Day in the Life: Tanel the history teacher ({{commentsTotal}})

Tanel Mazur addressing his students during a field trip to Narva Art Gallery. 30 January 2019.
Tanel Mazur addressing his students during a field trip to Narva Art Gallery. 30 January 2019. Source: Aili Vahtla/ERR

While I spend my summer holidays running a 17th Century pharmacy at a castle located right on the northeastern border of both NATO and the EU, during the rest of the year I'm more likely to be found teaching about that same century to children of a linguistic minority in Estonia's largest majority Russian-speaking city. My name is Tanel Mazur, and I am a history teacher at Narva Estonian Upper Secondary School (NEG).

I teach a total of 20 lessons per week, and what time I wake up each morning depends on when my first lesson of the day is. One day a week, on Fridays, my first lesson is the first lesson of the day, and so I wake up at 7 in the morning in order to be in the classroom and ready to teach by 8:30. My first cup of coffee is usually at the school.

At home, however, there are two main questions that need to be answered first. Number one: am I walking or taking a cab to the school? That depends on the weather and how much time I have. Second: I check my schedule — what classes do I have, what ages, and what topics are we covering? Then I choose my t-shirt accordingly. I usually connect my shirt to the subject matter of at least one of my lessons that day. On Wednesday, for example, I wore a red and yellow "Save Christiania" t-shirt that I had bought during one of my three visits to the famous Copenhagen commune; it tied in to discussions we had in our grade 12 civics class about discrimination and various liberties, and to what degree liberties are allowed.

NEG, Narva's only Estonian-language upper secondary school, currently has a total of 170 students from grades 1-12, and I teach grades 4-12, or from around age 10 and up — mostly history, but also media and civics lessons as well.

Our student body can more or less be divided into three categories: 100% Estonians, so to speak, whose parents are both Estonian, who are often from the suburbs surrounding the city and not the city itself, and who account for the rare children who speak no Russian at all; the second third consists of mixed Russian-Estonian families; the final third is made up of monolingual Russian-speaking families — plus everyone else. NEG is the school attended by all small minorities represented in the city, including Chinese, Finnish and French, for example. We're a bit of a catch-all school in that regard, because we have the knowledge and experience of teaching in different languages. Between all of the teachers, we also speak quite a number of languages fluently as well — on top of the standard Estonian, Russian and English.

All lessons are 45 minutes in length, with ten-minute breaks between lessons. The school day also includes two canteen breaks of 20 minutes each. The school day begins at 8:30, and the 8th and final lesson of the day ends at exactly 4 in the afternoon. Class sizes currently range from 8 to 20 children; grade 12 is the smallest right now, as many students end up going to top schools in Tallinn or Tartu for their upper secondary years.

Not enough time

I teach both Estonian and world history. As I tell people, I have to teach the whole history of the world across all the seas and oceans and through all times. According to the Estonian curriculum, you go through all periods of Estonian history — from ancient to medieval, the Enlightenment Period, and the 20th Century — and reach modern day in grade 9. Then it begins again. In three years, you have to work through it all again, and this time on a new level — not just learning facts but, as described by the name of the textbook series, the "People, Society and Culture." The textbooks assume you already know the main historical facts and figures, then builds on this knowledge, painting a broader picture.

The saddest thing about the curriculum is that you don't have nearly any time to teach about Asia or Africa. Or South America. Or Australia. Okay, there is one fact — someone travelled to Australia for the first time. Then we forget about it until 1939, when they entered World War II along with Great Britain. And that's the second time we hear about Australia in the curriculum. Same thing with Asia — there is very little in the curriculum about it. Maybe two or three lessons about Ancient Asia, then you forget about it until Marco Polo. Then the next you hear about it is the Boston Tea Party and the following rise of tea clippers, because you have to explain what the tea clippers even were. But even that is only brought up in its North American context. As for African history, there's a huge part about Egypt, sure. And some stuff about the Roman Empire, and the southern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. But then you forget about the entire continent until World War II. It's worth noting that I can diversify the curriculum, but there is so much to cover and there just isn't enough time!

