Veteran teacher with an attitude

Panayiotis Piliouras, with 18 years of experience as a primary school teacher, teacher trainer and textbook author, took part in the recent marathon teachers’ strike. The father of two young boys, he believes that education should be the main priority in this country and that it is also up to the teachers to inspire their pupils. In this interview, Piliouras spoke about the strike (which was still under way at the time) and the problems that plague the Greek education system. What is your comment on the reaction to the teachers’ strike? The biggest problem we have is in the way society sees us. That is only natural. The other day, a colleague said at a meeting that what we were demanding were generalities, that no one understood us in depth. Most of our demands are just, but they should also be clear and specific. Our union is focused on economic issues, but as teachers we have a mission. We have to highlight that, to back up our demands from the teaching aspect. Every teacher should try to talk to parents about the entire framework of education. Why hasn’t that happened? One of the main reasons is that the right people are not in the right place. If someone suitable is found, in a few months he might lose his job. As soon as the next official or minister comes along, he or she will replace that person. In Greece there is no continuity. There is also the civil service mentality – as soon as someone starts working for the state, they get into a rut and won’t put themselves out if they are not getting paid much. The worst thing, however, is when someone wants to change something, they don’t call on the experts but on their own contacts. How do you sleep easy then? I’ll give you an example. Let’s say that they want to make some changes in the schools and know that around the country there are school principals who have made a difference. Instead of getting them together in a group to ask for their views and proposals, they make decisions on their own and then tell everyone else to implement them. For example, the new textbooks are based on the principle of getting children to work in groups while teachers guide them. However, this approach is completely different to what goes on in the society around us. Children don’t have the skills, such as asking for clarification or encouraging their peers to give their views, since they never encounter this kind of behavior anywhere else. So it is up to the teacher to show them. Where are teachers supposed to learn these skills? They have never been trained in the new approach. They are told at the last minute. A new syllabus is drawn up, books written and, instead of being part of the process, the teachers are told about the changes in September. Teachers are briefed on the theory, not the practice, let alone the fact that the September briefing might not have taken place at all if it wasn’t co-funded by the European Union. The question is whether something is being done because it is necessary rather than just because the money is there. Why are our solutions to problems so slipshod? The concept of «planning» is unknown to us. We are not organized in any aspect of our lives. Do you know that at universities only theory is taught and very few professors provide any practical applications? For example, a teacher trainee only starts to observe classes in a school in his third year at university, instead of from the first year. One of the Education Ministry’s arguments regarding the strike is that teachers’ wages are sufficient since they only work a few hours every day and only eight months of the year. A teacher’s starting salary is 950 euros a month. I get 1,360 euros, including a bonus for my postgraduate qualifications and child benefits. Teachers are at school for five hours a day but they work longer hours studying on their own. This further study should not be counted as the teacher’s personal time, but should be covered in a more organized fashion by the state. Some efforts are being made but only erratically. You have mentioned that 22 is the ideal number of pupils in a class. Is that realistic? We have asked, and I think this is the official view, for a maximum of 20 in the older classes and 15 in the lower grades. If you want to cultivate active teaching methods you have to give all students the chance to express themselves. How can you do that within a narrow time frame with a larger number? We had 55 in my class at primary school. I think that all these changes have to do with society and the teaching process. On the one hand, we have more teachers and there is pressure to get them jobs and, on the other, we don’t believe now in what people used to – when the teacher taught and the pupils learned. That is no longer acceptable. The students have to participate in the lesson in their own way. Another principle of modern approaches is cooperation, which also has to do with how a pupil speaks – just as cooperation with the ministry means how the minister speaks when strikers are presenting demands. He or she could speak in a different way and cooperate more. What do kids talk about during breaks? I think they talk about what they watch on television. School doesn’t help. Education should give pupils a foundation for their lives, and some values as well. What do you mean by «values»? We don’t all look at values in the same way. For example, (US President George W.) Bush always invokes the value of logic for his bombing missions and believes that is correct. But is it? The state has a duty to choose those values that are certainly more important. To cooperate with others and respect the environment or differences, these are values common to all. The value of being different is not a popular message these days. Unfortunately not. If a political leader expresses a view, all the party’s deputies have to agree. If one of them disagrees, then political analysts say the party is not unified. The Education Ministry program says that pupils have to develop critical thinking, that is, to question things on the basis of arguments. How can that happen if we all just repeat what the leader says? One of parents’ concerns is the large number of foreigners at some schools. That is a major issue. In a class like that there are a number of difficulties. On the one hand, the Greek pupils are held back, on the other, the foreigners are helped by being in a class where Greek is spoken. However, it would be better to distribute the foreigners around so that there are a smaller number in each class. But you can’t do that in a neighborhood where there are large immigrant communities. It might be necessary to have more than one teacher in such a class. Something has to be done about that problem but what I am suggesting is perhaps utopian. We keep hearing about corruption every day. Are children in danger of buying into the idea that to get ahead in life you don’t need to work hard, but just use cunning? In the old days, school gave a greater educational input because children didn’t get messages from other sources. There was just the family and the school, and perhaps one’s friends. Now things have changed. A child’s school is television and the endless hours spent watching it. Most primary school boys want to be soccer players and the girls want to be models, singers or television stars. That is the failure of our system. Part of the learning process is the role models on offer. What kind of role models are being presented to children today? (1) This is from an interview that appeared in the October 15 edition of K, Kathimerini’s color supplement.

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