Bulgaria: Classsroom Blues (and Grays)

SOFIA, Bulgaria | At the German Language High School, the teachers’ lounge is a gloomy room with faded sofas, drab chairs, and dust-covered computers that no longer work. Time stopped here years ago.

Cement corridors with a patchwork of paint lead to the classrooms. While a few rooms have been smartly refurbished – complete with high-tech equipment and Internet access – most are antiquated. The night-and-day difference between facilities at the school depends on who is footing the bill. The German government paid for the modern classrooms.

Bulgarian teachers staged demonstrations in front of the Parliament in Sofia.  Photo by Kozzmen.  Creative Commons licensed.

Bulgarian teachers staged demonstrations in front of the Parliament in Sofia. Photo by Kozzmen. Creative Commons licensed.

Teachers and students face a daily struggle with aging or outdated resources, and not just at the German school, which is one of the most prestigious in the country. Its students routinely achieve some of the highest results on secondary-school exams.

The dilapidated conditions of public schools can be even more pronounced outside the capital.

“There are no investments in Bulgarian education,” said Diana Raycheva, vice principal of the German school. “And it is not just about the teachers’ wages. But it is also about the working environment. Look around. How do you expect anyone to come to work here?”

But it is not just buildings and equipment that are aging. The majority of Bulgaria’s primary and secondary teachers are on the older side of 40, and the age gap between students and educators continues to rise.

Several factors are cited for the graying of the teacher corps, not just the working environment in a profession that carried considerable prestige under communism. Higher wages and a declining jobless rate have lured younger, educated workers into the private sector. Younger, more mobile people have also sought educational and work opportunities abroad – a process made easier since Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007 – raising the prospect of future shortages.

The health of the education system in this country of 7.3 million came to a head last September when thousands of public school teachers went on strike. Their demands included a doubling of wages and higher government spending on education. The strikes – which started in Sofia and spread to other cities – lasted almost seven weeks.

The teachers’ complaints were not without merit. A study by the Brussels-based Lisbon Council public policy group cites Bulgaria’s low investment in schools as one reason for their anemic academic performance. Bulgaria was ranked with neighboring Romania as the lowest in educational quality among the Central and Eastern European countries.

Bulgaria spends about 4.2 percent of its GDP on education, compared to 6 percent in Hungary, 5.7 percent in Estonia, and 4.6 percent in the Czech Republic. Romania spends 3.6 percent.

Education International, a federation of labor unions that supported the Bulgarian teachers’ walkout, reported last year that the country’s average monthly salary of 174 euros was the lowest in Europe. The average monthly salary for all jobs in Bulgaria at the end of 2007 was 220 euros.

The government, which at first seemed indifferent to the strikers’ demands, changed course and acknowledged the poor wages for teachers and crumbling conditions of schools. In October, Finance Minister Plamen Oresharski pledged major increases in spending for education, while Education Minister Daniel Valchev said the first step in the “huge task” of overhauling public education was a near doubling of the average teacher salary to 325 euros.

The Ministry of Education also agreed to give local jurisdictions the responsibility of distributing wage increases, a decision initially welcomed by the teachers. Since then, trade unions have threatened another walkout after ministry officials reported it could take some districts months to distribute higher salaries.

More than a Wage Issue

But heftier paychecks still may not be enough to entice a younger generation to a profession that has a reputation for being conservative and antiquated. “Success will go to those individuals and countries which are swift to adapt, slow to complain and open to change,” states the Lisbon Council’s “European Human Capital Index,” published in October. The same month, some 80,000 Bulgarian public school teachers were demanding more money.

“When a person is up to date, age is not a problem,” said Vyara Lazarova, director of the Bulgarian Parents Association, which opposed the teachers’ walkout. “But the case of the Bulgarian school is that teachers have a conservative attitude towards their profession. They are passive and discouraged.”

Along with the lack of technology, course materials in Bulgarian schools have changed little since the end of communism. Instruction continues to focus on memorization rather than intellectual challenge and practical learning. Educators say this environment discourages younger teachers or applicants who have had training or exposure to systems in other countries.

“There are no young people on our staff,” Raycheva said in an interview at the beginning of the school year. “The age gap between us and the pupils is huge already. We are falling far behind our own pupils.”

The vast majority of Bulgarian teachers – 66 percent – are over 40, according to the National Statistics Institute. Only 7 percent are under the age of 30. The graying of the profession is evident in a walk through the corridors of almost any school.

One literature teacher at the German High School lamented the lack of resources Bulgarian teachers have compared to those of German colleagues who work there, too. “We are so far behind our German colleagues here when it comes to technologies and means of teaching,” Marta Dgaleva said. “They have Internet, computers, projectors, laser printers, web cameras in all of their offices. The chemistry and biology laboratories they are responsible for look fantastic. All this money comes from the German government, not from the Bulgarian [authorities].”

Literature teacher Nora Kireva said conditions in schools discourage anyone who might want to become a teacher. At Sofia’s Dobri Voinikov 35th Secondary School, she said 100 other teachers share a single room for class preparation and breaks. “The most natural thing in this situation is young people to prefer well-equipped offices and decent conditions,” Kireva said.

The government’s pledge to spend more on education may help, but public schools may still fall short of recruiting enough employees, especially as older workers begin to retire in the next few years. Membership in the EU is also bringing more employment opportunities – but not in education. Raycheva and Dgaleva said that in recent years, companies and even public agencies have lured teachers away from the German school with better salaries and working conditions.

“The sad thing is that only the bad have stayed here or the very few who feel the profession as their vocation or duty,” Raycheva said, adding that those who stay sometimes have to take other jobs to make ends meet. “This means that we enter our classes with lower capacity, and our pupils are affected.”




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