Teachers stage a long strike for better wages. Will they become better teachers?
“The predicament faced by teachers here seemed outrageous to me from my very first days in Bulgaria. Apparently, the powers that be don't consider education an asset. For a country to be able to function well, it's essential to prioritise its education system. It's the young, well-educated and qualified people who can shape a country's future,” says Arnaud Joanny, a teacher at Sofia's Alphonse de Lamartine 9th French Language School. “In France, the situation is completely different. The French Education Ministry has probably the second largest budget in the country and education is a priority,” he adds.
Arnaud Joanny is 28 and comes from Brest in France. He lives on a Bulgarian teacher's salary. He likes Bulgaria. He is impressed with his colleagues, who “put their heart and soul” into their work, but is shocked by their pay. “You can't live a decent life on such meagre remuneration.” Joanny knows from experience that his monthly salary can't cover the rent of the small flat he occupies in Sofia's Fridtjof Nansen Boulevard. At the suggestion of the school headmistress, who is proud to have a native speaker as a teacher, the rent is shared among parents of all preparatory grade students.
This is the first grade in all Bulgarian language schools. In it, students learn the foreign language extensively. “For this reason, there are very few young people who can afford to practise this job with all their heart. It simply can't provide for a normal life. The teaching staff is ageing and a new generation of teachers to succeed them simply isn't there.”
With an average salary of 444 leva, Bulgarian teachers were the lowest-paid workers in the budget sector. On 15 September, they began a strike demanding a 100 percent wage rise.
Wages are the most contentious – though certainly not the biggest – issue surrounding education in Bulgaria. Its greatest problem is quality. This was also one of the main objectives of the protest: to persuade society and the establishment of the importance of the teaching profession and the need for radical changes in the system.
Unlike other European countries, Bulgarian education is not based on solid values, traditions and principles – at least, not on more modern precepts than those of the mid-19th Century. Back then, teachers were some of the most important people in Bulgarian society, which was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. In those days they did not teach their students anything more than the alphabet and a basic knowledge of foreign languages, history and geography, but the Bulgarians respected their daskali, as they called them, for their role as “enlighteners,” who helped the emancipation of the nation.
As it seems, Bulgarian education has not changed much since then. Reforms are in a state of arrested development. Several governments made unsuccessful attempts to devise strategies for improvement. But when the changes had to be implemented, they resulted in chaos and absurdity. In 1996 students studied history from three different textbooks, each of which had its own version of the past. Teachers exercised their discretion to choose a textbook. Due to the lack of a single concept and bureaucratic discrepancies, there was a time when 15-year-olds were in the 9th grade for the first half of the school year and in the 10th for the second.
Just like in the 19th Century, the methods applied at Bulgarian schools are based on didacticism. They do not develop independent thinking and initiative. The subjects on the syllabus are compulsory for all children and do not stimulate their individual abilities and interests.
To become a teacher in France is not easy; you have to pass a serious exam. It is a proof that the teacher has the necessary skills and knowledge to teach and educate children. “When a teacher is employed by an educational establishment, this means that he has the required qualification and is a good teacher. From then on, it is the headmaster who decides who is good and who isn't,” Joanny says.
The mechanism for recruiting teachers in Bulgaria is unreliable, to say the least. Due to low salaries, nobody takes up Pedagogy at university on account of a childhood dream to become a teacher. Students who do so are mostly those who wanted to become lawyers, economists or diplomats, but failed the entrance exams for these prized subjects. When they enter the non-prestigious Pedagogical Faculty, they are caught in the downward spiral of an inadequate curriculum, poor facilities and unmotivated lecturers. After four years in such an environment, the freshly certified teachers are chucked into the labour market, where they know that, if they find a job in their field, they are destined to receive paltry wages.
Not all state-employed teachers are poor, though. Some of them comprise the so-called teachers' mafia. They employ a simple technique: students do not get the high marks they need for entry into a prestigious university unless they accept private lessons with the very same teachers they have at school or the ones they “recommend”. There is more to this than meets the eye: the gap between what is taught in the classroom and what is required at the exams for some secondary schools and universities is so wide that children's only chance of success is to get private lessons. Tuition fees start from 15 leva per hour. It takes a year to prepare a child to enter an elite school or university if private lessons are taken at least twice a week.
Arnaud Joanny has not heard of the “teachers' mafia”, but he has his explanation about the necessity of private lessons and their consequences. “Teachers decide to give private lessons to make ends meet. This robs them of opportunities for self-study and preparation, affects the quality of their classes and undermines their professionalism.” Does the performance of a conscientious teacher, who regards his profession as a special calling, suffer as a result of low pay? Arnaud believes not.
Arnaud Joanny speaks mainly of his colleagues from the French Language School, whom he observes closely. Asked whether he would enrol his child in a Bulgarian state school, he answers in a similar way: yes, he would enrol him in the French Language School, because he finds the education there excellent and the teachers perform their duties conscientiously despite low salaries. “Teachers went on strike not because of any egoistic impulses, but because they take a vested interest in the general state of education in Bulgaria. It just can't go on as it is, something has to change,” Arnaud Joanny says.
WHERE IS THE PROBLEM?
The latest World Bank report on productivity in Bulgaria, quoted by the Capital weekly, presents the system of primary and general secondary education as follows: excessively centralised, with little incentive for efficient school management, and complex as well as inconsistent legal framework. According to the WB, if the efficiency of the educational system is increased, this will save around 100 million leva a year.