Sunday, September 6, 2015

Russian Teacher Woes

By Stephen Wilson

(Moscow, Russia) -- The 1st of September,known as 'The Day of Knowledge' in Russia, is always an anxious day of endless frantic activity where parents prepare their children for the first day of school and many reluctant children mourn the passing of summer.

            Due to the mounting financial costs of school equipment, fees and constantly changing rules, many Russians are not in a festive mood. On the contrary, according to one poll by the research centre, 2015, as many as 22% stated that they felt annoyed and bitter about the 1st September because of financial difficulties in preparing children for school as well as feeling sad at performing the drudgery of household chores.

            But the good news is that 51% states they still  felt some joy so it could be far worse. When asked 'Do you think that the modern school education system is better than 10 years ago?,' 64% answered it was worse, and only 10% thought it had improved!

            This points to a huge mood of disappointment and discontent with reforms. Second City Teacher followed the experience of one school teacher who has been preparing for a tough year ahead.

            A THANKLESS JOB

            When I dropped into her apartment I found the 40 year old teacher of English, Natasha (not her real name), who has two children , one 17 and another 12, hunched over a computer either preparing future lessons or answering the questions of some parents about their children's education. I have witnessed the situation so many times that, that I wondered if  Natasha ever takes a rest. She is almost always busy . To support her family, Natasha performs at least three jobs as well as being a mother to two children. Over summer she translated some Russian texts into English as well as teaching. She teaches English at a private school which brings in just 10,000 rubles and at an institute which brings in as little as a few thousand rubles.

            Only the income derived from private students as well as an allowance from her ex-husband can keep her going. In addition, she is studying to update her diploma in Linguistics. 'By getting this diploma I have less chance of being fired by an institute or school', she said. She has good grounds to feel anxious.

           'Whole faculties of the English Department have been closed down and many teachers have had their hours cut to virtually nil. Any teacher who protests about this has already been threatened with being fired.' I asked Natasha 'Why carry on working there? The pay is so low and the atmosphere is so bad ?!  'It is still represents an income and I might get more classes ,' she answers.

           One thing is evident. The reason she continues to teach at a private classical gymnasium where the pay is abysmally low is that her two children can study free of charge in exchange for teaching English to the pupils. However, Natasha has just received bad news! The headmistress has just informed her, 'You will have to pay 4000 rubles a month for fees. We can't afford to let you study for free as the school badly requires money to make repairs'. All the other teachers who have made similar agreements are also having to cough up more money in fees.

           This is by no means the only financial headache. Natasha has had to pay 3000 rubles for a new school uniform as officials have recently insisted all school students now have to wear school uniforms. She also must buy alot of stationary such as notebooks, textbooks and pens. According to one director of the Institute of Educational Development, Irina Abankina, the cost of preparing children for school consumes approximately 5-7% of the family budget.

           Natasha, like many parents, often hires tutors for her children.

           The history teacher has increased her fees up from 2500 rubles a lesson to 3500 rubles. So Natasha has decided to discontinue with this tutor and opt for cheaper private tuition at 1000 rubles via skype.

           As she scans her computer she finds that a message from the transport police is demanding she pays a 3000 ruble fine for a wrong detour on the road. She wonders if she had already paid such a fine and that the police records have made another mistake. Many drivers have paid the same fine twice because they don't have the time or energy to open up a court case against the local police. She pays the fine.

           She keeps asking herself, 'How will I best keep my job? Should I write this school play for performance? Or should I write articles for a school website that is being started?'

           A message is sent from the institute asking her to supervise some exams. However, Natasha states she is too busy with preparing children for school. This task which can last for hours is an unpaid and a thankless job.

           Natasha has already been charged 12,000 rubles by  a dentist for fixing one of her daughter's teeth. Since she can't afford to get the other teeth of her daughter seen to she discontinues treatment. Dental treatment for children is free but Natasha distrusts the quality of free treatment.

