Why I left public education after 13 years – a teacher's story

September 14. 2022. – 11:15 AM

Why I left public education after 13 years – a teacher's story
Photo: István Huszti – Telex

Dorottya Lendvai knew she wanted to be a teacher when she was six years old. Now, after 13 years as a maths and physics teacher she decided to quit working in the public school system, because she suffered under the ever-increasing burdens, and would have liked to be able to look in the mirror. She had high hopes for the strike and the civil disobedience movement which started at the beginning of this year, but after seeing that this didn’t bring about a change, she had had enough. She says the hardest part was telling her students about it. One of her students’ parents even offered money to the school if she were to stay. She will still do some private tutoring, but seeing her name on the door of her old classroom at a recent visit still made her cry. She would consider returning, but for that to happen, the pay would have to be twice what it is now and the number of lessons limited to 18 per week. This is her story about why she left.

Dorottya Lendvai had known she wanted to be a teacher since the age of six. She started tutoring her classmates as early as elementary school. She gave them homework, and corrected it. She bought her first teachers’ pocket book (a special notebook used by teachers in Hungary) when she was sixteen, and this year’s edition is next to her on the table as we talk. This one is especially dear to her, because it was the goodbye present given to her by her colleagues in June when she left the public education system after 13 years. They marked the school year’s important dates for her, and wrote a few sweet, personal messages next to them:

  • Don’t you want to come on an excursion with 12.B around this time?
  • How are we going to manage the oral entrance exams? There won’t be enough of us, we should ask Dorka Lendvai, maybe she wants to help out?
  • This might be the week for the physics camp. You will visit, won’t you? How are we going to manage without you?

Lendvai graduated from Eötvös Lóránd University as a mathematics and physics teacher in 2009, and spent her entire teaching career at Berzsenyi Dániel Gimnázium in Budapest. A former student of hers called her a ball of energy, which is not surprising, if we look at all she did during this time. She was the head teacher for two classes for 7 years total. She helped organize the school’s physics camp each year, she tutored young talents and held extracurricular lessons for them. She prepared students for physics contests, while being a PhD student at ELTE’s Doctoral School of Physics.

My 36 kids

Although many had tried to warn her that she would not be making enough money as a teacher, and she would have a lot of work, she couldn’t think of any other job, as this has always been exactly what she wanted to do.

At the outset of her career, she spent day and night preparing for her lessons, she took on all the extra tasks, and signed up for organizing school events, because she wanted to grow, and longed to truly be a part of the school’s life. She says that the reason why many teachers are willing to work more hours even though they are not paid for their overtime is because these are the things – such as planning camps – which give you that extra dose of happiness.

At Berzsenyi, she was thrown into the deep end almost immediately: she had only been teaching for three years when she became the head teacher of a graduating class. This was not only challenging because she only had limited experience as a specialist teacher, but also because the age difference between her and her almost all-boy advanced mathematics class was only eight years. In spite of this she managed to build a very strong relationship with them, and today she considers taking them on as one of the best decisions of her life.

She compared her first class to a first love. They had their ten-year class reunion this summer, where they wrote messages to each other about where they think each of them would be ten years from now. Several students wrote that they hope she will be back teaching again.

She was head teacher of her second class for six years. The children were just 12-13 years old when she met them. Dorotty claims that no other relationship compares to the one a head teacher can have with their students. Each time she referred to her former class during the interview, she called them “my 36 kids”. “I often told them that when we meet as grownups, they will still be my kids”.

Being a head teacher meant a lot of extra work: such is the graduation for example. And although it only happens once for each class, the process of organizing it begins several months before.

She says she spent about 80-100 hours working on this alone, and she was not paid for the overtime.

It was easier for her to manage her time because she doesn't have children of her own, but if she did, the amount of extra work she had to do just wouldn't fit in. In this case, one has to decide who they would spend time with, their "36 children" or their own.

Part of the increased workload means that for years now a specialist teacher must have a minimum of 22, and at the most 26 lessons each week – but those who teach 26 lessons per week do not get paid more. She says that many find this frustrating, but that the number of students in a class is also not without significance. There were times when she taught half a class, but then later taught the same lesson to 36 students – for the same money.

