The Baltic's suffering teachers

  • 2008-03-26
  • By Talis Saule Archdeacon and TBT Staff

SCHOOLS OUT: Teachers in Lithuania finally became so fed up with the low pay and high demands that they decided to go on strike. Though the strike was recently suspended, problems remain and union leaders threaten to resume the picket if things do not improve soon.

Life is no picnic for Baltic schoolteachers. The sheer workload forces teachers to put in overtime hours nearly every week. Wages are so low it is barely possible to survive.

"The salary is not enough, because there is so much to do. It [wages] has been going up over the past few years, but it is not even enough to compensate for inflation. Basically, I end up having to work two full time jobs at the same place… I am a mother and I cannot stay at school until 9 p.m. everyday," one Latvian school teacher said.

The situation has become so bad that teachers unions in all three countries have threatened to strike numerous times in the past year. Lithuanian unions have recently followed through with their threats, leaving schoolrooms empty and students out in the cold.

The Lithuanian teachers strike started on March 3, when educators from dozens of schools walked out. The students were caught in the middle.

"The government and pedagogues are currently unable to start a dialogue 's although both parties say they work for our benefit, we are the ones who are suffering… Our position is neutral. We are saying that we're hurting and that we are currently hostages of the situation," said Lithuanian Students' Parliament member Lukas Savickas.

On March 4, Savickas helped to organize a protest in which students throughout the country blocked afternoon traffic to draw attention to their plight. 

The Latvian and Estonian teachers' unions have thrown their support behind the Lithuanian strike. The unions of both countries have recently come to tentative agreements with their own governments, however, and so are unable to join in the picket.

"We support them but we have not taken any further action, we have not gone to visit them and we have not decided to join them in the strike. I can imagine a situation, theoretically, in which we would join the strike. But practically I do not see how it could be possible now," a representative of the Latvian teachers' union said.
In Estonia and Latvia the wages are also nowhere close to high enough to compensate the massive workload and the grinding stress.

"We sincerely hope for coalition agreement, which means teacher's wage will be raised more in the following years. It's clear the wage rise isn't consistent  with the difficulty of teacher's work. We all know we don't have enough teachers in schools today 's the reason is the work is hard," said Lehte Joemaa, a spokeswoman for the Estonian teachers' union.

The reasons behind the strike are widely attributed to a lack of communication between teachers and the government 's an issue which plagues all three Baltic states. The governments seem to constantly make promises to the teachers which never get fulfilled.

The Lithuanian government recently signed an agreement with union leaders to more than double wages between 2009 and 2011, an agreement which many teachers and opposition leaders claim will be easily disowned by the new government after elections later this year.

The teachers finally agreed to suspend their strike on March 21 as the government enters a new round of negotiations. Union leaders have said that the suspension was more for the students than for any kind of agreement 's they have promised to resume the strike if the government can't come up with some kind of concrete plan soon.

Tensions between the two sides remain high and there is a fundamental lack of respect between the two sides. One teacher told the story of a protest in Lithuania where the prime minister came to address the crowd. When one of the protesting teachers complained of not being able to afford food, the prime minister shot back "maybe someone needs to go on a diet."

That sort of dialogue is all too common between the two sides. Though wages are the crux of the issue, the problem runs far deeper than simply salaries.

Another brick in the wall
A school teacher from the central Latvian town of Jelgava sat down with The Baltic Times to discuss the real problems facing teachers and schools. She explained how the problem was not only with wages; it is with the education system as a whole.

"The problem is not only with salaries 's it is a problem with the system itself. In Finland, they have this great system. Everybody studies together, and according to the results of studies they have one of the best systems. Here, we have this system where there is a 'state gymnasium' which picks up all of the best students. But [nobody recognizes that] the other schools are state schools too," she said.

The better-paid teachers from state gymnasiums then come to give advice to the "struggling" schools. But the state gymnasiums can throw out any student that doesn't get good enough marks, any student that slacks off a little too much. Those students end up at the other state schools.

The problem, the teacher said, is that whichever good students the non-state gymnasium schools have inevitably end up being brought down by the other kids. This leads to a kind of self defeating system which leaves most teachers feeling like they are constantly banging their heads against a wall.

She said the government has now proposed increasing teacher's pay based on how well they do, but because of the system there is no way to evaluate which teachers are good and which are not.

Even at the highest levels of government politicians recognize the system isn't working. Last year, Latvian President Valdis Zatlers spoke up about the problem 's a move which drew fire from fellow politicians.

"After regaining independence we dissolved the old educational system. And, unfortunately, we were unable to come up with a unified system [to take its place]… It is the fault of educators and the ministry, not just the fault of one person. The problem could be solved only through a dialogue between the ministry and the educators," the president said in an interview with the Baltic News Service.

One thing is clear, if the situation does not improve over the next few years there may not be many teachers left. Budding Latvian teachers are finishing their education degrees, teaching a few months worth of classes and going off to find other work. Estonia is having an equally difficult time recruiting new teachers.
"One more problem is the training of teachers, [a cause] which has been actively taken up. We must agree how [we will get] the best teachers to come nowadays and how they will stay 's because the work is difficult and [they must have] long in-school practice so they are well prepared for the work… Teachers make many materials by themselves and we are [always] missing time," Joemaa said.