Report From the Russian Front
Late last September, as Russian troops and anti-reform hard-liners faced off in the streets around the Russian White House, I found myself in the safety and quiet of a Moscow school. The experience was symbolic in a way. Struggling to build a fledgling democracy out of the ruins of Communism, the Russian Federation teeters on the edge of anarchy. It staggers under the weight of spiraling inflation, searing ethnic strife, and fierce political infighting, sometimes bordering on civil war. Russians have seen their social-welfare system disintegrate, subsidies disappear, and the very fabric of society come undone.
Yet, through all of this--indeed, through revolutions, coups, and other upheavals of the past--education has continued largely uninterrupted. In the words of one Russian educator, "Today, the school is the only structure that hasn't come apart, the only structure that works.''
I first walked into School 469 on Sept. 23, two days after anti-reform lawmakers barricaded themselves in the White House. My husband is a Foreign Service officer, and we'd been posted to the United States Embassy in Moscow in the summer of 1992. As an education writer who had chronicled U.S. schooling over the past decade, I wanted to see for myself how schools were faring in the post-Communist era, how the curricula, textbooks, and course offerings had changed.
Is it possible, I wondered, for a nation's teachers and its 20 million students to suddenly make a 180-degree turn from the rigid dogma of Communism to the free flow of ideas and information that characterizes democracy?
One of the best ways to answer that question, it seemed to me, would be to spend some time talking with and observing a Russian teacher. I figured my neighborhood school was as good a place as any to turn to. So, at the start of the school year, I paid a visit to School 469, a comprehensive secondary school in Moscow's Proletariat region that enrolls students from 1st through 11th grade, the final year of high school in Russia.
My first stop was the office of Principal Tatyana Vasilievna Kolnovalova. I told her I wanted to meet a typical teacher, observe classes, and talk to students. She thought for a minute and then described three of her 47 teachers who she felt were most representative. I chose the one who had been teaching the longest--20 years.
Kolnovalova led me up several flights of stairs to Room 28, on the fourth floor. Outside the classroom on the beige wall was a large pen-and-ink drawing of Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin, along with several lines of his poetry. Inside, Svetlana Nikolaevna Gerasina, a teacher of Russian language and literature, was tidying up some papers on her desk. After introductions and explanations, she agreed to meet with me and let me observe in her class over the next two weeks. We set our first session for the next Monday.
After leaving Room 28, I wandered around the school, which was built in 1936. More than 50 years of use had taken their toll in peeling paint, chipped stairs, and sloping floors. The facility's 20 classrooms were spacious, and many had been attractively appointed, but even recent renovations couldn't hide structural disintegration.
Outside the four-story structure--one of 67,000 schools in Russia--yellow and red leaves had fallen on the cracked cement of the large playground. Swings hung without seats. Behind the pale yellow building, a large garbage dump bulged with the odorous refuse from neighboring high-rise apartment buildings. Beyond the schoolyard, the city braced for political turmoil.
On Monday, Sept. 27, at 8:15 A.M., Gerasina greeted me at the door of her classroom, where she has taught grammar and literature for 10 years. She ushered me into the room, leaving a noisy cluster of students in the hallway, and chatted as she showed me the closet at the back of the room where I could hang my coat. "I try to encourage discussion and debate,'' she said, speaking to me in her native Russian because she felt her English was weak. "Literature provides us with moral issues and artistic material that we can use to learn more about life.''
A few minutes later, a group of 8th graders pushed open the door. Girls and boys dressed in jeans and skirts, sweaters and shirts took their assigned seats, draped coats over the backs of chairs, pushed book bags and backpacks under desks, and sat down.
When Gerasina moved to the front of the room, the children stood to acknowledge her, something I have never seen in an American classroom. This simple show of respect, surely a throwback to the more authoritarian Soviet era, seemed almost refreshing, given the chaotic times. Gerasina told the students to sit, asked if everyone was present, and then launched into the first class of the week.
At the top of the agenda was a review of the material covered the previous Friday, followed by the presentation of new material. Gerasina's 22 students sat in pairs at tandem desks--girls with girls, boys next to boys. Plants and dried flowers filled three big windows, which were adorned with pale green curtains. Outside, a construction drill droned.