Many people think that teachers work from eight in the morning until two in the afternoon, and then they are done for the day – she comments. The reality, however, is that whenever she posted a question in their teacher chat group around 1 or 2 AM, almost everyone was still awake, as they were all still working.

They used to receive extra pay for teaching study groups and extra classes, or were given less lessons to teach if they were in charge of organizing a school camp. By now, this is all simply part of the job, and there is no extra pay.

With 13 years of teaching experience Dorottya was making 2400 forints (6,05 euros) for a 45-minute lesson. Calculating with a 40-hour workweek, this comes to 230 000 forints (579 euros) net per month. Paying rent or raising a family with this income is virtually impossible. She was in a better situation than most, as she only had to provide for herself and didn’t have to pay rent.

It’s not like the public transportation company going on strike

It was April when she decided to give up teaching. When we asked her about the path that lead to this point, she referenced several points where she could have changed her mind – had the circumstances been different. Even though she started seeing that something was not right back in 2013, and instead of improving, the situation only got worse, she kept hoping for change.

During Covid they all kept thinking: okay, this is now, but once this is over, something better will come.

Many people accused the teachers of barely working during the pandemic. She actually worked about one and a half times more than before. She spent about 14 hours in front of the computer each day. There were days when she didn’t finish her lesson plans for the next day until four AM, but was already teaching at eight in the morning.

And then last fall one of their colleagues was diagnosed with a high risk pregnancy, and they had to figure out the substitution among themselves. The practice is that if someone is a full time employee, they do not get paid for substitution. She says that if they were paid for this, all teachers would be owed several hundreds of thousands of forints (thousands of euros) in backpay. By this time she was only working part time because of her doctoral studies. Because of this, they would have been able to pay her officially with a contract modification.

Starting in early December she was substitute teaching in two classes once a week – but in the end, her contract was not modified. In the end she received payment for two hours of overtime (for substitute teaching 2 hours a week for five weeks total) in January. Even during the last week of the semester she corrected and graded about 140 tests.

These kinds of extra tasks kept piling up and at times she felt she couldn’t do it all any longer.

Photo: István Huszti / Telex
Photo: István Huszti / Telex

She somehow managed to get over this – the first, warning teacher strike at the end of January certainly helped with this, and the number of civil disobedience events kept growing. She actually hoped the strike would work, because she saw they were all more inspired – they really believed that change was possible. She says that in the beginning, the civil disobedience demonstrations were effective, but then people gave up and it all died out.

"It’s not like the public transport company going on strike. When the employees of the public transportation company go on strike, they are hurting people they don't know. On the one hand, teachers are rule-followers, on the other hand, if we go on strike, it is hurting students, parents and colleagues who have to replace us. These are all people we love".

She said that there were some who chose civil disobedience on paper: this meant not getting paid for their work, but they taught their lessons because they couldn't bear not teaching their graduating classes.

She, for example, was not supposed to have lessons on Mondays because of her part-time job, but she went in at 7:50 a.m. to sign the civil disobedience document. So sometimes during the protest she was in school more than she would have been otherwise.

Naturally, it is everyone’s private decision whether they are willing to accept the consequences of their strike – as they do not get paid for those days. She is single, without children, and if she needs help, she can count on her parents. But she adds that if someone has three children, for example, this is a much harder decision for them.

“In Berzsenyi, a large percentage of teachers are able to teach because their husbands earn a good salary, or are supported by their families, or have a rented apartment that they inherited. But their teacher's salaries are not enough for saving.(...) Most of the teachers I know do not do this to make a living, it is their hobby."

The hardest part: telling her students

One of the reasons why there was no point to civil disobedience after a while was that as the April 3rd elections approached, the government announced that they would not be dealing with this issue before then. She says that she was disappointed but at the same time hoped that – regardless of the election result there would be some change afterwards.

She waited for two-three weeks afterwards to see if they would be given any feedback. When this didn’t happen either, she saw no other option and made the decision: after 13 years, she would leave public education.

“Since then, the government has done something every day to confirm to me that I had made the right decision.”

When her decision was made, she probably didn't really realize it was truly over. She didn't think she would ever leave public education, but she felt she was constantly suffering. She said that whenever she talked to her colleagues, almost all of them only had negative things to say. Everybody was rushing around to get their tasks done. Between lessons there was no time to talk to each other because they were preparing for the next lesson, because there was not enough time for that at home. She said:

"We also have the enthusiastic newcomers who still believe in miracles, that it will one day get better, we just have to wait. But I know what it was like before, I lived in it for years, I saw what has been slowly happening to the whole education system, and I feel that nothing will ever change, it will just keep getting harder."

