Teaching in a climate of despair

By William Stewart

Every month, teachers in Greece find less and less money in their pay packets. As austerity tightens, they are struggling to teach hopelessly disengaged students with ever-shrinking resources

How would you feel if your salary had already been halved in the past two years and was continuing to drop every time you opened your pay packet?

Could you work in a country where protesting primary teachers are chased and beaten by the police and many pupils no longer see any point in studying?

A place where some teachers struggle to afford to feed their own children, and all have endured massive cuts in their pensions and free healthcare. Somewhere where pupils have fainted in class from hunger and schools have shut for days at a time because no one can afford the heating.

Could you teach in a school where textbooks arrive months late, if at all, and you have to bring in your own paper? How would you react if the national education budget had been slashed, more than 1,000 schools closed, and teacher numbers were being deliberately run down – with 30,000, or nearly one in five, posts being cut? Could you handle teaching in a country where youth unemployment was nearly 50 per cent and hope was rapidly running out?

This is not some fictional nightmare, Third World disaster area or a grim vision from history. This is the eurozone in 2012.

Headlines about Greece’s plight have focused on its huge debt, riots and EU bailouts. But beneath them lies a deeper crisis likely to last years after the foreign journalists have moved on. And it is teachers who are on the front line.

The immediate financial problems are triggering what Komninos Mantas, president of the country’s primary teachers’ union, the DOE, describes as a “cyclone of cuts”. “Unfortunately,” he says, speaking through an interpreter and sipping from a large glass of thick iced coffee, “the education system is at the centre of it.”

The check-shirted union leader says that the proportion of Greece’s shrinking gross domestic product spent on education is now just 2.35 per cent, the country’s lowest level for half a century. That compares with about 6 per cent in the UK. And it helps to explain why teachers in Greece are now expected to survive on as little as £500 a month in a country where prices are not much lower than England.

“It is a hard situation because they have loans, they have children,” says Mantas. “They are on the verge of breaking.”

Fears for the future

And it is not just their own financial problems that teachers have to worry about. They are being expected to soak up the anxieties of an increasingly despondent generation and somehow inspire them into creating a brighter future for their nation.

“Our pupils have lost their smile,” says Athina Nolka, an English language teacher at a lykeio, or upper secondary school, in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city. “They feel it is not worth studying. Most parents are unemployed, so what’s the use of it? They feel that there is no future for them, you see. I am sure our teachers will do their best. Our pupils have great minds, but they are not willing to try.”

Pamtelis Kandiliotis, who teaches finance to 17- to 18-year-olds in Athens, feels huge responsibility. “It is teachers who are role models to pupils who feel more anxious and more worried about their studies, their families and their future,” he says.

“In my class, there are some students complaining that their parents have lost their jobs or cannot cope,” he says. “I say they have to be patient, they have to focus on their studies. But some are saying ‘Why am I supposed to study? Tomorrow I will be another unemployed person.’”

Signs of decay

Leave Athens’ shiny modern airport and you quickly encounter the trappings of a prosperous 21st-century economy. An Ikea and factory outlet stores line the motorway, which has a new metro line running along its centre. But the numerous advertising hoardings on the roadside tell a different story. In any other country they would feature huge, illuminated posters, tempting travellers with the latest consumer must-haves. But here, the vast majority are bare and unadorned and many, streaked with rust, look as though they have been that way for a long time.

Greece is now well into its fourth year of recession. But it is only since the country’s sovereign debt crisis blew up in 2010 that education has been hit hard.

Until then, Mantas says, getting into teacher training colleges was tough. “They were prestigious … they accepted only the top students,” the trade unionist recalls. “But now there are young people who refuse to go and become teachers because they have to work away from home (Greek teachers can be placed anywhere in the country), which means expenditure that they cannot afford.”

Some people are still prepared to join the profession, he adds, even though it means pay of about EUR600 a month, down from EUR1,200 two years ago. Mantas says that this is because jobs are precious and “they hope for things to become better”. That is what everyone in Greece’s schools wants, but so far there is little sign of it.

“Our salaries are never the same,” Nolka laments. “Every month, they get lower and lower.”

Greece’s troubles are often portrayed as being caused by a bloated public sector, a clientelistic state where political support for the big parties has been rewarded with overpaid jobs for life.