           Everytime Natasha leaves her apartment to go to work or church she crosses herself and makes a prayer for luck. Her rooms are full of many icons such as 'Saint Nicolai, or Saint Catherine, or Tatiana. The last icon is the patron saint of students.

           Natasha is not the only teacher anxious about her dwindling pay and job insecurity. According to Andrei Rudoi, a teacher, pay has been cut by as much as 3-7 thousand rubles', and in one working schedule, a teacher at Kareli can receive a miserable 14-15 000 rubles a month. This falls short of the promise made by the Russian Ministry of Education, Livanov, to raise the average salary of a school teacher to 32,000 rubles a month throughout Russia.

           Even job security is something which can' t be taken for granted.

           Although Livanov promised that the number of school teachers would be increased by 500- 600,000 a year, the opposite has been happening. One teacher is often not only performing his own job, but the work of teachers who have been made recently made redundant. For example, there was a huge teacher protest demonstration at Cherepvtse in April. As many as 3000 teachers went to a meeting to protest at a situation where one history teacher was left in a school which previously employed four history teachers! The remaining teacher was paid far more.

           The aim of course, was to divide and rule teachers. Vsevolod Lukhovitskii, of the Union 'Teacher', claims there exists an absurd situation where teachers are asked to take classes beyond their subject because the administration don't want to employ the necessarily teacher. So a biology teacher is also asked to teach chemistry, and a history teacher, the
'Foundations of Religion' or 'World Art and Culture'.

           Despite shortages of teachers in many existing core subjects such as Russian, more new subjects are being introduced. The latest subject to be introduced into 5 pilot regions is 'Financial Literacy'. In addition, a new standardised state history book is to be introduced to the 10th form.

           The head of the Russian Ministry of Education has recently made a speech insisting that all schools should provide children with courses in two foreign languages as learning a langauge helps 'stimulate logic and improve the memory of children'. This proposal has not been taken seriously by most experts and teachers. If the government lacks the resources to instruct children in how to learn their own native langauge, Russian, then how can they cope with this ambitious almost grandiose vision?

           In many cases, school students are returning to schools which are dilipidated and going to rack and ruin. As many as 40% of schools are in critical state as to pose a threat to the safety of children. In those schools, the ceilings might suddenly cave in, seats break and doors come off the hinges. Many of those schools were built 80 to 85 years ago. Unfortunately, officials, rather than seriously addressing those issues, purchase a lot of new technical gadgets which nobody needs or requires to use. So idle and unused beautiful machines loiter around the ruins of old schools.


           There is an old Chinese proverb which states that you should not try and improve the drawing of a snake by adding on legs so as to make it a more beautiul lizard. If the picture is a good enough snake, why do you need to change it? Many Russians, indeed maybe most, believe the old Soviet System provided school children with a far more sophisticated education than the newly imposed one.

           Olga, a manager of a small company, Linguist stated, 'One of my colleagues stated she attended a recent conference on International Education. The Finnish delegate told a Russian, 'We largely based the development of our education system on the Russian Soviet Model.We learnt alot from it'. This is ironic.
Just as the Russians were abandoning the old Soviet System during the years of Perestroika, the Finnish educational officials were borrowing feactures from it. The Finnish education system is currently regarded as one of the best in the World! The Finns don't understand why the Russians abandoned a system which largely worked and took a western model based on crude tests
and evaluations which leave both teachers and pupils far more 
stressed out and less literate. 

             For all its faults, the old Soviet system offered pupils a high level of knowledge in physics, maths and Russian literature. It did not require endless evaluations, exams and tests which often fail to measure a pupil's real knowledge .

           For Natasha, the year ahead is going to be a daunting one.

           It means preparing students for the ever changing Unitary State Exams. It means being evaluated on whether her students perform well on those exams regardless of the unique situation which every student finds him or herself in.

No comments:

Post a Comment