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October 9, 2015 | 26th Tishrei 5776

Back to School...?

September 1, 2002
Marc Rosenstein

Once again, following time-honored tradition, the new school year opened... by not opening, at least for about half of the students. Part of the anxiety leading up to September 1, the first day of school, is wondering whether or not there will be a teachers' strike. The country goes to bed on August 31 still not knowing the answer, and only by listening to the 6 am news do we find out the result (there is no point in getting up early to listen to the 5:00 news, as the decision has not been made yet at that point). Most years (last year was an exception), at least one of the two major unions goes out on strike; this has been the case since the 1920s. The two unions are the veteran Federation of Teachers, and the newer Organization of Secondary School Teachers. Most elementary school teachers belong to the former; most high school teachers belong to the latter; middle school/junior high school teachers are divided between the two, even within same school. In our local school, for example, some teachers are striking, some are not. Now there's a challenge for a new principal on the first day of school...

When the strike affects elementary schools, the public outcry is greater, as it leaves thousands of working parents with no child care. When it's mainly the upper schools that are closed, the response is more muted; if the high school teachers want to have impact, they have to strike just before the matriculation exam season. An interesting twist occurred a few years ago, when all the teachers struck over pay for extracurricular responsibilities, refusing to perform them, shutting down an entire year of class trips and excursions and bringing catastrophe on the whole industry of youth hostels, museums, and tour guides (preparing us for the collapse of foreign tourism that was to come).

The Federation of Teachers was founded in 1903. In its early years, its mission was to bring about a cultural revolution, to create the "New Jew." The pioneers of education in the New Yishuv (the zionist community in Palestine) built a curriculum from scratch, seeking to lead the metamorphosis of Jewish identity -- and Jewish education -- from religious to national. The challenges they faced were daunting, from creating Hebrew terminology for teaching the sciences, to finding a way to teach the Talmud as a "classic." This effort -- which continues today -- yielded some amazing successes, as well as some sad failures. An interesting question that it raises is: to what extent can the school (may the school) seek to be an agent of change? To what extent is it possible -- and/or legitimate -- for the teacher to try to "undo" the teachings of the home and the general environment? Many of the teachers of the Yishuv were guided by the American public school model: a universal school system that would teach a common cultural basis, leaving religion to the home and the community. Unfortunately, this effort to tease out the cultural basis of Jewish identity, separating it from religion, was both difficult to do and not universally accepted. Already in the 20s the zionist orthodox movement established a separate school network; when the state was established, this system remained separate, as what is known today as the state religious system. Thus, the dream of the founding fathers of a universal education, fostering a unified national identity, was not to be: today, besides the state system, the state religious system, and the state Arabic system, we have a growing sector of "independent" education, primarily ultra-orthodox.

As the zionist revolutionary society morphed into the workers' state and from that into today's consumer society, the image of the teachers -- in their own eyes as well as in the eyes of the public -- changed from cultural elite to proletariat. Their working conditions are lousy, as is their pay. We expect them to teach our kids the skills they need for economic success, as well as democratic values and Jewish identity, even though we ourselves are not sure what either of the last two really means. Despite all their knowledge and dedication, the teachers are state workers, service providers; their strike inconveniences us and makes us angry just like the strike of the trash collectors or the driver's license clerks. Did we do this to them, did they do it to themselves -- or is it a universal phenomenon?


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