Teachers in Double Jeopardy

tol chalkboard logoIn August, Konstantin Shcherbina, the director of a sports academy in the town of Krasnoturansk in Siberia, was looking forward to receiving the title of “honorary master of education of Russia.” Yet, when the papers arrived, the coach, well known and respected in his community, did not celebrate. Because Shcherbina was shocked to find that, along with the award, there was an order from the regional prosecutor’s office stipulating that, as of 1 September, he must be fired.

The order did not mean that the state award was withdrawn. Shcherbina lost his job as the direct result of a new law, passed by the State Duma earlier this year, which bans anyone who has ever had a criminal record from being employed in any Russian school or other state-funded educational institution. The law also orders that any current school employee with a criminal record, regardless of how long ago it was or what sort of offence was committed, must be dismissed.

It turns out that 20 years ago Shcherbina, now in his 60s, was convicted of the crime of insulting a woman.

“I just was arriving at school,” Shcherbina recalled, “and a group of girls was standing in the way. I asked them to move so I could park, and they refused and a quarrel started. One of the girls happened to be a friend of the head of the local police station. And so the ‘insult’ case ended up in court, and I got six months of community service.”

Later he was able to go back to his job as a school sports coach, but now, two decades later, in the wake of the new law, Shcherbina has been forced out of his post because prosecutors refused to consider the circumstances.

The purpose of the law is straightforward. It is meant to safeguard children from criminals and protect them from malign influences. On that pretext, a moral cleansing campaign on a grand scale is under way in Russian schools as teachers like Shcherbina lose their jobs without any recourse.

Victims of the campaign have begun to tell their stories online. One, Ivan, says he was fired as a music teacher because it came to light that he had once received a short prison sentence for being involved in a fight.

“Nothing else mattered – not my conservatory degree, not international competitions nor the successes of my students,” he wrote last week in the reader comments field of an article on the law on a nationwide news website.

“It has ruined my life,” he continued. “Employers are afraid to give me work. The directors of my school told me that everyone was happy with my work, but they had to do what the prosecutors ordered.”

The law has even hit school workers who are not teachers. Vladimir, who reveals his plight in a comment to the same article, says he was convicted after a fight 31 years ago. He has spent the last 17 years working as a school plumber. But he has now been fired under the new law.

“I have two years left until retirement,” he wrote. “Who on earth will employ me now?”

Neither the Education Ministry nor the State Prosecutor’s Office has given any figures for how many school employees have been let go under the new law. Yet reports from across Russia suggest many are losing their jobs. In Shcherbina’s region of Krasnoyarsk, more than 300 teachers have already been ousted.

The law seems to have been drafted without any possibility of compromise in mind. Even award-winning teachers and “honorary teacher of Russia” titleholders are being put on the scrap heap.

The law has been welcomed by some Russian parents, however. One typical opinion was expressed by Mariku, who posted a comment on the Big Question news forum in September.

“As a mother, a former primary school teacher, and the daughter of a police officer, I do not want my kids to be taught by a former criminal,” she wrote. “Education provides good employment. In Moscow a teacher’s salary starts at 25,000 rubles [$800]. You get two months’ paid vacation and there are opportunities to give private lessons that pay at least 300 rubles an hour.”

The law may well have been conceived with good intentions – it’s hard to argue against the goal of shielding children from criminals – but for many school workers it has turned into a road to hell. Although schools may have been able to sack some bad people, it’s also clear the law has destroyed the careers of many valued teachers and school staff.

What is most amazing is that Russian legislators have not learned anything from their country’s own history. Since the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Russia has been plunged into all sorts of cleansing campaigns: against people of aristocratic birth, against “pseudo-scientists,” dissidents, and all sorts of other “enemies” of the state.

It goes without saying that there should be no place for a habitual criminal or a child abuser in schools. But the law in its current form is also destroying the careers of dedicated teachers like Konstantin Shcherbina – people whose original offence was either questionable or minor, or who have long ago paid the penalty for whatever offence they committed.

The Russian legal system has the equivalent of a statute of limitations, which applies even in cases of murder.

Yet large numbers of people whose offences were less serious even than assault, let alone murder, are now being hounded years after their crime was forgotten and probably forgiven. From all appearances, this campaign has become little more than a witch-hunt. Even school staff who received only a suspended sentence must still lose their jobs.

Dismissing teachers with a criminal record en masse appears especially hypocritical in Russia, where convicted criminals seem to have had no problem getting jobs in government, being elected to parliament, or, as businessmen, winning tenders to carry out plum construction projects.

If the state wants to awaken schoolchildren to the dangers posed by immoral adults it might do better to put on a course of lectures about some of the convicted offenders who have risen to become Russian regional governors.

What schoolchildren really need to learn is that Russia remains a country of double standards. And the purge of teachers with any kind of criminal record, while other convicted criminals continue to play key roles in running the country, is proof of this sad fact.

Galina Stolyarova is a writer for The St. Petersburg Times, an English-language newspaper.


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