Sunday, May 18, 2014

From Russia, with Love!

By Stephen Wilson

(Moscow, Russia)The Scottish novel, 'A Disaffection', by James Kelman, describes with great compelling force the slow disillusionment and disenchantment of a comprehensive school teacher of English. He cynically scoffs and sneers at the naive freshly arriving  school teachers. 'Just wait till you have been working here for a few years and you will soon change your tune'. The teacher, an anomalous anarchist, is not at home in his job. He dreams up abandoning his job by taking up impractical schemes such as buying and selling old antiques in the market and 'doing something with a pair of old pipes' he yearns to play. But he never gets around to doing anything.

Kelman's novel reminds you of Beckett, Kafka and Joyce. However, in practice, Kelman expresses his own unique voice in a way which practically nobody can imitate or surpass in Scotland.

            The tragedy in Moscow is that most teachers don't seem to even get enough time to get disillusioned. In fact, they don't even begin teaching in schools never mind dropping out! According to Ludmilla Verbitsdent, president of the Russian Academy, 'We have problems of staff numbers. We have less teachers who genuinely love children. People enter pedagogical institutes not because they can't live without children, but simply due to the fact they are easier to enter than other institutes. It is unsurprising that less than 10% of graduates remain in schools.' The percentage of graduates who assume new posts in schools following graduation is a staggering small 10%! Of those teachers who take up positions, almost half of them abandon school after a year. Why is the turn-over so high? Is it due to low pay, bureaucracy, the stress of dealing with troublesome children or the alternative of making easier money as tutors? I spoke to one-ex-English teacher, Anna, who explained to me, 'It is not only the low pay or difficult pupils, but the fact I had to attend so many administrative meetings, conferences and fill in all kinds of forms which had no real relevance to her job.' She currently works for an organisation that organises cultural events in Moscow. With her brilliant English and logical common-sense, she is the kind of teacher which the schools should be attempting to retain. 

According to Ludmilla Verbitsdent, there are vast regional variations. While in Moscow there are no vacancies for teachers and even competition for some places, the situation in Saint Petersburg is otherwise. According to Ludmilla, only 7 schools out of 720 offer excellent education. Nevertheless, it is not clear what she defines as 'excellent education' and she may well have written off some brilliant schools! What is beyond dispute is that older, competent, capable and effective teachers are not being placed in sufficient numbers. Ludmilla claims that several heads of schools are asking retired teachers to come back as their long experience is priceless.'Those old hands are professionals.

           They know what to do and how to relate to children'. Certainly children suffer from teachers who don't want to be there and don't like or care about children. Countless school children have complained to me that 'School teachers are angry. They shout at us. They hate us'. I hear some children lamenting, 'How I hate school'.

            There  is one thing which Ludmilla and other teachers are firm about. The most important thing about being a teacher is love or at least attempting to love children! A teacher is entitled to make errors, but to be constantly angry and aggressive to pupils suggests a mistaken career move. If a teacher loves the subject, he teaches and children,he might make many errors to begin with but his affection will exert a positive effect over his pupils.

            There exists some views that a teacher is not under any obligation to love his pupils, but simply to teach them. I came across this view growing up in Scotland. When I was 12 and entered the secondary state school I was warned by other pupils and teachers, 'By the way, you have to quickly understand that secondary school teachers don't love you. They are only interested in their pay, career and interests. The message was, 'Don't expect us to love you'. It was almost as if someone was attempting to persuade us that love is a childish thing. Grow up and learn how the world is really loveless!

            So it was a pleasant shock to encounter Russian teachers who strongly disagreed with this view. They claim that you can't even begin to become a good teacher without love of children. If teachers don't love children, why are they in schools?

            So what is to be done about students who train as teachers, but don't even begin to teach at any schools?

            Ludmilla suggests some draconian methods. 'A teacher must sign a contract with his university which insists that if he  or she does not work in a school after university, they must return the government cost of his education.'

            I doubt that such a fine would deter some graduates. Some might even feel it is worth paying back the money as long as they can keep their certificates from a prestigious university. It is as if the certificate represents an advantageous 'brand' which serves as a passport to working in other more lucrative fields of work!

            Perhaps the entry requirements should be stricter and include more in depth interviews to see whether potential students are genuinely interested and serious about teaching in Russian schools. Nobody wants an incurably unhappy teacher in school, least of all the teacher himself!  Many people unwittingly choose the wrong vocation.

            A character in Bulgakov's novel 'The White Guard' discovers his true vocation was as a soldier! But that was after thirty years of teaching!  Better late than never seems to miss the mark!

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