But that is not true in education, the country’s teaching unions insist. They accuse the “troika” – the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Central Bank that bailed Greece out twice, with strict conditions attached – of distorting the picture by basing claims of high state pay on exceptionally well- rewarded telecommunications and power workers.

“Teachers’ salaries in Greece, even before the crisis, were the lowest in the Civil Service,” Kandiliotis says. “We had the lowest salaries in relation to other teachers in Europe and in relation to other civil servants in Greece, and that was before the crisis. It is even worse now.”

The lykeio where he teaches, in Petroupoli, a town on the northwest edge of the Athens sprawl, certainly does not appear to have had much investment. The outside of the school is sprayed with the graffiti – ugly tags, elaborate murals and football slogans – that cover so much of the capital. It is a concrete block, typical of school buildings in Greece, and a world away from the plush, carpeted new academies and glass atria that many teachers in England have become used to.

The interior is no smarter. The graffiti have spread to wooden chairs, which sit on lino floors in bare classrooms guarded by beaten-up metal doors. It is, by Greek state school standards, lucky to have a gymnasium. But its boards are black rather than white and definitely not interactive, and there are just 25 computers.

“It is not necessary to have any more,” says headteacher Pavlos Perdikakis. “Students have got them at home and they are more advanced.”

He would be unable to afford them anyway. His per-pupil and capital budgets, both from the local council, have been cut by 50 per cent. The school’s only direct means of funding is profit from a canteen that it runs for pupils and staff. But that has been halved, too, as people try to save by bringing in food from home. And he is unable to rely on central government either, with official textbooks arriving more than a term late. Teachers have had to rely on photocopies instead, but they have also had to be rationed.

Perdikakis has noticed changes in his pupils. “They are more sensitive and they react immediately in case they feel that their rights are suppressed,” he says. “There is a general sense of being a bit worried, a bit miserable and this feeling has passed on to the children. Their sense of solidarity with other people outside in society has increased.”

Teachers are struggling, too. “The morale is a bit low,” the head admits. “In some cases, teachers are very annoyed. They are doing their job very well but they feel uncomfortable.”

Kandiliotis, his finance teacher, is among the annoyed. “Education is not protected from the austerity, but it should be,” he argues. “Teachers are trying to be as positive as they can, to be optimistic. It is our duty. But the teacher needs support from the government.”

Desperate times

The DOE’s Athens office is just around the corner from Syntagma, the public square in front of the Greek Parliament, where numerous large and often violent protests have been held against the austerity measures.

People pick through bins at the bottom of the city centre street, pulling out cardboard to sell on for recycling. The whole area is dotted with spray-painted anarchist logos.

As Mantas speaks, a digital photo frame sitting behind his large desk flicks through pictures from a demonstration. In one he addresses a rally, in another clouds of what looks like tear gas billow from a line of riot police.

I pull out an article saying that a DOE official had been hospitalised after being beaten by a police officer during a protest last June. “Was this true?” I ask Mantas. “Yes, I was there,” he says, puffing on an electric cigarette. “It was just across the street. The police tried to break the demonstration and started chasing all those people that participated.

“They chased this colleague all around this block here and they found him across the street as he was entering a grocery store to call for help. He was calling for help when they reached him.”

It would be easy to convince yourself that this is a society already in meltdown. A growing homelessness problem is impossible to ignore, with makeshift beds in front of a metro station in Athens’ main tourist area. Wire-meshed police coaches full of officers in riot gear, with neatly stacked plastic shields, can be seen dotted around a capital decorated with anti neo-Nazi posters. Prime city-centre shop sites are empty, and restaurants offer EUR5 “crisis lunch” deals. Athenians tell you to watch your wallet, muttering that illegal immigration has got out of hand. On the night before I arrive, rioting football fans set fire to the 2004 Olympic stadium.

But life goes on. Pefki, a northern suburb just beyond the stadium, feels a world away from grimy central Athens. Families amble through the park next to the local shops, and orange trees line quiet roads full of smart white apartment blocks with expensive cars parked outside.

