Dariusz Martynowicz, a 39-year-old high-school teacher in the Polish town of Krakow, received the nationwide award for “Teacher of the Year” in 2021. It recognised, among other things, Martynowicz’s fresh approach to education, which included a non-authoritarian attitude to students, innovative methods such as using mathematics or coding to teach literature, and doing extra-curricular activities with pupils to spark social engagement.

Yet just a year later and Martynowicz is quitting the state education system in order to combine work in two private schools – one in Krakow and another in Warsaw.

“The poor state of the Polish education system is the effect of actions by all governments in power since 1989,” Martynowicz tells BIRN.

“But my decision to leave the state system is caused to a large extent by what happened in the [seven] years since [Law and Justice] PiS came to power,” he says.

A sign on a door reading ‘Strike’ at the primary school during a teachers’ strike proclaimed by the Polish Teachers’ Union (ZNP) and the Trade Unions’ Forum (FZZ), in Przemysl, south-eastern Poland, 08 April 2019. EPA-EFE/Darek Delmanowicz

Poor marks, poor pay

More specifically, Martynowicz lists three measures taken by the current right-wing government that the teacher argues will make meeting the kind of standards he aims for impossible.

First, there was the dismantling of the system of gymnasiums, or preparatory high schools, introduced by the previous PiS education minister, Anna Zalewska. These gymnasiums, Martynowicz says, worked well and contributed to equalising opportunities for students; their destruction has caused chaos in the education system.

Second, the PiS government has been busy demonising teachers since the education unions called a major strike in 2019. Leaked emails by government members indicate that some of the online hatred directed against teachers during that period was in fact organised by high-level PiS officials.

Finally, a new set of reforms proposed by the current education minister, Przemyslaw Czarnek, dubbed “Lex Czarnek”, would reduce the autonomy of teachers and school directors at the expense of the politically-appointed regional heads of schools.

Then, of course, there’s money. In Poland, a teacher just starting out in the profession can expect to take home about 2,600 zloty (550 euros) a month, which is equal to the cost of renting a basic two-room apartment in a large city.

A teacher with 15 years of experience and all the qualifications, like Martynowicz, makes about 4,000 zloty (1,000 euros) a month. As he himself points out, in Poland that’s about the same as the salary of a supermarket cashier.

The situation is similar in Hungary. Zsuzsa Berkesi, a teacher with 30 years of experience who teaches French in a respected Budapest high school and has co-authored several textbooks, earns barely 300,000 forints a month (800 euros).

“I still love teaching, and enjoy every class, but I could not afford it if my husband didn’t earn a decent salary,” she tells BIRN.

Berkesi admits that she dissuaded her daughter from becoming a teacher because prospects for the profession are so gloomy. Young teachers have a shameful starting net salary of under 200,000 forints (500 euros), which is the lowest in the EU and even less than in neighbouring Serbia. Their income is so low that banks tend to refuse teacher applications for a mortgage.

Even at the end of their career, the maximum salary Hungarian teachers can expect is around a net 400,000 forints (1,000 euros) – basically, what a bus driver in Budapest or a cashier at Aldi earns.

The combination of poor pay and ill-thought-out and ideologically-driven policies have led to Martynowicz and many other teachers to either exit or prepare to leave the state school systems in Hungary and Poland.

The Teachers’ Trade Union (PSZ) of Hungary expects that 22,000 teachers will leave the state education system over the next five years, if nothing improves. And with more than 40 per cent of teachers aged above 50 and only 7 per cent under 30, one of the lowest ratios in Europe, the situation is set to worsen even without resignations.

In Poland, latest figures from the main teachers’ union Zwiazek Nauczycielstwa Polskiego (ZNP) showed that 10,000 teachers left the profession during 2020. Like Hungary, the Polish education sector is over-reliant on an ageing workforce, with 45,000 pensioners employed during the last academic year to fill shortages. In Warsaw, 5,000 of 30,000 teachers are pensioners or about to retire.

