Saturday, March 28, 2015

Someone is Watching

By Stephen Wilson

Moscow, Russia - A teacher of Russian and literature, from state school number 103 was forced to resign on the 13 March following accusations of posting unpleasant photos of her school students along with indecent captions and comments. The teacher denies all allegations against her. This recent case, along with several others, is creating an increasing tense atmosphere of suspicion between teachers, students and officials.

Teachers are becoming more weary of what photos or opinions they are expressing on their social sites.

In  Veledinsky's  film 'The Geography teacher gets utterly drunk', the teacher loses his job after some of his angry students secretly take photos of him which they send to the headmistress. The headmistress does not ask any questions about the authenticity of the photos or whether it has any real relevance to his job as a teacher. There is not even a proper investigation. He is simply sacked on the spot.

Real life can often follow fiction as if the author has either a sixth sense or is endowed with sharp intuition. In just recent years many Russian teachers have been dismissed after unwanted intruders have entered their social sites such as Twitter or Facebook, down-loaded any questionable photos, statements or controversial opinions, and sent them to the authorities leading to their dismissal. For instance, only last year a very good Russian teacher of literature was fired because on her site she had photos of her posing in a swim suit! Only last year Second City Teachers investigated the case of how odd ball Timur Isaev had boasted of entering the facebook pages of 28-29 Russian teachers, sending photos to officials where they were then fired.
(see Article dated 27 December 2014). 

All those cases suggest that the technology of surveillance is no longer the sole prerogative
of the state but has become ubiquitous. Alas, it is more capricious, careless and at times, absurd. Now practically anyone can attain a mobile phone which can discreetly photo or  film a person. So the poorest school student can secretly film their teacher and post it on
web sites. So you never know who could be watching or even filming you not to mention scanning your facebook page.

It is suffice to mention one example. Last Christmas I was invited to a dacha. Afterwards my wife, back from Turkey, told me she knew what I had been speaking about and the toast which I had given. I wondered, 'How this could possibly be?' Maybe she was gifted or cursed with the second-sight?  I later found out that someone had secretly filmed me at the dacha and sent this film to many facebook accounts. Even my wife got a copy! Now if I had been a teacher in a Russian state school and some pupil with a grudge against me had seen this, he might have sent this to my headmaster. I was not drunk but what if the headmaster concluded that I was a ' drunkard' setting an immoral example to children? Who would decide whether I was genuinely a drunkard or not? The final judgment might rest on the caprice of an official. So much for carefree days at dachas.


The case of a 27 year old teacher of Russian, 'Svetlana Koveleva,' who worked at Russian  school number 103 in Omsk, emphasises how any teacher should be aware that anything they write or put in their own websites may be viewed by unwanted visitors. The teacher was forced to resign on the 13th March even before a proper investigation was completed!  Why has this particular case aroused so much controversy? Well, on this teacher's social
site Twitter and V-contact, not to mention many other sites, could be found many photos of her own school students accompanied by many insulting, derogative, and indecent captions and comments.

Students are referred to as cretins, morons and unmentionable words.

For example, one photo shows a punished school boy ,sitting with his back to the teacher, in the corner of the classroom with a patronising comment 'that he is upset'. Since practically anyone had access to those photos and comments on social sites, word soon got to the education authorities. A scandal arose!  Nevertheless, the teacher was not promptly fired. On the contrary, an official at the local department of education, Katya Spekhova, announced that if the teacher is truly to blame they would dismiss her. According to one advisor Tatiana Demidova, 'Russian labour legislation forbids immediately sacking her without evidence. She denies making those photos and placing those comments on social
sites ...' The official added that 'the Department is consulting security organs and specialists from information security..and 'The teacher had only been working at this school from September of last year... The teacher never once could afford to insult students.'

Nevertheless, the teacher felt under pressure to resign on the 13th of March.

What actually happened?  The incident has provoked a lot of unpleasant gossip, rumours and hearsay. Many of those comments indicate more about the prejudices of people than the actual facts. 

The teacher claims she was the victim of hackers who invented all those indecent comments. So there are some people who view her as a victim rather than perpetrator of malice and abuse. The journalist Aleksandr Arefyev in his article 'Under the Chain of Twitter,' in the paper, 'Secret Material ', no. 10 (339) offers a more sympathetic account of the teacher compared to some tabloids and refuses to publish the teacher's real name. Other people are not so sensitive! They want her fired, fined or even imprisoned! They
focus on irrelevant claims that in her youth she was 'a Goth', and created many social sites such as 'The Cynic', 'The alcoholic', The cheerful sociopath'. What relevance is this to the case? Has a person no right to opinions? A lot of children rebel and become part of a
subculture... Being a Goth hardly constitutes a crime!

It is how this case is being used to justify 'teacher bashing' which has annoyed teachers. When some expert such as Igor Chizhi states the teacher should have more carefully protected her files by using a password, this incenses some. This is hardly the point. What a teacher does in her free time is her own business and has nothing to do with schools. I  mean it is not as if she killed or assaulted anyone.

The orginal aim of social sites such as facebook was that anyone could freely express their opinion. Now a teacher can be sacked simply for displaying a photo of herself sunbathing on the beach.

I heard this happened to a very good Russian teacher last year.

What kind of freedom is this? I have noticed that one of my friends no longer expresses his political opinions as bravely as he did in the past. He has stopped saying anything controversial. Those sites such as 'facebook ' make teachers more, and not less vulnerable,' stated an angry teacher whom I will call 'Olga'.

What is increasingly clear is that unlike in the Soviet times, many of the parents don't respect teachers and in some cases even go as far as to incite their children against them. They are no longer looked up to as role-models but often derided for being 'losers' who can't
undertaken any other profession. In a highly materialistic and consumerist society like Russia, a teacher's poverty can be ridiculed while the affluence of others is highly respected. In such a situation where a teacher is being constantly insulted, humiliated and jeered at by both pupils and their parents, you can see why some teachers might  'crack up' or get caught in 'a punch and judy show with pupils'. In one case at a school in Omsk, a teacher lost her job when pupils accused her of striking a 12-year-old boy over the head with a glass. The teacher stated that the pupil ran into her while she was carrying a glass. The unfortunate teacher was fired. But whose word on this case do you accept; the pupils'  or the teacher's?

At this moment of time teachers have never been under such pressure. They are now facing delayed payments, cuts in salaries, a longer workload and more and more cases of unfair dismissal.

Without the defence of strong trade unions they can and are vulnerable to being unfairly fired on a mere whim.

Russian teachers deserve a much fairer hearing than they are currently receiving!

I'm grateful to Aleksandr Arefyev's article in the Russian paper 'Secret Material', Under the Chain of Twitter, concerning social sites in the work of teachers, number 10(339) 24-31
March 2015.

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