For Whom the Clock Ticks

Many teachers here in Hungary are going on a voluntary, two-hour “warning strike” on January 31, possibly to be followed by a full strike in March. According to the law, the union cannot pressure empoyees to join the strike, nor can the employers pressure them not to do so. Nor can the employers ask non-striking employees to cover for those on strike, or bring in outside workers to cover for them. As far as I know, there have been no general meetings about the strike, at least not at school; people have been discussing it among themselves. While I picked up on something, I didn’t really know what was going on until I received an email last Friday.

There are several issues on the table, including manditory vaccinations for teachers (the union finds the requirement too harsh and intrusive) and teachers’ low wages. The details are complicated in both cases, so anything I say here will be an oversimplification.

While I respect the right to strike, and the decision of many colleagues to do so, I wonder whether they are putting Hungarian teaching conditions in larger perspective. Are teaching conditions here much worse than elsewhere? Is it possible to win a big improvement without also giving something up? I have limited knowledge, having only taught at Varga while in Hungary (and at three schools in nine years in NYC). But I’ll work within those limits.

First, a vaccination requirement is nothing unusual. (In brief, though there’s a lot more to it: teachers must currently be vaccinated or go on unpaid leave.) Similar measures are being taken around the world. Granted, there’s some unfairness to them. But this is not an instance of Fidesz heavy-handedness. It’s a widespread public health measure. What’s more, the vast majority of Hungarian teachers have been vaccinated, and there are ways to get a medical exemption. I do not consider this worth striking over. The alternatives—such as allowing non-vaccinated teachers to continue teaching if they take a daily test—present all sorts of practical complications and do not really solve the issue. The union also considers it unfair that teachers at private religious schools are exempt from the national requirement. But in general, private schools (around the world) have more freedom than public schools to set their own policies. In the U.S., some school districts are including private schools in vaccination mandates, but this is far from uniform.

As for the wages, yes, they are pitiful. As a full-time teacher, I make about a thousand dollars a month after health insurance deductions (and even less after taxes); a new teacher makes less than I do. Granted, the cost of living in Hungary is much lower than in the U.S., but this too is changing with recent inflation. One of the problems is that the government detached teachers’ salaries from the minimum wage a few years ago; thus, increases in the minimum wage do not result in increased teacher salaries. The low wages discourage young people from entering the profession. A change is needed, and yes, it requires a fight.

But in my experience, when governments and school systems raise teachers’ salaries substantially, they also take something away. The calm, freedom, and flexibility of the profession could vanish in a short time. Never mind the generous maternity and child care leave—mothers here can take up to two years off for each child, at seventy percent of their salary (and even a third year at a lower rate), and have their job waiting for them when they return—a benefit unheard of in the U.S., where twelve weeks’ maternity leave is considered generous. Here in Hungary, while teachers are on leave, other teachers teach in their place; even if this substitution goes on for years, it is substitution only. I have been technically substituting for someone for over four years. This is good for the mothers, children, and families, but expensive for the system. (The benefit applies to all working mothers, not only teachers, but most teachers are women, especially in kindergarten and elementary schools.)

Teaching here, at least at Varga, is demanding but not debilitating. Why? At the high school level, a teacher typically teaches 22 to 24 lessons a week. When not teaching a lesson, the teacher may choose how to allocate the time. Meetings are called only as needed. Teachers have no extra duties such as hallway or cafeteria patrol. There’s no need for them, since the students behave responsibly. Teachers have a desk in a teachers’ room or other location; there they can work when not teaching. There’s basic trust; no one has to punch in or out, but teachers are generally dedicated and stay beyond their specified hours.

If union negotiators are not vigilant, a substantial raise could come with a large set of “givebacks,” where teachers’ days would be filled up with official tasks: mandatory meetings, extra duties, paperwork, longer days, reduced vacations. A transactional attitude could take over: “We are giving you X, but in return you have to demonstrate that you are giving us Y (and Z and beyond).”

I wish I could invite Hungarian teachers to teach for even a week in a U.S. urban public school. I think they would be surprised by the constant rush and noise (at many schools, five minutes maximum between periods), the lack of time for reflection, the lack of a place to work (schools are equipped with a teachers’ “lounge,” but no one has a personal desk there), the heap of mandates and tasks. This has nothing to do with any school in particular. It has to do with the system-wide mandates and assumptions. The unions are not at fault for this. But the process of negotiation has often led (over time) to an increase in bureaucracy, mandates, and stress. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t take place. It’s just good to be aware of the possible consequences.

Yes, demand higher wages. But I would support a less drastic initial demand (the union wants 45% on top of the 10% proposed by the government) combined with an absolute requirement that this not come with extra duties or paperwork, and a plan for additional increases over time.

True, the union is also demanding limits to the teachers’ hours—but the government could agree to this and still pack the teaching day with extra duties. Teachers might be required to attend daily meetings (or meetings several times a week), perform administrative and clerical duties, fill out lots of paperwork, make their teaching practices conform to the model that happens to be in fashion, fill in regularly for absent teachers, and more. That, in turn, could erode the atmosphere and the authority of individual schools and teachers.

In cherishing relative freedom and flexibility, I do not cherish laziness. To the contrary: the freedom and flexibility allow me to do my job well. I can actually do some planning and grading during the school day. I still take a lot home, but there’s a tranquility to the day. I am not pushed to the edge. In the U.S., teacher burnout is common because the day is so packed and hectic. To avoid burning out, you learn to cut corners: to give less to your job while checking all the boxes. Or else you become a high-energy superhero. Not wanting to do either, I chose to work “part-time” in my last five years of teaching in NYC. I was really working more than full-time, but the part-time schedule gave me flexibility that I wouldn’t otherwise have had—for curriculum planning, grading, Contrariwise, philosophy roundtables.

Certain changes are going to happen no matter what—and sooner if the demands are strong enough. Salaries will go up, because otherwise there won’t be enough teachers. New demands will come with the raises, because most people would rather accept them than stay with the low wages. I have heard some say that Varga isn’t what it used to be—that in the early ’90s, it was collegial and intellectually vibrant. But ten years from now, teachers might be looking back on this as a golden era, or at least an impoverished but silver one.

Image credit: Vintage metal twin bell alarm clock (AcuRite).

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

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