Former Israeli army officers have retrained to become school heads. Neil Levis reports
Who specialises in training young people, often from the lower end of society, and succeeds in turning these failures of the school system into a cohesive group with a sense of purpose? The answer is the army - when it's not at war.
So when six former Israeli army officers asked to be retrained as teachers, they managed to persuade the authorities that their experience should earn them a headship. The senior lieutenant-generals brought an interesting perspective from the military world to the classroom, as two researchers told the American Educational Research Association in San Diego earlier this year.
For most of them, headship was a battlefield. They almost all chose tough schools in deprived areas and fought ruthlessly against anyone who opposed their mission to get the best possible deal for their students. But, interestingly, most of them had problems striking good relationships with teachers.
The six, five men and a woman, felt they had reached a dead end in their military careers, but saw strong similarities between a career in the army and in schools, explained Michal Zellermayer and Rina Barkol of Levinsky College of Education in Tel Aviv.
Both schools and the army are centralised and hierarchical organisations, the officers said. They both have strong moral codes and in both practitioners are expected to care for a heterogeneous population of youngsters with different social and cultural backgrounds. Both vocations, they said, were supported by a strong sense of patriotism: all six soldiers said that the two most important needs of the country were education and security.
When they started their new careers in education, they specifically looked for at-risk schools because they thought these were the most suitable places for them to fulfil their view of education as a mission: for them schooling focused on the formation of character. All six showed a strong sense of commitment and caring: they were always on call and ready for action, opening the school at 6.30am and staying until 10pm. The job came before family. "I reach the weekend crawling from physical and mental fatigue," said one.
They also felt responsible for the physical safety of their students. They constantly worried about their protection in and out of school. They talked about the safety of the school building, the safety precautions they took on school trips. And their interest in the children's safety at home sometimes led them to enlist the help of a social worker.
In spite of serving in renowned military units and being involved in battle, the six described teaching as more challenging, more interesting and more gratifying.
But they all seemed to adopt a different attitude to staff. Teachers they thought of as people to conquer. They were aware that their entry into teaching from the army would be regarded as an intrusion. But they were determined to prove that they were going to be different: they were going to succeed.
The former officers spent a great deal of time in studying schools as systems, looking thoroughly at the financial, procedural and interpersonal matters so that they could investigate the problems, difficulties and weaknesses of the organisation.
They all assumed their vision of what had to be done was the correct one: the views of others - parents, children, teachers, the education authority - did not interest them. And they used their military nous to overcome people who opposed them. For Ben it was a battle with a school counsellor who wanted to expel a disruptive pupil or a struggle with a group of dissident teachers who were trying to disrupt his leadership.
For Alex, it was a potential battle with affluent and powerful parents who wanted to take over the running of the school. Jacob had locked horns with the local education authority and councillors who wanted to divert funds to needs other than the school.
"While fighting these battles, they make use of their strategic knowledge and the particular weapons they possess," the Tel Aviv researchers reported. "They sift out possible supporters among the enemy and try to win them over. They inform themselves of the weaknesses of the enemy and take advantage of them. They wait patiently for an opportunity to get back at the enemy and aim to attack where it hurts most."
The heads also had a patronising attitude to women: they described them as feeble-minded individuals who occasionally need to be sent to the "trauma room". They were particularly critical of staff stamina. They thought teachers were unable to reflect, to analyse a situation or to engage in a problem-solving process. Raphael observed: "When I see my assistant or other veteran teachers getting lost in an analysis of a certain event, I join in and 'save' them."
They don't think staff care enough about the students because they won't change their methods.
Alex explains why the former officers look down on their staff: "A teacher has the students for an hour and for a defined curriculum. Someone who lives with soldiers from dawn until bedtime and solves their problems, educates them and forms their character is a better pedagogue than a teacher who comes to teach history of mathematics."
Michal Zellermayer and Rina Barkol of Levinsky College of Education, Tel Aviv, can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com