Using big bold strokes, Tamara Freilich, a 22-year-old teaching intern from Washington, D.C., writes the letter “I” on the blackboard.
“Who can name a word that begins with this letter?” she asks her fourth-graders at the Ussishkin elementary school in Netanya.
“Ikea!” a girl in the front row yells out. “Good job,” responds Freilich, as the girl jumps out of her chair and high-fives her classmates. Ignoring what might be considered unacceptable behavior in an American school, Freilich moves on. “Anyone else?” she asks.
“Igloo,” volunteers another student. “That’s right,” says Freilich, “but we don’t pronounce it ‘eegloo’ – we say ‘igloo’ with a soft ‘i.'”
A few minutes remain until the bell rings, announcing the end of class, but some of the children are clearly losing focus. One boy gets out of his seat and starts walking around the room. Another flicks his classmate on the back of the neck and pretends to be paying attention to the teacher when the classmate turns around. Those students still participating have by now largely forgotten the rule about raising their hand, but Freilich carries on unperturbed, pausing only once to say “shhhhh.”
“Actually, I’d expected much worse,” she remarks, summing up her first month on the job, after the bell rings and her charges are dismissed. A graduate of Emory University with a degree in political science, Freilich is one of 170 participants this year in the Israel Teaching Fellows program, run by Masa Israel Journey – a joint initiative of the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency. The program, which provides Jewish college graduates an opportunity to teach English in low-income communities, is overseen by the Education Ministry. Launched as a pilot a year ago with 68 participants teaching English in five cities, it was expanded this year to seven cities, with the number of participants more than doubling.
The majority of this year’s participants have degrees in areas relevant to education, with 17 of them holding graduate degrees. Most are women, and they range in age from 21 to 29. They teach English in 85 schools scattered around Netanya, Petah Tikva, Rehovot, Rishon Letzion, Ramle, Lod, Ashdod and Be’er Sheva. Those teaching in the latter two southern cities were evacuated temporarily during the recent flare-up across the border with Gaza. The plan is to expand the program next year to Beit She’an.
The interns teach a minimum of 20 hours a week while working on other volunteer projects in their respective communities. In most cases, they team-teach in pairs, and in some cases, even in groups of three.
Freilich’s co-teacher is 25-year-old Matt Miller, from northern California, who graduated with a degree in classics from UCLA. Clearly making an effort to be diplomatic, Miller notes, “The kids here in Israel seem to feel freer about moving around in the classroom.”
Located in one of Netanya’s under-privileged neighborhoods, the Ussishkin school has a large immigrant component, many of its students coming from the former Soviet bloc countries, a large percentage learning English as their third language.
Miller, who still doesn’t know for sure whether he wants to continue teaching when he returns to the United States, says one of the biggest challenges of teaching English in an Israeli school is the constant need to improvise. “We’d spend a lot of time on our lesson plans,” he recounts, “but often we couldn’t follow through because some of the kids would be having a hard time staying in their seats. It’s forced us to become more flexible.”
A technique they’ve discovered for managing the classroom with less noise, he says, is providing each child with a personal whiteboard to write out responses to questions and thereby avert the problem of speaking out of turn.
They’ve also been using their English classes as a way to introduce their students to bits of American culture. Last month, for example, both Miller and Freilich managed to locate an American-sized pumpkin, which they brought to class to teach the children about Halloween and the holiday tradition of trick-or-treating.
Before arriving in Netanya, they spent a few weeks in Jerusalem with the other teaching interns training for their new jobs. Among other helpful tips, Miller and Freilich were taught never to try to break up a fight in the corridors, but rather to report it to the principal to avoid getting hurt in the process, and never to stroll down the corridors of an Israeli school with a mug of hot coffee in their hands.
Freilich had considered applying to Teach for America, which places college graduates in under-achieving schools around the United States. “But I also wanted to take this year to learn about another culture,” she says, “and I liked the idea that all the interns live together. It kind of gives you a support system.” Freilich is planning to attend law school when she returns to the United States.
She prefers not using terms like “rowdy” or “undisciplined” to describe her English-language students in Israel. “Let’s just say they have lots of energy,” she says.
In the past few weeks, she acknowledges, she’s gained a newfound respect for Israeli teachers. “They definitely have a hard job,” she observes, “and I don’t think they’re given enough credit. They’re dealing with huge classes and not as many resources as we have in America.”