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Being schooled in a new school system

  • BenitaLevin
“Knowledge is Light” was our school motto when I was a child in Durban. The importance of education was made clear to us from as far back as I can remember. It wasn’t taken for granted. A good education was a privilege.
by BENITA LEVIN | Jun 08, 2017

To this day, I shudder when I hear stories of schools, varsities or libraries being vandalised. Places of learning are sacrosanct. As former South African President Nelson Mandela said so beautifully: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

If there was one change we weren’t fully prepared for in Israel, it was the different schooling system. Firstly, our children go to school six days a week. Granted, Friday is a shorter day and many high schools have a five-day week, but for us at this stage, our bodies are still confused when that alarm clock goes off early on a Sunday morning.

School uniforms, as we’ve always known them, are a thing of the past. There are no grey pants, white shirts or ties and there are certainly no blazers. It is distinctly more casual. Children here wear a T-shirt - any colour - with a badge ironed on the front.

Then it is tracksuit pants, jeans or shorts for the boys, and skirts for the girls. Any type of skirt - flared, straight, denim, striped or spotted! Gone are the days of racing to buy “Bata Toughies” at the end of each school holiday. Children here wear “runners” - better known to South Africans as “takkies”!

The comfortable shoe concept makes perfect sense, because most children are either walking or cycling to school. From the age of nine, a child can legally cross the street alone in Israel.

Seeing so many children chatting together as they make their way to school each morning, with their oversized backpacks, still makes me smile. Older children in primary school are given traffic duties - they stand at the pedestrian crossings in bright yellow vests, making sure cars stop in time. They’re given responsibilities from an early age. It’s an exciting new normal.

A less exciting new normal was adapting to the new school culture. Teachers and parents here often comment about the “extremely polite South African children”. They generally speak softly, listen to instructions and wait their turn in a queue.

Here it is clear we need to “toughen up” a little if to be heard, to ask a question or secure a piece of birthday cake at a party. More than once, I’ve explained to our children that while we might be integrating into a louder, more outspoken, more “assertive” culture, the so-called South African manners are here to stay.

There is far less emphasis on homework, certainly at primary school level. Children don’t seem to be under too much pressure. Their after-school banter seems to focus on soccer, basketball and the latest video games.

If they choose not to work, it’s their problem. You also don’t seem to hear stories of mothers staying up late to help finish their children’s projects. Each child must make their own deadline, finish their own project… or not.

It seems decidedly more laid back than the school system and enforced discipline we knew before, but we’re told the focus on actual results happens down the line…

As new olim, our children are part of an “ulpan” Hebrew class, which is during school hours. They join other new pupils - from England, America, France, Spain, Brazil, Italy and Mexico - as they focus on their language “catch up” programme. One of the advantages of arriving here with young children, is that they are like language sponges at the age of nine and 10.

They aren’t concerned about mispronouncing words or using the wrong gender - they just speak, and the progress is fascinating to see.

Despite glaring early differences in the schooling priorities, I have a sense that the system simply must work. This is after all a country known as the “Start-Up Nation” with regular stories doing the rounds about having the latest hi-tech companies to shatter global expectations.

The advantages of the more casual system are becoming more clear each day - children make their own decisions about their school work, their arrangements and what they do in their free time. They also don’t seem to stress about the small stuff.

It almost makes up for the early morning Sunday alarm clock. Well, almost… 

Word of the week - Achdut – unity.

New phrase of the week - Gam Ve-Gam – both.

Smile of the week - Our first-ever school event for parents had the theme of a “shuk” during the week of Yom Yerushalayim. Various outdoor stalls offered humus, pitot, shawarma, nuts, sweets and marshmallows. Could have stayed for hours!

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