s less notification of parents, more focus on working it out yourself without teachers and administrators getting involved. Because of that, I feel like there is slightly more bullying. For my kids, the adjustment was rough the first few weeks.”
“I know that once you break in, people are very good, very warm, but until you break in it’s very sabra… they have to see who you are first.”
“It’s not that he’s not happy in school – it’s just a really, really different atmosphere.”
5. Rotating teachers
I actually love this, though it came as a bit of a surprise at first.
Instead of having one main teacher who teaches everything from science to math to history, as my older kids did in elementary school, specialist teachers come into the classroom to teach the kids their specific subject. Some, like music teachers, come in only once a week. Others, like math teachers, are there more often.
In my daughter’s school, the math teacher is actually the other Grade Three teacher, which also means that the main teachers get to know more of the kids than just the ones in their own classroom.
Often, there is also one period a week of “mentoring,” where older children come into the classroom. My son says this is his favourite period of the week.
“It’s more divided. You have more teachers teaching individualized subjects. It’s set up more like a high school, where they have individual teachers teaching specific periods.”
“Surprisingly, it seems like it’s more organized, it’s more structured, in terms of you end one class and a new teacher comes in.”
6. Tough (but warm) teachers
Teachers shout here – it’s common in all Israeli classrooms. I think this scared Naomi Rivka when we first came.
I asked my kids while I was writing this about their current teachers. Naomi Rivka (Grade Three) says, "My teacher yells, but she doesn't yell at me. She yells
when girls don't do homework or when to get something into their heads." Gavriel Zev (Grade One) says his teacher yells "when the kids are being radios that don't turn off."
“The ganenot [kindergarten teachers] yell, which is what I’m sensing is a commonality for all of them. When I was looking for a gan for next year, a local really helped me, said don’t go to this one… the ganenet yells a lot.”
“When you have a young and impressionable child, yelling is not good… with young children, there should be less aggression.”
Israeli teachers, like Israeli doctors, also have very strong and certain ideas about how to teach, and they don’t always love parents interfering in those methods:
“One of the other parents in the gan (kindergarten) went to the ganenet (teacher) and said, “listen my kids are coming home swearing; we don’t swear at home, it’s coming from the gan.” The ganenet said, “We don’t accept parental involvement here.” They shut you out. I’m sorry, but this is my child’s education.”
But when I asked a friend what the biggest difference was that she’d seen, she mentioned right away what almost everybody I talked to said: teachers give you their personal phone numbers. Home phones, cell phones, they’re happy to get calls from parents at any time.
“Definitely the teacher has been very warm, and they really like working with olim kids.”
Is going to school better here? Worse here? I think the most we can say is that it’s different here.
I’d really like to hear about your experiences with schools in Israel. Leave a note in the Comments!