Teaching Overseas - An Interview with Eric Hammer


Ever considered teaching overseas? One of our authors, Eric Hammer has. He has also worked as a rabbi, a professional photographer and a computer programmer to name a few of the professions he’s held, though teaching has always held a special place in his heart. "When I’m standing in front of a classroom, I just feel alive. There’s nothing quite like the experience of explaining something to a child and seeing his or her eyes light up when they get it," he explains.

We caught up with him recently to ask a few questions about his experiences teaching overseas, in Israel:

What motivated you to want to teach in the first place?

It’s actually a bit of an interesting story – I’d never thought about becoming a teacher when I was growing up or when I went to college. I had studied to become a rabbi in Israel for five years and had worked in that field for about two years back in the United States. Then, the organization I worked for had their funding pulled and I was stuck looking for a new job. I might very well have continued working as a rabbi had it not been for an ad I saw on the subway one day while riding home. It was for the New York City Teaching Fellows program, a plan to recruit people from other professions to become teachers. I decided to apply and was accepted to the program.

However, even though I’d been accepted, the idea of standing in front of a classroom scared the heck out of me. I figured I’d put in a few years in the classroom and then move on to become a dean or assistant principal, where I thought I’d be more comfortable. It took me only a few months of standing in front of my very first classroom full of students however to realize this was the job I wanted to do. I simply fell in love with the profession and felt genuine affection for my students. By the time my first year was over, I knew I wanted to continue being a classroom teacher.

How did you become a teacher in Israel?

When I decided to move back to Israel in 2008, I had heard there was a shortage of qualified English teachers in the country and had come with thoughts of becoming a teacher.

However, what really got me in the door was a bit of what we like to call "Vitamin P" or "protectzia." I had become close friends with an Israeli woman in the United States with whom I’d worked as a rabbi while taking a year off from teaching. When I moved to Israel, the school year had already started and I wasn’t certain I’d land a job. However, my friend’s mother happened to be an assistant principal at a local junior high school which just happened to be short of an English teacher. She got me in the door, though it’s possible to get in even without help. It just takes a bit longer.

As for the requirements, you need to have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university somewhere in the world (in my case, it was from the United States) and then you have to go for additional course work (done while you teach, so you can earn an income in the meantime) to catch up on specific requirements of the Israeli school system.

The basic job of teaching is perhaps the same everywhere, but students come from the cultural background of the country they live in. What differences have you found between teaching students in the United States and teaching those in Israel?

I actually wrote an article for the Jerusalem Post, Israel’s main English language newspaper a few months after I started teaching here, where I mentioned that I’d been warned that Israeli school children are not like American kids. They’re much tougher and harder to discipline, I’d been told. What I found was that kids are kids the world over. Yes, I had some kids who were discipline problems, but over-all, if you are genuine and caring, then kids respond to that.

I’d say the biggest difference I noticed was something that is pretty unique to Israel. One of my students came to me one day and asked if I could help him after class with some additional tutoring. It seemed he had a test in English that he had to pass in order to be accepted to the high school of his choice. The high school however was what was so different for me. He wanted to go to was the Israeli Air Force Academy high school. I think that kind of shook me up, realizing that this boy, who was all of fourteen and still loved video games and playing with his cell phone knew he’d be drafted into the army just four years later (all 18 year olds are drafted, though exemptions are granted for ultra-orthodox Jews, which is a point of contention in Israeli society) and wanted to be one of the tiny handful of people who got to pilot a $150 million F-35 jet across the sky.

Is the pay similar in both countries?

Sadly, no. The pay for teachers in Israel is actually one of the worst amongst industrialized nations. In New York, the starting salary when I taught there was around $42,000 per year. In Israel, the starting salary (which had just received a significant increase when I started) was just $18,000 per year.

What do you like most about teaching, and what's difficult or frustrating about it?

As I mentioned earlier, I love seeing a child’s eyes light up when she really gets it. I also love hanging around kids since it makes me feel younger. I think the most difficult thing is dealing with the adults in the teaching system – rather than allowing teachers to have their own style and to teach to their strengths, the administration of most schools I taught at wanted a "cookie cutter" style of teaching where every classroom had the exact same instruction and individual teaching styles be damned.

Do you think anyone can become a good teacher, or is some natural disposition or character trait necessary?

I think it’s a natural disposition, but not in the way most people think. Teaching is a skill that most people are able to do on some level. Even children enjoy explaining things they learned in school to their parents. Plus, the skills required for controlling a classroom and explaining things succinctly can be taught as well.

However, what cannot be taught and what I think is lacking amongst many teachers today is empathy. You need to genuinely care about the welfare of your students, to the point where this isn’t just a job that you do for a paycheck; it’s something you do because you love your students as if they were your own children and you genuinely want to see them succeed in life. Sadly, I’ve found however that it is the small handful of exceptional teachers, the ones who the kids come back 20 years later to thank who are like that while the vast majority of teachers tend to think of it as being more like a job than a calling.

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