Children and their teachers work together at the Mackovar Kindergarten in Salgotarjan, Hungary, 25 May 2020. EPA-EFE/PETER KOMKA

Centralise, ideologise

Overall, there appears a crisis of confidence running throughout the entire systems in Hungary and Poland, hardly helped by the nationalist-populist governments in each country using education in their ongoing culture wars.

In the Polish teacher Marynowicz’s words: “The energy of the teachers has been destroyed”, because they feel ignored and disrespected by a government making decisions about education without consulting them.

In the last year, Education Minister Czarnek has been pushing through controversial changes to the curriculum without first gaining broad acceptance from teachers, parents and students.

One new measure is the introduction of shooting classes for older students, which is part of “security education” added to the compulsory school program in the context of the war in neighbouring Ukraine.

Another is the addition of a new subject, “History and Contemporary Times”, a textbook for which allegedly depicts events in the 20th and 21th centuries in nationalistic, Eurosceptic terms and contains numerous examples of homophobic, racist and misogynistic language. Teachers and students alike are currently fighting an uphill battle to have alternative textbooks to this one, titled “History and the Present”, allowed for this new subject.

This kind of blunt ideologization of the curriculum, combined with diminishing autonomy for teachers and school directors, is proving demoralising for many teachers. “It’s a very difficult time for Polish education,” Martynowicz sums it up. “I’m afraid pretty soon we’ll witness the burial of the public education system.”

Centralisation and politicisation of the curriculum also has a long history in Hungary. In 2013, the Fidesz government of Viktor Orban centralised the administration of all public schools, which were previously managed by the municipalities. Many hailed the move, because municipalities in poorer and rural areas could not cope with the bills and the payment of teachers’ salaries sometimes lagged by several months.

But centralisation also meant a tighter grip by central government, diminished autonomy and a new national curriculum in 2020, which introduced right-wing authors and overemphasised patriotism, though did little to prepare students for the challenges of the 21st century. The latest PISA tests revealed that Hungarian students performed well below the EU average and their Polish or Czech peers in key competences like reading, mathematics or sciences, and even far below their achievements in 2009.

Laszlo Miklosi, leader of the Association of History Teachers, described the 2020 curriculum as the most ideological since the democratic transition from communism, dwelling on Hungary’s successful battles and omitting defeats, and portraying Hungarians mostly as heroes.

As far as literature was concerned, the renowned novelist Gyorgy Dragoman commented wryly back in 2020: “Apparently, for this government, only a dead writer is a good writer.”

Participants attend the teachers’ demonstration in front of the Parliament building at Kossuth square, downtown Budapest, Hungary, 30 November 2019. EPA-EFE/Marton Monus

Absent

With both countries preparing for a new academic year in September, many involved in the public education systems are asking, “where are the teachers?”

In Hungary, Tamas Totyik, deputy chairman of the Teachers’ Union, says around 17,000 teachers, or 15 per cent of the total needed, are missing from the education system nationwide. The shortage of maths, physics, chemistry and IT teachers is particularly acute, even in richer neighbourhods.

“Teachers are getting older and going to retire, and there is no one to fill the gap,” Totyik, who had taught maths and geography in rural Hungary for over 30 years, tells BIRN.

In Poland, staff shortages, especially in large cities, are also worryingly high. In Warsaw, for example, there are over 1,800 vacancies, according to the ZNP union, and in Krakow about 1,000.

At a press conference in mid-August, Education Minister Czarnek derided the concerns, saying the shortages were “normal turnaround of staff at this time of year” and claimed that the countrywide numbers equated to a situation where a school with a staff of 50 lacked one teacher.

Yet a monitoring of job vacancies announced by regional education authorities, compiled by English teacher Robert Gorniak and published on the Facebook page Dealerzy Wiedzy, showed at least 20,000 teachers were needed across the country in July, with bigger cities disproportionally affected.

