ONCE upon a time, perhaps not more than 100 years ago, the teacher was the mind of the village and, along with the doctor and the priest, one of the most respected members of the community.
The teacher touched the lives of students and watched them grow and mature and send their own kids to school. The teacher influenced generations of people, and helped shape the attitudes of whole communities.
Today, the image of the venerable teacher is like an old postcard, a fond remembrance of the past or a fading reality that is slowly becoming fable. The distressing truth is that the social status of teachers has declined considerably worldwide.
Economic development and changes in our social fabric have transformed the teacher-student relationship into something that more closely resembles the relationship between employee and employer.
Because their job is to teach the values of the current political and social structure, teachers are among those most vulnerable to change. It goes infinitely beyond teaching new texts. The older generation of educators, for example, is finding it especially difficult to accept the loss of some traditional deference.
To mark World Teachers' Day on October 5, Education International, the largest global teachers organisation representing 29 million educators from 165 countries, warned about the declining level of respect and appreciation for teachers all over the world.
Education International has said that it deplores the growing practice among schools of hiring unqualified teachers, blaming the low salaries on offer as part of the problem.
However, it is not only unqualified teachers who are underpaid.
Stories of teachers with 30 years of experience who travel to remote villages to teach in conditions that do not even approach European standards are not uncommon. In some cases, these teachers earn less than waiters or field workers.
A recent study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group representing 30 countries that share a commitment to democratic government and the market economy, indicates that Slovakia is the worst offender of low teacher pay.
According to the OECD, Slovakia pays its teachers the lowest salaries compared to the remaining 29 OECD countries. In other words, Slovak teachers earn less than their counterparts in notoriously "poor" counties such as Turkey and Mexico, and it is far behind its neighbours Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland. Furthermore, the OECD reports that Slovakia provides the least amount of funding to its elementary and high schools per student than any other OECD country.
Slovak universities are not better off, either.
State officials and academics both admit that, over the past decade, the higher education sector has been overtaken by considerable fatigue.
On September 2, just days before the new school year and while the Education Ministry was promising teachers better days ahead as part of its countrywide reform, the gates of 700 schools and educational facilities slammed shut.
One month later, seemingly good news appeared on the horizon. The Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and the Family announced draft legislation that would increase teachers' salaries beyond what it had originally promised. Instead of the planned Sk1,600 (€40) pay increase, teachers in Slovakia would see Sk2,000 (€50) added to their monthly statements.
The increase is an attempt by the ministry to infuse new blood into the old veins of the teaching business. If the bill passes, career-starting teachers can expect to take home Sk13,110 (€327), up from Sk10,920 (€273).
The draft bill introduces a graduated salary concept, in which a fixed amount would grow by a certain percentage point based on experience. For example, in their first 16 years of service, teachers' salaries would rise 1 percent each year. Beyond that, salaries would rise by half of 1 percent.
Many people, including readers of The Slovak Spectator, have pointed out the obvious paradox: under the ministry's proposal, a novice would take home a higher salary than someone who had been serving the alma mater for 10 or 20 years.
In any case, teachers should not expect any real money in their pockets until July 2005. In the meantime, should the ministry's proposal pass into law, it will be extremely vulnerable to changes and amendments before summer kicks in.
Education Minister Martin Fronc did not spare praise for the proposal, calling it "a breakthrough" in remuneration for teachers.
Some politicians tend to industrialise education, forgetting that the education sector should not be judged by the same criteria applied to industry or commerce. The teaching profession is something separate. It calls for special awareness because teachers have an immense impact on the intellect of the nation.
Surveys suggest that teachers are vulnerable to psychological problems resulting from too much work, too little pay and little respect. Even the mildest form of depression could potentially have a profound impact on students.
Surely deeply despondent teachers would have a considerably negative influence on our children, and while it might seem a rather theoretical problem, in the end, it is not negligible in its final effect.
By Beata Balogová
18. Oct 2004 at 0:00