I need a lot of up-to-date information for my civics and media lessons, so I constantly have to read the news, including during breaks between lessons, to know what is going on — local news, national news here in Estonia, and world news. Including politics. Quite often, the subject of the lesson is connected to what is going on in the news; we don't rely on old textbooks for these lessons. We try to encourage regular media consumption. Most information people receive today comes from headlines — especially headlines in social media. But they don't know what's behind the headlines. They are sure they know everything at that point, and feel there is no need to click on the article. So our first job is to make them actually open and read the article as well. Every week, we also take one lesson to do an overview of the past week, and decide together what the three most important news stories were in Estonia, and what the three most important news stories were internationally, and why these stories were so important. Sometimes it's something from the yellow press, and sometimes it's something sports-related, but mostly it's just issues covered in the standard news. We take these topics, discuss why we think they were important, and through this encourage them to consume media consciously.

For lunch, I try to make it to Cafe Muna, which is located in the University of Tartu's Narva College building not far away. Canteen breaks, as I mentioned, are only 20 minutes long, and you may or may not be able to make it over there, eat, and make it back in that time. So sometimes I pack a sandwich along for lunch, although that means I have to make time in the morning to make them.

Skills before homework

Lessons continue after lunch. On Wednesday, I took one of my classes to the nearby Narva Art Gallery for a lesson. We looked at the portraits of various important figures together, most of whom were connected to Narva somehow, and I described the significance of various symbols and details included in the portraits. At the end of the lesson, I assigned them a project to be completed in pairs — they had two weeks to research and prepare presentations, including five slides, on an assigned historical figure whose portrait was included in the collection at the gallery. The figures were all more or less known rulers of the Russian Empire, so it's quite an easy assignment.

That being said, simply reading the Estonian-language Wikipedia article about the person will not suffice; they will have to use their other language skills as well. As the subjects are well-known historical figures, there will be plenty of material in Russian and English on them, and since they are from the Russian Empire, then Russian would be the logical choice for additional sources. Thus you end up having to use the languages you are learning at school to complete this assignment. This integration of multiple languages usually begins at the upper secondary level, or grades 9-12, but among our children, everyone is at least bilingual as a rule.

Those few students who don't speak Russian typically speak English very well. And English is one of our strongest subjects at NEG; we usually earn first place in city language contests, and our pupils who graduate with a C or even C- in English will sometimes head to university and then be kicked out of English classes there, being asked, "Why are you even here? You don't need to come here anymore; you are fluent already!" But for our teachers, they may have been a C- student at best. We have very high standards in that regard.

Projects such as the one I assigned this week are a great opportunity to integrate various subjects that the students are learning. In order to create the slides, they have to use Powerpoint or similar software, and as the presentations have to be given in proper Estonian, it is good language practice. The content of presentation has to be historically correct as well, requiring them to review their facts and figures, and last but not least, the oral presentation itself is good practice in speaking, as they may not simply write everything they want to say on the slides. It is actually forbidden to use more than five words per slide; they are meant to illustrate your presentation, not the other way around.

On that note, I do not give homework as busywork on principle. The children are given a worksheet to work on during the lesson, and if you don't manage to complete it, you have to take it home and finish it there before turning it in the next day. But if you are stuck doing that, then that is your problem, because everyone is given plenty of time to work on it during the lesson, and most students manage to complete it during class. If I'm going to give them any assignments, such as the project I assigned them this week, they have to have an actual purpose.

Part of my school day also involves dealing with my grade 7 class — I listen to their problems, or hear from other teachers, or get calls from their parents. Every day there is something to discuss. Late last year, their head teacher died, and as I was available, I took over as their head teacher the very same day. That was a month and a half ago already. The children are 13 and 14 years old, which is a difficult age, but we've developed a good connection, which is something that has made me very happy recently. I will remain their head teacher until they graduate, so I really hope this positive relationship will continue.

Medieval side job

I myself am actually a native of Tartu, and ended up in Narva somewhat by chance. Like many others, I came here on the invite of Katri Raik, who is now serving as Estonia's Minister of the Interior. I first came together with a friend who already had a job in Narva, and was only supposed to stay for a couple of days. I ended up staying, and did some odd-jobs for Narva College, and within half a year I was offered a job teaching history at NEG. While I still actually haven't completed my degree yet, I was a history major at the University of Tartu. I began teaching at the school in September 2002 — so 17 years ago as of this upcoming autumn.

