What are the educational challenges for teachers in Belarus?
I had the privilege of being invited to Minsk, Belarus to attend #EdCampBelarus to lead a keynote and two workshops. This post captures my experiences of the grassroots movement and the successes and challenges teachers are facing in Belarus.
Education facts about Belarus
Belarus presents interesting challenges. The literacy rate of Belarus’ adult population is one of the highest in the world and currently stands at 99.7 per cent. Meanwhile, 98 per cent of people have basic, general secondary and vocational education. (Belarus Facts). Across the landlocked country, there are:
- Approximately 8,000 educational establishments – 50 higher education.
- There 9.5 million people with about 1 million pupils, taught by 100,000 teachers (400k across the system)
- The ratio of students to the total population is among the highest in Europe.
- Pupils start school aged 6 until 17, divided into three levels: primary (4 years), basic (9) and secondary (11).
- Gymnasiums provide general secondary education at a higher level.
- There are two official languages within the education system in Belarus: Russian and Belarusian.
- Belarus is among the top thirty developed countries and school is compulsory (grades 1-9 with 10-11 optional)
- There are more facts here.
Day 1: #EdCampBelarus Conference
It was a privilege to meet Mrs Jacqueline Perkins – the (new) U.K. Ambassador to Belarus representing the British government – as well as hundreds of teachers from across Belarus, attending ‘their workshops’ to learn about the successes and challenges teachers have.
My first challenge was to navigate a question and answer panel (see video) to discuss the ‘role of parents in education’ – the discussion was translated so that I could take part. In my keynote, I highlighted the challenges all teachers face, what external factors may or may not contribute to teacher workload and that teachers can do to work more effectively. It was a fascinating experience sharing my notes in Belarusian – the interpreter team did a phenomenal job to translate my teaching ideas into meaningful action – observing pertinent points made which reached the audience 5 or 10 seconds later. The use of technology at this event was something I’ve not witnessed before at a teacher-led conference. My slides were translated in English and Belarusian and also live-streamed to YouTube alongside footage of speakers in action with English-to-Belarusian translation received to in-ear devices within a matter of moments. Teachers that could not attend – all 200 registered ticket holders – were able to watch from home.
The first night ended with traditional food, drink and dancing!
Day 2 – Sharing ideas widely
Another 06:30 AM start; there were at least 40 workshops, led by teachers, voted by those in attendance. I was also interviewed by the press and local Belarusian television. I led two workshops over the conference weekend: The first on Mark Plan Teach and the second on action research for busy classroom teachers.
At the end of day two, I was lucky enough to be given a personalised tour of Minsk, exploring its history and culture before and after World War Two. Lenin, Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy was discussed in visits to architectural sites, such as churches and street artefacts. I was surprised to learn that Belarus is one of few countries where the death penalty is still legal – I walked past the only prison in Europe where this takes place.
Having visited 11 other countries on my teacher-travels, I have slowly realised what has been missing from all my other trips, so this time I was delighted when a school visit was agreed. After another long day, I jumped into a mini-bus at 20:00 PM for a two-hour ride South-West of Minsk to a town called Nesvizh (pronounced, Knee-Yes-Vich).
I was met a bus-stop by ‘Natalia’, a teacher of English who has been working in one of the four local schools who had also attended #EdCampBelarus. She had kindly offered to host me at her family home and take me into her classroom the next day. Natalia walked me back to her Belarusian home. Her children had waited up to ‘say hello’ and practice their English. We had traditional food and chatted about life, education and teaching until the early hours…
Day 3 – Visiting Nesvizh
I work up at 06:30 AM after getting to sleep at 01:00 AM. To say I was tired was an understatement, but I was working on passion and curiosity to keep me going. After breakfast, we drove to school through the town, passing the beautiful Nesvizh Castle and arrived at the (Gymanisum) school. I met briefly with one of the vice principals before heading straight up to Natalia’s classroom.
The school community felt small compared to my experiences, even with 600 pupils from grade 1 to grade 11 across two separate sites. Class sizes vary (from 17-30) and it appears that the school operates on selection throughout each year; as the students progress, if they don’t meet the grades, they potential have to leave and attend schools 3 and 4 in the local community. I sat in on a grade 9 and grade 10 English lesson taught by Natalia, class sizes are much smaller, who led topics on ‘education’ and ‘friendship’ respectively. I had little time to dig into the curriculum, but it appears as though it is largely up to the teachers to choose, with no set books to read.
In terms of the differences across the school compared to what I noticed, there was:
- Teacher registers are on paper
- A timetable on display for ‘opening windows’ at specified times
- Classroom doors opened onto the corridor
- Pupils grades were recorded by hand and added to the register – there was little or no ICT
- The school lunch is great and pupils hand out food to one another
- ‘Pay attention to’ appears to be a common teacher phrase. Interestingly, it is also written into the textbooks at the beginning of opening texts…
- Pupils all had mobile phones – which seemed to cause no behavioural issues. It was surprising to see how some asked for my social media account ID.
- In terms of inclusion, there is an apparent air of selection. In the discussions I had with teachers and pupils, I raised the importance of issues of equality, prejudice, subject-bias, intelligence, gender and racism.
- Teacher salary is low and parents and politicians have a greater say than the professional.
I am hopeful of the future…
Discussions with teachers at the EdCamp reminded me of what British teachers take for granted. Freedom of speech, a curriculum offer, funding, a government which does, to a degree, show an active interest in the profession. More importantly, although increasing capitalism does come with its problems, recent independence and living under a Russian regime has cast a long cloud over the Belarusian people, including its own Belarusian language.
Do not under-estimate the importance of the past on a country’s progress. Post- Iron Curtain has meant that for Belarus people at large, aspects of life such as television and radio, an autonomous government (free from Russian control) and a teaching profession which is active and self-regulating is slowly breaking free. At a deeper level, Belarusian people have been stifled by years of not being able to speak up in classrooms (literally).
In this one-school example, teachers are limited by the quality of textbooks, some factually incorrect or mistranslated which, as one may expect, will lead to misconceptions being taught. On the whole, I was blown away by the level of English language proficiency used by all pupils, and how the target language was used throughout the entire lesson. You would have forgiven me if I had forgotten I was observing teaching and learning in Belarus!
I was made to feel very welcome and have left Belarus which fond memories; there is work to be done, but I am optimistic for their future. I would like to thank Katsiaryna, Tamara and the edcamp team for inviting me over on permission of the UK and Belarusian government, as well as to teacher Natalia and her pupils and colleagues at her school in Nesvizh. I am confident the EdCampBelarus model will spread like a virus and this small, underground revolution will start to shape education policy as more and more school leaders attend.
What a privilege!
It will be both teacher and school leader who will start to influence parents and politicians for whole-system improvement.