BEING ready to answer any question, to praise good work but to be strict when it is not good enough, to put up with teenagers’ moods when they have a bad day, to lend a sympathetic ear or give a helping hand when these things are missing at home: the work of a teacher is far more than teaching, and Slovak teachers feel the public does not appreciate this.
During their strike, which began in late November, financial compensation for teachers and their status in society has become a leitmotif, even though the demands of the teachers’ trade unions cover many more issues. So what does being a teacher really mean and how do Slovak teachers see their job?
“Never wanted anything else”
Dagmar Kolevová, a Slovak language and literature teacher at the elementary school in Bottova Street in Trnava, has been working in the education sector for 28 years – at elementary schools and, for a short time, also at gymnasiums. She is also active in teachers’ professional organisations, and currently holds the post of regional director-general at the Slovak Chamber of Teachers.
“I have practically never wanted to do anything else. Only teaching,” Kolevová said in an interview with The Slovak Spectator.
Kolevová describes her normal working day as very busy, from teaching and other duties at school, preparation for the next days’ classes, setting up tests, and finally checking e-mails and paperwork late into the evening.
The work of a teacher also includes life-long learning and getting ‘credits’ for it, a thing that upsets some teachers, but which Kolevová says she likes.
“Some teachers have to give afternoon classes or do some other extra jobs in order to make ends meet,” Kolevová commented.
Despite the fact that in her view her work is not adequately paid, Kolevová said she has never really thought about quitting.
“Some children can return to you the emotional part that you put into them,” she said. “That is why I’m staying.”
Over the years there have been constant attempts to make big changes in the system and only some have actually been put in place, while few have brought benefits, according to Kolevová.
“The only benefits I see are in innovative teaching methods, the wider use of IT in schools, project teaching, and some freedom in deciding about what and how to teach,” Kolevová said.
“The most embarrassing part of the reforms is the ‘imprisoning’ of teachers at school,” she continued, explaining that a teacher must remain present at his or her workplace until a certain hour, even after their immediate teaching duties are finished. Not even during free hours can teachers leave their school premises.
Kolevová joined the strike along with her colleagues.
“So that a school can heat in the winter, so that the corridors are not cold, so that the decent pupils don’t suffer by the fact that we have no power over those less decent ones, we need a mandate to exclude a pupil from primary school for a couple of days, with consequences on social allowances, [we need] evaluation of pupils to be more adequate, and the structure of secondary schools and universities [must] be changed according to the needs of society and the numbers of students,” she explained, setting out her main reasons for going on strike.
“Every day I’m glad I stayed”
Pavol Maječík is a mathematics, physics, and technical education teacher at the Gymnasium of Ján Hollý in Trnava. He is also the form teacher of one of the classes there. He started teaching in 2009, after working for five years at the physics department of Trnava University as a researcher.
“My work is mainly teaching, leading the class, its agenda, preparation for classes, and correcting tests,” Maječík told The Slovak Spectator, adding that he also takes care of the sound system at school events and is an unofficial technical adviser, technician, and IT consultant for most of his colleagues.
Like most teachers at Slovak schools, he doesn’t consider his salary adequate compensation for his work.
“I don’t like to ‘wave with my degree’ when discussing this, because I find it irrelevant,” Maječík said. “But I think that if someone works 10 hours a day on average, and for five of them has a really big responsibility for 30 young people, and yet is bound to pay for his teaching materials and tools out of his own pocket, then a monthly salary of €400 is really too little. And perhaps I – and every teacher – might even deserve a risk benefit or an [additional payment] for tons of useless bureaucratic paperwork.”
Maječík admits that he wanted to leave his school and the education sector altogether when he was forced to take out a loan to resolve his housing situation. In the end, he decided to stay.
“From the start I knew it would be very hard to leave, as my students became very close to me and I would like to lead them to the final exams and help them as much as possible,” he said. “I had even arranged for another job, but at the last moment the arrangement fell through, so I decided not to look for another one, cut my expenses, and stay. I really like my students, I care about them and every day I see them I’m glad I stayed. A look inside my fridge at home is less pleasing, however.”
Maječík did not join the first day-long strike, considering it pointless, but decided to join the unlimited strike.
“I believe that if we hold on, the financing and thus the education sector as such will change,” he said, adding that he does not believe money to be a magic wand, but still having more and better tools can only help teachers explain matters better and help students understand them.
“On top of that, everybody is pressing teachers to motivate pupils to learn because otherwise they don’t do so,” he said. “But for a teacher every pay-check is practically demotivating. And without motivation nobody returns 100-percent output. Unfortunately, not everyone has sufficient inner motivation, and even that cannot be kept forever.”
Looked down upon
Kolevová agrees with the claim, often voiced by teachers’ representatives, that the status of teachers in society has fallen.
“Sometimes I get goose bumps while reading anonymous comments on various blogs,” she said. “And I’m awed by all that primitivism and hatred towards teachers.”
It is often academics who look down on the work of teachers without knowing what it actually is, Kolevová said. And then there are parents and children.
“Mostly we have clear relationships and good experiences, but the negative ones take a while to settle,” she said. “Adolescents in particular know how to hurt a person.”
But the public support for teachers when they went on strike came as a nice surprise.
“It seems like the silent majority has spoken up, and for that I am glad,” she said.
Maječík agrees that the status of teachers in the eyes of the public has diminished, adding in the same breath that his situation as a man is somewhat easier.
“Pupils don’t dare that much, but even then it is often beyond the limits of decency,” he says. “Women have it much harder.”
Pupils often consider their teachers their equals and more and more of them do not care about respect, according to Maječík. They talk back, swear, misbehave, and thus waste a lot of the time of all the pupils in the class. As a consequence, pupils’ level of knowledge has been dropping in recent years.
What teachers would change
Financing of schools is the issue that Kolevová would put as the first priority if she had the power to make big changes in the education sector.
“Look at the number of offices and bureaucrats in education,” she said. “That’s where the finances assigned for teachers get ‘filtered’.”
The remedy she proposes is financing schools directly and not through an administrator – the local or regional government.
“If we take the financing of schools out of the hands of the mayors, or at least limit them by law so that they will be obliged to distribute all the money assigned to education to schools in a just manner, the vast majority of problems would be solved,” Kolevová claimed.
She also said that teachers’ representatives from organisations like the Slovak Chamber of Teachers, the Association of Self-Governing Schools and the Association of Private Schools should be invited to amend the related legislation.
If Maječík had the power to set priorities for change in Slovak schools, he would change the system of evaluation of pupils from grades (currently the scale of one to five is used, with one being excellent and five being fail) to percentage evaluation as his priority number one, then unify the teaching plans at schools of one type, and then change the financing, which currently, according to him, endorses quantity over quality.
“I think schools should be paid according to their quality and results, and not according to numbers of pupils,” he said.