On August 27, under pressure from last summer’s social protests and the Trachtenberg committee, Israel implemented free education for all 3- and 4-year-olds. This has been in the works for many years. Until this year, the government provided free kindergarten for 5-year-olds, and a (relatively) inexpensive preschool for 4-year-olds. Some municipalities also provided gan for 3-year-olds, but in limited numbers.
When I’ve written about this previously, readers accused me of being against day care or dual career families. On the contrary, preschools are an important service and the government has done a good job of providing a more or less universal standard of care among the various sectors. I have my complaints, but for the most part gan (preschool) in Israel does what it was supposed to do.
But if the government is expanding its services to younger children, they need to provide adequate staff and equipment. They need to adhere to an age-appropriate schedule. This is regardless of how much parents are expected to pay.
Keren Neubach interview with Dorit Hazan
On September 1, Keren Neubach of Reshet Bet radio interviewed the head of a new organization for teachers of three-year-olds. A teacher with 19 years of experience, Dorit Hazan started her own organization because she felt that the teachers’ union did not address the needs of small children when they agreed to a long school day (2007 Ofek Hadash program).
Hazan was invited in light of a letter posted on a public forum about a teacher’s experience on the first day of gan. (A translation of part of the letter appears under the video below.)
Neubach: This is an historic and welcome moment. But what about the children, who can’t talk. How is it for them?
Hazan: We have a lot of very small children, including many who are not yet 3. They are barely trained, they can’t pull their pants up or down, and the toilets are too high for them. The staff can’t function and I have asked for another helper. Rechovot municipality promised an extra staff member, but only in groups where there are more than 20 children born in 2009. In a family daycare setting, you need one caretaker for every 6-8 children. Here there are two adults for 35 children. We had to take a child outside to clean him off.
Our voices are sore, and our backs hurt. We are “a broken vessel” at the end of the day. Everyone comes out frustrated. In the city of Rechovot, there are fifty new ganim. But there are no toys. A ganenet from Sderot described her class of 35 children. Both she and the assistant have 3 children on their laps at all times. Another child is biting, and another is crying for his mother. Parents don’t see. Someone needs to go to the schools to see the impact of the Trachtenberg report.
There are children who are only 2 years and 8 months old. They need more attention. It’s not only about diapers. They need to learn communication. How to play, how to relate to other children.But there is only crying, crying, crying and no way to comfort the children.
Neubach: What is the difference between this year and previous years? There have always been municipal ganim for 3-year-olds with only two staff members.
Hazan: There were also a few children under 3. But the numbers were limited them, and the ones who did come were trained and ready. Now these young children must be admitted even if they are not trained. We spend all day in the bathroom, there are children walking around naked, playing with the water. There is no time to do projects with the children. The older children get no attention.
Neubach: What does the education ministry say?
Hazan: We set up this new organization because we got no help from the teachers’ union. (histadrut hamorim). Ofek chadash did not take care of these children. Also there is the issue of no lunch until 2 PM, which was not connected to Trachtenberg.
Neubach: What is the solution?
Hazan: We must limit the number of children in gan. Pnina Klein, a childcare expert, says that there should be two adults for every 16 three-year-olds. We are willing to compromise with 20 or 25. To let us care for the chidlren. Also, let the children who go to the tzaharon (afternoon program) leave at 1 PM instead of 2, and leave the ganenet with a smaller amount of children for the last hour.
Response from Pnina Cohen, a representative of the education ministry.
Cohen: A half year ago you were so skeptical and look, 290,000 children out of 317,000 are in the system. It’s wonderful to bring a ganenet who is saying these things, but most teachers don’t have a single complaint. There have always been problems with untrained children. We gave clear guidelines: Children will be trained within one month. Some cities have 3 and 4-year-olds together. I would love to see 15 children with 2 adults. We are not in an optimal situation. Pnina Klein said it could harm the children, so we put 3 and 4-year-olds together. (This is not happening in my city of Petach Tikva,where the 3-year-olds were placed together out of their neighborhood, meaning a 1-2 kilometer walk at the end of the day.) Some weaker municipalities got better budgets, and some richer ones provided better services.
Yael Berkel Sarig: I feel like we are abandoning the children.
Dorit Hazan, chair of the organization, Kindergarten Teacher Educators of 3-Year-Olds: It’s hard for us. We are tired. We don’t manage to function.
Announcer: The staff is collapsing under the (large) number of children. After they sold us free education for 3 and 4-year-olds, many parents and teachers are now discovering the price. Play equipment was not prepared properly, the buildings are temporary.
Avishai Roth, father of two: There are cases where the children are waiting in line for the bathroom, and simply can’t hold it in. There are 4 toilet stalls. For how many children? For 140 children. [Note: Some municipalities built complexes to hold several new kindergarten classrooms.]
Sarig: It’s enough that one child goes to the bathroom, and the teacher is left alone with 34 children. Two are fighting in the corner, another is crying because he’s hungry, one is crying because he’s tired, another one wet his pants, and two want to play a game. It’s impossible.
Announcer: And one teacher and one assistant are expected to cope with this impossible situation every day.
Hazan: How do the parents expect us to educate the children when we spend all day only changing diapers and putting out fires?
[Excerpt of] a letter from a teacher who has simply given up:
To the teachers’ union: I decided to turn to you in writing and my hand is shaking, and the tears are flowing. . . I received 35 3-year-old children of whom ten are not toilet-trained. As you know, the gan does not have appropriate facilities, the toilets are too high. My heart breaks when the children must wait to use the bathroom until someone comes to help. Apparently only God can watch the children in those moments. We do not succeed in getting to them. From an emotional point of view, we are collapsing.
Announcer: Through the gates of this preschool we can see many small children and only one adult. If one child grabs attention [of an adult], the rest of the children remain unsupervised.
Sarig: I put them in gan and I go out of the gan and sometimes on the way I am crying, because I have no idea what is happening in the gan when I am not there.
Announcer: After this bitter experience from the start of the year, the trend is strengthening of parents who are willing to return to paying for a private preschool.
Roth: Their intentions are good. But the way it has been implemented is problematic and there are parents here who have taken their children out of the free education system and placed them in private preschools.
Berkel: It’s going to cost me an extra NIS 2000 a month. But there are no options remaining. Ishi Beck, owner of a chain of private preschools: Parents are starting to telephone us, inquiring about re-registering their children.
Announcer: The most promising reform of the Trachtenberg report, free education for preschoolers, is extracting a heavy price from the children.
I understand that these reports only tell one side of the story. I imagine (and hope) the situation is better in most ganim. Yet I ask again, even if our kids are okay, are the schedule and level of staffing acceptable for a developed country? Kindergarten teachers might be able to toilet-train ten kids in a month (!), but they are not miracle-workers. We need to be demanding more staff and adequate food. By the way, the union has threatened to go on strike over the diapers.
Thanks to reader Amanda for the picture of her daughter on her first day of gan.
Tomorrow, look for my report on the struggle of the assistants.