Friday, April 13, 2012

Back to School

“You’re ten minutes late!” the teacher barked at me as I entered her classroom. “I’ve already started the lesson!”

I’d left my home an hour before the appointment, since the school was in one of those Tallinn neighborhoods right out of the Russian film, "The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath!" Upon arrival in the general vicinity, I parked the car and asked directions from a local who sent me to the wrong school.

Although most Tallinn buildings do have a number on them nowadays, the old Soviet axiom still often applies: “If you don’t know where you’re going, then you have no business being there.” With the possible exception of Ülemiste Airport, modern Tallinn was simply not built with anybody but the locals in mind.

Even though I had called the school to say I’d be late and explained what had happened the teacher was still rightly unimpressed. Perhaps she was one who harped on the virtues of being prompt, and so by allowing me to stay she was compromising some formerly unassailable standard? Or perhaps she was in a pissy mood because the teachers’ strike was due to begin in just a few days?

But I couldn’t hold it against her. I was, in fact, late, and in my experience it’s only the better teachers who invite strangers into the classroom.

“Hey, I don’t mind leaving,” I offered. But she decided I should stay.


As the father of a young son, the kind of education he’s going to get in Estonia is of keen interest to me. Critics say Estonian schools still stuff students full of useless facts instead of teaching them to think, and so I am always interested to visit a school and see for myself what the students and teachers are thinking.

I have followed the teachers’ strike, attending the rally on Freedom Square to talk to a few of them, as well as reading the coverage in the newspaper.

(A slight digression: At the rally, I noticed no grammatical errors in any strike sign. About how many protests can you say that?)

While I find it hard to take sides in the strike, it does seem that some politicians have used all available opportunities to belittle the strikers. To call the teachers naïve or suggest their activities evoke the red flag of Communism would seem to say more about the politicians’ understanding of democracy than about the teachers themselves.

As an outsider, to me it seems rather that the strike has fueled a healthy dialogue about education. And the “strike” – three days – can hardly be considered much of a strike by anyone who’s ever seen the real thing. Perhaps the politicians should rather express thanks that the teachers let us off so easily?

From what I’ve gleaned from the papers is that how much a teacher earns – whether above or below the average – depends largely on how you slice and dice the numbers. If I were a teacher, though, I think I’d have a problem with earning anything close to average.

One thing society is surely guilty of is constantly feeding teachers with the talk that they are some of society’s most valuable members, those in whose trust we place the delicate minds of our precious children. But then the 600-and-some-odd euros we pay them each month seems to send a different message: We value you less than a construction worker.

What if the ugly truth is that we as a society do not value teachers at all? That we see them as little more than babysitters with university degrees?

An American friend of mine – a professor of philosophy at an east coast university – has an interesting point of view. “Schools are just a place to get kids out of their parents’ hair during the day,” he argues. Beyond teaching mathematics and serving as a forum to socialize kids, my friend doesn’t think schools have much to offer. “What’s much more important is what happens in the home,” he says. “Are there books around? Is there art? What kind of things do the parents talk about with their kids?”

My friend may be right when the world is seen through the middle- and upper-class prism. But I think he’s wrong concerning the bottom layer of society. It may be my years working in America creeping in here, but I don’t think much education takes place in the homes of those trapped within the cycle of poverty. Just as a school lunch may be the only healthy meal a kid gets all day, a state school may be his only opportunity for an education of any sort.

But since many politicians are career politicians, and since these lawmakers tend to come from the middle and upper classes themselves, my professor friend’s point of view may be more representative than we know. Ilmar Raag probably got it right when he wrote in the pages of Postimees about empathy and government. Most of us in the middle and upper classes – career politicians included – don’t have the faintest clue what it’s like inside the huddled masses. We don’t even want to know.


I don’t pretend to be an expert on life in Lasnamäe, but from talking to the kids in schools and elsewhere, the vibe I get is that kids are getting mostly negative signals from their parents: The deck is stacked against you in Estonia. Even if you speak Estonian without an accent, you won’t get the job because of your Russian family name. Just bide your time until you can emigrate west. And then take us with you.

But the positive message for the children – that not even an angry, disenfranchised parent can take away – is this: EU citizens are welcome everywhere. Get a good education and the world is yours to conquer.

I don’t try to preach to kids, but I do try to point out that university educations in Estonia, even given the low salaries, are about as inexpensive as you’ll find. I also try to suggest that wanting to leave the place you were born is, at least in part, attributable to reasons other than ethnic. When I was their age, all I wanted was to get the hell out of Scarborough, Ontario.

I don’t have the answers to The Russian Problem in Estonia. I won’t even pretend to know the questions. Perhaps over time it will sort itself out. Dissatisfied youngsters will leave the country, and those who want to stay will learn the language despite the difficulties. (If it’s possible for Russians to acquire fluent Finnish to sell wigs and cheap Chinese crap to tourists, then I imagine most anything is possible.)


When it comes to my own kid, I have to confess I would not want him getting hit with the negative vibes present in some of the schools I’ve visited. Just how much art would we have to discuss at the dinner table to counteract the effect?

Nor would I want him having to endure the daily grind of school in some of the Tallinn’s dilapidated structures. One school I visited (in Mustamäe) was fit for little more than use as a shoothouse for urban warfare training. But that was a year ago, and so maybe they’ve torn it down by now. Or maybe it just fell down.

But I might also not be so eager for my son to study at one of Estonia’s so-called “elite” schools, where I am told a dessert cart is wheeled between the desks and each lucky child removes an iPad for the day’s lesson.

I have been told by students in these schools that they feel pressure via regular reminders that “You are the future leaders of the Republic.” And the stories my friends tell of gaining a place in the school for their children – how they've taken the school director to lunch or dinner, or how they registered their kid at a friend's address in the school's district – these turn my stomach as well.

The good news is that I have also visited Estonian schools much like my own in Scarborough – not elite, though not full of the bitterness of the disenfranchised. In these schools half the class is attentive and the other half stares out the window like zombies. And I feel right at home.

I am not uncomfortable knowing that my son will simply get into whichever school he gets into. While I refuse to wine and dine a school director, I do believe in doing my part to better the overall system. Taking part in it when asked, and supporting the teachers as they do their jobs.

Long term, I think it might behoove us to put some thought into what kind of hypocrites we are. If teachers truly are as important to society as doctors, attorneys, and members of Parliament, should the paychecks not reflect that?

And shorter-term, I think the very least that we as a society can do is to allow the striking teachers to keep their dignity. What we might discover is that in allowing teachers to keep their dignity, we’re able to maintain our own, as well.

Read the collected Vello.