Gerasina, dressed in brown striped pants and a brown sweater shot through with silver threads, called on individual students to answer questions. Each child stood, resuming his or her seat only when instructed to do so. The 13-year-olds did exercises on a brown chalkboard at the front of the room, read from textbooks, and listened to their teacher's comments on Russian grammar.
Every so often, Gerasina told them to jot down something significant in their notebooks: "On a new line, write this,'' she advised. Throughout the class, the teacher encouraged her students with smiles and praise. But she also taunted individuals who answered incorrectly or who shifted their gaze when questions came their way.
At the end of the class, the teacher assigned homework. "I try not to give a lot,'' she told me later. "They have a lot to do, but they also need to relax.'' When she dismissed the class, a number of students stayed on, gathering around their teacher with questions and comments.
Later, I asked Gerasina about how her teaching had changed from previous years, when the central authorities prescribed the lesson plans carried out in every school across the vast Soviet Union. I was particularly interested in her thoughts on recent reforms allowing teachers greater control over the curriculum, a considerable departure from the universal curricula of the past. Enacted as part of Russia's 1992 Education Law--an effort to decentralize, personalize, and overhaul schooling--the reforms were introduced into the classroom this academic year.
"Before, there was a clear-cut curriculum,'' she explained. "Now, with the democratization of society, as they call it, we've been given a lot of options.'' The most obvious change is that teachers can now design as much as 40 percent of a course's content, and they can create their own "special courses,'' as Gerasina has with a weekly session on young literary figures.
"I start thinking about what I can give the kids that they haven't read before,'' said the 45-year-old teacher. "Writers who left after the Revolution, the first wave of immigrants, such as Nabokov, about whom we never heard anything before, even in the university. I give kids this kind of material, we talk about his works, about how he differed from other writers who wrote in the same period. I choose Solzhenitsyn, for example, among writers who wrote about the gulag; that's my choice.''
She continued: "There was a time when we didn't talk about a lot of things. Now we can use our own judgment. I now teach a lesson that is significantly more interesting because of the talents of the writers I most love. I can talk about these writers with more interest; there's more emotion. Now, we simply feel more free, that is, we can talk in class. I don't know how well we understand democracy, but now we can freely discuss in classes events that go on in our country. Before, of course, we couldn't do this.''
The opportunities these reforms present are perhaps all the more significant to this teacher. Born in her grandmother's home in the Lipetsk region of Russia to a schoolteacher and a military pilot, Gerasina spent most of her youth attending military schools on closed complexes in northern Russia, in places such as Murmansk and the Kola Peninsula. Then, when she was in the 8th grade, her family moved to Pushkin, which she described as a small, privileged area near Moscow where the intelligentsia who didn't want to live in the capital city resided. There, she said, she received a "good education.''
Gerasina recalled how she was always fascinated with the humanities and "everything related to art.'' But, she confided, "I didn't like the literature lessons that were taught in our school--I was completely indifferent to my literature teacher--but I was very interested in reading on my own.''
Having the opportunity now to read authors that were banned in the past allows teachers greater choice, she told me. "You can create lessons that simply weren't possible before. There's a wider possibility to teach creatively. There's also a wider representation of the subject in school, and, as a result, education is better.''
Although she lauded Russia's education-reform efforts, Gerasina stressed that their success is largely dependent on teachers. "I think that there have always been good teachers and that there have always been average teachers,'' she said. The kind of education a child gets, she added, depends on the teacher he or she "ends up'' with. "If you end up with a teacher with enough strength and experience, you'll get a very good education. But if you end up with an average teacher, you'll get a very average education. That's my strong conviction, that education is dependent on the personality of the teacher.''
Gerasina also noted difficulties inherent in teachers being agents of change. "It is important for teachers to participate in reforms,'' she said, "but teachers can't take part in reforming education and teach. Most reform efforts don't come from inside the schools but from the Ministry and the administrators because we are too tired; our inertia is from physical exhaustion.''
