Saturday, October 18, 2014

State of Russian Teachers

By Stephen Wilson

(Moscow, Russia) - According to a recent survey by the Centre of Social Labour Rights, more and more Russian teachers are taking part in more radical forms of protests such as unofficial strikes, hunger strikes and in some cases, blocking roads or ways. It is not just Mexican teachers who can bring a city to a halt but angrily frustrated Russian school teachers. According to the institute, last year witnessed 277 acts of protest.

               Those protests not only included metal workers, miners and doctors but also teachers.


               Some events leave an indelible imprint on your psyche. It is hard to shake off the memory. The Russian English teacher walked straight into the classroom just before I was about to teach, slumped down and immediately started remorsely snoring. It was embarrassing. It could have been worse. She might have fallen asleep during my lecture and I would be later accused of 'boring her to death'. She was so fatigued that I even felt obliged to attain a pillow. A Russian mathematics teacher called Dmitri Shnol, from the school 'Intellectual', also had a similar experience. When he noticed just how worn out and ill many of his Russian teachers were, he said, 'I wanted to send all of them to a sanitorium to recover'.

               Like me, he noticed that the overwhelming number of Russian teachers are mentally and physically exhausted.

               They are grossly overworked and abused. And with the endless number of novel experiments and constant changes being proposed, they are much more likely to be stressed out than during the Soviet period where work was much more straightforward, stable and simple. According to feedback from the maths teachers he was instructing, Dmitri found that the average age of teachers was from 45-50 and that at a minimum they had 24 hours a week, and many had more than 30 hours a week, not to mention the time spent       preparing lessons, marking homework, attending training courses and speaking to parents. Dmitri observed that the vast majority of teachers were either late middle-aged or old and had been teaching for 25, 30 or even 35 years.

                There were practically no men amongst the teachers (2-3%).

                 In my class of approximately 40 student teachers there were only two young female teachers and one man. In fact, as Dmitri succinctly summed it up, 'Young male         teachers don't go to school.' They are a rare event.

                (In Scotland, half my secondary school teachers were men.) For teachers like Dmitri this represents an anxiously disturbing trend as 'From generation to generation there
will be a growth in infantile lads because the schools lack men as a role model which could serve as an example of how to live. This plays a colossally negative role in Russian             society and its purpose.' The facts are that children do need clearly distinct role models to emulate or they can easily identify with drug-dealers or criminals whom they might idealise as 'real men'. Prison becomes a test of manhood to pass rather than a place to be avoided. So children enter a prison as 'a rite of passage'.

                 It is not difficult to see why the teaching profession is no longer attracting people. Low pay, growing stress, unclear expectations, a poorer definition of their job description
brought about by new increasingly conflicting demands from officials, parents and teachers and constant bashing.

                 New topics and new reforms are constantly being introduced by officials without any genuine thought or careful consultation. For instance, we have just heard that the           English General state exam will now encompass an oral test and that all the Russian school students will have to write a Russian composition. How long and what exactly this composition will consist has not been made distinctly clear to most teachers. But many teachers feel many of their students are not up to it and that it has been introduced too late.

                 Many teachers lament the passing of the Soviet education system which proved much more effective and its demands were much clearer than the confusion and chaos of the new general Russian state exam system. They yearn for the old Soviet system which worked better because it was simpler.

                 The payment of teachers has become more arbitrary and absurd than in the Soviet system. Now in some state schools some teachers will be paid a lot more than others for the wrong reasons and the number of hours distributed to teachers grossly uneven. So one teacher might have a stavka of 18 and another of just 10.

                 One English teacher Olga told me her hours had been cut and she has been given the most difficult student groups which another teacher is loathe to take. 'I have spent
all my time attending teacher parent meeting, putting on plays and attending this or that conference only to be told this group is being taken away from me with no explicit explanation as to why is this the case'. So a teacher no longer knows where she stands or what her stavka will be each new year.

                 What is one of the most difficult things for older teachers to endure is that their long and wide experience is not valued and that they are being asked to use a new novel methodology which is less effective and untried.

                 So they go to a training course and then ignore everything proposed at a session. This is because a teacher with 20 - 30 years of classroom experience knows intuitively what
works with children and what does not. They don't require the advice of a young graduate who knows a lot of theory but has not spent much time in the classroom.

                 One of the most striking trends in Russian schools is the tendency to 'rate' schools according to the best exam results as well as the commercialization of schools.
So you constantly read in the Russian press of 'the top best schools', when in actual fact the reality is the 'best exam results obtained for the general state exams'.

                 Unfortunately, many readers often won't make such subtle distinctions drawing the worst conclusions.

                 One school is expected to compete against another and even worse, a teacher competes against another. So instead of the aim of school being to create better citizens who serve the public community, the main aim is to turn children into businessmen or women whose only interest in to make as much money as possible.

                 The old school collective with its warm atmosphere of sharing and generosity begins to fall apart. I have seen this in some private schools I taught in where teachers no longer share ideas with others, hide useful textbooks for their exclusive use and try to monopolise resources. Then if life is not stressful enough they use gossip to weaken the reputation of other teachers. So the collective breaks up and becomes 'atomised' and a teacher walks in and out of a staff room like an  'awkwardly pale ghost'.

                 FIGHTING BACK

                 Not all Russian teachers are accepting a situation where they are left increasingly powerless, impotent and without any voice. It is true that the quickening of reform has           shattered and shocked some teachers into a mute silence or even out of the profession. Others are beginning to protest and join unions. They are asking themselves, 'Why should our wages be cut? Why should we do so much unpaid labour? For what purpose do we have an education system?' Some don't want to remain in the major union 'The Confederation of Independent Trade Unions' which compromises and collaborates with
employers rather than defends workers. According to figures, 25 million workers belong to trade unions and 20 million are in the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions. But because this union even conspires with managers to sack striking workers, many workers
are abandoning this union. According to the Institute of Social Labour Rights, this Union is losing 1 million members every year. It is shrinking rapidly and set to diminish further and further as disillusioned workers turn to new Unions such as 'Solidarity', a union which
defends university teachers, and the union 'Teacher', which protects school teachers. Those two unions are proving more militant and assertive in defending teachers. They will have a hard job because many public workers are not viewed by the state as having the legal right to resort to striking. As in practically most countries, the state does not defend the rights of poor and abused teachers regardless of how just their cause is. They preserve the right of  the rich and powerful who thrive on a culture of bribery, corruption and commerce.

                 According to Yelena Gerasimov of the Institute of Social Labour Rights,' During the past twenty years in which I have been involved in labour disputes, in the Russian
Federation there has not been one or ten strikes which the courts have recognised as legal.' Of course this does not mean those strikes were all technically 'illegal' but only that the courts 'perceived' that those strikes were against the law. With this in mind it is amazing  to find how increasingly courageous Russian workers are becoming in the face of risking their livelihoods and even lives by protesting. When workers feel promise after promise is being broken and they might be made redundant anyway it becomes more understandable.

                 Protest is no longer a luxury but an urgent necessity!

No comments:

Post a Comment