Test: Name an aspect of modern Greece that most tourists know nothing about.
Answer: The Greek education system.
Yesterday and today I got a glimpse inside the education system in Greece. Let's be perfectly clear--I only got a glimpse! But what I saw was eye popping! As teachers with the Fulbright organization, we were able to meet with representatives from the School of Education at the Aristotle University in Thessaloniki. After that we had two tours. One tour took us to The Experimental School, a public school in the heart of the city. The other tour took us to Mandoulides Elementary School, a private school more on the outskirts of town.
In Greece the elementary years are considered to be K-6; Gymnasium (lower high school) is grades 7-9; Lyceum (Sr. High School) is grades 10-12. School is compulsory through grade 9. After that, some students enter a vocational education path. Entrance into the university requires a certain level of proficiency at the high school level, and successfully passing the National Exam. Approximately 50% of students who complete high school go on to university.
All very well and good. Here's where it gets interesting, from an American teacher's point of view, anyway. Teachers are hired by the State (the Ministry of Education) and are, of course, civil servants. Teachers are placed by the State. In otherwords, if I am a Thessalonian who wants to become a teacher, I train to become a teacher at the university, apply to the Ministry of Education for a job, and when I receive an appointment (perhaps years after I apply), I go to that city to teach. Which may be on some remote island out in the Aegean. Teachers teach the curriculum as specified by the State, of course. Oh yeah, and they use the text books that the State directs them to use. In other words, first graders learning maths in Athens use the exact same text book and materials as first grade students in the far reaches of Macedonia. Teachers are paid for 14 months of work per year. Yes, you read that right. They are paid for the 12 months in the calendar (of course, students are not in the classroom for all of those 12 months...) as well as for 2 additional months that don't even exist. When first hired, a teacher is expected to teach 24 hours per week in the classroom; as a teacher gains seniority, the teaching hours per week decreases. Salaries do not decrease as teaching hours decrease. When a teacher returns to university to complete a Masters or Doctorate degree, they do so as a full time student for 2 years.....and are paid 100% of their salary. Oh, and by the way, it impossible for a teacher in Greece to be fired.
I'm not an economist by trade, although my undergraduate degree was in that field. And, admittedly, the above is all I know about the education system in Greece. Furthermore, I know even less about the rest of the Greek economic system. Nonetheless, I'm having a very difficult time not connecting the dots between what I have learned about Greek schooling and the current state of economic affairs here. I'm just sayin'....
The schools that we visited stood in stark contrast to one another. The Experimental School is a public school (funded exclusively by the State), although it is somewhat unique in the sense that students are selected by lottery. Usually, children attend their neighborhood school. The Experimental School includes after school enrichment programs that, perhaps, are not regularly available at the average public school. And, if I understood correctly, some of the teaching methods are more innovative there. Located in the middle of the city, the classroom buildings surrounded the playground on all sides. It was difficult to get a sense of the facility because we only saw one classroom, which consisted of about 25 chairs, several double-desks, a white board on one wall and two small cases with various classroom materials. Along nearly the entire length of one was was a window that opened to let a fresh breeze flow over us. The walls were bare, a pale yellow. The floors were linoleum. There was a projector mounted on the ceiling; teachers have use of computers for their lessons, and the school has enough laptop computers for 1 out of 2 students. The teachers were friendly, but upon leaving our morning at the Experimental School, many of my colleagues and I had an unsettled feeling. It just didn't seem like a very cheerful place to be.
Then we visited Mandoulides Elementary School, located about 15 minutes by bus outside the center of the city. Mandoulides is a private school, serving grades K-12. The moment we walked onto the facility we were in awe. Large, modern, beautiful fac ilities. Bright hallways and classrooms decorated with student work. Well stocked library with a Smart Board on one end. About 15 members of the staff were there to greet us, and we embarked on a lively question and answer session. Mandoulides prepares students to study at the top universities around the world, and they do so effectively. Beginning with their full immersion English language program (called "The English Garden" where the 3 year old class is referred to as the "Seeds" and the 4 year old class is dubbed "The Flowers"), students engage in 6 hours of English language education per week by the time they are in high school. (In contrast, there are 2-3 hours of English language education in the public schools.) The English language magazine produced by the high school students can only be described as spectacular.
I spent quite a bit of time speaking with Janette, who teaches English language to the elementary level students. Janette, actually grew up in Connecticut, and lived for a time in Haverhill! She moved to Greece about 15 years ago where her family is from. I was thrilled when she shared my interest in our sixth grade classes becoming pen pals with one another. Hooray!
I left Mandoulides energized and envigorated! In many ways the school reminded me of my own high school experience. I was reluctant to depart when the call came to board the bus. As I left the building a teacher named Elizabeth found me; she had heard I was from Boston. "I'm from Watertown!" she exclaimed. Another Greek with ties to New England. (Mr. Mandoulides, himself, told me about cheering the Red Sox on at Fenway park; I gave him some postcards of Boston that I had in my purse, including one of Fenway.) I thanked Elizabeth for the hospitality her school had shown us, and I confessed that I would love to be a teacher there. "We'd love to have you here," was her cheerful reply.
I might start taking Greek language classes upon my return home...