I thought of the many American educators I'd interviewed who, despite time-consuming schedules, had moved to the forefront of reform, and I wondered whether Gerasina's remarks were typical of most Russian teachers. Later, an official at the Russian Education Ministry, reminding me that reform is a new concept here, told me they were.
One common criticism of the education-reform movement in Russia is that it has been focused almost exclusively on the humanities and social sciences and has neglected the other disciplines. Principal Kolnovalova, who came to School 469 as a physics teacher and still teaches four hours a week, was one such critic. She told me she thought that science curricula had suffered because of the inattention to the technical subjects and exact sciences.
Still, the current focus on the humanities is not accidental. During the Soviet era, schools focused heavily on mathematics and the sciences, and the curricula in these subject areas were considered strong. The humanities, on the other hand, were bogged down, if not totally lost, inCommunist ideology. The 1992 reform act sought to take education beyond Marxist-Leninist thinking and "depoliticize'' it, moving from what Education Minister Evgeny Tkachenko called "a political paradigm'' to a "teaching paradigm,'' from a "totalitarian society'' to a "civic society.''
To compensate for the shortage of humanities components in Russian education and to encourage the development of critical-thinking skills, reformers also called for the introduction of a new generation of textbooks. Much of the work in this area has been carried out with the financial support of the U.S.-based Soros Foundations for the Newly Independent States/Baltic States, which provided $10 million for Russian researchers and teachers to write more than 500 new texts in the humanities fields; 200 of them were ready to distribute to schools this year.
The foundations, created by billionaire George Soros, have also pledged $250 million over five years to help Russia's Education Ministry and its Committee on Higher Education further upgrade humanities teaching. The "Transformation of the Humanities and Social Sciences'' project will give grants to teachers and schools based on nationwide competitions, test new methods of teaching subjects at experimental sites across Russia, develop new ways to train teachers, and establish a laboratory on humanities education that will, among other things, develop an infrastructure to support ongoing reform. (See story, page 24.)
Despite her country's current focus on the humanities, Gerasina predicted that within 25 years, the sciences would regain their traditionally high stature. "Without this return,'' she said, "the country can't reach high levels of achievement.''
Gerasina believes that school reform and new societal freedoms will ultimately spawn a generation of students who are more appreciative of education. "Children will be able to choose their own courses,'' she explained, "and the relations between teachers and students will be better because kids will be more interested when they can make their own choices.''
As I walked to School 469 two days later, snow swirled in the air. (When I asked a student whether schools were ever closed because of snow, she looked at me quizzically; clearly, bad weather was no more a deterrent to schooling in Russia than political uprisings.) The morning's class in Room 28 was again Russian grammar. As usual, the students stood to greet their teacher, then resumed their seats. During the lesson, the 8th graders took turns writing lines of poetry on the chalkboard and reciting lines from their textbooks.
Trim and energetic, Gerasina walked up and down the aisles during class, affectionately ruffling students' hair and calling her charges "my darlings'' and "my dears.'' Like teachers I'd observed in the United States, she offered students chances to correct their errors, asked them to point out classmates' incorrect responses, and let them know when she was disappointed in their work. She was, in turn, both cajoling and critical.
Later, Gerasina told me that she uses strong students to propel her classes. "I always have partners in lessons to help me,'' she explained. "If there are two or three kids who are leaders, that's good. Weak students without leaders stay weak.'' Many of the "leaders,'' she said, tend to be girls. "Our girls are quite bright and very active in class, and our boys are less active. When they leave school, they change places.''
Teaching "always depends on your estimation of the psychological possibilities of the class,'' she said. "You strive to rouse them so that they sit in class and rage--in the best sense of that word.'' Such behavior was not encouraged when Vladimir Ilich Lenin's picture hung at the front of Room 28.
As the students worked, my eyes wandered over the classroom. Pictures of 16 male literary figures--Mayakovski, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gogol, and other Russian greats--lined the wall above the chalkboard. Hard- and soft-cover books perched on shelves at the back of the room, available for use by students who don't have the currently assigned book at home or can't find it in the library. An activity board sported the headings "Russian Language Corner,'' "Learning to Learn,'' and "Advice to Readers.'' A poster displaying information about literature hung in the front of the room. There was also a television, which Gerasina told me she uses on occasion to show educational videos. It all seemed very familiar; I could have been sitting in an American classroom.
