Hungary: Teachers are Sorely Underpaid: But the Real Problem ... is the Education System Itself
Updated: May 20
Today, 13 April, is the 279th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Jefferson, the third US president, who cautioned his fellow Americans who thought public education burdened the public with high taxes, saying: “The tax which will be paid for the purpose of education is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests, and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.”
"We are the party of low taxation," Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, 6th April, 2022.
Photo: Willard Dickerson is an American born in Boston, raised in Massachusetts, and a former resident of both Princeton, NJ, and Ithaca, NY. He has taught in Kőbánya, Budapest District X, since moving to Hungary in 1993.
Part 1 of Willard Dickerson's Guest Post was published on 6th April.
Even in my school, we have seen several excellent teachers walk away from the profession over the last few years. As educators, they are becoming increasingly frustrated with a system that is not allowing them to be creative and to share their love of learning with their students. They are losing their joy as they are required to spend more and more of their time on administrative paperwork and on doing little more than effecting the transfer of data from approved textbook to student.
The loss of such educators is a loss of a national treasure.
Many of the teachers who have stayed have unconsciously been co-opted by the system. They know that success in this system is measured by test results. So, little by little, they have stopped teaching their subject, and they have started teaching students how to take tests.
“This is not a system meant to give students wings to fly. It is a system intended to keep them grounded and make sure they don’t get away with anything.”
There is a big difference! I see this in English, the subject I teach. English is a language — a communication tool — that allows human beings to interact with each other, to share our joys, insights, emotions, art, humor, and reasoning with each other. If I can give my students a love of the language, they can interact with film, literature, art, not to mention people. I can open up a whole new world of human interactions to my students.
But step by step, we have reduced the teaching of English from human communication to filling in endless worksheets and preparing for exams. A large amount of the time in faculty meetings is spent discussing mock exams to prepare students for end-of-the-year exams, to prepare them for language exams, to prepare them for grading exams, to prepare them for final exams and so on.
We have reached the absurd point where a student can pass an upper level (C1 exam) language exam but still be told it is necessary to take a lower-level exam in order to be able to take another lower-level exam in order to graduate. It is all about the exams!
This is not a system meant to give students wings to fly. It is a system intended to keep them grounded and make sure they don’t get away with anything (in the same way that the system tries to make sure its teachers don’t get away with anything). It is a system built on mistrust and fear. This is not a good recipe for true learning.
Warning lights are going off all over the dashboard of the Hungarian education system. However, those in charge are ignoring these lights. Instead, they are saying that the warning lights on their dashboard are flashing because there is something wrong with the truck over in the other lane. They say they are trying to protect us from dangerous ideas that are being taught in foreign universities in more “liberal” countries.
But at the same time they are denying that there are any problems with their system, they are trying to blame those in the teaching profession for the system's failures. They are looking for a scapegoat for the problems they say don't exist. I suppose if I were in charge of a system that was in such shambles, I would also look for someone else to blame . . .
We can see the long-term effects of this kind of state-oriented education system if we glance across the border to the war in Ukraine. Russia has an education system very similar to Hungary’s. It is a system in which students are not encouraged to think for themselves. Rather, they are told to memorize the approved data and to obey their leaders. Russian soldiers on the front line grew up in this system, and as soldiers they are told to do the same thing. Do not ask questions. Do not try to think for yourself. Don't make decisions on your own. Wait until your commander tells you what to do and then obey blindly.
But the Ukrainian defenders have been using new and unexpected tactics against the Russians. Moreover, the Russian communication system has not been working well. As a result, the young Russian soldiers are finding themselves confronted by unexpected challenges at the very same time they are being cut off from those who are supposed to tell them what to do. Since these young soldiers have not been taught how to think or solve problems on their own, the results, from the Russian perspective, have been disastrous.
Russian forces have suffered defeat after defeat on the battlefield. They have not been able to adapt and meet the challenges they are facing. So, their leaders have taken to firing long-range missiles at easy civilian targets that can’t shoot back. They are turning hospitals, theaters, schools and universities into rubble. Instead of trying to win the war on the battlefield, they are settling for the blind destruction of culture. We need to think seriously about Russia’s failure in Ukraine, for this is Hungary’s future if we do not change our philosophy of education!
It is true that teachers in Hungary are sorely underpaid. We make less than minimum wage. (In fact, if you were to do the calculations, we make less than babysitters.) It is also true that we are required to teach so many lessons/week and deal with such large numbers of students that it is almost impossible to give anyone much personal attention, much less have time to teach them how to write an argumentative essay or a critical film review.
All we have time to do is pass out easy-to-correct worksheets and practice tests. The real problem we face, however, is the education system itself. This is a system that by its very nature devalues teachers. It sees them as nothing more than childcare providers and as those who transfer the approved data from approved textbook to young brain. As long as we see public education as a tool of the state, we will continue to sink in the morass we currently find ourselves in.