“Please dear teacher, try your ‘best’”: education’s challenges in Turkmenistan
Editor’s note: This school year in Turkmenistan is a special occasion, coming as it does 20 years since independence. neweurasia’s Annasoltan talks with a professional teacher in Ashgabat about education’s challenges under the Berdimuhammedow regime, from shifting generational and cultural values to corruption in the schools.
This has been the first full week of the new school year, but this is no ordinary year. Besides the surprise gift of laptops to first-graders, this also happens to be the twentienth anniversary of our nation’s independence. I think few other countries have undergone the kind of education incredible ups and downs that mine has — from centuries of [eriphalization, to Tsarist and Soviet mass literacy and establishment of universities, to the twists and turns of indoctrination and impoverishment since independence.
Curious to hear an insider's track on the situation for education today, I got a hold of Geldimurat from Ashgabat, a professional teacher. We began our conversation about this troubling statistic: every year there are about 100,000 high school graduates, but of these only 4,500 (4.5%) get a change to step in to higher education. Geldimurat remarks,
"Some people may not agree with me. I hear some people saying, 'Somebody eager to learn will find a way to learn, anyway. Itâ€™s up to a personâ€™s will.' Therefore, a lot of Turkmen youngsters are participating in educational competitions between schools in order to be recognized, since the brightest learners get a change of being accepted into the countryâ€™s four universities.
"True, there is now the opportunity to go abroad to study -- during the Soviet period, the way to Turkey and to the West was closed -- and the numbers [of students doing this] are increasing every year. However, this is only an option for the better-off, not for ordinary people.”
During the Niyazov era, education was given a lower priority as state funds were diverted to expensive construction projects in the capital. Among the more notorious reforms was reducing the amount of time spent in high school from ten to nine years. Geldimurat says:
“The teachers were told to squeeze a two year’s curriculum into one year. The children had problems with concentration and many teachers were not capable of meeting the [new] requirement.”
In 2003, a decision was taken to a make a two-year practicum obligatory for teenagers who had finished high school and wished to enter university.
“This was a welcome change [in principle], but it didn’t make sense, because even those with university degrees faced difficulty finding jobs, let alone to find places to do the practicum.”
This and other regulations enacted by Niyazov have been reversed by Berdimuhammedov: high school is now ten years’ long again, salaries for teachers have increasted (although they are being devoured by inflation), new schools have been built, and the role of the Ruhnama has been reduced, at least formally. However, according to Geldimurat, the quality of teaching remains low:
“In the [Niyazov] years, the training of the teachers was neglected and almost everyone was allowed to become a teacher.”
University study now takes seven years to complete: five years of courses and two years of practicum. With the exception of the Turkmen-Turkish University, students are not allowed to choose the place of their practicum; rather, it’s determined by the state. The artifice of the situation is so bad that there’s a widespread, if unspoken understanding not to fail any student, so as to make sure their study period does not go beyond seven years. According to Geldimurat, the situation is further complicated by cultural factors:
“The new, young generation is less eager to learn at school. They don’t take the teachers seriously; they think of them as stupid or worthless. Instead [of talking about their courses], they talk about cars and girls, or they play with their mobile phones during lessons.”
Geldimurat adds that an unfortunate amount of class time is spent on compulsory “measures”, such as the official greeting ceremony for the President. The ideological legacy of Niyazov is also having lasting ramifications:
“I must also admit that a lot of valuable time was lost on teaching the Ruhnama during the last years of Niyazov’s presidency.”
As for job prospects in Turkmenistan, Geldimurat feels there is a gap between the needs of Turkmen society and what our education system can actually produce:
“There are well-paid jobs in Ashgabat for people who speak English good enough and have computer literacy. However, the degree of English teaching and computer lessons in schools and universities is not enough to qualify for these jobs. There are increasingly more computers in the schools, but they are not adding value to the quality of education. [Consequently,] one must attend a paid course or hire a private teacher to learn [the necessary skills].”
This is further affected by the atmosphere of rampant corruption in our society, which in Geldimurat’s eyes has changed the very meaning of what it means to be affected:
“People have become jealous, societal thinking has changed. I remember that in the old days [i.e., the Soviet era], people were more supportive of each other. Now, in order to feed my family I’m working a taxi driver in my free time, and my wife is working in a textile factory. The needs of the people have changed, as well, [for example,] they want cars [i.e., luxury goods].
“Parents’ attitude toward the teachers has also changed: they still consider education important, but not the teachers themselves, who are not seen as important anymore. Imagine: university entrance costs 10,000-20,000 USD, but ‘gifts’ [i.e., bribes] for teachers, given in order to secure good grades for the students, has become common practice. When they give these ‘gifts’, they say, ‘Please dear teacher, try your ‘best’.” And so, if the student isn’t learning well, parens tend to blame the teachers. Naturally, therefore, the rich’s children are the worst students.”
So, would Geldimurat want to return to the Soviet era if he could?
“I wouldn’t wish the old days to come back. Previously, we were not even getting a ‘thank you’ from Moscow for handing them over our natural gas in abundance; now we receive revenue for it. Nevertheless, what I miss about the Soviet era is the fact that teachers were loved. They were seen by the children as standing in stature next to their own parents; they were respected and loved, and parents would visit teachers and consult with them.
“Even literature and books had a different meaning in the old days. A book was treated as something precious and people were eager to read books. After school, the children would talk about their lessons and do homework together. There were no mobile phones, and buying a small house was easier than buying a car. Today, boys and girls from the higher classes are dating instead of doing their homework, or they sit and watch television at home. Only parents who try really heard and invest great effort into their children’s learning reap any benefits of education anymore.”