What it means to be a teacher in protest-struck Belarus

What can adults teach children in times of political crisis? Belarusian teachers tell us about their attitude to the country’s protest movement - and what it means to be a teacher today.

Editors of oDR
23 November 2020, 11.14am
Middle school in Minsk
Image: openDemocracy

For more than 100 days, people in Belarus have been protesting against falsified election results and police violence.

In the weeks since presidential elections on 9 August, tens of thousands of residents of Minsk, the capital, and other cities come out onto the streets to protest against Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has been in power for 26 years. In Minsk, the numbers of attendees have exceeded 100,000 - a huge figure for a city of two million. In response, Belarusian police have used riot batons and water cannons to disperse people. The EU has sanctioned Belarusian officials for election falsification and police violence.

Many professional communities and collectives have participated in the protests. Medics have called out police violence and pressure on the healthcare service, while workers in key state-owned industries have been fired, arrested and forced out of the country for taking active positions.

With many polling stations in Belarus located in schools and often staffed by teachers, there’s a belief that employees of the country’s education system participated in the election fraud. Like other public sector employees, teachers in Belarus are often considered conformists, ready to follow the lead of the Lukashenka regime. At some schools, former pupils brought back their school diplomas and medals as a sign of lost trust and respect for teachers, as well as notes that read: “My vote was buried here”.

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openDemocracy spoke with several teachers to get their views on what's happening in Belarus’ schools and universities - and how the presidential election has impacted their work.

To illustrate their responses, we asked the teachers to write a single lesson idea for their pupils. The teachers who are still working in Belarus’ education system wrote theirs on the blackboard, and those who have been fired for political reasons had to do it outside.

Svetlana: "Rights aren't given, they're taken".
Image: openDemocracy

Svetlana, 32. Until recently, a lecturer at the Faculty of Radiophysics, Belarusian State University (translated from Belarusian)

My parents told me to go into IT, because it’s fashionable. I didn’t manage to become an IT specialist. It’s a rather specific job: you need to sit at the computer for eight or more hours a day writing algorithms. This work requires a certain character, and in order to maintain my enthusiasm, my character requires a constant change in activities. I did my mandatory job placement [students who receive education at the state’s expense must work for several years in their specialism at enterprises that applied, or they have to reimburse the cost of their education - ed.] and left to teach at my old faculty of radiophysics at the university. Compared to IT, it was a very easy job - you talk about what you know and that's it. You just need to think about how to convey information, how to find an approach that will work with the students.

In IT, everyone was out more for himself. I didn’t communicate with that many people, and at the university many teachers are older - they’re often at an age when communication and connections between people are valued much more than their own career. In IT, I didn’t work on any projects and earned the minimum wage, but it was two-three times higher than what I received when I joined the university. This didn’t bother me, because first of all, peace of mind was important to me, money made sense only in order to buy what was needed.

“My colleagues are 'real Belarusians'. You can never guess from a person what their position is until they turn up to work with a flag”

I am quite a docile person. Before the election, politics scared me, I didn’t think it was my thing. But gradually I came to urban activism, and that’s already politics. When I hear about the fact that students who came out to protest are out of politics, I think that’s the wrong way to talk about it. All government institutions are political, they promote a political ideology. Universities teach students how to behave like citizens in this system. When you realise this, you begin to change it. It’s like in The Matrix, when the hero is told that he’s the chosen one, but he denies it. And then, when he realises that he is the chosen one, he begins to change the Matrix. When I did something, I tried to show that everyone becomes “the chosen one” when they begin to feel they are the chosen one. And our goal is to change the Matrix, because we live in it, in a situation predetermined by our state, in its rigid structure and hierarchy.

We switched to remote work because of COVID, and I wasn’t aware of the mood of teachers and students in response to events taking place in the country. My colleagues are “real Belarusians”. You can never guess from a person what their position is until they turn up to work with a flag. Nobody will answer directly. Therefore, a week after the elections, I created a group in Telegram [at the moment this group is inactive - ed.], where I invited all teachers and students. I wanted to unite people who feel that injustice is happening and do not agree that the university should be outside of politics.

