As a 6th-grader's dad, I went yesterday to attend the first back-to-school parent-teacher conference. It was a depressing experience. Here is why.
This year, my son's class at a Minsk school will for the first time have classes during the afternoon shift, hence many organizational matters - the lessons schedule, extra-curriculum activities, workshops, etc. - were discussed in the first part of the meeting.
Keeping an academic diary is made of paramount importance. The class teacher urged the parents to make sure that diaries are kept in neat handwriting. The Soviet Union, hello! In response to this requirement, one of the moms asked for permission (sic!) to fill in her son's diary because he broke his arm (I wonder if she makes homework for him too). The class teacher gave a go-ahead and added that if parents think they would keep the diaries better and neater, she is happy with that. Parents fill in an academic diary for their children in the 6th grade - I mean, are you serious? Is neat handwriting the most important thing here?
Our son is left-handed. Last year he broke his left arm but learned how to write with his right hand. For him, it was a challenge but also some sort of fun. After all, an academic diary is needed to help a student keep records of the lesson schedule and homework assignments. Who cares about handwriting? What is key is to study well.
The next requirement is not to allow children to dye hair in various colors. The class teacher explains that green or red hair distracts other students in a class. Such a ban is not envisaged in the Ministry of Education rules but the school has nevertheless set it as a school standard. I wonder if anyone at this school ever thought that attention is more easily distracted by bans. If everyone dyed his or her hair the way they wanted, nobody could care less about the color of your head.
Parents asked if it was possible to ban gadgets at school. According to the class teacher, it is not possible at the moment because there is no one to make a wall cabinet where they could be stored. At that point, somebody recalled that the industrial arts teacher for the boys was a woman. Inexplicably, that caused disapproval from among the fathers.
The most interesting thing started when the talking points moved to the monetary issues on the agenda. First of all, every student must supply four rolls of toilet paper, three rolls of paper towels and four packs of paper tissues per year. I am happy to submit 5 roubles ($2.5) for my kid, but isn't it the responsibility of the school to provide students with hygiene items. Moreover, my son says he does not know if toilet paper is available in the WCs or if napkins are handed during lunches in the canteen. He either does not use it or they are simply not available.
Parents are also required to buy workbooks, which as far as I understood, come in addition to regular copybooks and are mandatory. Once again, I pay my taxes to support the education system but somehow it is not enough for copybooks. According to the Constitution, education is free in Belarus…
And the icing on the cake is a donation for the school building's repairs. The class teacher said from the beginning that this talking point was to be raised by the principal at the general school meeting a couple of days ago. Suddenly, he had an ad hoc meeting to attend and delegated the unpleasant mission to the class teachers. At that point, I felt sorry for the lady. Obviously, she looked embarrassed. It was not her decision but she would be held responsible. Hence, she was begging: please, this is not coercion, everything is voluntary, no cash, only bank wires... At the same time, she made it clear: at least 20 roubles ($10) per student. One parent even felt happy about the amount, adding that first-graders in the same school were asked to pay 50 roubles. Perhaps, newcomers are charged more.
The class teacher says that repairs are necessary. "Look at the walls in the classroom," she says. I look at the wools and realize that the walls are totally fine! From a distance, they look good. Some scratches can be spotted if you move closer but this is normal with kids. By and large, who needs the repairs? I am confident that my son and others couldn't care less about some scratches on the walls. I would even not replace the wooden window sets with the new plastic ones because the former are healthier as they do not produce stuffy air.
Yet another talking point is a subscription to the state-owned magazine Young Rescue Worker and donations to the Belarusian Red Cross Society. Parents were asked to pay for the subscription to the magazine for the school's library under the pretext that Young Rescue Worker raises children's cultural level. Ask your child if he or she has ever read an article from this magazine.
Now about the Red Cross. They collect 93 kopecks per person. The approach is the same: everything is "voluntary," the same with repairs. One father asked me hinting at me being poor: do you begrudge a rouble? But I am used to counting my money. In the academic year 2018/19, there were slightly more than 1 million schoolchildren in Belarus. If every parent submits without complain 1 rouble, the Red Cross will receive 1 million roubles (around $500,000) for nothing. Even bigger amounts are solicited from enterprises. But there is no money for repairs at schools...
Finally, a couple of words about the paperwork load. The class teacher asked to make sure that statements or letters of explanation are filed by parents if a child stays at home for some reason on a school day. As it turned out, teachers are obliged to write in their reports why students were absent, backing it with the supporting documents from parents. Can you imagine how much time it takes? Wouldn’t it be better to spend it on education, or personal life? Everyone would have benefited - the teacher, the kids, and their parents.
The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the European Radio for Belarus.
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