Non-Estonian teachers fear mass job loss

  • 2009-04-22
  • By Ella Karapetyan

THE APPLE AND THE TREE: Supporters say that teachers should be role models and show students the importance of speaking Estonian.

TALLINN - Lyudmilla Andreichuk is an English teacher at a private school in Tallinn. In addition to English, she speaks fluent Russian and Estonian.
Though Andreichuk will not personally be affected by the law stating that all teachers must have an adequate level of Estonian to keep their jobs, she has deep concerns. She thinks the damage done to the Estonian education system may be irrevocable.

"I suppose that the law concerning the Estonian language categories will bring the educational system to total destruction, and this means that the Russian schools will be in danger of collapse," Andreichuk told The Baltic Times.
She said the courses offered by the state to help teachers meet the language requirements were not sufficient, and that the shortfall could lead to widespread problems as teachers begin to lose their jobs en masse.

Andreichuk is not alone in her opinion of the law.
Tension is rising among teachers throughout Estonia as many are beginning to come to terms with what the education system might look like after the deadline for all teachers to learn the national language passes next year.

With the two-year grace period now nearly halfway through, many teachers who had tried to learn Estonian are now realizing they will not be able to meet the requirements by the time the deadline, which will fall on July 1 next year, has passed.

"Of course I don't support the law," said Natalia Kuvaeva, a teacher at a school in Tallinn.
"My personal opinion is that this is a very biased question 's the answer is clear that no one will support such a law if it clearly harms innocent people, but the specification by the law-makers is quite different," Kuvaeva said.
"This will affect the quality of education in the country, both in the short term as well as in the long one, because the experienced teachers that might not pass the language exam will be forced to leave and who will come instead? Young and inexperienced [teachers], but with the language knowledge?" she said.
According to data provided by a Eurobarometer study that took place in 2005, about 68.5 percent of the population identify themselves as Estonian.

The study found that only 14 percent of Estonians are monolingual, compared to the EU average of 44 percent. Despite a good knowledge of languages, 34 percent of respondents said they primarily used a language other than Estonian.
At present, approximately three quarters of secondary-school students study in Estonian, and one quarter study in Russian.


Though many teachers harbor growing fears of widespread job losses as a result of the law, a large portion of the populace stands in stark support of the requirement to force all teachers to speak an adequate level of Estonian.

Inga Malva, a Tallinn resident, told The Baltic Times that she would prefer a situation whereby there were not separate Estonian and Russian schools. She said it would be better if there were only Estonian-language schools, as it would help integrate the society and give residents of the country a chance to learn the local language while they are still young.

"A teacher is always a good example for students, and if the teacher speaks the language she would be the best example for students to understand the importance of learning the language," Malva said.
Another citizen of the country, Brigitta Davidjants, agreed with the sentiment, saying that it is only normal for teachers to know the local language in order to work.

"Definitely, I think that teachers should know the state language. Anybody in any country of the world cannot work at a school if he does not know the state language 's as well as in Russia, one who does not know Russian fluently will simply not be taken to work. I think this concerns any European country and the U.S., as well," she said.

"In my opinion, in the short [term], losing their job could concern the older generation or those, for example, who haven't made any effort to learn the language for about 20 years."
"This is not about being unable to learn the language, but simply a matter of loyalty and desire. It is more necessary to think about young teachers who will soon leave universities and go to work at schools, and I find it is important that they have some stimulus," she said.

Critics complain that after graduation, many students will find themselves with an inadequate proficiency in Estonian and unable to continue their studies in an Estonian-language environment or to enter the workforce.
While secondary school graduates are required to know the language well enough to score at least 60 points on the national examination, it is still possible to graduate with a score of 20. In many cases, the only exposure to the Estonian language that students receive comes in one linguistics course.
Despite her misgivings over the possible fallout, Andreichuk also said that she could see the need for the requirement.

"I support the idea of having the language categories, when taking as an example gymnasiums and state schools, where the knowledge of the Estonian language is really important," she said.
The teacher also noted, however, that she thought the government was approaching the problem in a bad way.

"But in this case I consider that the level must be advanced not the intermediate one, having only intermediate level wouldn't be enough for teaching in the state schools… As for private schools teachers, I find the beginner's level 's that's to say A2, which is considered to be the basic one 's is quite satisfactory," she said.


The legislation surrounding the issue was passed in the summer of last year. It gave teachers two years to reach a certain proficiency in the language or face losing their jobs.
The law also reformed the measurement scale to bring it in line with EU norms. Under that scale, teachers will have to pass a test at a C1 level, which the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages defines as:

"Can understand a wide range of demanding, longer texts, and recognize implicit meaning. Can express him/herself fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions. Can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes. Can produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organizational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices."

According to the current law, any language can serve as the working language of a basic school. In order to improve the proficiency of Estonian of secondary school graduates, a requirement was introduced in 2007 to start the transition from Russian-language state and municipal secondary schools to Estonian-language, while leaving those schools the right to apply to teach in any other language.

The principles of the Estonian language policy are in conformity with the UN, European Council, and OSCE documents as well as with the principlesof language use in the EU.