memories of teaching in Bulgaria


  1. memories of teaching in Bulgaria

    October 15, 2007 by Christopher Buxton

    Comrade Teacher – the class is ready for your lesson

    Who shall I test today?
    Partial Impressions of the Bulgarian Education system 1977-2007

    In 1977 I arrived on a British Council contract in Communist Bulgaria to work in an elite English Language school. Behind me were years of rewarding struggle with unmotivated and disruptive pupils. I was going to take time out in a culture that valued education.
    Thirty years later there are complaints of falling standards and the grossly underpaid teachers are taking strike action. Nevertheless the large number of well educated migrants finding well paid jobs in the first world is a testimony to the quality of the education system.
    Those expatriate readers who have children in the Bulgarian education system will have been experiencing deja-vu over the last few weeks – as serious conflicts between government and teachers have led to strikes and school closures. Talk to teachers and they will rightly complain that they are the most poorly paid in Europe by far. Talk to Bulgarian parents and you will find a mixture of frustration at falling standards in schools and surprising nostalgia for the quality of education in communist times.
    In this dangerous spirit of nostalgia, I share my experiences in the seventies. To any teacher working in UK inner city comprehensives, they would constitute heaven.
    _Comrade Teacher, the class is ready for your lesson (ITAL). The future owner of Vagabond, squeezed into a blue blazer, had stepped smartly forward the moment I entered the room. As he returned quickly to his desk on the back row, I scanned the faces of my new pupils, all apparently intent and eager to hear my first words. I looked for the potential trouble makers in vain.
    The English Language School was (and still is) one of the schools most sought after by ambitious parents. Entry to these elite institutions was by competitive examination across a whole region and in the seventies only children of the Communist elite could expect relatively trouble free acceptance. I was therefore teaching in a school whose recruitment policies resembled a cross between English Grammar and Public Schools. I was teaching the future surgeons, generals, lawyers, economists, police chiefs, writers and actors of the nation.
    On my first visit, the day before term started, I had been issued with a text book for the Preparatory class – 13 to 14 year olds. Starting with the predictable Hello my name is…. it accelerated through every grammatical subtlety to finish with an almost unedited extract of Alice in Wonderland. Pupils were expected to learn at least fifty new words every day by heart.
    In the classroom teachers had significant powers over the pupils’ present and future prospects. Entry to university depended greatly on marks given by individual teachers on the basis of oral testing. Simply, my class would know that once I had marked the register, I could pick on any pupil at random, require them to stand up and then cross question them on the material from the previous lesson. The mark range was from two (failure) through the mediocre three and four to the acceptable five and the desirable six.
    Once I had been initiated into this rite, I was shocked to realize that many of my trembling pupils had learnt whole texts by heart and just wanted me to listen patiently to their halting recitals. However I discovered, following a long argument with a Bulgarian colleague, children of prominent party members would always receive high marks regardless of ability.
    I soon understood the pressure and fear this mark system generated – particularly when one of my pupils burst into floods of tears on being awarded a four. Behind all my pupils were fiercely ambitious and competitive parents who saw the school as their children’s passport to glittering prizes. As long as their children got good marks, they could hold up their heads in pride in the neighbourhood. Poor marks would lead to private lamentation and worse.
    A teacher from England would have found a Bulgarian parents’ consultation evening fascinating. In England parents’ evenings can be daunting. You sit in a large hall trapped by a tight schedule of timed interviews, and parents, buoyed by a sense of their power over you, can cajole, harangue and complain, aware of the circling Head teacher’s frown which will be invariably directed at you. In the Bulgarian English Language school parents were put in their place – firmly squeezed into the tiny desks meant for their children. Parents sweated in the now crowded classroom and waited nervously the publicly delivered verdict of each teacher on their child. Standing in front of this bizarre class, I could see smug expectation on some faces, and shamed despair on others.
    Marks were also given for behavior. In Communist times a trivial offense could jeopardize a child’s future. During my second year, Petya Dubarova, then a tenth class student and a poet of great promise, committed suicide, following a reduction in her behaviour mark. Accidentally or purposely she had failed to show proper respect to the working class by disrupting the production line in the local brewery, where her group did a compulsory weekly work experience.
    A hierarchical system has major disadvantages – not least for those on the margins – but I can say that the English Language School did contain the most uniformly intelligent group of pupils I have ever taught. The rest of the advanced world now benefits from their high level of education and linguistic skill – since many of them emigrated after the fall of Communism.
    However, the school regime did not encourage initiative or personal study. It is hardly surprising that most pupils, overburdened with repetitive learning of material, would look to meeting the required minimum for good marks – which meant repeating what the teacher wanted to hear.
    Fast forward to 2007 and apart from the dramatic teachers’ strikes, very little has actually changed. The teachers’ subjective marking system is still there and is still open to abuse in spite of the greater prominence given to US style SAT tests. True to the new capitalist spirit, it has become the practice now for some teachers to advertise private lessons to their classes at the beginning of the school year. The subtext is that those pupils who are unable to attend such lessons are unlikely to receive good marks.
    Of course it suits many teachers at every level to maintain a system which continues to give them great powers over children’s’ futures. And the government’s attempts to introduce reforms will be resisted by those who believe in rote learning of established facts as a necessary foundation of a good education system.
    But until Bulgarian teachers receive a decent wage, issues of working practices cannot be properly addressed.