After the grammar class, Gerasina turned to literature. Her task: to teach a group of 8th graders to appreciate nuances in Russian writing. As she started the lesson, she pulled her chair close to the first row of students. "This,'' she told me later, "is more informal; it encourages discussion.''
The students in this class acted differently from those in previous ones, calling out answers without waiting to be acknowledged, sitting as they spoke, and drawing closer to their teacher as she discussed humor in the writings of Pushkin. An experienced teacher who majored in language and literature at Moscow State University--the former U.S.S.R.'s premier educational institution--Gerasina was familiar with her material and never referred to notes.
Although the teaching load for the average Russian teacher is 18 hours a week, Gerasina spends 33 hours on the job; that includes her six daily classes, the weekly after-school special course on young literary figures, seminars, and consultation hours. Most days, she works from 8:30 A.M. to 2 P.M. without a break. In addition, she regularly takes her students to museums after school and, when she can find tickets, to the theater in the evening. Then, of course, there is the time she spends preparing at home--usually from 40 minutes to two hours a night.
Gerasina and I had agreed to meet again the next day, after she finished her classes. As I waited in the hall outside her class, Kolnovalova, the principal, came to tell me that Gerasina had been unexpectedly called away. Later, I learned that she had been summoned to a ceremony, where she received the "Excellence in Public Education'' award, in recognition of her work.
I had to laugh: I had taken pains to ask the principal to introduce me to an average, ordinary teacher, and she, of course, led me to her best, one who'd been nominated for one of the highest honors in Russian education.
The next day, Gerasina told me that she had been so surprised by the news that she'd had to run home to change into a more suitable outfit in which to receive her award. "I knew I was a candidate for this,'' she explained, "but I didn't know I would be receiving it.'' The honor was particularly sweet, she said, because her mother, also a teacher of Russian language and literature, had received the same award before she retired. When I asked how important it was to her to be honored in such a way, she brushed off the question, saying she cared more about what her students thought of her. "Generally, for teachers, especially those with my amount of years working, the best awards are the respect and love of our students.''
Before taking her current post, Gerasina taught for seven years at School 269. In her first year there, she taught a class of 5th graders and then continued to teach them from grade to grade until they finished their final year of school. "I can't even describe how close we were,'' she said. At a particularly difficult period in her life, when her cousin was dying of cancer, these former students stood for hours in then-omnipresent Soviet food lines to buy milk, eggs, and bread for her.
"Since then, I've considered them family; they come back and ask how I am, and I tell them I miss them,'' she said, leafing through an album in which she has pasted pictures of her former students and poems, letters, and cards they have written to her. "When something good happens in their lives, they call me to tell me about it; when they've had an academic success, they tell me. They're my children.''
"The most important thing to a teacher is her students and the relation between the teacher and the student. Work is hard. Classes are large. Without a warm atmosphere, it would be awful.''
I asked Gerasina about her students' ambitions. The 800 youngsters who attend School 469 live in a decidedly working-class neighborhood in southeast Moscow, where their parents are laborers, service people, and civil servants. "Now, it's very hard to imagine what they will be,'' she replied, pushing a strand of black hair from her face. "Parents still dream about their children going to college; for a long time, our society cultivated in us a desire to get a higher education. It's prestigious; it gives you the feeling that you can achieve personally.'' Seventy percent to 80 percent of her 11th graders still go to institutes of higher education, she said, "despite the fact that now, with these hard times, you can get a diploma and not have any idea of where you will work.''
In the past, many graduates of School 469 pursued careers in law, journalism, even teaching. But Gerasina has noticed a shift in career choices. "If before it was very prestigious to study engineering in college,'' she said, "now you have more success with other sorts of fields,'' such as business, trade, economics, and construction--fields in which there is money to be made in Russia's changing economy.
As I observed the children in Room 28, I couldn't help but wonder how they were coping with their country's growing freedoms and hardships. Kolnovalova had told me that almost half of the school's students live in single-parent homes or with one or both grandparents.
