Comrade Teacher – the class is ready for your lesson
Who shall I test today?
Partial Impressions of the Bulgarian Education system 1977-2007
In 1977 I arrived on a British Council contract in Communist Bulgaria to work in an elite English Language school. Behind me were years of rewarding struggle with unmotivated and disruptive pupils. I was going to take time out in a culture that valued education.
Thirty years later there are complaints of falling standards and the grossly underpaid teachers are taking strike action. Nevertheless the large number of well educated migrants finding well paid jobs in the first world is a testimony to the quality of the education system.
Those expatriate readers who have children in the Bulgarian education system will have been experiencing deja-vu over the last few weeks – as serious conflicts between government and teachers have led to strikes and school closures. Talk to teachers and they will rightly complain that they are the most poorly paid in Europe by far. Talk to Bulgarian parents and you will find a mixture of frustration at falling standards in schools and surprising nostalgia for the quality of education in communist times.
In this dangerous spirit of nostalgia, I share my experiences in the seventies. To any teacher working in UK inner city comprehensives, they would constitute heaven.
_Comrade Teacher, the class is ready for your lesson (ITAL). The future owner of Vagabond, squeezed into a blue blazer, had stepped smartly forward the moment I entered the room. As he returned quickly to his desk on the back row, I scanned the faces of my new pupils, all apparently intent and eager to hear my first words. I looked for the potential trouble makers in vain.
The English Language School was (and still is) one of the schools most sought after by ambitious parents. Entry to these elite institutions was by competitive examination across a whole region and in the seventies only children of the Communist elite could expect relatively trouble free acceptance. I was therefore teaching in a school whose recruitment policies resembled a cross between English Grammar and Public Schools. I was teaching the future surgeons, generals, lawyers, economists, police chiefs, writers and actors of the nation.
On my first visit, the day before term started, I had been issued with a text book for the Preparatory class – 13 to 14 year olds. Starting with the predictable Hello my name is…. it accelerated through every grammatical subtlety to finish with an almost unedited extract of Alice in Wonderland. Pupils were expected to learn at least fifty new words every day by heart.
In the classroom teachers had significant powers over the pupils’ present and future prospects. Entry to university depended greatly on marks given by individual teachers on the basis of oral testing. Simply, my class would know that once I had marked the register, I could pick on any pupil at random, require them to stand up and then cross question them on the material from the previous lesson. The mark range was from two (failure) through the mediocre three and four to the acceptable five and the desirable six.
Once I had been initiated into this rite, I was shocked to realize that many of my trembling pupils had learnt whole texts by heart and just wanted me to listen patiently to their halting recitals. However I discovered, following a long argument with a Bulgarian colleague, children of prominent party members would always receive high marks regardless of ability.
I soon understood the pressure and fear this mark system generated – particularly when one of my pupils burst into floods of tears on being awarded a four. Behind all my pupils were fiercely ambitious and competitive parents who saw the school as their children’s passport to glittering prizes. As long as their children got good marks, they could hold up their heads in pride in the neighbourhood. Poor marks would lead to private lamentation and worse.
A teacher from England would have found a Bulgarian parents’ consultation evening fascinating. In England parents’ evenings can be daunting. You sit in a large hall trapped by a tight schedule of timed interviews, and parents, buoyed by a sense of their power over you, can cajole, harangue and complain, aware of the circling Head teacher’s frown which will be invariably directed at you. In the Bulgarian English Language school parents were put in their place – firmly squeezed into the tiny desks meant for their children. Parents sweated in the now crowded classroom and waited nervously the publicly delivered verdict of each teacher on their child. Standing in front of this bizarre class, I could see smug expectation on some faces, and shamed despair on others.
Marks were also given for behavior. In Communist times a trivial offense could jeopardize a child’s future. During my second year, Petya Dubarova, then a tenth class student and a poet of great promise, committed suicide, following a reduction in her behaviour mark. Accidentally or purposely she had failed to show proper respect to the working class by disrupting the production line in the local brewery, where her group did a compulsory weekly work experience.
A hierarchical system has major disadvantages – not least for those on the margins – but I can say that the English Language School did contain the most uniformly intelligent group of pupils I have ever taught. The rest of the advanced world now benefits from their high level of education and linguistic skill – since many of them emigrated after the fall of Communism.
However, the school regime did not encourage initiative or personal study. It is hardly surprising that most pupils, overburdened with repetitive learning of material, would look to meeting the required minimum for good marks – which meant repeating what the teacher wanted to hear.
Fast forward to 2007 and apart from the dramatic teachers’ strikes, very little has actually changed. The teachers’ subjective marking system is still there and is still open to abuse in spite of the greater prominence given to US style SAT tests. True to the new capitalist spirit, it has become the practice now for some teachers to advertise private lessons to their classes at the beginning of the school year. The subtext is that those pupils who are unable to attend such lessons are unlikely to receive good marks.
Of course it suits many teachers at every level to maintain a system which continues to give them great powers over children’s’ futures. And the government’s attempts to introduce reforms will be resisted by those who believe in rote learning of established facts as a necessary foundation of a good education system.
But until Bulgarian teachers receive a decent wage, issues of working practices cannot be properly addressed.