Sun Prairie Teacher Visits Russia
Audrey Lesondak, an English as a second language teacher at Patrick Marsh Middle School in Sun Prairie, stands in a Russian classroom. Lesondak visited Russia as a Fulbright-Hays Groups Abroad Fellow.
By Audrey Lesondak
Patrick Marsh Middle School, Sun Prairie
This year I had the fortunate opportunity to visit Russia as a Fulbright-Hays Groups Abroad Fellow. This program allows K-12 educators from the U.S. to learn about the world and bring increased cultural understanding and global curriculum into their classrooms. It was a dynamic trip that allowed me, among many things, to reflect on a few ideas associated with our U.S. and Wisconsin education systems and the role our unions play.
Russia has a rather centralized government and so does its school system. Salaries, curriculum and the calendar are for the most part set by central government in Moscow. Each year, every Russian school starts on the same day, be it located in Moscow, Vladimir or Nordvik, Siberia. Teachers may choose from a short list of books they plan to use in their classrooms. Many benefits are nationalized and beyond the scope of schools. The teachers I met worked very, very hard and clearly cared about their students. The teachers also had high standards and expectations for their students. They sometimes taught very late in the day and/or six days a week. These teachers were paid extremely poorly. A starting teacher made the equivalent of about $150 per month. The salary of a more experienced teacher was perhaps five times that. And even though it is difficult to make comparisons between such different economic structures, no matter how you slice it, we in the U.S., and more specifically Wisconsin, fare far better in salaries and working conditions than our Russian colleagues.
What stood out clearly was how difficult it is for Russian teachers to effect change. When teachers between our two countries dialogued on this subject, the conversation quickly turned to U.S. teachers offering comments like, “You need to unionize or strike for better work conditions.” “That’s what it was like with us [in the U.S.] but we fought for better pay.” “We try” was a response of our Russian counterparts. “But we are very big, it is hard.”
It soon became apparent that our ability in the U.S. to demand better salaries, work ing conditions and benefits has been in part due to our decentralized educational system and our ability to influence local decision-makers. It also seems that as we see an increase in the number of mandates from the national level for testing, who can teach and how we can teach, our ability to influence these factors diminishes. Just as our benefits and salaries are determined increasingly at the more distant state verses local level, we watch both our salaries and our influence dwindle. So the words spoken by my traveling companions to our new Russian friends are reminders also to ourselves. Our work continues.
Although Sun Prairie, like many communities throughout the state, is generally a supportive district and through many local advocacy efforts salaries have kept pace with inflation, Wisconsin is losing ground nationally and the pressure to do more with less continues. Collectively, we need not only to continue to advocate for decent wages and benefits and do our part to secure what we have, but we must also keep working for strong democratic ideals such as bringing decision-making back to the local level. We have much to learn from our own history and our Russian neighbors. I raise this question: Has our school system become so much more centralized and less democratic that it is more like that of our Russian neighbors than we think?
Posted October 15, 2007
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