Two years later; I was also offered a job by Narva Museum; a vacancy had opened up in one of the workshops at the castle's Northern Yard, and so I decided to establish a medieval pharmacy, where I play the role of an apothecary for three months every summer. In that regard, I'm actually on holidays all year round — for nine months I am on holidays from my pharmacy job, and for three months every summer I am on holidays from my teaching job. I actually also hand-pick my "apprentices" at the pharmacy from among my students. They are all boys, as girls would never have been allowed to work in such a position in the 17th Century; girls work at other workshops at Northern Yard.

Depending on my schedule for the day, the school day usually ends for me around 2 or 3 in the afternoon, as early as 12:10 on Fridays, but never any later than 4. After work, it depends. Quite often, I head over to the Northern Yard, to my pharmacy, as there is always something to do, fix or clean. Sometimes I cook dinner there, as the kitchen there — which is located behind a wall, so customers don't see a modern kitchen in a medieval setting — is better equipped than the tiny one in my rental flat. Once a week, our Northern Yard Club also gets together, although rarely on site. The club is unofficial, the result of an attempt to set up a Rotary Club but its members realizing we don't have much to gain from paying dues and so on simply in order to be granted the right to use their logo. But our little club includes members from a variety of walks of life, and we are still involved in various projects. Last year, we were even among the organisations to formally invite President Kersti Kaljulaid to come work in Narva.

Once or twice a week, I also have to go to a bookshop. Usually, one of these trips will be to a regular bookshop, and the other will be to a second-hand bookshop. As a result, I don't even really have any room left to keep all my books anymore. I have a lot of books — around 5-6,000. A month ago I finally received a set of custom, personalised barcodes I had ordered for my books. Some of my books are still in boxes in storage, but when I bring books home, I add them to my electronic catalogue — and now I add barcodes to them as well. This is helpful because I loan out quite a lot of my books, to either other teachers, students, or friends; I have quite a list of "customers." This is actually why I ordered the barcodes, so I can better keep track of what I have loaned out to whom. I am a very generous library, however, and don't charge late fees — or, if anything, two beers from adults. Most of the books are related to history, or connected somehow to my pharmacy at the castle — including books about herbs and spices, and the history of medicine. I also collect Estonian cookbooks, and Soviet-era maps and tourist brochures from former Soviet territories; my collection currently includes some 1,000 items. So much material was produced during the Soviet era that I can continue collecting these items for years to come.

History and journalism

I am also involved in journalism to a degree. As a child I attended Tallinn School No. 21, and after finishing grade 12 in night school and graduating, I didn't go straight to university. I worked as a sound engineer for Estonian Television for two or three years, and then worked for a computer company for another couple of years. It wasn't the biggest computer company in Estonia, but working on the advertising side, we started staying it was the biggest, and within three years this came to be true.

When I first arrived in Narva, alongside my teaching job, I also ran a local Estonian-language weekly called the Narva Postiljon ("Narva Carrier"). It was just four pages, black and white, with a print run of 300, but we had a subscriber in Sweden and another in the US. It was a labour of love; I was the only employee. But we had friendly relations with the Russian-language local paper Narvskaya Gazeta, and would translate Russian-language local news for our paper and translate Estonian-language news for Gazeta. I kept this up for four years, but it was exhausting, and I didn't receive any financial help. It produced zero income; it was really a labour of love. But it led to contacts with various Estonian papers, primarily the daily Eesti Päevaleht (EPL), and at some point I ended up their local correspondent in Narva. At one point I was running this ring of 20 correspondents in turn for very local news for a column literally called the "Village News"; they'd all send their news to me, and I as the editor would pick and choose what would be included. I didn't actually have to do much in that regard; it was published every Saturday, and if by Thursday I didn't have enough material together, I'd start calling them up. It actually worked quite well. But then the financial crisis hit, and the column was cut for financial reasons. They tried to keep me on as a freelance correspondent, but I told them, "Sorry, I'm not your freelance correspondent. I'm a freelance correspondent."

To this day, I still get calls from journalists. Sometimes it's someone from an Estonian paper or TV or radio news with quick questions or fact-checks, and sometimes I'm asked to comment on local issues, but other times it's foreign media. I have a related side hustle as a tour guide of sorts, providing custom tours based on what my clients want. It's not the cheapest, but I put a lot of work into them. One time, my clients were three American generals and the Estonian officials accompanying them, and the subject was World War II on the banks of the Narva River. And so I found myself guiding them from one bush to another on the riverbank on what is literally now the northeastern border of NATO and the EU — these American generals in their camouflage — somewhere you'd never go otherwise. But it was what interested them.

