In a town of 40,000 souls, a school has managed to keep up standards on a shoe string, while in Moscow, a trailblazing principal ploughs along with his alternative approach to learning, attracting both criticism and curiosity
Tatiana Sergeyevna Korobovtseva works hard to keep her spirits up despite the constant and chronic challenges of teaching in the small railway-junction town of Rtishchevo in the region of Saratov, 650 kilometres away from Moscow.
At 40, she is the deputy director of Secondary School No. 2 and looks back over a career that spans the entire recent epoch of upheaval and change in Russia. Mikhail Gorbachev had only just come to power when she started teaching and the Communist Party line still dictated much of the curriculum. Gorbachev's policies of glasnost (freedom) and perestroika (rebuilding) hastened the collapse of communism in 1991 and a new flush of educational freedom swept through Russia. But the chaos of Boris Yeltsin's liberal experiment brought poverty, uncertainty and a collapse of central authority that eroded many of the new liberties offered. Tatiana Sergeyevna saw her standard of living plummet along with the real value of her wages when they were paid on time and a host of problems arise she could never have foreseen back in the Soviet Union's twilight years of the mid-1980s. Vladimir Putin's surprise ascendancy to the Kremlin a year ago has changed nothing, she says.
Today, Tatiana Sergeyevna, her director Vyatcheslav Sashenkov and the other 38 members of staff, do the best they can with the bare minimum of resources to maintain educational standards at a school considered one of the best in the town of 40,000 people.
Per capita funding for the school's 690 pupils is a paltry two roubles a day, about $50 a day for the entire school. Her monthly salary is 1,500 roubles ($56), the school director's a dollar more. Many of the children come from families with lower incomes or with only one parent. A paid-for canteen service helps ensure most children get a hot meal at lunchtime for three roubles (about 10 U.S. cents) a serving. A board of trustees made up of parents, heads of local enterprises and teachers raises money to help the school and the poorest students, but the lack of up-to-date teaching materials, textbooks and computers remains sorely felt.
Many have left teaching in the last decade to go into business or to work as "shuttle traders" living off the slender profits to be had from buying cheap goods in Turkey or Poland and selling them at a small mark-up in Russia. Those who remain tend to be the dedicated ones or those with nowhere else to go. When asked why she stays on, Tatiana Sergeyevna's answer is both typical and revealing. "I love my job and could not conceive of life without teaching. It is a quality of all Russians that we are used to fighting for our survival and using laughter and humour to get through," she says.
Humour is especially essential for Tatiana Sergeyevna, a math and computer specialist. She has never had the opportunity to use the Internet and can only teach programming in theory because the school's 13-year-old Soviet-made computers have been declared a health hazard due to their high level of electro-magnetic radiation emissions. "I try not to talk about the Internet very much with the children and instead set them tasks to be solved using algorithms. They write programmes in their exercise books. I have to make do with this," she says.
Her director Vyatcheslav Sashenkov laughs hollowly when told the Federal Education Ministry plans to train hundreds of thousands of teachers in using the Internet and to provide every school in the country with at least one worldwide web-connected computer within the next decade. "In the entire school there is only one student who has her own personal computer and the nearest Internet provider is in Saratov, 200 kilometres away. The regional governor Dmitri Ayatskov provides money for computers whenever a new school is built, but that still leaves existing ones without the means to provide proper computing facilities. …