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CHISINAU | Lilian Orandas graduated from college in 2007 and went to work teaching history in the tiny village where he grew up, in the northwestern tip of Moldova. The salary was minuscule – about $50 per month – but he received a government bonus of $800, and besides, he said, he wanted to help his hometown.
But things didn't work out as he planned, and at the end of his three-year contract, Orandas went to graduate school, after which he hopes to teach in the capital. He blames the school's principal and veteran classroom staff, who he said did not trust new teachers. "We have different mentalities. I had to leave that school and find better opportunities in Chisinau,” he said.
That's just what Moldova's education officials don't want to hear. The country's schools opened their doors this month with a shortage of some 1,000 teachers, up about 30 percent from last year, according to the Education Ministry.
The problem is especially acute in the countryside, where schools often lack resources, decent housing can be scarce, and many children have been left practically to their own devices as their parents have gone abroad for work.
Since 2005, the government has offered the $800 bonus to lure more teachers to rural schools, at a total cost of 80 million lei ($6.5 million). In the last four years alone, about 1,500 new graduates have taken advantage of the program, most of them signing three-year contracts.
But the extra money alone is not always enough for strapped rural schools to retain young teachers, who may need extra support from administrators, especially in confrontations with old-timers skeptical of recently earned credentials.
Veterans like Nicolae Ivascu, a former math teacher in a village northwest of Chisinau. Ivascu said the newcomers are less prepared for the classroom.
”A diploma issued today from a university is wallpaper. It does not necessarily ensure that young teachers have the skills they need," said Ivascu, who retired last year. "Students have changed. They need to continuously be motivated to understand theory and practice.”
Only 10 percent of teachers of retirement age joined him in leaving the profession last year. Numbers like that, combined with a dearth of new teachers, are leading to a lopsided demographic in the classroom: the share of pensioners still teaching climbed from 6.6 percent in 2001 to 20 percent in 2011. In some rural areas the figure is 70 percent.
Some of those older teachers, like Maria Ambroci, stay because they have been asked to do so. After 17 years, Ambroci has had enough of the daily 10-kilometer (6-mile) walk to school in a neighboring village, northwest of Chisinau. Her specialty is biology, but she also teaches music; due to the shortage, about one-fifth of Moldova's teachers have been pressed into teaching two or more subjects, in which they may or may not have trained.
Ambroci is convinced that most young teachers would not tolerate such conditions. ”I'm a pensioner. I want to leave the school, but I'm asked to continue teaching because no new teachers are willing to come and do the same things,” she said.
Education Minister Maia Sandu said schools have resorted to bringing back retired teachers on short-term contracts. The continued use of teachers trained decades ago can make it difficult to introduce new teaching methods into the classroom.
Stressing the need for greater professionalism at the recent launch of a revamp of the education system, Sandu said, "It's necessary that we attract good new teachers and keep them in the system by increasing salaries and creating proper work conditions. We need to rethink and educate society about the quality of education.”
NO FRESH BLOOD
The median monthly wage for teachers – 3,300 lei ($250) – is considered low even in Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries. That is despite a near-doubling of government spending on education in the past five years, to 7.3 billion lei ($560 million), about one-fifth of the country's budget. The bulk of that money goes for salaries for almost 67,000 teachers and 47,000 auxiliary workers, some of whom education officials aim to shed.
Only about 7 percent of those who enrolled at Moldovan colleges last year opted to train as teachers, about half the proportion of students in medicine or economics, the most popular disciplines. By graduation that pool is further thinned: only one of 11 graduates of a teaching school enters the profession each year.
Moldova's teaching university – the largest of the country's 16 schools for teachers – enrolls about 930 new students each year, almost enough to fill all the vacant spaces at primary and secondary schools, according to rector Nicolae Chirus.
"Most of them realize that teaching is not their calling in life," he said, with many more put off by the trials of life in a rural school.
About 55 percent of Chirus' university's graduates – more than 500 each year – have their studies paid for by the government. He said that's a waste of public money and called for a requirement that those who study at taxpayers' expense spend three years teaching, as happened in the years immediately following the breakup of the Soviet Union.
The rural teacher shortage is part of a shifting educational landscape in Moldova that officials are trying to master. Almost 1,350 schools have closed in the past decade as about 1 million people have left the country.
The Education Ministry is seeking to consolidate some smaller schools to use resources more effectively. At the same time, it has introduced a per-pupil funding formula that has hit those smaller schools especially hard, with some teachers not getting paid for months. One school in the Straseni district with 50 pupils has received only 523,000 lei ($40,700) since January. Principal Eleonora Pereplichinii said closure is the only logical solution, adding that five other schools in the district are in the same straits.
Sandu said closing smaller schools will help ease the financial burden on local governments, which were responsible for paying most of teachers' salaries from 2007 until 2013. Education officials hope that at least some of the savings will go toward higher pay.
Serghei Ostaf, a policy expert with the Resource Center for Human Rights in Chisinau, said consolidation makes sense, as “there are teachers in many rural areas who have five to 10 students in class."