I get calls from big papers and agencies too, though. You name it, I've worked for them. Over the last two years, I've worked for The New York Times three times. My most recent was for them as well — they were filming for a documentary, and needed a total of just a minute and a half of shots that would speak for themselves. We had to scout out locations that would work for this. The end result would be maybe 20, 30 seconds of shots, but they travelled all the way here. It was two and a half hours of work, and they got what they wanted, and then they flew back to the US the same day. It was a tough, tough schedule. But that's what I can offer.

Border stories

I grew up between Tartu and Tallinn. I also have a special connection to Kihnu as well, where I would visit my father growing up, but as neither my mother nor my father were natives of the remote Western Estonian island, then I was what they call a "massakas" — a mainlander. Still, everyone there knew who I was, and whose son I was.

By now, however, I have been in Narva for nearly two decades, and it has changed me. I have become more open-minded toward Russian culture. It is a special culture — Russian culture is huge and rich. Before sanctions were introduced, I visited St. Petersburg quite often; it's actually just 150km east of Narva, closer than even Tallinn is to the west. Now I don't really want to visit due to security concerns. I'd like to go, but I don't know what might happen to me, due to my work as a journalist. I once wrote a public letter — or rather, a history lesson — to Putin. You can find it online. But as any culture does, the culture here has enriched me. And I have found it changing me.

I have also made a lot of friends here I would have never met otherwise. And they all have different stories. Some of these stories are connected to everyday political issues, such as citizenship. And they are very good stories. For example, Sergei is the holder of an alien's passport, ie stateless person. He now plans to take the Estonian citizenship exam. But he was initially very against it, saying no, no damn exams, because his grandfather, a Russian, had fought in the Russian Regiment in the Estonian War of Independence — on the Estonian side! And after the war, his grandfather of course wanted to go back home. And home was located just 17m from the Estonian border, on the Russian side. He was repressed in 1937 and, shot behind his own house, killed even closer to the border than that. But it was still not on Estonian territory. So Sergei doesn't have the right to Estonian citizenship by birth. Because of those 17m. Because nobody has said that those who fought on the Estonian side of the War of Independence were eligible for Estonian citizenship; there was never any such law. You hear a lot of stories like that here that you can't in Tallinn or Tartu, and they have a big effect on you.

News just spreads faster

As for the world in general, it has changed. More specifically, the means of receiving information has changed a lot. When I first moved to Narva, the first social network I joined was Orkut; before that, I was a very active reader of emails, and I didn't have a mobile phone. I got my first phone after moving here. Today I am more of a phone person than an internet person. I use the internet for work a lot, but please leave me alone! If someone sends me a very important email, they also have to call me and tell me to check my email. I'm not a Luddite, though. I had a Nokia 3510 for the longest time, but after it broke I finally caved and got a smartphone. I like it; it's very useful.

But history on the whole just repeats itself. Has the world really changed? I think the amount of hatred and violence is the same as always, because the amount of idiots is the same; it's constant. Information about hatred or instances of violence just get to you much more quickly than it used to, thanks to the internet, smartphones and the 24-hour news cycle.

I'll tell you a historical story that can be considered the dissemination of fake news — which also demonstrates how much more slowly it used to spread. The Pope once received a letter from Estonia, saying that there was a monastery with monks living a life that was absolutely no Christian way to live — they were screwing around and drinking and partying. This letter took half a year to reach the Pope. The Pope read it, and then made some decisions, which took probably another half a year. And he sent a special envoy to Estonia to check out what was going on at that monastery. His trip took one year, and his trip back another year. And the envoy's report — which is included in the Vatican's archives, and public — says that actually, those guys in that monastery in Estonia — you wouldn't believe it, there's nothing like it anywhere in Western Europe. They are so connected to Christ and the Church. Every week they heat up a room, and they beat each other in there with switches of tree branches, and after that they force each other to drink a really nasty, bitter water. They are holy. This is real. Ask Vello Salo; he found it while working at the Vatican.

Me, however, I spend my nights poring over my books as well before bed. And that is often exactly how I fall asleep.

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Day in the Life is a weekly series by ERR News telling the stories of everyday Estonians, their livelihoods, and their lives. If you know someone whose story you feel should be told, email us at news@err.ee.

Editor: Aili Vahtla



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