Episode #14 Schools in Russia
This episode contains explicit language and a shitton of my personal feelings and opinions. Because it’s that time of year in Russia, when poor kiddies have to go to school again after about 3 months of the glorious summer break. Supposedly, anyway…
Education is a topic I feel strongly about. For starters, technically I work in it. I’m a private tutor and I teach English.
I’ve even worked in a school for a year. And also I really don’t like how our education system works. So… there’s gonna be a lot of opinions in this one.
But first let me tell you
What education in Russia looks like?
Children start school at the age of 6 or 7. In most cases that is up to parents (notice: parents, not the kids. Maybe some people ask their offspring opinion. But generally, education is done to you. You don’t have choice in the matter). Hm, looks like I will start with the opinions right away. Oh, well…
Before school most children attend kindergarten. These days they supposedly are taught to read and write there. Because a lot of schools expect their first-grade students to already know that. But in reality I think it kinda depends on the kindergarten and the school. I mean schools in rural areas won’t have great expectations. And some schools on the outskirts of big cities would be more tolerant to a kid that can’t read or write yet. Good schools close to a city center… When parents of my students talk about them, it sounds like they expect kids to know everything already. It’s an exaggeration but there might be an element of truth in it.
When I went to the kindergarten many years ago… Wow, more than twenty. Look, who’s definitely a grown-up now)) we were taught to read and write a bit. But I can’t tell you whether it was effective or not, because a) it really was a long time ago and b) my mom and especially great-grandma spend a lot of time teaching me that. And also to count. I think it was mostly their efforts that paid off.
Gender in Russian schools
Girls and boys study together, single-sex schools are extremely rare. The only example that comes to my mind is cadet schools. They are probably all-boys schools because Russia is a very patriarchal country and men of a certain age have huge problems imagining women in the army. There aren’t that many schools like that though. Sometimes it’s not even a school but a class.
I have one student who is in all-girls class (not school but class) and she – ironically – goes to a brand new school on the outskirts of the city (I call them outskirts because those places don’t look like American suburbs. The whole suburban thing looks slightly different in my city. The residents are… what passes for middle-class outside of Moscow. But that particular place is blocks of flats or apartment complexes, if you wish).
Anyway, the school is new but its headmistress is evidently conservative as fuck. So there are single-sex classes in that school. Boys and girls both attend that school but depending on the specialization of the class it might be single-sex. My student is in the media-class as they call that. Whatever the heck does that mean neither my student nor her parents know precisely. For now it’s just a pretty name.
And for some reason there are no boys in that class. Like men don’t work in media? IDK Boys go to cadet classes. Although I’ve heard that my student’s classmate transferred to one of those and the world didn’t end!
Gender stereotypes in Russian schools
However, gender stereotypes are taught from the cradle here. The most horrifying thing about that school is the fact that the headmistress prohibited girls to wear trousers to school. And god forbid, jeans. They have a sort of a uniform. And girls only can wear skirts.
I’ve heard about the same rule in several schools across the country.
If that doesn’t sound horrible to you yet, let me remind you that the school is in Russia. And even though I don’t live in the north of the country, temperatures do drop to 20 or sometimes even 30 below zero. And wearing skirts in that kind of weather seems idiotic to me.
Of course, a girl can wear some kind of trousers to school and then change before class. But that takes time and would mean getting up earlier for some people. And boys don’t have that problem just by virtue of being boys. So it’s just plain unfair. And practically medieval.
Types of schools
The vast majority of schools in Russia are state schools. But there obviously are some private schools too. Very few of them were founded earlier than 1917, the year of the Russian revolution. Because whatever private schools existed before that, were probably not spared by the Soviet government during its early years.
We also have special schools for children with special needs, I mean with disabilities connected to hearing, eyesight and others. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. I just know that Russian schools are not especially inclusive. And placing your autistic spectrum child into a simple local school is a long and arduous process. That requires a ton of paperwork and an adult that would sit with them in class. And that’s if your child is high-functioning. I hope I’m using the right terminology.