  2. link to technorati

    September 19, 2007 by Christopher Buxton

    Technorati Profile

  3. Trip to Kovachavitsa

    September 19, 2007 by Christopher Buxton

    (Chris writes)

    Leaving the mountain city of Gotse Delchev, we look in vain for brown signs for either the ancient Roman city of Nikopolis ad Nestrum or the architectural reserve of Kovachavitsa. Only if chance puts you on the right road, you will eventually be guided towards the first destination.
    Expect atmosphere but don’t expect Pompeii. In a vast field outside the village of Gurmen, cows graze by the sparse foundations of public buildings erected by the Emperor Trajan to celebrate his victory over the Dacians. Significant lengths of wall indicate the size of the city and it is possible to raise Roman eyes as if from the entrance to the public baths to take in the views of distant mountains circling the plain.
    You’d better believe it. Yes, that steep track leading off to the right from the main road is the way to the photogenic Rhodop village of Kovachavitsa. A length of corrugated iron fence rusts inexplicably by the first rutted corner. Don’t ask the two boys perched precariously on its top. They could hurt themselves badly in their enthusiasm to guide you.
    Grip the steering wheel. We are going through a gypsy camp. Fences covered in bright blankets line the road that is full of excited children using any discarded item as a plaything. Amid smoke from fires, lines of washing, shacks, tents, shouting women and mud, old men sit imperviously smoking, waiting for the stew to be served that is now boiling in cauldrons. Ahead an old woman descends from a horse drawn cart. With it she had dragged a wheel-less Trabant into the camp and more children are surrounding it, pulling on its locked doors. Older children mob our car. As we leave the camp they hurl themselves down the slope in an exhilarating game of speed and dodge and swerve.
    Enjoy this – this the last time we are coming up here. Dancho speaks through gritted teeth as the car judders through a series of potholes, then whines in the wrong gear as the track up the valley gets narrower and steeper. We eventually reach a village that clings to the side of the gorge. Look at the church! It’s a Christian village. The road worsens. To the left cliffs fall sheer to the ribbon of river below. We are still climbing.
    We enter the next village as if along a narrow corridor. High wooden walls of hay barns hem us in. In front of us a gypsy wagon but there is no place to overtake. Suddenly we hear strident music and ahead we see people lined up in a Horo. Dancho slaps the gear lever. We’ll never get through. The road is the only space in this long ribbon of a village where people can dance and we have arrived at the celebration of a wedding. The village is Pomak – inhabited by the Muslim descendants of Bulgarian converts. The women wear headscarves and baggy brightly coloured shalvari.
    Do you like my scarlet Fez
    When I slant it on my head like this?
    Do you love my silk shalvari
    When I shake and quiver like this? (Pomak folk song)
    Yes, we can now see the gypsy orchestra, blowing up a storm, the bride in all her white finery and seemingly the entire village drawn up in lines, dancing. Annie wants to jump out. Beyond the dance she has spotted stalls selling material and she knows exactly how much to buy for a pair of harem pants. But the smartly dressed guests are prepared for interruptions to their special day and so the dancing stops and we squeeze our way past the gypsy band who continue to play us on our way.
    Another five kilometers of potholed and rock covered track gets us to our final destination. We wisely park our car just outside the village before entering a Bulgarian Shangri-La.
    On either side of the street precipitous cobbled paths lead up or down. Buildings cling to the cliffs. If you look through the street window of the apparently single story school house you get a vertiginous view of lines of desks lit by windows two stories below.
    The houses’ main features are the high wooden verandas that cool the interior rooms and give gossips full opportunity to watch their neighbours.
    The village has many visitors this holiday afternoon, but walk far enough and you lose everyone. Well not quite – on a corner a young man with glasses is trying to impress his girlfriend. “These houses date from the eighth century!” “Really?” she breathes, believing him. She always wanted to go out with an intellectual.
    Dancho admits on the way down that the trip has been worth it. And despite his worst fears, the Gurmen gypsy children did not attack the car. They were too busy playing with their new toy – the abandoned Trabant.