"The atmosphere in families has become more difficult,'' Gerasina said. "There are very few parents who are very well-off. Even if they are well educated, they still have to count their money all the time, which we never did in the past. Even if parents earn a lot, they are often highly stressed or very tired, and children notice, especially the older ones.''
What's more, Gerasina said she believes life for children outside the school is not as full as it was when she was a child. "They abolished the Komsomol and the Pioneer organizations,'' she said, referring to the former Communist Party youth groups, "and didn't give children anything in their place.''
Gerasina looked out the window, where a strong wind was blowing the last leaves off the trees. "School is important in society,'' she said, "especially given what's happening now in our country. We have to prepare students with values for this new world.'' She admitted that she was worried, "as a mother and a teacher,'' about her children and her students. "Our life has changed so much.''
She paused for a moment before going on: "To be free is very important, but we're not used to this. It would be funny if I said we were so happy because they gave us the freedom to read banned writers when it's unclear what these changes have brought to us. There are still so many problems. The firstyears of perestroika, we felt such happiness, such joy, especially among the intelligentsia. The world looked to us. We read a lot, got to know many writers, talked a lot. I went to demonstrations with other members of the intelligentsia. It was wonderful. We understood each other; we had rich discussions.''
Again she paused. When she continued, her eyes were downcast. "Now we've all started counting money; financial problems are always on our minds. We're all tired of just surviving, of suffering. Russia is in a painful state. I'm not sure what we have now is democracy. Democracy, as I see it, is each individual doing his best. I think we have just the opposite now--anarchy.''
The next morning at my local bread store, the women and men around me complained bitterly about inflation and the removal of government food subsidies as they bought their brown bread. A loaf of bread that cost four rubles a year ago had skyrocketed to 160 rubles.
At School 469, however, attention was directed to happier matters. Although Russia has abolished a number of the holidays celebrated under the former Communist government, Teachers' Day--Oct. 1--is still recognized, and as I entered the building, students were busy making last-minute preparations for an afternoon concert to honor their instructors.
Meanwhile, upstairs in her classroom, Gerasina and I resumed our conversation. I asked her what characteristics one needed to be a teacher, and she responded with a description that sounded pretty universal. "I always say, you have to love children,'' she replied. "If a teacher is indifferent to the class, the class won't work. And then, you have to give a lot of thought to how to develop children's respect for you. First of all, you have to be professional, to have knowledge of the subject and then impart it to the students so that they know how much you have to give them.''
"Second, you have to act so that the students see how much knowledge you want to give them. If they feel that you want to give them knowledge that you yourself have, then they also will want to learn. Teachers cannot be indifferent. There are teachers who come to class and simply sit at ease for 40 minutes; students should always know that the teacher, in that 40 minutes, is trying very hard to teach them. This isn't for everyone because it's hard to work in this kind of constant physical tension. Children always feel when you want to teach them.''
But if Gerasina's comments sounded like those of any good traditional teacher, her belief that teachers need to possess an internal spirituality was typically Russian. "If you don't like your work, each day is the same,'' she said. "Very often people say, 'How do you work in school? Isn't it scary or intimidating?' I think that you have to find something internally for yourself--to discover your place.''
I wanted to know how Gerasina had developed her teaching style. She said she attended teacher training seminars led by experienced teachers, read books on teaching, watched teaching programs on television, and tried to keep abreast of the latest developments. "In general, I'm interested in everything that relates to my profession,'' she told me. "If there's something new, some new method, I always try to find out about it.''
Just then, four 8th-grade girls tiptoed into the classroom with flowers, a Teachers' Day gift. A few minutes later, three boys barged into the room with a box of chocolates. "It helps to know that they appreciate my attempts to impart knowledge to them,'' Gerasina told me proudly, as we walked downstairs to the concert.
The teachers--most of them women--sat together in five rows of seats directly opposite a makeshift stage. We took seats among them. Ten elementary school students started things off with a poem. When one boy forgot a word, a half-dozen teachers rushed to fill in for him; the student blushed. Hearty applause followed the act.
Next, seven costumed 8th graders read a humorous decree they'd written honoring their teachers. Then, two 5th-grade girls in long dresses and scarves danced and sang, repeating the chorus: "I love my teacher very much, and I will never forget her after school ends.'' The children had prepared for the concert outside of class, with help from the school librarian, and had taken great pains to keep its contents secret from their teachers.
