Israel | Local

In Kiryat Malachi, Tucson teacher boosts kids’ self-confidence — and her own

Aimee Katz (bottom left) with co-teacher Mali Geva (center) and students at the Eli Cohen Elementary School in Kiryat Malachi, Israel. (Courtesy Aimee Katz)

Not everyone gets the opportunity to follow their passions, so when I happened upon a program that would enable me to pursue my two greatest loves – travel and teaching – it was an easy decision to apply.

TALMA, a teaching fellowship sponsored by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and the Steinhardt Family Foundation in Israel, is a program that gives young Jewishly-connected educators the opportunity to spend a month in Israel teaching English to elementary age students from low-income communities.

When I found out I was one of 100 teachers selected for this opportunity, I was ecstatic; but when I found out I was placed in Tucson’s sister city twinning schools in Kiryat Malachi, the experience took on a deeper level of meaning. Here was a pathway to accomplish something not only for myself, but for my greater community.

All 100 teachers joining TALMA from across the globe were given the caveat that Israeli classrooms are very different from classrooms in America, but I wasn’t really sure what that meant. It did not take long to find out!

On day one, when the bell rang, my students entered my classroom screaming and running around as their friends from other classes hung in the classroom window to greet their friends and myself with a frenzied, “Shalom!” Kids approached me speaking Hebrew — which I do not speak — and I just listened, wide-eyed, and plastered on a smile, all the while thinking, “What did I get myself into?”

I was used to my classroom in Tucson where students enter the room quietly, raise their hands to ask questions, and ask to leave the room if they need to use the restroom. As I watched the chaos unfold around me in my Israeli classroom, one question played on repeat in my head: “Why am I here?”

I was there to make a difference, to provide students with the opportunity to learn English; but how? I am not sure I even introduced myself or spoke one word of English that first day, but I knew I had three weeks to impact the lives of these kids.

The next morning, I came in with a genuine smile on my face and knew that I needed to find a way to connect with each student. It was obvious some students didn’t want to be in school, while others did. Some of the boys would just get up and leave whenever they wanted, escaping outside to play soccer. I knew that for the three weeks I was there, I couldn’t allow this to continue; we were going to learn. I made an agreement with these boys that if they give me their all each morning and spoke in English, I would play soccer with them at recess. They agreed, and, yes, I was a little spectacle playing soccer in a dress, but it was completely worth it!

While I have had students in my classes in Tucson who spoke another language, I had never had 32 of them without any English. I’ve always used gestures and given brain breaks (time for kids to “get their wiggles out”) in class, but I finally truly realized the importance of using motions, saying and repeating vocabulary, and learning while moving. These students had so much energy and were highly motivated, but they needed to be engaged. By making connections with them, I saw not only their self-confidence shine, but my self-confidence grow as well.

Students were hesitant to speak English, but when they saw that I couldn’t speak Hebrew, they wanted to teach me. That desire to communicate and connect was an incredible motivator for all of us to learn, and the result was true, authentic learning. Mornings I taught them English, and at recess, they taught me Hebrew.

Three weeks went by quickly, but from the first day’s chaos to the last day of fun-filled water balloon fights, my journey with TALMA was unforgettable. The growth achieved by the students and myself, and the experience of connecting with a part of my Tucson community on the other side of the world, has only served to strengthen my passion for teaching and travel. I cannot wait to return next year.

Aimee Katz teaches second grade at DeGrazia Elementary School in the Marana Unified School District.