The New York Jewish Week: New PUsh For Teaching English In Israel

Masa teaching fellows program set to double as demand increases.

By Amy Sara Clark

Casey Spellman MITF

Casey Spellman teaches a 5th grade class a song to help them remember how to spell the word chicken at the Rimalt school in Netanya. COURTESY OF CASEY SPELLMAN

For a week every year, Casey Spellman gets on a plane and flies to the place she considers her second home. She grew up in Plainview, L.I., but the annual trip is to Netanya, Israel, where she taught English for 10 months in 2012-13.

“I don’t have a single family member in Israel, but all of my friends and communities that have welcomed me make it feel like family,” said Spellman, 26, who is now a pre-K assistant teacher at the Horace Mann School in Manhattan. “Every time I go back it feels like home.”

On her trips, she stays in the family home of her madricha (group leader). “There are still three teachers that every time I go back to Netanya I see,” she said, and “there are families of [former] students that invite me over.”

This opportunity to form close ties with Israelis is one of the unique aspects of the Masa Israel Teaching Fellows program, which has been bringing roughly 150 20-somethings to Israel each year for the past five years to teach English in some of Israel’s lowest performing schools.

Next year, the MITF program is planning to double the number of teaching fellows to 300 to keep up with the Ministry of Education’s plan to strengthen English instruction across the country.

Israel needs English teachers from abroad for two reasons: the country has a growing shortage of instructors, and those that exist are, for the most part, not sufficiently fluent in the language.

In 2013, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics projected that the country would be short 5,300 English teachers by 2019, according to the Jerusalem Post. A poll the same year found that only 18 percent of English teachers in Israel spoke at the native-speaker level, according to the Times of Israel.

The Ministry of Education and MITF’s parent company, Masa Israel Journey, launched the teaching fellows program in 2011 to help fill the need. The fellows are required to live in the communities where they teach and also volunteer in those communities; both requirements are there to help the fellows integrate as much as possible into Israeli society.

“We believe that in order to really get to know the community, you have to do a few things: first you have to live in the community … and you have to interact [with the native population],” Tamar Zilbershatz, Masa Israel Journey’s director of gap and service programs, told The Jewish Week in a telephone interview from Israel.

The volunteer requirement, she added, is “also giving them the ability to express their other talents … in a different platform in the community,” such as running music workshops or ESL classes for adults.

Hal Halper, 28, who was a fellow in Beersheva in 2013-14 used his background in musical theater to direct a production of “The Wizard of Oz” at the elementary school. That was the first time the school had done a musical. The event was so popular that now they do one every year.

“Many of the coworkers shared with me that they had always wanted a theater program,” said Halper, who grew up in the Midwood section of Brooklyn and went to services at East Midwood Jewish Center.

Hal Halper MITF

Hal Halper gives a double thumbs up to the cast following a production of “The Wizard of Oz” that he directed at Eshkol Elementary School in Beersheva. Courtesy of Hal Halper

Halper noted that the fellows program not only serves the function of filling teaching positions, it also helps educate students about the wider world.

“It was important for them to say, ‘Hey, there are Jews all over the world, not just in Israel.’ For fourth graders, it was something cool to grasp for them,” he said.

Both Halper and Spellman said they were struck by how warm and kind their Israeli coworkers and students were.

“I was most surprised by the loving environment. It was so welcoming right off the bat,” Halper said. “The kids were always running to you and hugging you.”

Spellman had the same experience. “We did a lot of volunteer programs, painting schools or working with children, we did hoops for kids, a basketball program for underserved communities, and every time they [Israelis] were so happy to have us, to be with us. Teaching in the schools, the same thing. I was very much respected by the other teachers and it was just so nice to be so welcomed.”

Spellman was also struck by the differences she saw between Israeli and American schools.

“Israeli schools seemed to be much more aware of what children need physically,” she said. Instead of having one long recess period, kids were given 15- to 30-minute breaks every two hours. “I thought that was much more conducive for growing children’s minds and bodies,” she said.

She also found Israeli children to be “much more upfront. Whatever they were thinking they would say to you. You really had to be ‘on’ in order to speak, and have a back and forth with them to make sure that your answers were appropriate,” she said.

She also learned how important it was to connect with the students by “being approachable and smiling and being available to children,” she said. “That sets up the relationship to grow together.”

But the most important lesson she learned was how to “moderate lesson plans depending on how the children are feeling or what they’re coming to school with emotionally or socially,” she said, “because you can have the best-laid plan in the world, but if the children are dealing with something personally, socially [or] emotionally, you need to adjust to fit them,” she said.

“Teaching in a different culture really enriches your professional toolbox,” Zilbershatz said. “They are facing a completely different environment and school system…So that requires form them different talents, different abilities.”

Zilbershatz and her colleagues will also need to adjust this year, because doubling the program in one year is no small feat. “We work every year to develop this program, but this year we put a lot of effort to answer the need, to bring more teachers and more fellows,” she said.

In order to enlarge the pool of potential fellows, this year Masa added a program for certified teachers. While college graduates serve as teaching assistants, often tutoring small groups of children outside of the larger classroom, the certified teachers will head their own classrooms.

But whether certified or not, fellows have a big impact on the students they teach, said Zilbershatz, especially given the large class sizes in Israel, which often exceed 30 students per class.

“It’s pretty amazing to see, they usually work with a small group of kids. It gives the little kids the opportunity to ask questions and gives our fellows the chance to really answer the question, which is not really happening in the big-sized classrooms that we have in Israel,” she said.

On one school visit, Zilbershatz asked a third-grade student why he liked working with the teaching fellow. “He said, ‘Because here in this space, I’m not afraid to make mistakes,’” Zilbershatz said. “That was really powerful because … if he will experience success, this is something that will definitely affect him, not just in the English study aspect but also in other subjects, and maybe in his social life.”

Israeli teachers, she said, say they notice “that there is a big change with the kids that work with the fellows.” This makes sense, Zilbershatz said: “They’re young, they come with a whole lot of motivation, the kids love them; they’re like celebrities in the school. It’s amazing to see how they come to school and how they really make a difference.”

And the program makes a difference in the fellows’ lives as well. “Teaching in a different culture really enriches your professional toolbox,” Zilbershatz said. “They are facing a completely different environment and school system. … So that requires from them different talents, different abilities.” In addition, she said, “Living in a completely different environment and culture independently is something that for sure improves and empowers them in terms of their personal, not just professional, development.”

Spellman agreed. “I would never trade the 10 months I was there for absolutely anything else,” she said. “It taught me how to be independent and take risks and do something that I love and really see out a dream that I had. And Masa Israel really gave me all those opportunities to do things that I would never else do on my own, or would think that I could do on my own.”

And, she added, “It has given me this amazing place to come back to every year and call home.”

Originally published in The New York Jewish Week

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