Teachers struggle with pupils taking part in protests

Since the anti-corruption protests of 26 March staff and teachers at some Russian schools and universities have held warning sessions with their students. They tell them that the opposition rallies are funded by the West and that the US State Department is a danger to Russia. This has led to accusations of 'servility and amorality'. Tatyana Dvornikova talked to members of the independent teachers trade union and asked them how they deal with politics in class.

Protest tegen MedvedevDebates started about pupils taking part in protests against corruption. The duck was a mocking of prime minister Medvedevs 'duck house' in one of his mansions

by Tatyana Dvornikova

Olga Miryasova, sociologist and secretary of the Teachers trade union:

'These days, a lot of people like to tar everyone with the same brush. When well known journalist and political commentator Sergey Parkhomenko called teachers a pathetic, unprincipled community, his comment became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It’s very common, of course, for good teachers to leave the profession, and the problem of negative selection is more relevant than ever: low salaries, long hours, and the status of the profession declines by the year. Teachers are under constant pressure from the authorities. The scale depends on the individual school: some headteachers take all the flak themselves; others pass the buck to their staff. But those who have a one-sided view of the profession as a whole are just fanning the flames, without asking themselves whether it’s an accurate assessment.

Headteachers and their staff are powerless: today’s children and young people have no fear of school

'Many teachers actually support the opposition, and some take part in, and even organise, protests. But only confrontational situations that get in the media – students aren’t, after all, going to make video recordings of teachers whose views they respect, so we don’t hear about them. We don’t know how many teachers tell young people: 'decide for yourselve whether to protest or not' or 'discuss it with your parents'.

МирясоваOlga Miryazova: 'Teachers are under constant pressure from the authorities'

'Discussions among teachers who have links to our union have shown that they have very different reactions to students joining protests: some disagree with it, others think it’s up to the young people; all of them, however, feel nervous about it. It would be strange if the profession was unanimous in its approval of youth activism, given that some of them end up under arrest and are mistreated by the police. Some teenagers have already been hit on the head with truncheons: who knows what might happen the next time?

Independent thinking

'Our system considers teachers responsible for children and young people both inside and outside school. If this were not the case, why would teachers be dismissed for posting their personal photos on social media, or schools blamed for lack of watchfulness when pupils commit suicide? Teachers are unconsciously always on the defensive, and this applies to street protests as well. We’ve put together a checklist with legal information that a teacher can give to students if they see they are determined to attend a protest. We’ve also had good feedback: most teachers said they would tell their students about it.

'But even if a teacher supports the idea of protests and demonstrations, he or she can’t talk about it openly. On the one hand, out of concern for the young people’s safety; on the other, due to the ban on [oppositional] political campaigning in schools and strong official pressure.

'For officials, members of parliament and the law enforcement agencies, the idea of school students taking part in protest activity is pretty much a red alert. The system goes into automatic pilot mode: the school head has to be intimidated into nipping dissent in the bud. But headteachers and their staff are powerless in many ways: today’s children and young people have no fear of school. Many teachers have no means of influencing them: they are out of touch about opposition movements; they have no time for browsing social media and so are unable to explain coherently why they disapprove of Navalny’s rallies. What they do know is that it’s not safe (otherwise, why would the security services be on the phone?) and so they need to try to protect the pupils. And so, they do their best, to the point of hysteria, to keep schoolkids from protesting.

'Still, neither direct pressure nor more gentle means of dissuasion have much effect on teenagers. Still it’s wrong to imagine that these kids are going on a protest 'just for a laugh'. It’s normal for young people to look for new experiences and do new, interesting things. So only a direct, calm conversation, where the teacher makes no claim to knowing the truth, will have any effect.'

Andrei Rudoy, a teacher of history and social studies from Dzerzhinsk, Nizhny Novgorod region:

'None of our students made it to the 26 March protest – it involved an awkward journey to Nizhny Novgorod, 30 kilometres away. It was mainly school kids and teachers from regional capitals that took part in the rallies. I think our students would have gone if they hadn’t lived so far away. Our young people are involved in this movement: former students, young people in their final year and some in lower years are all actively engaged in the issues and support opposition initiatives. Of course there’s nothing organised about it yet; for these teenagers, it’s still a spontaneous protest.