The event continued with plays, gymnastics, piano playing, and singing. Between acts, a trio of seniors handed the teachers certificates and chocolate coins. Special attention went to one teacher who has taught at School 469 for 30 years; she received bouquets of flowers, bottles of champagne, and hugs from her students.
The final acts of the concert featured students who had already graduated from School 469--one group in 1989, another last year. Looking very grown-up in suits and dresses, they sang and played guitar in appreciation of their former teachers. Gerasina's seniors from last year gave her two bouquets of flowers.
I was scheduled to meet Gerasina the following Monday--Oct. 4--at 1:30 in the afternoon. When the day arrived, Moscow was in a state of upheaval, caught in fierce street fighting. The pro-democracy forces of President Boris Yeltsin had begun a 10-hour assault on the Russian White House, leaving dozens dead, hundreds injured, and the Parliament building ablaze.
Their actions came one day after hard-line demonstrators stormed the office of Moscow's mayor and occupied the Ostankino television station, putting all but one of the city's TV stations off the air for several hours. In the wee hours of Oct. 4, a column of armored vehicles had passed two blocks from School 469 on its way toward the center of the city. That morning, in Moscow's Proletariat region, children went to school as usual.
I walked to School 469 at 1:30 and found Gerasina in her classroom, a handful of students milling about, the television--volume low--tuned to the shelling of the Parliament. She looked tired. Her first words were about the events of the day. "This is unbelievable, uncivilized; these things go on in Abkhazia, but not in Moscow,'' she said, referring to a war-torn region in the former Soviet republic of Georgia.
But she was clearly most worried about her husband, Aleksandr Borisovich. The couple, together with their son, Geril, and Alla, the daughter of the cousin who died of cancer, live in a three-room apartment not far from the school. Aleksandr had heeded then-First Deputy Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar's call the previous night to support Yeltsin at a rally downtown, and he hadn't returned home. Geril had wanted to join his father, but Gerasina prevented him from doing so. All she wanted to do now was find her husband and get some sleep. We agreed to meet again when some calm had returned to Moscow.
By 5 P.M., Vice President Aleksandr Rutskoi and Parliament Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov, the leaders of the hard-line insurgents, had surrendered and were taken from the Russian White House to Lefortovo Prison, not far from School 469. Yeltsin imposed an 11 P.M.-to-5 A.M. curfew in Moscow that was to last two weeks.
Three days later, Gerasina and I met at the school. I asked first about her husband. She reassured me that he had returned home unharmed. Normal life had returned to most of Moscow, though snipers roamed the city center at night, and the White House--now dubbed the Black House--still smoldered. In a frightening move reminiscent of an earlier era, government censors restricted what was published in Russia's main newspapers. But in a sharp break from the past, the ceremonial honor guard at Lenin's mausoleum in Red Square marched for the last time.
Dressed in a pale blue two-piece outfit, Gerasina spoke in a low voice of the recent events in the capital. There were tears in her eyes. "I think these were tragic days in the history of our government's development of democracy,'' she said. "And like any normal person, I think it was a very painful experience. Because, if after the August coup of 1991, there was a sort of joy, then now, there is no such feeling. Since then, the process has been very difficult, very painful, and it would be frightening if it were repeated. It's possible there will be a repeat--if not in our city, then in some other city.''
She paused before going on. "For the first time, I understood how very difficult it is to be in the president's shoes. To make such a decision [to storm the White House] is very painful because it's the nation's house and his. I understand very well what he is doing. And maybe, for the first time, I even recognize how strong a person he is. It's very hard to take such responsibility upon yourself.''
Gerasina continued, her eyes glancing around the classroom where she'd taught for the past decade: "I always thought that Moscow was an intelligent city. I am just amazed at the fact that on television they showed that when Rutskoi took the microphone at the White House, among those who came around to support him were fascists with swastikas. I can't forgive Rutskoi for this. We've never experienced civil war so acutely. ... We never thought that this could happen in Russia.''
