Ewa Jaworska has been a teacher since 2008 and enjoys working with young people. But the low salary leaves her demoralized. She sometimes even has to buy her own teaching materials and is discouraged by the fact that the government uses the schools to promote conservative ideas that she considers backward.
Like many other Polish teachers, she is considering a career change.
“I continue to hope that the situation can still change,” said the 44-year-old man, who teaches at a high school in Warsaw. “But unfortunately that is changing for the worse, so only time will tell if this year will be my last.”
Problems are mounting in schools in Poland, with a worsening teacher shortage and many educators and parents fear the education system is being used to indoctrinate young people into the conservative, nationalist vision of the ruling party.
It’s pretty much the same in Hungary. Teachers dressed in black in Budapest carried black umbrellas to protest stagnant wages and heavy workloads on the first day of school on Thursday. The teachers’ union PSZ said young teachers earned a “humiliating” after-tax monthly salary of just 500 euros (dollars), prompting many to leave.
Thousands of people demonstrated in Budapest on Friday in solidarity with teachers, claiming that low teacher pay is linked to the authoritarian leadership of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government.
“Free country, free education!” they shouted,
The teacher shortages could hardly come at a worse time as both countries try to integrate Ukrainian refugees. It is particularly difficult for Poland, where hundreds of thousands of school-age Ukrainian refugees now live.
Nearly 200,000 Ukrainian students, most of whom do not speak Polish, have already entered Polish schools after the war began on February 24. .
Andrzej Wyrozembski, director of the high school in the Zoliborz district of Warsaw where Jaworska works, has set up two classes for 50 Ukrainians in his school. He said his Ukrainian students who arrived in the spring were quickly learning Polish, a related Slavic language. The real difficulty is finding teachers, especially for physics, chemistry, computer science, and even for Polish.
Across central Europe, government salaries have not kept pace with the private sector, leaving teachers, nurses and others with far less purchasing power.
The situation is expected to worsen as many teachers approach retirement and fewer young people are choosing the low-paid profession, especially when inflation has soared to 16% in Poland and nearly 14% in Hungary.
According to the Polish teachers’ union, the country’s schools are short of 20,000 teachers. Hungary, with a much smaller population, lacks 16,000 teachers.
“We don’t have young teachers,” said Slawomir Broniarz, president of the Polish Teachers’ Union, or ZNP, citing the starting salary of 3,400 zlotys ($720) before tax as the main reason.
Polish Education Minister Przemyslaw Czarnek disputed the figures, saying teaching vacancies were closer to 13,000, adding that this was not a huge number compared to the 700,000 teachers at the national scale. He accuses the union and the political opposition of exaggerating the problem.
Many educators strongly opposed the conservative ideology of the nationalist government and Czarnek himself, viewing him as a Catholic fundamentalist. His nomination in 2020 sparked protests because he said LGBTQ people were not equal to “normal people” and that a woman’s main role was to have children.
Critics have recently focused on a new contemporary history textbook. It has a section on ideologies that features liberalism and feminism alongside Nazism. A section interpreted as denouncing in vitro fertilization was so controversial that it was removed.
In Hungary, Erzsebet Nagy, a board member of the Democratic Union of Hungarian Teachers, said teachers were leaving the profession “en masse”.
“Young people aren’t entering the profession, and very few of those who get a teaching certificate from high school or college go on to teach,” Nagy said. “Even if they do, most of them leave within two years.”
Hungarian trade unions have also complained about the centralization of the country’s education system. Curricula, textbooks and all decision-making are controlled by a central body formed in 2012 by the nationalist Hungarian government.
“Our professional autonomy is continually being eliminated,” Nagy said. “We have no freedom to choose textbooks. There are only two choices in each subject and both are of terrible quality. They have blocked the possibility of a free intellectual life.
Worried about the future of their children, families reject public schools. New private schools are opening but they still cannot meet the demand.
Polish architect Piotr Polatynski was willing to take a second job just to pay for his fourth-grade daughter’s tuition. But as a new school year began this week, the lack of places in private schools forced him and his wife to send her away to a neighborhood public school, which they say does not provide the type education that her daughter deserves.
He still hopes that a place might still open up somewhere as he rants about the state of the education system.
“We don’t believe the current government is capable of making changes that would encourage young people to enter the teaching profession and bring significant energy to this whole system,” he said.
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