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Toomas Artma: What do teachers want?

Toomas Artma.
Toomas Artma. Source: Janne Lass

Principal Toomas Artma explains why the average salary of teachers seems high and what is causing Estonia's teachers to launch a strike on January 22.

The education workers' warning strike in early November failed to produce the desired results. In the interim, the government has sent young people a clear message that it does not pay to study to be a teacher. But, paradoxically enough, that is also the message sent by the Estonian Education Personnel Union (EHL). First, because its representatives feel everything is wrong when it comes to schools in Estonia and, second, as reflected in the clarity of messages regarding the January 22 strike, which I would describe as having a "floating aim."

Do you know the reason teachers are striking off the top of your head? Of course, everyone does. It's simply that the answers to this question and strikers' goals can be very different. Some are striking to make sure people would want to become teachers in the future, some for money, some against the government, others because of broken promises (being lied to), while others want to work fewer hours. None are mutually exclusive, of course, leaving us with a rather mottled picture.

To make sure the confusion lingers, allow me to shed light on a few topics in the wake of the teachers' strike from a school principal's perspective.

Salary

Let us start with pay. Where does the money to pay teachers come from? Technically, it is from the central and local governments, while it would be nearer the mark to say it comes from the former. Prime Minister Kaja Kallas has praise for local governments that pay teachers more to make their salaries a little more competitive. Allow me to translate: the government realizes that what it pays local governments for teachers' salary is not enough.

Subpar government funding means that local counterparts need to completement teachers' salaries using local taxpayer money that could be spent on youth workers, culture or new bicycle paths instead. While this helps retain teachers for some time, it's not for very long. The PM praises Viimsi, Saue and Saku for paying teachers a nice premium on top of the government salary component, to suggest the problem is solved.

But let us come to the matter of progeny now. Teachers are leaving faster than new ones are being trained. I doubt high school leavers in Valga and Jõgeva counties will study pedagogy next fall simply because Viimsi and Saue municipalities pay a premium on top of the national minimum salary of teachers. I just don't buy it.

A few local governments helping along their teachers' salaries will not remedy a situation where the state does not care. That is why the central government should hike what it pays teachers to allow local counterparts to contribute more to support services in and outside schools. This would lend current and future teachers confidence in that their pay and support network are motivating.

While we're on the subject of salaries, we cannot overlook the average pay of a general education teacher. Let's be honest, the average is pretty high, which might suggest complaining is out of place. However, two nuances need to be highlighted.

Firstly, there are quite a few teachers who want a considerably bigger workload in order to receive a bigger salary. Would teachers limit themselves to the standard working time were the minimum salary rate higher? Or would they still want to put in overtime to earn even more? At least it would be their choice.

Secondly, have teachers who burn out or complain of excessive workload made that choice for themselves? Do principals have solutions to ensure (high-quality) lessons while keeping teacher workload sensible? The answer is no.

Allow me to give a simple example. The average teacher wants 21 contact lessons and a class teacher's position when the schoolyear starts. But because schools are usually short more than a few teachers by August 31, the principal and head teacher have by September 1 persuaded "self-managing" teachers to take on 26 contact lessons, class teacher and subject coordinator roles to which substitutions, consultations and students taking failed tests again will inevitably be added.

By the end of September, two tutoring lessons will have been added because the inclusive education model leaves no one behind! Of course, all of it still officially remains within the 35 weekly work hours because working time calculation is just that flexible, but let us not linger on that for now. Besides, teachers get plenty of time off during the school holidays. A classic example of a self-managing teacher.

That is how the average salary of teachers keeps growing much to the glee of the Ministry of Education and local government heads. Teachers might even be bright-eyed until someone remarks how teaching is not a real job and that municipalities closer to Latvia are overpaying theirs like crazy. However, this semi-mandatory salary rate is not something politicians should take pride in.

Another serious problem I perceive as principal is blind standard salary. Should a teacher be paid the same amount as a person working as one but without the necessary qualification? That is how it is currently. The minimum rate is the same irrespective of whether the person has a doctorate in pedagogy or is a first-year university student whose workload at school is furthermore keeping them from graduating.

There are few enough qualified teachers – and that number keeps dwindling – while good teachers with the necessary qualification are even fewer. And we are making no effort to keep them. Rather, it's the opposite. Because they have the skills and qualification, theirs is the "honor" to be saddled with everything accompanying inclusive education where the requirements and supervision are stricter.

Having an unqualified person teach special needs classes is a more serious oversight still. And so, teachers who have the necessary qualification and experience need to "manage themselves" to also take charge of such lessons, shortly after which they will manage themselves to quit teaching. To get a "real job" as recently put by a member of a nascent political party.

Future

What does the future hold for general education schools? A growing workload and nonexistent career model means that few people decide to become teachers. Those who do will have to reckon with said workload while still in school, keeping them from graduating. All this is to stay that recent policy is aimed at a less than hopeful future.

But the work of a teacher is extremely interesting, yields hope and happiness, with creativity working to keep the senses fresh. Add in the summer break and we're talking about the best job on the planet. If only we'd manage to sort out workload, career model and salaries.

The pay and career model of teachers needs to be motivating enough to create competition. More money is needed, while it needs to be accompanied by a carefully considered career model. This would help ensure the profession's high reputation, quality education and a human workload. High-quality education is in clear correlation with social development and growth of GDP. Should we see boosting the teachers' salary fund, as a prerequisite of the latter, as an expense or an investment for the Estonian people? Where does the government stand?

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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