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Belarusian teachers in search of the lost dignity of their craft

On 5 October, Belarus will celebrate World Teachers’ Day, established by UNESCO in 1994 to show appreciation for the teaching profession and to draw attention to the rights of educators worldwide. Yet in today’s Belarus, teachers have no space...

Teacher at work. Source: belsat.eu

On 5 October, Belarus will celebrate World Teachers’ Day, established by UNESCO in 1994 to show appreciation for the teaching profession and to draw attention to the rights of educators worldwide.

Yet in today’s Belarus, teachers have no space for creativity and initiative, falling victim to the whims of the school administration, local educational departments, Ministry of Education, and even the Belarusian president’s son.

While Belarusian schools struggle to modernise, teachers’ rights and the prestige of the profession continue to deteriorate. As a result, Belarusian youth avoid choosing careers in education, and enrolment in teaching programmes at universities remains low. In addition to their ever-increasing paperwork, teachers in Belarus must act as social workers, renovation specialists, regime supporters, and even seasonal agricultural workers.

Racing for higher grades

Discipline at a Belarusian school. Source: belta.by

A recent large-scale opinion survey among teachers and high-school students, conducted by the Research Center of the Institute for Privatization and Management (IPM), showed that Belarusian schools prefer to adhere to familiar, Soviet-inherited dogmas in education. They fail to equip their students with skills and competences, essential for today’s knowledge-based societies.

School administrations instruct teachers to uphold grades as a principal measure of students’ success, while local departments of education demand their constant growth. The focus dwells on quantitative aspects in education, rather than ensuring the individual progress of every single student. Learning by heart and reproducing textbook materials often come before developing creativity and critical thinking skills.

Each year, teachers have to deal with an increasing flow of paperwork, including lesson plans and reports on grades, activities, classes, and students. One recent novelty is electronic class registers, which teachers must update along with their paper-bound equivalents. As a rule, teachers have to use their own personal computers to fill the new registers out. Access to school computers remains limited and waiting wastes precious time.

Teachers are also responsible to ensure that all students buy lunches provided by school canteens. National sanitary norms stipulate that children must eat every 3.5–4 hours. If parents do not wish for their child to eat school-made lunches, the family has to offer an alternative solution for their child’s hot meal. Starting 2017, teachers were given the additional duty of administering electronic payments for school lunches on a daily basis.

Teacher or Jack-of-all-trades?

In addition to paperwork, teachers assume the job duties of a social worker. Schools often send them to inspect students’ living conditions, including the collection of information on parents’ income, the number of children in a family, and any religious affiliations. In spring 2017, teachers from several districts received orders to visit the addresses of all potential “social parasites” with a questionnaire to determine their status and to keep track of the unemployed.

Until late 2016, schools were sending underage students to help agricultural enterprises harvest potatoes. This tradition was technically forced child labour. The practice only stopped after last year’s potato harvest, which ended with the accidental and tragic death of a 13-year-old student. However, last week, Belarusian media outlets reported that authorities in the Pastavy district of Belarus’s Viciebsk region decided to use teachers as unqualified, cheap, potato-harvest labourers instead of students. 

Moreover, deputy minister of education Raisa Sidarenka did not see any issue with this situation. She noted the teachers may have simply wanted to “aid [Belarusian] agriculture,” and were free to harvest potatoes alongside their professional duties.

The list of extracurricular headaches for teachers is long. It is their duty to ensure the timely renovation of the classrooms and to convince parents to pitch-in financially. Teachers are also obliged to subscribe to a number of state newspapers, ranging from the leading pro-regime newspaper Belarus Segodnia, to Zorka and Znamia Junosti for the students. Thus schools force teachers to create a market for media, which otherwise might not be in high demand. 

Last but not least, when educational institutions serve as ballot stations during elections, the state intimidates school employees to become the instruments of stage-managed votes. Teachers thus become either passive onlookers or active perpetrators of election falsifications in Belarus. Opposition parties have been warning teachers of the immoral character of certain types of election practices, yet the majority of teachers are more concerned about keeping their jobs.

Reality check

Source: change.org

On 11 September 2017, Belarusian writer Jauheniia Pasternak wrote an open letter to the Ministry of Education and all local district administrations. Her aim was to draw attention to the falling standards of the school education and the lack of respect for teachers.

Over 9,000 people have already signed a petition endorsing better protection of school teachers’ rights, launched by Pasternak and her colleague Andrej Žvaleuski on change.org, an online petitioning platform. It identifies poor working conditions for teachers as the main problem for Belarusian education. Recent university graduates who start a teaching career can hope for $150 a month in the best case scenario, while an experienced teacher who takes on additional duties and extra classes can earn up to $350 a month.

The main improvements suggested by the petition involve reducing all existing paperwork loads down to class registers, establishing a five-day working week for teachers, and ensuring a coordinated curriculum without the frequent change of textbooks. The petition’s authors also suggest to unite school graduation exams with university entry examinations, in order to introduce clearer learning criteria for students. Hopefully, this will enable teachers to design more effective courses and lessons.

Finally, the petition demands that teachers should not be placed in conditions where they must lie or manipulate. For instance, school administrations often force teachers and their students to visit local unpopular sports events or concerts. The teachers cooperate as they are afraid to lose their jobs, while students visit these events in the hope of bargaining for higher grades.

The Ministry of Education reacted to Pasternak’s letter by dismissing all its critical points as irrelevant. Its press secretary, Liudmila Vysockaja, called the letter ridiculous, stating that “none of the issues required the attention of the ministry or [the Belarusian] president.”

As long as the Belarusian state maintains conservative command methods in education, teachers will have neither say over the question of their working rights, nor voice in the design of the education reforms. Pasternak’s letter did not reach its intended addressees, who chose to ignore it. Yet her letter does appear to have stirred up the stewing discontent among fellow teachers. Public debate of the schooling system could become a first step for teachers in their quest to return the lost dignity of their profession.

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Lizaveta Kasmach
Lizaveta Kasmach
Lizaveta Kasmach holds a PhD in History from the University of Alberta, Canada.
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