I acted openly: any person with any opinion could come to the channel and participate in discussions; students and teachers expressed their positions on equal terms. My goal was not to make any specific changes in power, but to change the way we conduct dialogue and make decisions - in open communication. Never before have I seen people gather so quickly, after three or four days there were already several thousand people in this channel.

We wrote a petition from the teachers and took it to the administration of the Belarusian State University. We demanded the resignation of Lukashenka and the Central Election Commission, and new elections. We called ourselves a strike committee, as in the factories, and were preparing for a strike. But I was locked up before 1 September [when the school year starts - ed.], the police drew up a report on me for reposting information about one of the protest marches. They gave me 15 days of arrest. I was supposed to go to work on Monday, but I switched with a colleague and went out on Tuesday. The university used this as a pretext to dismiss me for absenteeism. Although the trade union committee openly said that the reason was that I created a group in the Telegram.

I am sure that if even 10% of our university’s teachers went on strike and said that they would no longer work in these conditions, the system would begin to buckle. But people have no experience of defending their civic position, they believed that an invitation to talk with the rector was some kind of victory, but that’s nothing! Now students and teachers are just learning about self-organisation. Many teachers are already old and are afraid that they will not be able to find another job, they support change, but they will continue to work in silence.

The university administration has no inner morality. They cannot answer the question of what the university should be like, what its idea should be. They refer to the bureaucracy, and their favourite word is “legal field’. At the same time, many of the vice-rectors and heads of departments have children studying in Europe, they themselves go there for fellowships. And we are told to drop “these democratic values ​​of ours”. And after this hypocrisy, they still want us to leave everything as it is, to preserve this sort of education system, when everyone leaves here and does not want to study here? When I started this whole university movement, my goal was for our education to become different, to change significantly. So that people came to Belarus from other countries to study.

Viktor: Malyshchits: "Why you should never lie"
Редакция oDR.

Viktor Malyshchits, 35. Lecturer of astronomy at the Lyceum of the Belarusian State University (translated from Belarusian)

I have been working in schools for about 15 years in total. I really like space and astronomy, and since there is no specialised scientific institute in Belarus on this topic, I had only one choice - to teach astronomy to others, because I wanted to share it with them.

Before starting at the BSU Lyceum, I worked in several educational institutions, and the difference is huge. In my opinion, this is the best school in Belarus for students in grades 10-11 - both in terms of atmosphere and level of education. In ordinary schools, there’s a belief that while children are small, they need to be treated strictly in the first four grades, and as a result, by inertia, teachers do not release their grip until the 11th grade. A school is, in fact, a secure facility. Children are obedient creatures who must obey everyone. And so older independent students come to us with their own position and opinion, and we give them a lot of freedom. And this greater freedom leads to even greater results. Lyceum students are not constantly told what to do, they self-organise.

When our former president [Lukashenka] speaks to any subordinate in a familiar form, this is replicated at all further levels of power. If a school principal is yelled at in the education department, the principal yells at everyone for two hours at the teachers’ council. And after that, it is clear that teachers transfer this model of behaviour to students. In our lyceum, we try to balance between ideological requirements and being reasonable. I am not against the state ideology, which says that we are a peaceful independent democratic state, we are developing science and culture. That suits me, I support it. It’s another matter that now the word “ideology” means loyalty to Lukashenka.

Teachers are always accused of being submissive. Well, they did not immediately suppress everyone, it was done gradually. At first, every inconvenience didn’t seem like a tragedy, but as a result, all the screws have been tightened, and the teacher has become a powerless creature. My other idea is that, unfortunately, many teachers are not very highly qualified and they simply have nowhere else to go except school. They hold on to their jobs in every possible way, they curry favour - they drive children to the BRSM [Belarusian Republican Youth Union - a pro-state public organisation designed to promote state ideology - ed.], fill the hockey stands with children. I earn money outside of school: my main income comes from stock photography, and teaching at school with my salary is more like volunteering. For a 50% workload, I get around 260 roubles [$100] a month.

