For many schoolchildren in rural Russia, access to quality education can be challenging. Now, top-tier Russian university graduates are moving to the countryside to become teachers in underserved communities.
One summer's day, 25-year-old student Yulia Ignatyeva packed her bags and left Moscow for the countryside, on a mission to teach at a school in rural Russia. On her journey to the tiny village of Vorsino, where she would teach, Yulia passed a vast industrial site, before hitting the open countryside, with endless golden fields on either side of the road. Occasionally, she passed Soviet-era prefab homes, summer residences and family homes surrounded by green corrugated iron fences.
The school in Vorsino is situated beside the overgrown ruins of a church. It was built in 1975. Outside, a Russian flag limply hangs off the building's facade.
Children's voices echo though the hallways. Today, Yulia is teaching the kids English. Smiling, she addresses the class: "How are you feeling today?" Several eighth graders stare at their tables in silence, a few others a chuckle and bellow: "Goood!"
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Breathing new life into Russia's school system
Yulia, who graduated from an elite Moscow university, is no ordinary educator. She is part of the Teachers for Russia program, which wants to "improve the country's school system from below," as she explains.
Several years ago, Yulia got her law degree. Then, she "worked a dull job at a state agency for two years," as she says. Eventually, she decided she wanted to get away from the hectic city life and looked for ways to make a contribution to Russian society. That is when she came across the Teachers for Russia program.
It was established several years ago by two young women who had been fortunate enough to study abroad. They wanted to help more schoolchildren realize that amazing opportunities like these exist, and vowed to breathe fresh air into Russia's education system.
The program has become a great success. Each year, 2,000 candidates apply for teaching positions. Of these, only 10% make the cut. They have a variety of academic backgrounds and are sent to schools in undeserved communities across the country for a duration of two years.
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Inequality is rife
Yulia says teaching in Vorsino is like going back in time. "Not just the buildings but also the teaching methods are antiquated," she says. Instead of relying on strict discipline, which is typical for Russian schools, she wants to liven things up. "We are trying to improve a lot of things,"she says.
The Teachers for Russia program also aims to reduce inequality in the education sector. Yulia says there are in fact "vast differences across Russia." Major cities tend to have excellent schools. But the more rural it gets, the more schools tend to lack staff and resources.
Yulia says she isn't from a wealthy family herself but nevertheless managed to get into a "prestigious school." She says most kids were brought to school each day by private chauffeur. It was clear to her fellow students why they were learning English — many were headed to English-speaking countries, like Britain or the US, after graduation.
But Vorsino is a different world, entirely. Yulia says the youngsters "don't understand why they are supposed to learn English." It never occurred to them that they could some day travel abroad, she says. Most speak only Russian and have, like their parents, never left the country.
Russian schooling emphasizes strict discipline
One floor below is Larissa Pavlovna Bober's small office. "Twenty-five years ago, I came here as a chemistry teacher — today, I run the school," she says. She's happy that Yulia now teaches there. She appreciates her "innovative approach." Bober says when she trained to become a teacher, the emphasis was on order and discipline. Now, she says she is almost jealous when she sees schoolchildren walking down the hallway talking about how much they enjoyed Yulia's class.
Bober says Russian society does not appreciate the hard work teachers put in. "Parents arrive at school to pick up their kids, expecting us deliver education as if it were some factory-made product." But, she says, it's not that simple. "We're not salespersons; we are raising the next generation."
And for that, Russia needs motivated teaching staff, she says. Which is why she appreciates "every teacher that comes here — that's a rare enough thing anyway."
Bad pay and looming staff shortages
In Russia, schools are not a big priority. Each year, the state spends just €220 ($240) per pupil. Norway, which has a strong education system, in contrast invests 20 times that amount.
It is rare for young women like Yulia to pick up teaching. Most talented university graduates don't consider it as a career. That is because teachers earn very little. Some regions pay the equivalent of €130 per month — barely enough to live on. Even an untrained salesperson makes more than that in Russia.
This means few young people are choosing to get into teaching. And today, the average Russian teacher is over 50 years old. But as they near or go into retirement, Russia will face a shortage of teaching staff. So the Teachers for Russia program pays participants some extra money on top of their regular teacher's salary in the hopes of getting young people interested in this career.
Many of Yulia's pupils certainly think their teachers are too old. One girl says some are "even older than my granny," as her classmates giggle. She's convinced that if there were more younger teaching staff, lessons would be more fun. Then, she says, "I would participate, too."
Finally, the school bell rings. Hastily, the kids pack up their belongings, say goodbye and head out of the classroom. Yulia, watching them leave, muses that Russian schools "change slowly." But she's optimistic that they can improve. Because, as she says, through "tiny steps we can achieve big things."