Andrey RudoyAndrei Rudoy: 'My students are all politically aware'

Progressive protests

'In the history and social studies syllabus that I now use in class, there is a module on political parties in Russia today. This of course sparks lively discussion; my students are all politically aware. They’re subscribers to various political VKontakte groups, so can articulate their case a lot more effectively than their parents because, unlike the older generation, they don’t watch Dmitry Kiselev, the government’s chief TV propagandist. After all, there’s nothing scandalous about young people trying to air their political opinions; it’s their constitutional right. Teachers’ arguments about the dangers of going to protest rallies are just attempts to excuse their own political apathy.

'I haven’t taken part in any recent rallies, because I consider them futile, as do my colleagues in Dzerzhinsk. I think they are disorganised and lack a coherent plan of action. What have we got out of them? Two thousand people gathered in Nizhny Novgorod – a very large turnout for a place like that. They marched past the city’s castle, but that was it. I think it would have been useful to hold a general strike as well.

'The teachers at school sometimes talk about the recent protests, but there’s no lively discussion. Nonetheless many people share our views, despite the omnipresent propaganda. From the outside it sometimes looks as though many of the teachers are pretty apathic, and that’s true to some extent. But at the same time there is an increasing number of people who are not afraid to defend their rights and interests – colleagues of mine, for example, who have joined the union or are close to it.'

Alexei Makarov, teacher of social studies at Moscow’s 'Intellektual' school (a state boarding school for gifted children):

'Discussions that pupils shouldn’t be allowed to take part in protests reflect a common view that young people under 18 have neither rights nor opinions. This matches the government’s conviction that they must have been stimulated by someone else – as though they can’t read or write themselves.

МакаровAlexei Makarov: 'Propaganda in the form of lessons in patriotism just doesn’t work'

'Students from our school went on protest rallies, but everybody is different. Some went because they thought it might be fun – a kind of amusing spring activity; others took part because they are politically conscious and support opposition initiatives.

'My colleagues and I have been discussing these last protests a lot, thinking about what and how to teach our students; which of their questions we should answer in class and which outside; how openly and directly we should tell them about what is going on and how to associate with students who show an interest in activism. Some teachers feel that the students are still too young for demos, others believe that the most important thing is to make them aware of the legal situation, to keep them safe, and then let them decide whether to demonstrate or not.

Lessons in patriotism

'As for these videos of teachers lectoring their students, I think they are more typical of regional schools and usually a personal initiative on the teachers’ part. Frankly, I’m embarrassed by my colleagues who talk to students like that, regardless of the specific topic. If I ever spoke to my students like that, even if I told them that Putin was bad and Navalny good, I would have to leave the profession. And I’d understand why.

'Party politics must be kept out of schools, in the sense that we shouldn’t set up junior party cells and campaign for this or that candidate. But that doesn’t mean that politics can’t be discussed in the classroom.

'The recent protests may inspire the government to add political education and patriotism to the school timetable, but for the moment these are just platitudes. We’ll find out in September whether anything will happen. Usually, at the start of the school year, the ministry of education sends recommendations to schools about how to present the chosen topic for the annual lesson in patriotism that a school may provide. There is no obligation, but the school management always wonders what will happen if the recommendations are not followed. Three years ago, the topic was Crimea; six years ago it was the Beslan tragedy. This year the subject might be protest rallies. Our school doesn’t bother with these lessons.

'You also need to understand that propaganda in the form of these lessons in patriotism just doesn’t work. Young people are generally apolitical: they’re sick of the official ideology and how it’s presented to them. I can predict that if lessons in patriotism are made compulsory, they’ll have no impact, because the school kids just won’t play along. And any teacher who sets him or herself up as a mentor and a person who knows how everything plays out is also not the best approach.

'A week after the 26 March protests, I wrote a post on Facebook saying that 'I don’t falsify election results, don’t feed my students propaganda and don’t have it in for LGBT kids. But I am still a teacher. There are teachers like me'. My post went viral: other people wanted to echo my feelings. Sometimes teachers like us feel we are living on the margins of our profession, and everyone else is crushed by our society’s values. But that’s not completely true.

The problem is that even our best fellow citizens are used to putting people into boxes. Everyone is familiar with the term 'public sector worker'. Mostly they are seen not as people who are doing important and complex work in pretty difficult circumstances, but as functionaries controlled by the state. Accordingly they are usually treated with contempt. The government, of course, wants to control them, but everyone is different. And that includes teachers.'

This article was first published at openDemocracy

Tatyana Dvornikova is a Moscow-based journalist. She works with Colta, Kommersant and Radio Mel.


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