  4. Every day life in Communist Bulgaria

    August 21, 2007 by Christopher Buxton

    In 1977 I arrived on a British Council contract in Communist Bulgaria to work in an elite English Language school. Previously I had worked in the right wing dictatorship of 1971 Portugal, where I was followed everywhere by Secret and uniformed police, and in the bracing outdoor s Socialist paradise of Norway. I was curious about how life would be in a Communist country. I was to stay in Bulgaria for three years – marrying a Bulgarian in Spring 1978 and welcoming the birth of my daughter.

    My mother-in-law had a frequent refrain. Bulgaria is so calm and peaceful. It was her fervent hope that, once married to her daughter, I would declare my desire to remain in Bulgaria, close to my new family and turn my back on the restless dangerous capitalist world.

    My initial response was that for a country supposed to be so calm and peaceful, it was interesting how constantly nervous, suspicious and irritable its inhabitants seemed to be. This psychological condition was due partly to an explosive Mediterranean temperament – but mostly to the daily challenges and inevitable frustrations of every day life.

    As a Bulgarian, you lay awake at night with a number of fears on your mind. These might include
    • the claims of your brother/sister circling the family home, waiting for the death of your Mother, who you alone have cared for through the latter days; once your mother is dead, inheritance squabbles will probably mean the splitting of your home and ending of all communication between you and your sibling;
    • the fate of your daughter, married to a bastard and sleeping the other side of a thin wall which means that you hear every row and every reconciliation;
    • the shamefully poor marks your son is getting at school – he is a heavy metal fan and you just can’t communicate – a late addition to your nuclear family, conceived following failure of the withdrawal method;
    • the leaking pipes in the bathroom and the near impossibility of finding a plumber;
    • the random but frequent electricity cuts that always occur during your favourite TV programme.
    • the vague threat of an inspection at work, where you feel particularly vulnerable because you must have done something to upset somebody to be passed over so often and have so many work shy and incompetent workers in your team;
    • the need to retain the favour of important connections – particularly your former schoolmate, V, who has achieved a position of some influence and might help with the allocation of a flat for your daughter;
    • the possibility of making some extra money by turning your bathroom into a mushroom farm;
    • your undiagnosed medical condition for which you have taken a long list of chemical and folk remedies.
    • The water regime, that means you have to fill cumbersome containers in order to flush the toilet and wash the dishes.

    As a temporary resident, I could be a lot calmer than my mother-in-law. I had my own flat, so we would never have to squeeze into their two rooms. I would get up in the morning, perform necessary functions with a copy of The Worker’s Task torn into strips so that my anus could be imprinted with the continuing good news from the Soviet Union, breakfast on bread, rosehip marmalade, yoghurt and Maxwell House coffee (bought at the hard currency shop) then make my way down the broken pavements of Karl Marx Boulevard towards the school where I worked.