"I have four children and a daughter with a disability, my wife simply cannot physically cope without me. All the same, we don't sit in silence, we hang flags out of our windows, I go to neighbourhood meetings and give lectures on astronomy"

My children need to eat, and every year I think, shouldn’t I give all my energy to making money via photography? But it is very interesting to teach schoolchildren, and when you are drawn into it, it is difficult to leave school. At the Lyceum, everyone wants to study, no one will say: “Why do we need your astronomy?” Somehow I was lucky all the time to teach in good schools with good students.

It seems to me that after the elections, the attitude towards teachers has changed. Funeral wreaths were left near some schools with notes that read: “Our voices are buried here.” If teachers were not particularly respected before, because you can yell at them, demand an assessment, now they are even less respected. My children go to school in Zaslavl [a regional centre not far from Minsk], and we had a lot of dark things there during the elections, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya seems to have won, but the final election reports were never posted. Many refused to sign them. The District Election Commission said that it was impossible to see the results of voting by precinct, because everything was sent to the archive. But in general, they tried to count the votes in Zaslavl, and Tsikhanouskaya won in many areas.

In Minsk, where I am officially registered, the commission members were exclusively school employees, and on 9 August, the turnout was 130%. They had 1,100 voters registered at the polling station, and they wrote that 800 of them had voted early. But on the main voting day, a huge number of people came. According to estimates of independent observers, the number of voters who came to vote with white ribbons [this is how supporters of Tsikhanouskaya identified themselves - ed.] exceeded the total number of voters under the protocols. After the elections, a lot of us greeted the members of the election commission at the school, shouting: “Shame!” The riot police did not visit us, but the teachers were taken out in a bus with the police - they walked in silence with their heads down. Lukashenka officially won about 80% of the vote at that polling station. Nevertheless, I stand up for teachers. There is an extremely low percentage of falsifiers among us as a rule. These are mostly low people, who don’t know their subjects, or who want to move up the administrative ladder, careerists.

I don’t see anything wrong with serving 15 days in prison for a good deed. But since I have four children and a daughter with a disability, my wife simply cannot physically cope without me. All the same, we don't sit in silence, we hang flags out of our windows, I go to neighbourhood meetings and give lectures on astronomy. And now everyone, even the most apolitical person, risks being detained.

Nikolay: "Development is life!"
Image: openDemocracy

Nikolay, 57. Previously Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences, Belarusian State Pedagogical University, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Geography. In October 2020, Nikolay refused to delete his Facebook posts about police violence against protesters, and was forced to resign

My mother has been officially recognised for her work as a teacher, an excellent student in education who worked all her life in primary school. Probably my decision to go into teaching came from her. After school, I was weighing up where I would be more useful, for some reason I decided on the path of pedagogy. I was an idealist, I believed that everything in the Soviet Union was fair and honest. Only at the institute did I begin to understand that everything wasn’t right.

During Perestroika, there was an expectation that we would build a completely new and free country. But gradually we came to the same Soviet Union, if not worse. Everything is built on lies, hypocrisy and the power of one person. If in the past there was some idea, ideology, party, now it is personal authoritarianism. Lukashenka himself says that for 26 years he created the state to serve his needs. But before 9 August, I did not think that the repressive institutions had been so well honed. In the village where I come from, if someone treated the cattle like the police did protesters, he would be considered a sadist. And here people were beaten. Worse than animals. This is beyond everything.

During my time at the university, free thinking was suppressed, although it was not actively expressed, except for a small group of students. The most active, advanced and “conscious” were simply expelled, and this kept the rest of us in fear. Against the background of apparent prosperity and a beautiful picture, that something is being created and the country is moving forward, many switched on their internal conformism: “This does not concern me personally, and everything is fine.”

Students at universities are very different. People often accuse the Pedagogical University [BSPU] that our students are passive. Teaching is not a prestigious job, and the bulk of our students are from rural areas. If they’re from the city, then they’re from the families of state employees. They are often the same as their parents - uptight psychologically and not so internally free as students of economics or law, where the children of the “fattened bourgeoisie” study, as Lukashenka says. They’ve traveled around the world and seen how you can live without a state, so the students are more active there.