“As a reminder, shortages last year amounted to 15,000 staff missing in August, which amounts to a 50 per cent rise,” Gorniak commented.

That same kind of doublespeak from the Polish authorities can be seen when it comes to increasing the salaries of teachers, which has been an ongoing demand for years, including during the 2019 strike.

Czarnek claimed ZNP, the union, had rejected an offer of salary increases for teachers of around 36 per cent (a claim ZNP vehemently denies), while at the same time the PiS-controlled Sejm, the lower house of parliament, rejected an increase of 20 per cent.

In Hungary, experts argue an immediate pay rise of at least 30-50 per cent would be needed to retain and attract new teachers to make up the shortages.

After 10 years of neglect, Orban’s right-wing government is now at least conceding that there are problems in the public education system and teachers are somewhat underpaid. It is now promising to raise salaries to 80 per cent of the country’s average wage by 2029. The money to fund this, around 1 billion euros, should come from the EU’s structural and cohesion funds, but government has to provide credible anti-corruption guarantees, just like it has to with the frozen payments from the coronavirus Recovery and Resilience Facility.

In any case, teacher Zsuzsa Berkesi thinks these are empty promises from the government and won’t solve the problems in the here and now: “When the new utility bills arrive this autumn, teachers will have to decide whether to pay those or eat. Literally, many will starve. We need an immediate solution.”

And many question whether the Orban government is even ideologically prepared to change course and start investing in education. Totyik, the union leader, claims it has systematically diverted resources from the education system: back in 2008, 5.8 per cent of Hungary’s GDP was spent on public education, while in 2020 that figure had dropped to 3.8 per cent.

“More money is dedicated to sports than to elementary schools – it’s hard not to see it as a sort of ideology or prioritisation,” he says.

Totyik believes the governing party is following a conscious strategy of deconstructing public education to prevent social mobility. “Our constitution promises equal access to education for everybody: this is evidently not happening,” he says. In the meantime, the kids of the governing elite mostly attend private school or those run by the church.

Classroom strikes

ZNP and other Polish teachers’ unions are currently threatening to start a strike after the start of the new academic year unless concessions are made on increasing salaries.

Hungary’s teachers’ unions are more cautious about staging a national strike on September 2, but student organisations are already organising a major protest in front of the parliament building.

The rights of Hungarian teachers to hold strikes have been seriously curtailed over the years. Students cannot be left unattended or sent home, and a minimum service has to be upheld. Strike days are deducted from teacher salaries and many have to think twice about whether they can afford losing even a fraction of their income. “Teachers are divided and many fear for their existence,” Zsuzsa Berkesi says.

A fresh sign of Orban’s hardball tactics is that the new Fidesz government sworn in in May has turned education over to the control of the Interior Ministry and its iron-fisted leader, Sandor Pinter, who has promised more sticks than carrots when dealing with teachers and their unions.

In Poland especially, the new academic will come with the added challenge of integrating the children of Ukrainian refugees.

The education minister has claimed that Polish schools are ready to take in between 200,000 and 300,000 Ukrainian students. But the head of ZNP, Slawomir Broniarz, is warning that the government has done little to prepare for this influx.

“Even receiving 100,000 new students would require the building of 1,000 additional schools for 1,000 students,” Broniarz said in an interview with the online portal Krytyka Polityczna. “After all, our classes are not made of gum. We should be open to the needs of Ukrainians, we should help, but who and where can this help be implemented?”

“The reaction to the arrogance of the [education] minister might be a huge rebellion by teachers,” Dariusz Chetkowski, a Lodz teacher wrote on his popular education blog hosted by weekly Polityka. “It’s hard to say in what form this rebellion might take after September 1: a general strike, a mass exodus by teachers leaving the system, or directors having to deal with teachers who do their job in an angry, uncontrollably frustrated manner.”

“We can only empathise with the students,” Chetkowski added, “who are forced to learn in such bad times. They are attending a sick school, and the minister is refusing to take any blood tests or apply any treatment.”

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