Teachers’ Day

a26a5c34 86ee 4dd7 be5b 929891e23f9eYes, it is carnival time: kids take on the roles of teachers and teachers are sipping tea in the school kitchen. Brought to life in Estonia already in the 1960s, Teacher’s Day continues to be celebrated (since 1994 in accordance with the UNESCO initiative) on 5 October.

‘And what did you do on Teachers’ Day?’, I asked Daniel, my 11-year old.
‘Did you have other kids come to teach you?’
‘Mum, you know what, I myself was a teacher’.
‘And what did you teach?’
‘I went with Miikael and Kris to teach Art to the fourth-graders’ (one grade below Daniel’s).
‘Hmm, Art classes, that sounds cool’.
‘Yeah, we taught them how to draw comic books. They loved it!’
‘Do you think you are a good teacher?’
‘Well, I don’t know. Arts went well, but Sports did not: we also taught PE to the third-graders, but they did not listen to us and did not want to do what we told them!’ 
‘Well, now you know how it is hard to be a teacher when kids don’t listen to you!’

The International Teacher’s Day celebrates teaching as a profession. On the whole, Estonia enjoys the best results in the international PISA survey: Estonian kids are supposedly the smartest in Europe. Surely, teachers must be behind the success and highly appreciated in the society, don’t they? But looking closer, beyond the day of celebration, we see that teaching as a profession is not one of the most comfortable and well-paid jobs that would offer a good work-life balance. But what is perhaps even worrisome, is that this profession isn’t appreciated enough in the society.

On October 5 this year, St John’s School’s teachers were sitting in the school kitchen, talking to each other, eating salad and apple pie, listening to kids’ laughter and arguments, and enjoying that none of this was their business, at least for a day.

Hosts of the television show “The Tasty Molecule” (Magus molekul), the scientist Aigar Vaigu and the avid cook and a parent at St John's, Merle Liivak, were visiting the school. In the form of a quiz the teachers investigated with enthusiasm how one can understand Math, Physics, Chemistry and Acrobatics with the help of cooking eggs, cookies, making ice-cream, chocolate and alcohol-free fizzy drinks.

According to the 2018 TALIS survey (the OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey), only 26% of Estonian teachers agree that the teaching profession is valued, 40% report that they would like to leave teaching within the next five years (which is higher than OECD average 25%). Teachers complain about the low salaries, about stress and about little say in the management of the school.

Why do they remain in this profession that has high stress level and low pay? The answer is that most of the people who joined the profession want to influence kids’ development or contribute to the society (82%). For more than a half of those who became teachers, it was their first career choice.

The apple pie came out tasty, nicely crusty and smelling of vanilla. While enjoying it, I keep thinking, who is St John’s School’s teacher.

The teachers at St John’s are in a way very similar to but also different from the average Estonian teacher. Let me start with the difference:

First, the age. In Estonia, teachers are, on average, 49 years old, which is higher than the average age of teachers across OECD countries and economies participating in TALIS (44 years old). Furthermore, 54% of teachers in Estonia are aged 50 and above (OECD average 34%). St John’s School’s teacher is 35, on average. Teachers aged 50 and above are in minority, about 20%.
This year, some new teachers joined: young, beautiful and full of ideas. I was thinking, that it is great to have one’s whole life ahead and to start teaching in a school which is inspiring and supportive rather than discouraging and damaging to students’ personalities, like it was in the first school where I worked.

Second, gender. The teaching profession is overwhelmingly female (83%, compare with average in Europe - 72%, or in Denmark - 65%). In St John’s School the male-female teacher ratio is a little bit better than in Estonia in general, but not drastically different, we have 12 male teachers, teaching such subjects as Physics, Biology, Woodworking, Estonian language, Sports. There are also male teachers among our afterschool club instructors: Robotics, Computer Drawing.

Thirdly, the level of retention. According to TALIS, 40% of teachers quit the profession within five years, and about 13% of teachers would like to change the workplace. St John’s is a place where teachers remain loyal: if they leave the school (and some leave), it is because they have achieved a certain level of professional growth and are ready for a new challenge. This is a mystery, as the school principal Liivika Simmul says, how a person is becoming a Teacher, this is like a process of birth. It is significant that many teachers who start at St John’s come to teaching not from teachers’ college but from different walks of life: theatre, business, academia, the world of art and music. They learn to teach on the job and start attending teacher training courses in parallel. Teachers earn their Masters’ degree in Education while working at the school, to qualify with the Ministry of Education. These teachers are studying, struggling with their final thesis, while their students are studying and struggling too. “Leaders never stop learning.”

You know a good teacher when you see one. They are all different but there is something they all share. A good teacher is not the one who is concerned with his or her teaching but with the student’s learning. They know how to listen, how to observe, to see where the gaps are and they know how to motivate the child to fill these gaps. Great teachers are the ones who make kids love their subject, who make them want to study so that the teacher would be happy.

When the Teachers’ Day was over, we sat in silence after the kids were gone and thought: after all, this is a job we like to do, despite all odds. And yes, tomorrow is another day, and we get back to our roles as teachers.