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Israel wants you to teach their over-crowded classes

May 15, 2009. Haaretz: Suzanne Hyman

Every few years Israel tries unsuccessfully to lure Diaspora Jews into making aliyah and becoming English teachers in its schools. Now, they are trying again with a new angle - the economic woes in the United States.

"There is always a shortage of English teachers and you have to ask, where are you going to find new ones?" Dr. Judy Steiner, Chief Inspector for English Language Education in Israel told Haaretz.

Given the current financial problems in the United States, the Ministry of Education and the Jewish Agency hope to find more Anglos willing to consider an exciting future in teaching English to Israeli youth.

And it seems that the program "English Teachers for Israel" has succeeded before it has really begun. Several dozen people from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom have already been accepted after answering advertisements in their local aliyah centers.

The candidates are ready and willing to leave their homes, commit to aliyah and join the teacher-training program, "The economic situation in the United States definitely has its influence here," says Steiner, who personally interviewed over 100 people for those 60 spots.

The Education Ministry has previously faced criticism for placing teachers in classrooms without proper training, especially when there is a shortage of teachers - a common phenomenon given the low salaries, crowded classrooms, and constant strikes by teachers and students alike.

"Very often when there is a shortage, we put in people who are not completely qualified. But we don't take in anybody." Steiner said.

Last summer, for example, there was a shortage of teachers and the ministry allowed people to take an expedited teacher's training course for a few weeks. While the new teachers were placed in classes, they continued their teacher training at least once a week over one to two years, until they received their teaching certificates.

Steiner defended against past criticism on the expedited course, saying that, "At least these people received some basic training." Now, however, the Education Ministry is searching for a better long-term solution to its teacher shortage.

This is where the English teachers project enters the equation. The project is a joint venture by the ministry, the Jewish Agency, the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, and aliyah group Nefesh B'Nefesh. Program boss Ahuva Volk says that the course is made up of a three-semester or 14-month learning track, including the study of Hebrew, teacher training, and a paid internship,

The immigrant teachers have the option of living in an absorption center in Jerusalem or Ra'anana, and the opportunity to study in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, at a ministry-approved college. They get an absorption "basket" of NIS 1,500 per month as well as a stipend and loan for tuition that becomes a grant once they receive their certificates and start teaching.

But will the training provide the new immigrants with enough tools so that they are able to survive in the Israeli school system? Volk says that the training begins with an internship in a setting of about 15 students - much smaller than the usual class size, which can climb to more than 40 students.

Many candidates for the program are young, recent college graduates who fell in love with Israel after enjoying a free 10-day Birthright trip, and are enthusiastic about contributing to the country through their English skills.

But being a native English speaker has its drawbacks. While there is the advantage of easier communication in English with students, there is also the problem of a lack of Hebrew, which may prove to be a stumbling block for new immigrants trying to integrate into Israeli society.

The English teachers project tries to remedy this by offering Hebrew lessons (ulpan) for two months at the start of the program and two months at the end. "They have a whole year of practicing their Hebrew, so it's not a problem," Volk told Haaretz. "Or we hope it won't be a problem."

Steiner is optimistic that this will be the answer to a chronic shortage in the Israeli education system.

"Our hope is that with all these programs, the ministry has done everything so that we can choose from people who have been properly trained," she says. 

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