“Clean up your social media immediately, are you an idiot? Keep your position to yourself. You hold a position, you have students, they will associate it with a state university. Keep quiet, be smarter. We all think the same way, but we are silent.”

Without the principle of academic freedom, there will be nothing good in education. And with this system, nothing will change. The authorities know that teachers are a key link that needs to be kept, through which they can carry out their policies. Most of my former students with active civic positions do not work in the education system, they couldn’t survive there.

The administration of the university was well aware of my views, but I did a good job with the duties of deputy dean for academic affairs. I was never sent to collect any signatures for the nomination of an unknown person [for an official post], to any rallies or parades. In 2010, I also went to the “Ploscha” [protests on Independence Square in Minsk after the presidential elections on 19 December 2010 - ed.], but I was not detained. The administration knew about this, but since I wasn’t detained, they did not do anything to me. But at the end of August this year I was told: “Clean up your social media immediately, are you an idiot? Keep your position to yourself. You hold a position, you have students, they will associate it with a state university. Keep quiet, be smarter. We all think the same way, but we are silent.”

But I continued to write what I think, and from vacation I was asked to appear at the university regarding my dismissal. I did not expect anything bad from people, I still had to finish my lectures, but my pass was canceled. The students began to be indignant, and they were told that no one forced me to quit - the idea was that I was tired of this job. I told the students directly that I was faced with a choice: either I clean up my social media, stop expressing my position and continue working calmly, or the administration expects to receive a letter [of resignation] from me.

It turned out that the first student action at the university took place in support of me. I was even told (in the administration) that I had decided to “promote myself”. According to the same logic, all those people who have had to go abroad, who are in prison, who are losing their jobs and paying fines now, simply decided to “promote themselves”. I did not expect this support from former students and teachers of other faculties, I received several offers and now I am no longer unemployed.

Doctors saw with their own eyes the wave of beaten, crippled people that came to them for help, and it became difficult for them to remain indifferent. Teachers seem to understand everything, but they do not have the courage to lose something. Everyone’s an observer - and few agree to sacrifice something. After the elections, there were constant discussions of what was happening, and I listened to questions: “Well, everything is already calming down, are we losing?” I always answered: “Did you whip something up? Which side did you play on? You are just passive observers!” Yes, everyone seems to see everything perfectly and agree that it is impossible to endure further, but at the same time they say: “Come on, you go for us, fight, and we will see.” It is absolutely unclear how this will end, and this is why many people choose this position.

Freedom is responsibility for yourself and your decisions. And our people didn’t really want to take on this responsibility. But everything has changed. I saw this whole galaxy of people on the first Sunday march, hundreds of thousands. You cannot change these people, and you cannot turn back.

"Irina": "Think, don't become a pawn in someone else's game"
Image: openDemocracy

"Irina" (name changed on request), 56. Teacher at a secondary school in Minsk

In the 1980s, teaching was a great and respected profession. For me, it was a deliberate choice: those who really wanted to work with children went to the pedagogical university. This wasn’t a job for losers who couldn’t get into other faculties back then. Soviet schools were focused on the fact that the country needed engineers, perhaps children were even given too strong an education in physics and mathematics. But it was genuinely good and was respected around the world.

What children know now does not interest anyone in the system’s management. The main thing is that they are supervised, that they participate in what is ordered from above. Inspections look at how the working journals, documentation are filled. The programmes have been reduced and simplified to the point that we are raising an average consumer who clicks a button and everything will work. And how everything works, they don’t know and aren’t interested. It seems to me that now our education is much worse.

“School and teachers have been made a means of plugging holes in the state. We are performing absolutely the wrong function”

The Ministry of Education is doing a lot of stupid and even harmful things. During the Soviet years, these kind of changes were extremely rare, and were at least justified.

