Are Czech teachers paid enough?

Photo: CTK
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Thousands of Czech school pupils enjoyed a day off on Monday as their teachers took to the streets to demand more money. Over half of the country’s schools were closed as thousands of teachers flocked to Prague, to protest outside the Parliament about education funding or, as they would have it, lack of.

Photo: CTK
In the sea of white balloons, banners and sun-visors, I found a couple of teachers more than willing to tell me why they had turned out in protest:

“I’m here to fight for better conditions, not only for teachers, but also for children and students of our schools. It’s not only for teachers.”

And are you yourself a teacher?

“Yes, I’m also a teacher – of English for beginners, from Pardubice, it’s a city about 100 km away from Prague, and we agree with all of the conditions of the strike.”

Photo: CTK
“I am a university lecturer, and I began teaching in 2001 with a salary of around 8,600 CZK, which is around 550 US dollars, a month.”

But this is a schools strike – not a university strike…

“That is true, but I teach at an elementary school too. In 2002, I wanted to start my family, and it was just impossible with 500 dollars a month. So I went to the private sector to earn more money, and then I returned to the university and the school that I enjoyed teaching at.”

The strike and protest were organized by the Czech and Moravian Trade Union of Workers in Education. At Monday’s demonstration, the union’s vice-chairman Václav Pícl seemed very chipper indeed:

František Dobšík and Václav Pícl, photo: CTK
“Things are looking good. There is a good atmosphere and the weather is fantastic – I hope it lasts. I don’t think everyone is here yet, but we predict that around 3,000 people will turn out.”

Earlier, in his office, Mr Pícl told me the reason his union had called upon its members to take industrial action:

“We went on strike on December 4 last year, demanding more pay and more money to buy textbooks and teaching aids. Unfortunately our demands were not met. And the half a billion crowns that the government gave us cannot make up for the cuts in education spending at a regional level. This is why we decided to hold a second strike today, to remind the government of the promises they made when they were sworn into office, and to remind them that they still talk about education as one of their priorities.”

The date Czech teachers chose for their last strike was in fact the first day of current education minister Ondřej Liška’s term in office. In an open letter released on Monday, Mr Liška said he didn’t understand quite why Czech teachers were striking, when he had successfully negotiated them a pay-raise this year, and another one to come in 2009.

But what about union claims that while teachers’ pay has been raised, the budget for textbooks and teaching aids has been slashed? Kateřina Böhmová is a spokesperson for the Education Ministry:

“Oh actually, this is the one thing that the minister is sorting out right away. In the next two weeks he expects an outcome. He is asking for 500 million crowns for textbooks, and there are some good signs that he will get this – so this is good news for the teachers.”

Photo: CTK
Mr Liška has said that he will not respond to striking tactics - that strikes will not make him change his stance. But it sounds like this strike has encouraged Mr Liška to act – would you said that it took this strike to happen for him to go and negotiate about textbooks?

“No, no, no. He is doing just what he always planned to do. He has said before that he is going to actively support pay-raises for teachers, but this year there is just no chance of teachers getting any more money. And the budget looks pretty set for next year as well. But what he is going to do – and he has said this before – is that he is going to negotiate next year again to get more money for teachers.”

Photo: CTK
At Monday’s protest, Markéta Vondráčková from the education workers’ union calls the government’s attitude to schools in general ‘shameful and offensive’. Her remarks are greeted with cheers. But what does Kateřina Böhmová think? Are school teachers treated with as much respect in the Czech Republic (where they are paid on average less than policemen, doctors and bank clerks) as, say, elsewhere in the European Union?

“That’s a very good question, you know – how can teachers get more respect. Because it seems lately that teachers are losing respect, and that is one thing which the minister would like to change and make more like the situation in Denmark or Finland where teachers really have respect. So he is preparing to special laws for that – trying to standardize teachers’ output – most European countries have such a law, but we don’t have it. That should be done by the end of the year.”

But, back at the education workers’ union HQ, international spokesperson Zděnka La Sala insists that this strike has a much more practical purpose than just calling for more respect:

Photo: CTK
“Of course, it is also about respect, and respect in general. But it is also about the money, because you want teachers to be satisfied, and happy, and calm – so give them proper pay, so that they don’t have to go looking for another job, so that they don’t have to work in the evenings doing something else. And that is what many teachers do here – they need to take a second job. I don’t think this is good for teachers, nor do I think that this is good for children.”

‘You have to stand up for your rights’ sing a chorus of teachers at Monday’s protest. The demonstration does seem to have reached a great number of Czechs, and resonated with many who are feeling the pinch of rising prices and government reforms in other spheres. The protest does seem to have provoked at least a formal response from the government, but that response is along the lines of ‘we are trying as hard as we can, but we just don’t have any more money to give you right now’. This is not the first strike staged by the teachers’ union in recent months, and, by the looks of things, it won’t be the last.