She didn't know when she would tell her students about her decision, but she started to feel bad about having to keep it a secret whenever the students would bring up their plans for next year. In the beginning, several colleagues tried to dissuade her from telling them too soon, fearing that the children might not study as hard if they knew she would not be their teacher next year. To this, she answered: "that's not the kind of relationship I have with my kids".

In the end, she chose a day when she had a lesson with all the classes: a Tuesday in the last week of April. When asked about this day, she cried, even though – by her own admission – she hadn't cried for months about having left.

She said that some of the children cried, others were in shock, and many asked questions, most of them wanted to know if she planned to come back to teach in the future.

"I started out by telling them that I am not quitting because of them, and not because I didn't like them or their parents or my colleagues, but I had decided I didn't want to continue to assist in making it look like this is a functioning system. Instead, I chose to contribute to the collapse of the system, in the hope that it would get better. And I hope that my departure is not permanent but temporary."

Parents offered money if she stayed

In the weeks following her announcement, she received several kind, yet somewhat disappointed emails and personal enquiries from parents. Perhaps a good illustration for how much she was loved by the children and parents at the school is what happened the day after the announcement. On Wednesday morning, she received an email from one of the parents asking to speak with her.

It turned out that her student didn't even know about it, but the parents wanted to donate millions of forints to the physics department to buy equipment for the physics class and to support the physics self-study group through the foundation of their own workplace – in exchange for Lendvai staying on to teach at the school. She found the offer generous, but did not accept it, as it did not solve the real problem of the system.

After she announced her resignation, she still had lessons until mid-June. When asked how she had managed to survive that month and a half, she said:

"I was relieved".

She felt relieved to have made one of the hard decisions of her life and to have told her students about it.

Her last lesson was maths on a Friday, and she and the children went out into the garden. It was important for her to make it clear that she would never sacrifice a lesson, not even before Christmas. She said "if nothing else, we do physics or maths in a fun way", but this time she made an exception. They spent that lesson just talking outside, and she reassured the students that they would not lose her completely, and that if they need to, they could still reach out to her with confidence.

I saw my name on the door and bawled

And they didn't lose her completely, because she couldn't just leave the school and the children overnight. In September she went to a joint gathering of teachers from Berzsenyi, and she still talks to her colleagues about the physics camp. She also offered to help the children if they need help preparing for the physics competition.

Naturally, there still are more difficult moments.

"I just saw my name on the door at the school and it made me cry to think, "Oh my God, my name won't be here anymore".

After her resignation she posted her thoughts on Facebook, which is something she had never done before. In her post, she said one of the reasons for quitting was that she wanted to be able to look in the mirror. She didn't want to pretend that everything was fine, and felt that by staying and doing nothing of substance, she would have reinforced that. She still hopes a bit in civil disobedience: "I just hope it will pick up again, but I didn't feel like waiting for that. There is that point when it's now or never, and for me, that point came in the spring".

And what would have to happen for her to go back into public education? The answer is "double the current wages, and 18 special subject lessons a week". What she will miss most is being able to be so much a part of the children's lives and vice versa. This is something which is not available anywhere else, except at a year-long children's camp.

"I shape them, they shape me, I make mistakes, they make mistakes, we teach, we forgive, we grow together."

She won't give up teaching entirely. She will do some private tutoring and is currently finishing her doctorate. In the end, she will earn three times as much money with half the work. She has had plenty of offers, and is approached daily by various companies and invited to work in other jobs thanks to her knowledge in mathematics and physics. But she adds that she wants to make a living doing what she has a 'paper' on and what she loves to do. Naturally, she has wondered how different her life would be if she had studied finance at Corvinus University.

"You know those films where you go back in time, change one thing in your past, and your future is different? I don't know what I'd have to change to so this wouldn't be the only thing in me: I want to teach. When I was 18, I couldn't even think of other jobs out there, teaching was the only one that existed for me. At the moment I don't have the need to rebuild my little castle from something else, because I already have this castle and I also know how to continue building it".

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