Teaching Los Angeles / Teaching Tel-Aviv: The Lessons That Last

“This is not a teacher training program; training is what you do with dogs. This is a teacher preparation program, to prepare you for your teaching career.” I started my teaching path with this motto echoing in my head after hearing it numerous times throughout my studies without really understanding the full meaning and implication of the words. “Teacher training” or “teacher preparation,” whatever, I kept thinking to myself. In the end it is just a matter of semantics. Little did I know that this very calculated word choice would eventually shape the essence of my current teaching identity and become the source of confidence, strength and hope in developing my teaching craft.

The distinction I make between these terms is the following. “Training” accustoms teachers to educate in familiar environments using strategies and a bank of responses that deal with scenarios they anticipate could happen. Similar to the Pavlov’s famous experiments, a teacher will use strategy “A” to navigate student’s “A” behavior or response “B” to a “B” type of circumstance. By being trained to teach with familiar variables, just like with Pavlov’s bell and saliva conditioning, we act according to a familiar stimulus to reach a desired outcome.

“Teacher preparation,” on the other hand, develops a reflective practitioner who is guided by strong educational principals. Such teachers adapt strategies, lesson plans and responses to any variable they face. Ideally, prepared teachers should be able to teach in familiar or new environments, in culturally diverse communities and in our rapidly changing world because they are flexible and resilient to teach in any situation.

It is pretty comforting to go to work and feel confident with the strategies you mastered. You hold up your hand or make a sound with the chime and voila, your “quiet signal” worked just like you were taught because the entire class became silent in seconds, is sitting down and is now ready to learn. When a student misbehaves you know to stop the lesson, point to the Class Rules poster and state the three R’s (remind, reinforce, redirect), and again miraculously the student is focused and you can go back to your lesson plan.

There is a peaceful atmosphere of independent work time after you decide with your class how it should “look,” “sound” and “feel” during “center time.” Just as you learned in your methodology class, the centers run smoothly. There are the two magic words every teacher in Jewish day schools uses on a regular basis, “inappropriate” and “unacceptable,” which shift the class’s behavior dramatically. Finally, if necessary, scheduling a conference with the student’s parents will stop the unwanted behavior completely.

These are all well known strategies to teachers in private Jewish school environments. They are already automatic responses to anticipated student stimulus when you are an experienced teacher. The question is: What would happen in the event that a teacher encounters the same type of stimulus from students, responds in the same trained way, but does not receive the desired anticipated outcome? That is what I ask myself because in all honesty, no amount of teacher training could have prepared me for my first lesson in Israel.

As a native Israeli who lived in Los Angeles for four years, where I received my teaching credential and three years of teaching experience, I was looking forward to implementing my methods in an Israeli environment. I suspected that teaching in Israel would be different but I could not imagine how. My bank of “quiet signals” and opening sentence—“I’ll wait until you’re all ready”—could make me wait the full 45 minute lesson period in an Israeli classroom. Israelis wait for no one, they move on quickly. As anyone who knows Israelis can attest, rules are merely suggestions, and so my Class Rules poster was ignored and forgotten.

If I were to stop the lesson and address each “inappropriate” word I hear, then I would not have been able to last one full teaching period. Once when I decided to do so, simply stating in Hebrew that this is not holem (appropriate) aroused puzzled eyes and giggles. After my first week of teaching in a new environment, although it is my home, I realized that my personal teaching motivators will need to come from a different source than my familiar bank of strategies. To be a successful educator outside the doors of Jewish day schools in North America, I had to adapt.

I needed to evaluate the new environment I had to work in. Israel is a more militant culture, and many students are used to teacher responses with a disciplinary flavor. When an Israeli student misbehaves, it would be culturally acceptable for him to help the school’s custodian outside of school hours before even calling for a parent-teacher conference. A logical consequence to taking up the teacher’s time in a lesson is to give up your own time for the school.

Furthermore, Israelis at any age are less delicate than Americans. In Israel, I am able to declare winners and losers in any game I incorporate in my lessons without making sure to give prizes for the winners and consolation prizes for the losers to prevent any emotional distresses. I remember rushing to write e-mails to parents before their child came home from school in order to prepare them for the emotional state he or she would be in after losing the game so they could “talk the situation through” before going to school the next day. Students in Israel are well aware of the fact that not every outcome of a game will be fair to all participants, and that is acceptable. In the US, many day school parents would request to change their child’s seating due to problems that child might have with another student. In Israel, students are their own advocates, and if their requests are not considered every time that is accepted.

If I were to explain a class or school rule to an American student, the conversation would end at that. In Israel on the other hand, I have come to learn that when I explain the rule it will be followed only if the student understands the logic behind it and agrees with it. Israeli third graders can talk about a personal family tragedy during shared time like they are talking about the weather. Perhaps this is because Israelis are unfortunately used to coping with national hardships; it is truly all around you. In summary, Israeli students although blunt, cynical and rude just like the society that engulfs them, are also incredibly resilient, adaptable, independent thinkers and problem solvers.

This cultural analysis still did not help me feel as though I was equipped to teach in Israel, even though I am Israeli. My biggest fear was that because I was trained in America, at the DeLeT teaching program at HUC-JIR’s Riah Hirsch School of Education, I might be able to teach only American students. But then the mantra’s meaning suddenly became clear: I was a prepared teacher as opposed to a trained one.

I convinced myself that my biggest strengths as a teacher are the principles DeLeT embedded in me, to name a few: teaching with the learner in mind, integrating cross-disciplinary materials, collaborating with other teachers, reflecting after every lesson, making sure to have “teachable moments” in every lesson, creating a strong teacher-parent-student relationship, differentiating materials and developing my resiliency. These principles are not dependent on cultural differences and can be used anywhere and anytime. I cannot use the quiet signal I was used to in America just as I cannot teach the California curriculum in Israel. Nevertheless, what I can and should do is teach with my principles in mind, studying the cultural cues of my new learners while creating a new bank of responses suited to their personal needs.

Embracing change is what educators need to learn to do well, because that is what will make them successful no matter where they are or whom they have as students. Preparing teachers to adapt their practice based on solid pedagogic principles is the goal. Teaching them to let go of all too familiar and comfortable training wheels is a good start. ♦

Bat-hen Zeron is an elementary school English teacher at Hayovel School in Tel-Aviv, Israel. tobathen@gmail.com

Bat-hen Zeron
Day School Teachers
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Teaching and Learning