Constantinos Thivaios, head of the area’s 3rd Primary school, is “satisfied” so far with the treatment of schools under what he describes as the “catastrophe”. “Everyone in Greece gets a loss, sure,” he shrugs. “But until now, I think the state has protected education.”

Like other schools, he has a “serious budget problem” and is economising. But the state takes care of paying teachers, albeit on much-reduced salaries. And in this middle- and upper-class area Thivaios can rely on parents to help with a new computer here or some packets of paper there.

That would not be the case in other neighbourhoods with more jobless immigrants, the head admits. However, his school has enough teachers, “good buildings”, “enough gas”, “a special class for computers” and is counting its blessings. “We can manage the low budgets and the everyday life,” Thivaios says.

But it does not take long to scratch the surface and encounter the anxiety that betrays the enormity of what is happening in Greece. Peggy Zachari, the deputy head, reveals that even here there are pupils in every class facing economic difficulties.

Most mothers in Pefki work in the private sector where there have been many lay-offs, she says, and austerity is starting to hit the fathers’, often public sector, jobs as well.

“Every day, we hear kids talking about the problems at home like their parents being unemployed or laid off,” she says. “I had a personal experience with a kid where they had cut the electricity at home. The mother came over and asked me to be lenient because they couldn’t study after the sun went down.”

Teachers in this bright yellow school are suffering, too. Helen Paparrinopovlou has seen her pay slashed from EUR1,260 (£1,038) to EUR750 (£618) a month. She has two children, aged 4 and 5, and her husband, a civil engineer, can’t find work.

“Our psychology has been affected because we have a lot of problems at home. I can’t buy food,” the softly spoken English teacher says. “I am teaching very young children, so in class we have to show a different face. I have to be very cheerful and this is very difficult for me right now.”

Despite her financial troubles, she sometimes brings in paper from home so that her pupils have something to draw on.

“My personal life is very balanced and that is why I am still holding on. We are very happy because we are together. I am very lucky,” she says, looking far from convinced.

As I leave, the children – like pupils all over the country – are rehearsing a pageant to celebrate Greek Independence Day. The national holiday commemorates the start of the War of Greek Independence in 1821, which saw the country revolt and shake off nearly four centuries of Ottoman rule.

A political nightmare

Today, Nikos Papachristos, president of OLME, the secondary teachers’ union, believes that hard-won independence is seriously under threat because “foreign states” are controlling the Greek government’s policies.

Ministers have not done enough to protect education from austerity because the terms imposed by the troika have not allowed them to, he argues. He accuses the IMF of wanting to “squeeze our pay to the level of small Communist countries like Croatia for at least 10 years”.

“And I am afraid that after 10 years the international organisations will say that was not sufficient and the squeeze will have to continue,” Papachristos adds. “We say we must protest. We believe that teachers must fight for a better future because if we don’t we will suffer. We have to march against this policy, we have to go into the streets, we have to strike.”

The middle-aged theology teacher, on the centre Right, Christian Democrat wing of his union, with his sensible shoes and pullover, is an unlikely firebrand. But as Papachristos points out: “If the Greek believes that he has nothing to lose, he will react very badly. We are Mediterranean people not northern European people!”

When we meet, he has just driven four hours straight, from the city of Sparta. It was the latest stop on a tour of Greece he is making to ensure the union’s message is heard by its members.

“The TV and the radio will not announce our views about education, the people learn only the ideas of the ministry of education,” he explains.

As we sit in a small union office decorated with a few campaign posters, he outlines those views. It emerges that teachers have not just been fighting austerity but a series of specific education reforms. His union is bitterly opposed to a plan to base university admissions on exam results from each of the final three years of secondary school, which it believes will put too much pressure on teachers.

Papachristos fears that collective decision making in schools is in danger, with too many powers going to heads, and that a proposed new performance pay system for all civil servants could lead to further financial “punishment” for good teachers, barred by strict quotas from reaching higher salary grades.

At times, his anger is palpable. “There are pupils who cannot buy anything from the canteen in order to eat,” he says incredulously. “We are a European country, not Africa. This is what the Communist Party wants, it wants the IMF to push the Greek people so that they have their revolution.”

