Teaching Overseas - An Interview with Eric Hammer
By Steve Gillman
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 hes
held, though teaching has always held a special place in his
heart. "When Im standing in front of a classroom,
I just feel alive. Theres 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?
Its actually a bit of an interesting story Id
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 Id been accepted, the idea of standing
in front of a classroom scared the heck out of me. I figured
Id put in a few years in the classroom and then move on
to become a dean or assistant principal, where I thought Id
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
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 Id worked as a rabbi while taking a year
off from teaching. When I moved to Israel, the school year had
already started and I wasnt certain Id land a job.
However, my friends 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
its possible to get in even without help. It just takes
a bit longer.
As for the requirements, you need to have a bachelors
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
I actually wrote an article for the Jerusalem Post, Israels
main English language newspaper a few months after I started
teaching here, where I mentioned that Id been warned that
Israeli school children are not like American kids. Theyre
much tougher and harder to discipline, Id 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.
Id 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 hed 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
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 childs 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
I think its 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
isnt just a job that you do for a paycheck; its 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, Ive 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.