School and teachers have been made a means of plugging holes in the state. We are performing completely the wrong functions. We need to teach children - so why should we keep track of who is registered where and who pays for utilities how [in Belarus, if a family with children does not pay for utilities, then data about this is transferred to educational institutions - ed.]? We have to constantly send children and teachers to fill up crowds at events. If earlier I could choose which museum or theatre we would go to, now the order comes - what topic to speak on and where to take them. And it doesn’t matter that the exhibit in this museum has not changed for a long time and we have been there three times. You have to do it. So many obligations descend from above that there is no energy or time left for any creative ideas.

I have not led classes for many years now on principle. It’s my character, I cannot put up with the fact that I am forced to do what I consider unnecessary - ​​to draw up minutes of parent meetings, reports on living conditions of students. Teachers should be aware if a child has some kind of drama in his life, but there is a limit to what you can find out. The teacher should not be a family supervisor or a person who threatens to take children away. Sometimes this pressure is unreasonable, and these cases got into the media - when parents, who were making money and didn’t drink, were threatened with having their children taken away for their political activity. The school should help children who need help, but it is illegal to get into a family’s personal space.

Our school had three polling stations. But none of my colleagues were on the election commissions. I don’t know why everyone is having a go at teachers like that. In our area, the factory workers closed almost all the commissions, they were occupied by big guys - shop leaders in their jackets. The teachers were only observers, not a lot depended on them. They were listed there.

We had no conflicts at school with observers [independent - ed.], no one drove them out into the street, they were given chairs and they sat in the entrance. There were several times when they were allowed to sit on the site. In other schools in the area, observers generally stood on the street. If they asked to go inside because of the sun, they were threatened with the police. The commission members did everything possible so that they did not see the vote reports at all. Everything was still normal in our school. Therefore, after the elections, we did not have scandals with children - no one returned their certificates and medals, as it happened elsewhere.

Our neighbourhood is quiet. When people first took to the streets here, I immediately thought that our graduates were probably standing there, and there was a feeling that I must be with them and they must see that not all of their teachers are traitors, that we are also worried about what is going on. I found my former and current students there and learned that one of my graduates had ended up in Akrestsina [a detention centre where detainees have been beaten and tortured - ed.] and was severely beaten. He was a very delicate boy, he just went to see a girl home, she lives in the city centre. This was the point after which I, as a teacher, could no longer close my eyes to what was happening. But people are different, you can’t reach everyone. And someone still curses all the teachers, without understanding.

"It was said many times that if you are honest, you should quit. I am absolutely against this position. Will we leave hundreds of thousands of children in the hands of dishonest ideologues, put on a white coat and leave?"

I calculated that less than 2% of the teachers in Belarus were employed in commissions throughout the country. If you include observers, then 5%. The rest were not involved in any election commissions at all. But how many insults and nasty words they heard, how they were humiliated - many became angry. After the elections, the “Honest Teachers” group was set up on Telegram . On the first Sunday march, there was even a column of teachers with blue ribbons [on the first and largest Sunday march on 16 August, many professional organisations marked themselves out in the crowd - ed.]. I supported them. And later, for example, at a rally at the Ministry of Education, it was said many times that if you are honest, you should quit. I am absolutely against this position. Will we leave hundreds of thousands of children in the hands of dishonest ideologues, put on a white coat and leave? I will stay at my school, if only to stop them hounding a child with a white-red-white flag.

At one speech, our “radiant one” [Lukashenka - ed.] said that those who do not ideologically support him should leave school. It was an absolutely stupid statement. There is a catastrophic lack of teachers in Minsk. Students and retirees are already involved in the system, let’s get rid of some good teachers, and then what kind of education will we give children? If we select teachers according to ideological principles, then we will finish off the education system completely. Children need to be given knowledge, they are not guilty of anything.

I am afraid that if a worthy teacher is fired for ideological reasons, then not all of their colleagues will come to their defence. I try not to argue and not talk about these topics with my colleagues. Although before the elections we discussed all this, and the majority supported change and voted for Tsikhanouskaya. Many people understand that everything is bad now, but they are not ready to sacrifice anything to get better.

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