Voltri: Freezing salaries will lead to strike

The salary of teachers should be at least 20 percent higher than the national average and match the wage level of other highly educated specialists, head of the Estonian Education Personnel Union Reemo Voltri said on the “Otse Postimehest” webcast.

Estonia is not Italy or Greece. A strike is rather an extraordinary event here. Should we interpret talk of a teachers’ strike as a warning or a threat?

It is drawing attention to a problem. Teachers do not want to go on strike. We would not have threatened to go on strike had the plan been to freeze teachers’ salaries for just next year. We understand that the economic situation is difficult and a lot of people have lost their job or taken pay cuts. However, the government saying it will freeze teachers’ salaries for a period of four years is a sign of danger for us.

You’ve pointed to a study according to which 40 percent of Estonian teachers are considering quitting inside the next five years, mainly because of subpar salary. It sounds incredible.

Salary is usually the reason. The salary of teachers in Estonia needs to be compared to the salaries of other highly educated specialists, which is 20 percent higher in Estonia than the national average. Forecasts put the average salary of a specialist with higher education at €1,700 this year, while the average for teachers will come to €1,540.

A teacher who has a master’s degree is paid 20 percent less than someone with a master’s degree working in a different field?

Exactly! And talking about the salary of a teacher working full time after taxes, it’s just €1,315 a month.

I suppose there are very few teaches who work just enough to make that estimated €1,540?

On the contrary. We have around 15,500 teachers in Estonia, while we have 13,000 positions. This means that many are working part-time, while it is often not their choice. We have a lot of small schools that do not have enough work to offer teachers.

I know that a lot of teachers work more than one job – some moonlight as nail technicians, some translate books and some wait tables…

Should a teacher be forced to do that? The law would see teachers work 35 hours a week, while studies suggest a full-time teacher works at least 45 hours. A teacher should learn new skills and develop themselves during their free time, instead of trying to make a living doing other things. We cannot allow this to impact the quality of education.

Studies show that Estonian education is among the best in the world. What worries us is that we cannot see new teachers. Provided there will not be a fundamental change, we will be out of teachers in five years’ time.

At the same time, research and development funding is set to hit 1 percent of GDP next year.

A very important step! Salaries are an even bigger problem in higher education than they are in general education. In some cases, those who teach our teachers are paid less than their students. It is not a situation one could describe as normal.

What would constitute a fair wage for teachers?

The salary of teachers should compare to the average pay of highly educated specialists. It should be 20 percent higher than the national average salary. We also need to think about the teaching career. Right now, a young teacher who comes to work at a school has nowhere to go from there, lacks motivation. The positions of principal and director of studies are not part of a teacher’s career. A teacher’s career motivation should not be tied to seniority but rather developmental indicators.

In other words, the situation today is that a young mathematics teacher comes to work knowing that they will retire as a mathematics teacher with an average salary?

Yes, they have a government mandated minimum salary and can only make more money by performing additional tasks. However, their personal development cannot guarantee better pay. We also need to look at quality of school management. We have a lot of good schools and principals, while we also have those where development has not happened over the years. That might be one reason young teachers tend to avoid certain schools.

Do you know who was behind the idea to freeze teachers’ salaries for four years in the government?

No, I do not. The education minister said she fought for teaches’ salary advance. This is the second state budget strategy that fails to prescribe a salary advance for teachers. It is not random or a result of the coronavirus crisis. That is what is making us anxious.

Perhaps the finance minister has been traumatized by a teacher in the past.

I have not talked to the finance minister directly and couldn’t say. I hope that the government will revise the state budget strategy again in spring and change the outlook for teachers’ salaries. If it remains zero, teachers will step up in defense of education in Estonia.

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