    During the long break I would nip into the town centre to check what new goods had arrived in the shops. Like every good Bulgarian I had in my pocket a net bag, “as big as a woman’s heart.” I recognized my patriotic duty to let all and sundry know if I had bought something – so that total strangers, seeing the contents of my bag, could rush up to me and ask where I had found whatever goods that up till now had been in short supply.

    As befitted a country with full employment, shops had so many assistants that a special system had to be invented to ensure that they all had something useful to do. Thus the first person might show you the article, a second might write a cash note to be taken to a third who sat by the till who would take your money, a fourth would give you a receipt to take back to the first person, a fifth would wrap the article and a sixth would keep a close eye to make sure everything was done as it should be.

    A curiosity of Bulgarian shops was that in spite of the large number of assistants, the arrival of new goods would result in the temporary closure of the shop. It said much for Bulgarians’ respect for literature that when a bookshop was receiving new books, a queue would instantly form in the street. Up to an hour later, people might discover what they were queuing for.

    You might wonder at this stage how so many people found time in working hours to queue for books. Mostly they were on an unofficial break and were hardly missed. You pretend to work and they pretend to pay you was an often heard excuse. I had an English friend who having married a Bulgarian worked for a year in the oil refinery. His brigade spent most of their days playing cards – only working with any purpose when five year plan targets had to be met.

    After scanning the shops – particularly for toilet paper and washing powder, I would check what was on in the cinema. In 1978, Bulgarian Cinema was something I wrote home about. The President’s daughter, Liudmilla Zhivkova, had returned from a brief sojourn at Oxford University, apparently determined to open up the country to new cultural influences. The result was that every week in the town’s five cinemas, there were at least three films well worth watching. French, Italian and American competed with Eastern European, Indian and Vietnamese films.

    I kept a diary, reflecting on the Bulgarian films I saw at this time. Each film in its particular way cast a surprisingly sharp light on contemporary social problems. The screen was peopled by superb character actors, whose weight went beyond socialist realism. It is interesting that in present day Bulgaria there is a tremendous nostalgia for the best of these films and rival newspapers vie for readership by giving away DVDs.

    I would return to school, past the towering monument to the Russian soldier/liberator. Of all the Warsaw pact countries, Bulgaria was Russia’s most loyal partner. At the entrance to Burgas a giant poster showed Bulgarian President, Todor Zhivkov, rushing towards the embrace of a smiling Leonid Brezhnev. The slogan read: Eternal Comradeship from Century to Century.

    Todor Zhivkov was the George Bush of the Communist world. Promoted in 1956, following Kruschev’s denunciation of Stalinism, he survived forty four years with cautious peasant wit. As Communism’s mostly jovial human face, it would be he who raised a glass of cheer before TV cameras to celebrate with his many drunken subjects on New Year’s Eve. He embodied the unwritten social contract – suspension of all critical faculties in return for unlimited alcohol, cigarettes and an acceptable life style. From his house arrest, following the downfall of communism, he was reported to have asked plaintively: was there no song; was there no laughter?

    I met few dissidents. Intelligent people chose their words with care. Bulgaria was a sufficiently small country to allow for the culturally gifted to be squared – bought off with petty privileges. Those who still felt sufficiently agitated could be easily isolated as psychologically disturbed. It was interesting too that no-one I met had any past. It was only after 1990 that I found out about the experiences of my wife’s family following 1944 – how one member was hanged as an enemy of the people, another was sent to the concentration camp island of Belene, how my wife’s grandfather was regularly beaten and tortured by the people’s police in the late Forties and early Fifties; why it was that most of my mother-in-law’s family had such difficulty in obtaining work.

    I knew little of this. People had no past, some limited future and the pressing problems of the present to deal with. They had a president who looked like everyone’s village uncle, whispering accept me for fear of something worse. Pictures of the grim politburo reinforced this message.