Talking over the music of a busker from the city-centre street below, Papachristos explains that the government originally wanted to close about 600 secondaries through mergers. The union fought hard against the plans, particularly in remote islands and mountainous areas where it claimed they would make it difficult and even dangerous for pupils and teachers to get to school. It succeeded in reducing the closures to 205, or 6.5 per cent of secondaries. In addition, 851 primaries – making up 7.8 per cent of the sector – are closing.

Papachristos says that even more closures will follow and that only 6,000 of the 16,000 teachers who have taken retirement since austerity measures began have been replaced. He expects another 20,000 teachers to leave by 2015. He does not know whether it will be through retirement or redundancy, but fears that teachers with poor results in the performance pay assessments could be targeted.

In any case, Papachristos says, the Parliament has already passed a law that says that for every five teachers retired only one can be hired.

Anger and austerity

Austerity is already leading to classroom disobedience, according to Thomas Tsolakos, who teaches at a gymnasio, or lower secondary, in Ilion, a traditionally working-class suburb of Athens. He has found it harder to motivate pupils who know that university graduates are losing their jobs. “Whenever there is a crisis, people focus on surviving,” he says. “They are worrying about it more than their studies.”

The double-parked cars blocking the narrow streets surrounding his school are testament to the area’s recent rise in prosperity. Just two decades ago there was no congestion because very few local people had a car.

Now Tsolakos fears that this process is being thrown into reverse. He even cites a dark period of Greek history when the country was under German Nazi occupation and more than 300,000 Athenian civilians starved to death. “Unless the crisis ends soon, it will cause damage to this generation,” the maths teacher warns. “I find a similarity with the situation in the 1940s. My parents didn’t study then because of the war and because they didn’t have money.

“My parents were not interested in school. They were interested in making a living during that time. It is more or less the same now.”

His colleague Vasiliki Manola reveals that staff have started collecting food for families who cannot afford to feed themselves. The school has only five pupils in that position at the moment. But she says that this is because people are still living off savings.

“At some point, that will end,” the PE teacher warns. “Next year will be very difficult. More and more are losing their jobs.”

Greece’s problems are usually portrayed as being about a government in debt. But as Nolka, the English teacher from Thessaloniki explains, that problem now extends to all levels, from municipalities that cannot cover their running costs, to schools being refused credit by suppliers, down to teachers unable to pay off their loans.

“Everybody owes money in Greece,” she says. “Half of the citizens owe money to the other half. It is very sad.”

Asked who she blames, Nolka, like most Greeks, immediately cites “the politicians”. But in that respect the current education minister, Georgios Babiniotis, is completely innocent. The former rector of the University of Athens is an academic who said he was helping his country out and had “no political ambitions” when he took over at the ministry last month.

Opinion is divided over whether he will stay on after the general election next week. But Papachristos was not expecting education to feature much in the campaigning anyway, with little difference in policy between the two main parties and the most contentious issues being shelved until afterwards.

There is some sense that the immediate drama of Greece’s plight is slipping away. I arrived in Athens on the day the country was due to default, just as the final pieces of the harsh austerity measures needed to avoid that fate were being voted through Parliament.

This time round, there were no protests, nor was there any of the trouble it was feared would mar the Independence Day. The 6 May election may revive some interest, but the international media are already shifting their focus to similar economic disasters developing in Portugal and Spain. It will leave behind demoralised teachers in Greece, likely to bear the scars of their country’s financial problems for years.

Nolka says that some of her pupils are already hoping for more a prosperous future abroad. She tells them: “Be patient, do your best and everything will change.”

But does she really think it will? “Although I am a very, very optimistic person, I don’t know,” she says quietly. “I don’t know. I myself have lost my smile … I don’t know.”


Eftihia Papadogeorgaki pulls out two pieces of work by bright children in the first grade (six- and seven-year-olds). One, completed two years ago – before the “catastrophe” – is neat and correct. The other, more recent piece is sloppy and careless.

“They are upset and it gets rushed,” the teacher at 3rd Primary in Pefki, Athens, says. “Their minds are elsewhere. Even those whose parents are still working fear what is happening now.

“Most of the mothers have lost their jobs. You might expect, since they stay at home, that they now have a better relationship with their kids.

“But this is not the case. Because the mothers are unemployed, they worry about other things. They are sad and depressed.”

From the Times Educational Supplement

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