A large number of Estonian schools are starting the new academic year without a full complement of teaching staff, with a dearth of maths teachers being particularly acute.
According to a report on ERR current affairs show 'Aktuaalne Kaamera', as many as 80 schools are looking for maths teachers, exacerbated by the perception that teaching is not a viable long-term career and many teachers switching track to other jobs after as little as a year of teaching.
Schools are doing their best to attract new teaching talent, but still the gulf between supply and demand, especially for maths teachers as noted, remains.
Meme leads to a teacher being hired
One school in Jõgeva in central Estonia resorted to some pretty original advertising in this quest.
''We put up a meme online which said 'forget about the missile, help us find a maths teacher','' explained Jõgeva Gümnaasium (Gümnaasium is an upper-level school covering grades 10-12) Director Priit Põdra, talking to Aktuaalne Kaamera.
The meme refers to the air-to-air missile fired in error from a NATO Eurofighter jet in Estonian airspace in August. Despite an extensive search in the likely impact area the missile, or its debris, has not been found; maths teachers are just as elusive, in other words.
Nevertheless, it worked: ''I believe that our new maths teacher, Karin, came to us as a direct result of the meme/advert,'' Mr. Põder went on.
The teacher in question, Karin Tepaskent, like many in her situation, divides her teaching time between two schools including at Jõgeva, as well as studying for a master's degree at the University of Tartu.
''I'm at the Jõgeva school Monday to Wednesday, Thursday in Kääpa (a small village about 40 km from Jõgeva) and Friday and Saturday I'm studying at the University,'' Ms. Tepaskent explained.
Problem the same in the capital
Schools in the capital are facing the same issue, according to the report. The Kadriorg German Gümnaasium are having to make up the missing maths teacher slot by covering the shortfall between the existing teachers.
Gümnaasium Director Imbi Viisma admitted it had been a difficult summer in this respect and the lack of young people coming into the teaching profession was particularly poignant.
''In theory, according to the Ministry of Education and Research, there should have been maths teachers available, but in reality none materialised,'' she went on.
Estonia should be proud of its young talent, the report stated, who are able to solve complex tasks in front of the TV cameras (referring to a popular TV show) , but, it was noted, this success is just as much the result of good teaching in schools and not just innate intelligence.
Vice-rector of the University of Tallinn, Priit Reiska, echoed the problem. Last year, students who opted to study to be a science teacher in the University were offered a separate scholarship. Nonetheless, this yielded just five students.
"Whilst the number of students studying to be maths teachers is better than last year, 20 as opposed to about half that, this is still lower than could be achieved," added Mr. Reiska, explaining that the situation in the natural sciences is even worse.
The education ministry itself said that the situation is improving, however.
''We're not on the brink of disaster,'' said Head of the General Education Department at the ministry, Mihkel Rebane.
''In some regions in particular things might seem to be taking a turn for the worse, but in fact they're slowly getting better,'' he went on.
Mr. Rebane, who himself worked for a long time as a teacher and school director, explained that various steps had been taken to attract young people into teaching as against other careers, including making changes to the qualifications requirements.
''The bureaucrats' role is to decide whether to raise salaries or scholarships. There are many things which could be done effectively if we put sufficient money into it, but with the wealth of the country as it is now there are other attractive occupations out there,'' he said.
''One side of the coin is to attract young people studying for a bachelor's degree to the teaching profession, the other is to provide opportunities for people from other target groups to become teachers,'' according to Priit Reiska.
Not just attraction, but retention too
The problem of teacher burnout continues to be an issue. According to Imbi Viisma, many schools are able to retain their better teachers, but this is down to the original school and there is not some kind of 'secret recipe' which can be published as applicable to all.
Priit Põdra, from the Jõgeva Gümnaasium, added that a good working environment is crucial, and that parents, too, had a role to play in helping to retain teachers.
"Having worked for ten years as a teacher and thinking back on what attracted me to the job, the bottom line is that the work was meaningful, important to society and important for the students too,'' added Mr. Põdra.
Estonian schools, which teach a national curriculum in the vast majority of cases, always start the academic year on 1 September regardless of the day. This year the first fell on a Saturday so pupils, teachers, and parents, were present for the opening assembly and activities, with regular classes commencing today, Monday.
The original article and Aktuaalne Kaamera clip (in Estonian) is here.
Editor: Andrew Whyte