Fighting Back in Every Corner

A Turkish teacher talks about the struggle for democratic & secular public education

An image of stylized world flags with the text The state of public education—Worldwide

Eğitim-Sen, the Education and Science Workers’ Union of Turkey, is a national union of K–12 and public post-secondary teachers and workers. Its membership is close to 200,000, making it one of the largest unions in the country. It is part of the Confederation of Public Employees’ Trade Unions (KESK) that in turn is affiliated with the European Trade Union Confederation.

Education workers, like other public employees in Turkey, face far steeper obstacles to organizing and fighting for their rights than do their colleagues in Canada. They are prohibited by law from engaging in formally binding collective bargaining with the state, and so are limited to “collective job meetings” with the national education ministry on particular issues. With limited official recognition, Eğitim-Sen exerts pressure on employers by engaging in mass demonstrations and rallies, while also supporting individual members with grievances. In Turkey, there is no equivalent to either Canada’s statutory membership in teachers’ federations, or automatic dues checkoff for workers at unionized employers. Two other smaller unions exist in the sector. One is associated with the Nationalist political current in Turkey, defined by opposition to the expression of ethnic Kurdish identity and independence. The other advocates for religious conservatism, and is aligned with the ruling right wing Justice and Development Party (AKP).

After a rapid growth and rising militancy of unions in the 1960s and ‘70s, especially in manufacturing and the public sector, a coup d’état by the Turkish army in 1980 banned most political parties and independent unions for several years, halting any form of public dissent. Repression was combined with the implementation of a new economic order in a manner similar to Pinochet’s overthrow of Salvador Allende in 1973 Chile. A wave of privatizations were carried out of state industries, alongside roll backs of gains in wages and working conditions, part of a shift from a protectionist Import-Substitution model oriented towards stimulating domestic consumption, to an economy with a strong export orientation, using these low wages as a competitive advantage. Turkey became an important site for European manufacturers.

The neoliberal market reorientation extended into education, with the Turkish Association of Industrialists and Businessmen issuing a report in 1990 that claimed graduates of Turkey’s high schools were not prepared with the skills necessary to compete in the global economy. The report was cited by subsequent governments as reason to replace a ‘humanistic’ vision of education with a market-oriented one; de-emphasizing humanities and the social sciences, and prioritizing teaching entrepreneurialism. Election of the AKP in 2002 brought increased emphasis on religious education, with cases of science teachers disciplined for teaching evolution.

In this difficult context, education activists and unionists have struggled to regain their rights and confront new challenges. Below is an interview conducted this summer over email with Ayse, a teacher in Istanbul who is active in Eğitim-Sen. Thank you to Pelin Asci who translated the exchange.

(Interviewed by Paul Bocking, Translation by Pelin Asci)

— I have been a primary school teacher for 24 years. This year I’m going to teach second grade. We teach all the subjects, including math, Turkish, sciences, music, physical activity…in short all of them. Only the English lessons are taught by another teacher. When you have to teach all the courses it becomes very hard on the teacher. You cannot be talented in every subject area. There are different clubs in the school and they change every year. Last year I was the supervisor for the chess club. There is a club for almost any extracurricular at the school, almost all teachers take part. However, because of the ongoing process of privatization of education in Turkey, there is not enough financial support for public schools. When you do not have money, it becomes very difficult to do activities for kids.

— I am actually a philosophy teacher. However, in Turkey the prospects for philosophy or social science teachers generally is not good. It is almost impossible to find jobs. In high schools the weekly hours for philosophy classes are very few and they have been progressively reducing them. Sometimes the ministry recruits social science graduates as primary school teachers. Under these conditions I chose to become a primary school teacher, but I love the excitement of teaching.

— In order to become a teacher in Turkey, you need to be a graduate of an education faculty. If you are not, then you need to do one-year program in pedagogy. You should be younger than 40 when you start teaching. However the most important thing is to pass the exam, called KPPS.

— In Turkey, teachers are supposed to teach 30 hours a week, that is six hours a day. Our school starts at 9:00 a.m. in the morning and ends at 2:30 p.m. The average number of students in a classroom is changing significantly, but we can say that the average is around 35. In some places it is 20, in others 70. Right now I have 20 students.

