A teacher tells of a grim year in a Bulgarian state school

Would any Westerner agree to work a 35-hour week in a state school, full of unruly children, for just 600 leva (300 euro) a month?

The pay and conditions would be deemed derisory – even a sick joke – by most people. Sadly, as one teacher reveals, the situation is made even more stressful by the heavy paperwork, the need to impose discipline “at any price”, and parents’ unrealistic expectations.

No wonder then that staff turnover is extremely high and most teachers are “of a certain age” – which, yes, is a euphemism for over 60 – and the vast majority are women, presumably because men would not agree to the poor pay and conditions.

Todora Yaneva spent a year as an English teacher in one of Sofia’s leading state schools. A gifted linguist, she was initially enthusiastic. And here we should acknowledge likeminded teachers – sometimes young and naïve – who start with honourable intentions, hoping to make a difference to their pupils’ lives. Too many, according to Todora, end up disappointed and leave.

She explained her motivations for getting the job. “I needed a full-time position, which ideally would be in the same rhythm as my son’s school schedule. The low salary seemed ok as I thought I would generally be busy half of the day. It turned out school teachers have many other things to do apart from teaching. There is an unbelievable amount of paperwork. But probably my biggest misconception was my idealistic idea that I was going to teach selected, highly motivated young people. My very first impression was of a zoo.”

To which, one could easily reply, it’s always been the case. Certainly your author remembers similar conditions at his London school from more than three decades ago. But at least teachers had a salary to match the stress.

Todora says that discipline at her school was a constant problem and notes that it could only be imposed through “fear”. Not that the deterioration in teenagers’ behaviour, she concedes, is exclusive to Bulgaria. “I’ve heard recently from a lady I know that things are the same, if not worse, in England. She teaches teenagers there,” she tells me.

In particular, Todora mentions the diminished attention span of today’s teenagers, something that will resonate with parents as well as teachers. “They cannot concentrate on anything that isn’t electronic for more than 10 minutes. They start fidgeting. It’s not so much the tool but the abuse of it. The problem with the gadgets does not start or end in school. It is something that parents should take care of. That is, if they themselves are not completely addicted and if they could bear sharing more of their free time with their children.”

(A slight reddening overtook your author when he heard that. Doubtless, we all welcome the peace and quiet that reigns when a child is in the grip of his/her device. But if a child is left to his own devices for too long – excuse the pun – is the price too high?)

Todora says that, although she never actually witnessed fights, the children were loud and raucous. Keeping the children quiet was deemed to be the number one priority. “No matter what you do, or if students learn something, there should be silence. This is also what parents demand. Keep them quiet at any price. Some teachers have very interesting strategies to achieve this. Some of them prepare a PowerPoint presentation of the lesson and make students copy from the white board. Others talk about aliens, their private lives and so on and give students marks on this. Most, I believe, just write a lot of poor marks to intimidate students.”

She says that she received little support from senior staff, only complaints about the poor discipline in her classes. “And, in my opinion, the senior staff just didn’t possess the right people management skills.”

She also noted a willingness among pupils to report other’s misbehaviour. (Back in my day snitches were regarded as lowlifes – not anymore, it would seem!) Another strange tendency observed by Todora was what she refers to as “begging for marks”. She tells me: “I even had a father call me at 7am to talk to me about ‘what could be done’ about his daughter’s mark. (Teachers’ private numbers are published in the so-called electronic registry.) The whole system is maintained through fear of bad marks and humiliation. And it seemed this was common knowledge for all the other teachers. Other parents ambushed me on a few occasions demanding an explanation as to why their child’s mark was whatever it was.”

Todora says she finished her year feeling exhausted, totally demoralised and even “desperate”. Did she feel she had accomplished anything? “Well, I believe I managed to teach all my 80 students how to write an essay and how to make a presentation. So, against all odds, I achieved something.”

She says that the pressure was even greater in her case because she taught at a big school, one of the “best” in Sofia. She believes there are smaller schools (where the pay, incredibly, is even lower!) where there may be slightly less pressure. But, overall, the situation is depressingly similar: a heavy workload, ridiculously low pay and little support.

Her advice to prospective teachers? “Stay away from big schools and to be prepared for a really tough job!”