In this new world of cell phones capable of taking videos and upload sites like YouTube, nothing can be kept secret for long. A few days ago a sixteen-year-old boy (grade nine) was seen attacking a quasi-geriatric male teacher. He kicked him, picked up a dangerous-looking instrument, and made threatening moves toward the man who was frightened and obviously disoriented. The class cheered their hero on, obviously enjoying the scene. The incident happened in Budapest’s District VIII where most people of Roma origin live. Of course, one wonders how it is possible that in this poor district students have expensive cell phones, but that’s another matter.
Those who have an authoritarian streak, and there are many in Hungary, cry foul: the modern school system introduced by the cursed SZDSZ is at fault. It gives all sorts of rights to students and none to teachers. Teachers are not supposed to check students’ backpacks, they are not supposed to embarrass students, they are supposed to treat them decently. In the good old days teachers had all the rights and students had none. Loud voices, including the more radical teachers’ union that usually sides with Fidesz, demand changes in the law. These changes might be difficult because Hungary is a signatory to an international agreement that produced the present system.
Let’s face it, even with the best of intentions, teachers always have the upper hand, and a teacher who takes a dislike to a student can make the student’s life miserable if he so chooses. He doesn’t have to embarrass him in front of the class, he doesn’t have to send notes to parents. He has the most powerful weapon: he gives the grades. This is especially true when the grades are based mostly on oral examinations.
But what about the student who doesn’t care about his grades? The student who is simply marking time? And what about a whole classroom of students who would rather be anywhere else but in school? This is a challenge for any educational system. Just look at American schools, especially in urban areas, that have security cameras, trained guards, and metal detectors.
And yet when it comes to the behavior of students, virtually everything depends on the teacher. If a teacher cannot keep order in the classroom (and this old gentleman certainly couldn’t–apparently the noise coming from his classroom was deafening), the students realize that the teacher is fair game and will take of advantage of him.
When I was in high school, we had a chemistry teacher who could easily have been beaten by a hefty sixteen-year-old boy. But that didn’t happen, first of all because if it was fifty years ago, when mostly middle-class children attended gymnasium, and second because it was a girls’ gymnasium. Otherwise, the noise was the same, the girls ran around in the classroom, on tests everybody cheated without even trying hide the fact. Right in front of his nose. Our poor man just stood there, clapped his hands helplessly and kept repeating: "Girls, girls, please!" If he saw someone copying the formulas straight out of the book, he said, "No problem, at least you know where to find the answer in the book." He was not fit to be a teacher.
On the other hand, we had a Russian teacher (who earlier taught French and German) who tolerated no nonsense. Yet we liked and respected her. She told me that her first job after getting out of university was in a boys’ gymnasium. Apparently she was the first woman ever to teach at that school, and her arrival caused quite a stir. She held her first class and walked toward the teacher’s room when she heard two boys talking. One asked the other: "How was she?" Her student answered: "Just as if she were a man. No different." (Well, not as if she were my male chemistry teacher.)
Some of the challenges (among them, violence in the classroom) facing today’s teachers are new. But they aren’t a paradigm shift, just a racheting up of old challenges. So an obvious solution, it would seem, is to rachet up the talent of Hungarian teachers. (This is supported by new "scientific" studies in Hungary.) But where we are going to find these good teachers? Even in my days when the teaching profession was prestigious I can count on one hand the number of good teachers I encountered. I survived, but most of what I learned was outside of the classroom. Mostly in the library.