— A day at school is usually calm and peaceful. The staff rooms are interesting, though. In a corner some teachers talk about clothes and fashion. In another one, they talk about their children or the political situation in Turkey. Sometimes they talk about their students and themselves. Because it is a primary school, the corridors are full of the noise and voices of the kids. If it is normal day, then it is your usual six hours shift. If it is one of the activity days, then you have to put in lots of effort because in Turkey there is no school budget for student activities. You have to collect that budget from the parents of the students. Besides, the social activities at school are not important; they are more like a façade, just to say we have social activities at this school. A week at school is generally intense and tiring. You have to obtain your own classroom supplies because there is no budget for them either. Because the general policy on education is privatization, they provide almost no budget for the necessary materials. So you have to put so much effort to prepare the classroom. Of course if you move beyond what the education ministry wants, then you would get in trouble. There is also the issue of dealing with parents but usually that is not a problem in primary schools.

— The school structure in Turkey is totally hierarchical. Everything is being determined by the center in Ankara. The principals in the schools are responsible to do whatever the centre orders and as teachers, you have to do whatever the principal says. We have very little autonomy. If you say ‘No’ to something that you find wrong then you face lots of pressure and/or legal investigations. If your workplace is unionized then you have more rights and autonomy. Or sometimes school principals can be more humane and flexible with their policies, giving more freedom to the teachers. But this happens rarely.

— Curriculum development in Turkey is standardized and sent to every school by Ankara. It is the same in Istanbul or Hakkari (a less developed city in the east of the country). Each course has a guidance book which dictates step by step what teachers must do. When I look at that book, I sometimes feel like an idiot because it leaves no autonomy to me. Every story, poem or novel that you are supposed to read in class is decided by the National Education Ministry in Ankara. If you want to go beyond your curriculum, you could face legal investigations. Legally this is a very anti-democratic situation. However in practice sometimes we go beyond the curriculum. It is very difficult, you have to take lots of responsibilities and risk many things, but we still do.

— The education system is constantly changing in Turkey, from the name of the schools to the grading scheme. There is no stability in anything and these changes are not progressive. The state does its best to neoliberalize education in Turkey. All tests and exams are standardized in Turkey which creates a very unfair situation. It is unfair to students whose mother language is not Turkish, to the poor students, to the female students. Among all these inequalities, these kids have to take the same exam.

— The privatization process in Turkey started with the 1980 coup d’état. It began with the policy of ‘build your own school’ which allowed rich people to create their own schools. At the expense of deterioration of its own schools, the state encouraged the establishment of private schools. None of the privileges given to private schools were given to the public schools. They supported them financially and gave more autonomy. Right now, the state gives almost no funding to public schools. It is also doing its best to transform them into private businesses, in a religiously conservative and sexist manner. Of course, all these things are also transforming our workplaces into places of resistance. The parents who resist the school closures come to unions for support. We are resisting together. I am an active member of the Eğitim-Sen right now. I work on the women’s and LGBT member’s committees.

— Teachers’ struggle in Turkey goes back to the 1900s. Almost every teacher was a member of the Töb-der union that had been established before the 1980 coup d’état. The military regime that came afterwards closed the union and confiscated all its assets. It imprisoned thousands of its members and executive staff. Today the state still holds all Töb-der assets. The teachers who were released came together and published the education journal ABC. Later, two different teacher unions were established. Of course, during all these times state oppression was high. In the 1990s these two unions merged and made the Eğitim-Sen. We gave so many struggles just to be officially recognized by the state. After these struggles, the state finally gave in and recognized the public unions. Turkey is a very problematic country from many aspects. Kurdish students cannot get education in their own language, Alevi students have to participate in the Sunni religious classes, etc. The curriculum assumes that every student is Sunni-Turkish, male and heterosexual. All the conflicts in society are directly reflected in education, since education is one of state’s main means to discipline society. As Eğitim-Sen, we are fighting on all these issues. Our union mostly consists of leftist teachers who not only fight on these education issues but against all forms of oppression. We do information sessions, legal interventions and direct actions by organizing protests. The state and capital are attacking from every corner, thus we are also fighting back in every corner.

About Paul Bocking
Paul Bocking is an occasional teacher in District 12, Toronto and a member of the Communications/Political Action Committee.

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