    There was no obvious resistance but there were the jokes. Most involved the discomfiture of the Bulgarian President on the world stage. My favourite had President Carter trying to impress his international colleagues with cups of coffee served with golden spoons. Only Brezhnev notices Zhivkov surreptitiously pocketing one. He clears his throat. President Carter! He announces. Perhaps you didn’t know this but as a child I learnt conjuring tricks. Look I put a golden spoon in my top pocket. I do three passes, cry Hocus Pocus and hop! You see the spoon has jumped from my pocket to Comrade Zhivkov’s.

    As an Englishman I was largely excused the compulsory educational meetings and preparations for demonstrations most Bulgarians had to endure. As I worked on Saturdays I was unable to join in a voluntary clear up of the neighbourhood as a Leninsky Subotnik (Literally translated as a voluntary Saturday worker). However among my treasured memories is my participation in a nuclear war practice where I and my neighbours were marshaled down into the cellars below the block and forced to stand in the dark for the twenty minutes necessary for the nuclear fall out to clear. I remember too my lesson being interrupted on two separate occasions for an extraordinary meeting of the Komsomol – the Communist youth organization to which all pupils belonged – once to be told that Todor Zhivkov was coming to visit Burgas; the second time to celebrate the successful launch of a brotherly Russian rocket containing Bulgaria’s first astronaut. I remember the vote to send a congratulatory telegram across space was unanimous and failed to take account of any difficulties the Bulgarian post office might face in accomplishing this.

    I got used to the rhythms of life in Bulgaria fairly quickly. I learnt how to wash clothes by hand with cold water and a bar of soap. I learnt of the mysterious but inevitable link between the toilet and the hole in the bathroom floor where the shower water was supposed to drain out. I learnt everything about cockroaches and boiler installation.

    It was a shock to realize that once autumn was over there would be no fresh vegetables or fruit till Spring. I would eat spaghetti with tomato puree and bottled peas with the occasional sausage or ham thrown into the mix. It took me two years to successfully shop for meat. In restaurants I would eat yoghurt and cucumber salad, pork stew and dance to every band’s version of Hotel California. I drank too much wine and rakia. I even tried Vietnamese whisky – but only once.

    I had a TV which had no sound. But I discovered I could capture the sound on my radio and so I could watch everything with a split second delay. I particularly enjoyed the folk singers who would jump out in full folk costume from behind combine harvesters on unsuspecting workers. Good night Children was a five minute favourite of mine – always appearing just before the serious eight o’clock news. It featured the very best of Eastern European animation. The state TV station was managed by Todor Zhivkov’s son-in-law – a handsome bon-vivant married to the ugliest Bulgarian woman in the world. I suppose he had to have some compensation. In the future he would progress to illegal Arms Dealing and Olympic Committeee corruption.

    I did learn a great deal about the tendency towards corruption. Top of everyone’s priorities was placating the important people who could make things happen. And the lesson was reinforced when it came to wanting to marry a Bulgarian citizen. But that is the subject for a whole future article.

  5. My retirement

    July 25, 2007 by Christopher Buxton

    (Chris writes to the tune of Paddy works on the railway)

    In nineteen hundred and seventy one
    I put flared corduroy breeches on
    A flowery shirt, a kipper tie
    to work in education

    And it’s canes here and slippers there
    Corridors filled with fear
    Dark sarcasm everywhere
    To work in education

    The Headmaster heard the noise from my class
    He said my boy if you want to last
    You hit the biggest boy in the class
    To survive in education

    In nineteen hundred and eighty five
    I hadn’t hit kids; I was still alive
    To ride the wave, to duck and dive
    And work in education

    In nineteen hundred and ninety three
    ‘Twas then I met sweet Annie Cowdery
    She looked over her specs at me
    To further my education

    The Principal was a magistrate
    He could take his money home in a crate
    Trouble sent him out the back gate
    To avoid education

    And now it’s two thousand and seven
    Last year’s inspection sent us to heaven
    I’m not staying till two thousand and eleven
    To work in education.