Saturday, September 15, 2007

The perpetuum mobile of Bulgarian education

This post was inspired by a heated discussion on Marfa's blog ( Her post was a rant against Bulgarian government and the minority of riches who claim there is nothing wrong with the miserable wages of the majority of Bulgarians, including doctors and teachers. Some commenters said that Bulgarians had only themselves to blame for their low incomes because they were bad workers. I commented, "Unfortunately, the few Bulgarians earning decent (for Bulgaria) wages always ascribe their success to their professionalism only. And, doing so, they forget the wretched teachers with worn-out coats who have helped them become professionals."
Commenter Skoklyo replied, "I have never seen a teacher with a worn-out coat, so let's not write Proletarian prose in the style of newspapers from the Communist era."
I wanted to reply and in order not to bring the discussion off topic, I'm doing it here.
As a university assistant, I qualify to be called "teacher". And my winter coat surely qualifies to be called "worn-out". It has qualified for years. And this year, the year when Bulgaria joined EU, I had to give up yellow cheese for an indefinite period.
Let me instantly state that am writing this just to bring a relevant fact. I am not whining and don't need anybody's advice or pity. I will fiercely deny any suggestion that I am "poor". I am actually quite well off. I earn above the average for Bulgaria, my husband even more so. None of us is chronically ill. We aren't paying rent or mortgage. And we haven't done any of the follies people do to bring themselves to poverty, such as buying expensive things we cannot really afford or having numerous children (though many Bulgarians will say that two children ARE numerous). And this is the problem - that a well-to-do family cannot afford such elementary luxuries.
To write the above sentences, I had to collect myself, as non-courageous people do when they have to make a courageous step. Like confessing to a sort of poverty, writing under their real name in public space. In present-day Bulgaria, poverty is shameful, often regarded as a result of stupidity, incompetence or laziness. And so it should be, this is attitude required to "make poverty history". Unfortunately, the change of attitude still awaits the corresponding change in reality.
As a university teacher, I am better paid than a school teacher. The salaries at our Medical Faculty, though much lower than they should and could be, are considerably above the minimum established by law. I have had two promotions and my salary is correspondingly higher than it was when I began work. Besides the "basic" salary, I receive additional money for my specialty, for my PhD degree and for teaching in English. So I am among the best paid teachers in Bulgaria. What about the others?
Skoklyo may not have mentioned his teachers' worn-out clothes because he is a guy and guys are known for their habit to overlook details. However, there are alternative explanations. For many teachers, to be well dressed is required for dignity and they will deprive themselves of food to save for clothes. And government periodically pays teachers in public secondary schools special money for clothes. The teacher, after using them, has to supply invoices to prove that the money was indeed used for clothes and shoes! Otherwise, as you guess, some irresponsible teachers could spend it on meat instead.
I find the money for clothes to be a disgrace. It shows that government requires from teachers to be decently dressed at their workplace but doesn't intend ever to pay them decent salaries. And, besides, this money is not sufficient. I have accompanied my teacher friend to shops where she bought not only second-hand clothes but also second-hand shoes. (While second-hand clothes can be properly disinfected and washed, second-hand shoes cannot and carry the risk of fungal infection.)
When we come to this world, our minds are tabula rasa. Biologically, present-day newborns have the same brains as babies who gave their first cry in caves 20000 years ago. Our cultural environment, most notably family and education, brings children to the 21st century. It is wonderful that every individual in some 20 years catches up wigh the millenial human progress. At the same time, it's scary. Just let the system collapse and civilization may degrade to barbarism within a generation or two.
Our educational system receives as little support from government and society as if it's dealing with stray kittens, not with our children. As another teacher friend of mine said, the decline of school begins at home when the young child hears his parent disparagingly say of somebody, "You ask what she is working? Nothing special, she's a teacher." Although our educational system is in decline and people are right to criticize it, it still works amazingly well, taking into account how little resources and attention it receives from society. It is a working perpetuum mobile. How long will it endure?
When I began my work as assistant in 1994, I had to compete with five people. Now, when we have vacant positions, the candidates coming are usually as many as the positions. Sometimes the interview fails because the candidate doesn't show the qualification required by law for the position of university assistant. It is a sure sign that a job is underpaid when the only people willing to do it are not really qualified for it.
Today, Sept. 15, is a special date. The academic year at secondary schools begins. Proud parents bring their little ones in formal clothes and teachers end up with more flowers than they can carry. Oh, this year there is a peculiarity. Schools begin the ceremony an hour later - this is a "warning strike" with demands for better pay. Minister of education Daniel Valchev has threatened that headmasters of schools not beginning the academic year in time will be punished (
Outside secondary schools, the academic year can begin at other dates. My colleagues at the Medical University have met their students on Monday, and last week my elder son returned to his kindergarten where great people teach him for no money.
Bulgarian students and teachers have a song that is a sort of hymn. It says, "Forward, knowledge is a sun shining upon the souls!" I am happy to say that for me, the sun shines as brightly now as it did 13 years ago when I first started my job, and as it did almost 30 years ago when I first entered school.
Happy Sept. 15 to all learners and good luck up the path of knowledge!
Happy Sept. 15 to all teachers! I hope you all, like me, are proud of your mission and don't regret your decision to remain in Bulgaria, awaiting and working for a better future.


Anonymous said...

Maya, thank you so much for this posting! Im not very sentimentall usually but i had tears in my eyes after reading this. Unlike you i am living abroad (not so far away from bulgaria) and after 10 years of foreign countreis im finally getting there and serioisly starting to think about coming back home. because of and thanks to people like you!
so please contninue that way!
best regards from vienna
tatiana petkova

Maya M said...

Tatiana, thank you very much for the kind words, I am really moved! Best wishes!

Anonymous said...

Is this the same Tatiana Petkova that visited me in Toledo a long time ago?