Wedaje Mola is an inspiring man: a facilitator in the Kerem Institute's Kanfei Yona program, a fourth grade homeroom teacher and the community coordinator at the Argentina Experimental School in Jerusalem. We met with him for a conversation and heard about his rich experience in educational roles, his fascinating life story, social responsibility, and his enthusiasm concerning activities in the program that deals with the placement and integration of teachers of Ethiopian origin in the educational system.
"When I made aliyah at the age of nine, it was an empowering experience. I felt like the Children of Israel: the experience of an overt miracle. Something that existed exclusively in our imagination came to be in my generation", says Wedaje Mola, a teacher and educator who immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia in 1991, during the Operation Solomon.
"I came from a highly empowered position, with many aspirations to discover the world. In Ethiopia I had already understood the importance of obtaining an education. I kept my exercise book, written in Amharic, so that I could continue to study in Israel."
"In elementary school my talents were recognized. They considered my success as something very special, while I saw myself as just another successful pupil. I didn't know how to relate to the big impression my skipping a class made on the school principal."
After a few years of living on a trailer site, the family moved to Migdal Ha'Emek. Wedaje was the only pupil of Ethiopian origin at school and excelled in his studies. He subsequently sought out new challenges and went to study at the Kfar Ha'Yarok in central Israel.
"The school principal met each week with pupils to discuss identity and invited us, pupils of Ethiopian origin, to tell our story. There, in the youth village, a new perspective was opened for me and I returned to my original name, Wedaje. I succeeded there in my studies as well as in consolidating my identity, in personal empowerment and in leadership."
Wedaje did a year's National Service and continued to do meaningful service in the army. He served as a combatant in the Orev Nachal unit and went on to officers' training school, at the end of which he received the regimental award and served as unit sub commander. Despite his great success, Wedaje still felt the gap in society's expectations: "I was asked whether I felt I had succeeded as an Ethiopian. I said, not in particular. I always felt a tension between society's expectations of me – which were lower, in advance, and who I am."
After his discharge, Wedaje began to study education and went for his teacher's certificate at the Oranim College, while working as a counselor in Acharai! and in a boarding school. He then coordinated a school enrichment project in Jerusalem for pupils of Ethiopian origin. When he began to look for a fulltime teaching position – he ran into difficulties. "I couldn't find jobs. In job interviews they didn't see me as a candidate but as an Ethiopian candidate, with all the expected stereotypes. They didn't try challenging me with questions, it was lukewarm. It was I who raised challenging questions."
In the end, Wedaje found a position as a substitute math teacher in the Argentina Elementary School. There he felt that he was differently perceived. By his second year he had obtained a homeroom teacher position and begun to coordinate various areas in the school.
Kanfei Yona [Jonna's Wings] - Placement and Professional Training of Teachers from Ethiopian Origin in Israeli Educational System
The difficulties faced by Wedaje, in the integration and supervision of teachers of Ethiopian origin in the educational system are not unique to him. Wedaje tells of his peers who studied with him and who have yet to find jobs as teachers. The Kanfei Yona program works with teachers of Ethiopian origin who have completed their studies and are seeking field work placements. The need for the program, which operates as a collaboration between the Kerem Institute, the Jerusalem Foundation and the Jerusalem Municipal Department of Education, became apparent when the low proportion of teachers of Ethiopian origin was discovered: Out of 130 teachers certified in the Jerusalem area over the past three years only eight found fulltime positions. Yael Pulvermacher, a pedagogical supervisor and a teacher at the Kerem Institute, coordinates the program, which is part of the Center for the Development of Teaching that operates in the Institute. During the pilot year of its operation the program located an additional 13 teachers who were placed in teaching positions in Jerusalem and received individual and group supervision – a rise of more than 100% in the number of teachers of Ethiopian origin in the city. Wedaje is party to the conceptualization and leadership of the program, and participates in facilitating group supervision.
"Israeli society is very complex, there are power relations between different groups and Ethiopian teachers find themselves in the midst of this. There are cultural gaps between these different groups. Those of Ethiopian origin feel at times that they are not receiving equal opportunities or consideration. This is likely to generate a lack of confidence, suspicion, and alienation. In the teaching domain, which is not easy to begin with, those who encounter this type of attitude give up from the start, while that is exactly the place that one must make repeated efforts."
"The program is necessary because of the need for acclimatization and mediation that is not always available in the usual supervision given to teachers: mediation with institutions, understanding teachers and the system. The system doesn't understand cultural differences and expects uniform behavior. It allows teachers to deal with their identities and position. Teachers have to know who they are, they need to have a consolidated personal and professional identity. There is something in the group, in the safety of this space that promotes open discourse on identity and enables participants to raise their heads above the water."
"This program changes reality," says Wedaje, in conclusion. "An Ethiopian teacher needs to prove himself two hundred percent in order to be seen. He needs to light a bright flame to be noticed."
Ultimately, says Wedaje, the program's success is measured by the teachers' abilities to be independent and without accompaniment. "They are the ones who go to job interviews, the ones who stand before their classes and pupils. We hope that the teachers will be capable of standing on their own once they have undergone the process with us."
These days, Yael, Wedaje and the staff are working on next year: recruiting the relevant teachers, getting prepared for the schools and constructing the study day that will be taking place on May 25, 2016 at the Kerem Institute. An encounter for joint study, where participants will discuss the challenges inherent in integrating immigrants from their own field experience.