By Stephanie Choate
August 22, 2013
Williston resident Michelle Rath spent six months traversing the nation of Israel earlier this year—from snow-capped mountains in the north to vast deserts in the south—researching schools’ crisis management protocols in a country frequently in the North American news for conflict.
Rath took a leave of absence from her duties as director of school counseling at Essex High School to travel to the Middle Eastern country through the Distinguished Fulbright Awards in Teaching Program. Rath, who is fluent in Hebrew and lived in Israel from 1980-1988, was one of just 20 educators nationwide selected to carry out research projects in seven countries.
While Israelis are “unfortunately, experienced in having to live through day-to-day threats,” people enjoy a great deal of freedom and independence, she said.
She traveled from the northern border with Syria to the southern town of Eilat, which borders Jordan and Egypt. Everywhere she went, Israeli Defense Force soldiers and United Nations peacekeepers were visible, she said.
“As one of the professionals I interviewed said: ‘Everyone in Israel is post-trauma,’ it puts into perspective the state of unease on the part of the people who live in the country—there is no one who is unaffected on some level by the potential outbreak of fighting or military incursion in any part of the country,” Rath wrote in an email to the Observer. “But, perhaps due to the continuous state of unease, life goes on, in a very typical fashion—students go to school, people ride the buses, walk the streets, and fill coffeehouses and restaurants with a sense of security and trust that they will be protected if anything were to happen.”
Rath’s daughter, Mikaela, 16, went with her, attending an international school with students from around the world. She was able to take trains, buses and other public transportation—more freedom to get around than in rural Williston.
“It was the most amazing experience, she didn’t want to come back,” Rath said.
Along with experiences and a few souvenirs, Rath is bringing home lessons she thinks can apply to Vermont.
Rath is set to meet with representatives from the Agency of Education in mid-September, where she plans to share some of the things she learned. She said Vermont—similar in geographical size to Israel but with a drastically smaller population—could use some of the same tools. Specifically, statewide drills and crisis protocols could be helpful.
“Vermont tends to be very town-focused and about local control, which I totally understand,” she said. “The flip side is if somebody has something good and it can be shared rather than doing something from scratch, I think that would be beneficial.”
In Israel, crisis preparation focused more on the threat of war—a nationwide drill carried out while Rath was there simulated a chemical attack. But in Vermont, crises could include a student suicide, a bomb threat, the death of a student or faculty member or the death of a parent.
Rath said anyone who has a chance for a similar experience should jump on it.
“If educators ever get a chance to go anywhere, whether it’s Rutland or Romania, I think seeing something different really puts things in perspective,” she said. “You don’t necessarily have to go overseas to learn, but being in a different culture and seeing how things are done really made me appreciate what I’ve got but also gave me some really good food for thought.”