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  • Writer's picture Kester Eddy

Hungary: One in Five Teaching Positions in Schools is Unfilled – and it's Set to Get Worse Yet

Updated: Apr 9, 2022

Teacher Shortage is Symptom of Deeper Troubles - argues Willard Dickerson, an American who has been teaching English at the prestigious Szent László Gimnázium, Kőbánya, for the best part of 29 years - Guest Post

Photo: The imposing facade of Szent László Gimnázium (High School), in Kőbánya, Budapest X. School website

This is the personal view of Willard Dickerson, and not the official outlook of the school.

Teacher Shortage is Symptom of Deeper Troubles - argues Willard Dickerson, an American ex-pat who has been teaching English at the Szent László Gimnázium, Kőbánya, for the best part of 29 years

As teachers across Hungary have gone on strike*, much attention has been given to the paltry salaries teachers earn, especially when considering the excessive workload that is demanded of them. Much has been said and written about this topic elsewhere, so I won’t repeat what others have stated more eloquently than I could possibly do. I will say, however, that the situation teachers are facing today — not just in Hungary but in many other parts of the world — is really just an outward symptom of a much deeper illness that is crippling the education system as a whole.

In order to understand the nature of this underlying illness, we need to ask why public education exists in the first place.

Some would argue that public education exists to serve the needs of the state (or perhaps of the ruling party). Schools are institutions that are meant to shape young minds into model citizens who will then serve the wants and desires of those in power. That is to say, schools are places that force a lot of square pegs into round holes.

Those pegs that just won’t conform to the mold are beaten up emotionally and then cast aside. In a system such as this, the authorities decide what data the students need to be force-fed in order to become model citizens. It then becomes the teachers’ job to transfer this data from the approved textbooks to the students’ brains.

We measure the success of this transfer process through frequent standardized tests. Ideally, this is a job that could be done through politically approved “educational” software. However, since teachers also play the role of childcare providers for parents that work, the authorities are forced to hire and pay real human beings to do the job. Teachers are seen as a necessary inconvenience.

In a system such as this, teachers are not encouraged to teach students how to solve problems or think for themselves. Students are told to memorize the approved data and then to repeat this data on the given tests. Teachers merely serve as cheap childcare providers and as the means of data transmission.

Others would argue that public education should exist to help students discover their talents and abilities and then to help them become whatever it is they want to become. Education should teach students to look at problems from different angles, analyze source material, reach independent conclusions, and think for themselves.

In this kind of system, it is the teacher’s job to give the students a love of learning and to give them wings and to teach them to fly. Teachers, therefore, need to know something about cognitive development and multiple intelligences. Teachers also need to have the time to get to know their students individually and to find out their needs and interests.

Some would say this approach to education is more dangerous. We can’t control the outcome. Some students may grow up to think differently than we do. Perhaps this sort of education is more dangerous in some ways, but in the long run this kind of educational system leads to a stronger and healthier society — especially if teachers can help instill in their students a respect for those who don’t think like themselves and can teach their students how to discuss important issues in a civil and thoughtful manner.

Here in Hungary (and in many other places) we have the first sort of education system — one in which students are groomed to serve the wants and desires of the state. This was not always so. During the early decades of the 20th century, Hungary was known for producing some of the greatest mathematical and scientific problem-solvers on Earth. An extraordinary generation of teachers raised an extraordinary generation of mathematicians and scientists, who then went on to make a huge impact on the world.

As recently as 2005, the Hungarian system received international praise for its positive learning environment and for the way in which it was producing creative problem-solvers. <>. At that point in time, schools were governed locally, and teachers and staff were given a great deal of autonomy.

But then something happened.

In 2010, the government nationalized all the schools. Little by little, the government took over control of every aspect of the education system. In the process, it has dumbed down** the system.

Students can now drop out when they are just 16. They are actually discouraged from reaching a high level of proficiency in foreign languages. They are told that a simple "érettségi" exam (which is no higher than the B1 level) is more than sufficient.

And critical and independent thinking is not encouraged. Rather, students are told to memorize the government-approved data and to write it down on the standardized government tests. It is not surprising, therefore, that since 2010, Hungarian students have achieved more and more abysmal results on the international PISA evaluations, and the education system overall has plummeted in the TALIS evaluations. <> and <>

The PISA exams were designed to analyze students’ problem-solving skills. Unlike the tests given in most Hungarian schools nowadays, they are not simply a measure of how much knowledge (in the form of data) one has memorized about a particular subject. They are more a measure of how well one can understand a problem and then work out a solution. They require critical thinking skills.

These PISA tests show a noticeable decline in the ability of Hungarian students to understand and solve problems in a range of fields. To me, that is troublesome, and it is not a good sign for the future.

The TALIS evaluation is not really a set of tests. It is a type of evaluation based on a wide range of input. It makes use of surveys conducted among teaching staff, parents, students, etc. It is an attempt to evaluate the overall morale of a particular education system.

In the 2005 study conducted by scholars at Johns Hopkins University, we can see that Hungary was doing very well in this regard. Students were scoring well compared to those from other countries, and the morale among educators was relatively high. There was a high degree of satisfaction on the part of all involved in the education system. That is no longer the case.

Nowadays, morale is very low. In fact, Hungary is now faced with a severe teacher shortage. Approximately 20% of the teaching positions nationwide are going unfilled.

Prestigious schools in the big cities (such as my own) are still able to keep their faculty staffed. Being a prestigious school and one known for its positive learning environment, my school will always be able to attract some of the best prospects. However, schools at the lower end of the rankings and schools in rural areas are struggling. Teachers in many of these schools are having to work extra hours or teach overcrowded classes in order to compensate for the staff shortages. In such cases, students receive even less individual attention, and they are often reduced to statistics.

(To be continued)

* Editorial note 1 - Teachers have suspended their rolling strike action until the formation of a new government.

** Editorial note 2 – personally, I loathe the use of 'dumb' to indicate 'simple' or 'simplified'. Dumb people can't help being dumb, and it may well be they are highly intelligent. Anyway, I've left it in here out of respect for the guest poster's text, as I'm sure he does not mean any disrespect to such people.

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