Though our minds were on the political developments outside of Room 28, Gerasina and I turned our attention once again to education, this time to a very sensitive topic for Russian teachers--that of pay. An Education Ministry official I'd spoken with had told me that school funding, especially as it relates to teachers' salaries, tops the list of educators' concerns. A shrinking federal budget, she said, only makes matters worse, especially in regions of the country where local authorities can't afford to levy taxes to supplement teachers' wages. The problem is compounded by inflation, which averaged 25 percent a month last year.
Education reform has recently linked teacher pay to such factors as years of service, teaching load, and extracurricular activities. Gerasina's 20 years of experience puts her at the top of the professional ladder in that category, and she works long hours and takes on extra duties to boost her pay even more. In September, Moscow teachers--after a demonstration over low wages--received a 30 percent salary hike from the city council. With all this factored in, Gerasina's salary at the beginning of the school year was 160,000 rubles a month, then the equivalent of $135.
Not very much, I thought, for an experienced teacher working many hours of overtime. But, then, $135 is considered a good monthly salary in Russia, where the average national wage at the start of the school year was the equivalent of $65 a month, and the average salary for Russia's 1.3 million teachers was $50 a month, with starting teacher pay as low as $25.
Gerasina acknowledged that her salary is high by Russian standards and seemed to feel the need to justify it. "My work is very important, and it's very physically demanding,'' she said. "Besides, prices are horrific; this is why I work so many extra hours. And I still have two children who don't bring home paychecks--just the opposite. My son's college stipend is completely inadequate, even though he doesn't drink or smoke. It's just not enough for him.''
Gerasina's husband recently quit his low-paying job as an electrical engineer to start a commercial firm that buys and sells electronic equipment. He makes about $85 a month. The couple's combined income, then, pays for rent, electricity, television service, clothing, food, tuition for Geril, and other assorted expenses. Gerasina was quick to point out that her family doesn't live in luxury. "We never go to restaurants anymore,'' and there is little money for travel, she said.
This past summer, however, they splurged. They celebrated their 20th anniversary at a resort in the now-independent country of Latvia, the farthest Gerasina has been from Moscow--although she dreams of someday seeing the capitals of Europe. The couple spends summer weekends nailing boards into a dacha they're building on the outskirts of Moscow. And for entertainment, they read and watch TV; Gerasina is especially fond of the dubbed U.S. soap opera "Santa Barbara,'' which is popular in Russia.
I asked Gerasina how Russia's economic woes have affected education. Without hesitation, she told me, "Teachers have left the profession.'' In fact, 20 percent of the teachers at her school have recently quit to take better-paying jobs. That number mirrors national figures, according to the Education Ministry, although the figure is more like 40 percent in big cities. Most who leave the profession speak English or another foreign language or are young and cannot make ends meet on a beginning teacher's salary. Many seek jobs with commercial firms, which pay 10 times as much as the schools.
Still, students continue to enter the various pedagogical institutions, but fewer of their graduates are choosing to teach. "It's no longer clear where graduates will work after they've completed higher education,'' Gerasina says. "Very many graduates don't work in their fields of specialization because all these areas of specialization have very low salaries. We still try to convince kids that education is important, for personal development, for the development of a responsible government, for the future. But there is a very bad situation in education, and it will continue due to inertia.''
Kolnovalova, Gerasina's principal, agreed. "As an administrator, I simply don't see any improvement of teachers' material situation,'' she said. In an attempt to raise the salaries of her teachers, Kolnovalova, like many school principals, is trying to rent out what little space is available in the school to businesses. "On the one hand, I'm against this,'' she said. "But on the other hand, I have to try it.''
Lenin's wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, once described teaching as "one of the most important and most rewarding professions, the role and significance of which will never stop growing.'' But the cachet of being a teacher in Russia today has declined significantly, due to economic hardships as well as the incredible social changes that have catapulted teachers into unfamiliar roles. "For all teachers, it's a tense time,'' Gerasina said.
But then, speaking with a hope for the future that is decidedly Russian, she added: "We don't know what will happen politically, but regardless of what is happening outside, education always continues.''
Anne Bridgman, a former Education Week assistant editor, now lives