I know all this for sure, because my friend used to work with children who are on the autistic spectrum.
Ok, so let’s imagine an average kid who goes to an average local school. What would their school career look like?
From the age of 6 till 10 or from 7 to 11 he or she would go to a primary or junior school (whichever name you prefer). They would have 5 or 6 lessons 5 days a week. Though in some schools it might be 6 days. Lessons start at 8 or 8.30 and last till, well, whenever they are over.
Each lesson is 45 minutes. That’s Russian academic hour. But first graders have 40 minute lessons, cause… you know, they are small and everybody is trying to make life easier for them. For a year.
Subjects in Primary school
In first grade kids usually have subjects like Russian (obviously), plus there could be writing as a separate subject, Maths, Reading, Art, Physical education, Music and Nature studies. That’s something close to the subject that’s called Science in American schools. But on a very basic level in the first grade.
There’s also a subject that’s literally called труд/trud, which means labor. In reality that’s something like handicrafts though. Kids make different things out of paper, fibers, plastic things, pine cones or whatever they have lying about or whatever the teacher comes up with. It’s probably quite good for fine motor skills and creativity.
Some schools also teach a Foreign language from the start. But the majority now start it it the second grade. The most common foreign languages here are English, French and German. Also if the school is in a republic that’s a part of Russian Federation, like Tatarstan or Bashkortostan, native language of that republic is also taught at school. Could be from the first year, or from the second.
During the next 3 years several subjects might be added. I just gave you the basic set. The rest depends on the school.
So grades 1 through 4 are junior school, next is Middle school. That’s grades 5 through 9. And ages 10 to 15, or 11 to 16, depending on when you started.
9 grades education is compulsory in Russia. You can’t get out. But after it’s over you are free to continue your education or… not.
Oh, wait! Fun/crazy fact!
When I went to school, we didn’t have the 4th grade for some reason. Like for several years kids just went from the 3rd to the 5th grade, we didn’t lose anything in terms of stuff we were supposed to learn, because school curriculum took into account those changes. I honestly don’t know why that was and don’t think that’s important.
I only mentioned it because my younger cousin likes to bitch about how lucky I was to only had had 10 years of that slow torture called school, while she had 11. And yeah, I was lucky, come to think about it. Huh! Cool!
More gender stereotypes
Curriculum in middle school is the basis from junior school, but Writing is dropped, Reading transforms into Literature. And that Labour subject becomes Technology.
For that one children are separated by gender. Girls are kinda sorta taught to cook, sew and may do some embroidery. In reality cooking is just a couple of lessons. And very few people truly learn to sew in school.
The boys meanwhile are supposedly taught to use tools and make things like stools. Ooops
I blissfully forgot about that subject. But now that I’ve remembered it annoys the hell out of my feminist heart.
Especially because I remember that boys in my class hardly ever did anything during their lessons, while we had to sit and work on our projects.
Also hello, perception that some activities should be done exclusively by women and others exclusively by man! Ahhhrrr!
Subjects in Middle school
As the years go by new subjects get added and old ones transform. In the 5th grade kids start learning about History and maybe also local history and Social studies, Geography and Information Technologies. Nature studies become 3 subjects: Biology, Chemistry and Physics. Maths is divided and you get Algebra and Geometry separately.
Among the compulsory subjects there’s also this weird subject called Principles of Personal and Social safety. It’s where they teach you what to do during earthquakes, tsunami and terrorist attacks. It sounds useful, but in reality I remember it being treated as something obligatory but ridiculous.
Even now none of my students take that thing seriously. Which isn’t all that great. But it’s hard to make young people seriously think about earthquakes when our city is close enough to the middle of the lithospheric plate and a possibility of an earthquake is small enough to be negligible. And a tsunami is just damn near impossible. And terrorist attacks… well. I guess, like most people we probably don’t want to believe that could really happen to us.
When I say compulsory subjects I mean they are compulsory for the school. And they could spice things up as they like and have resources for. But it’s the school that makes the choice. Students don’t have any say in the matter.
What can you choose in a Russian school and can you really?
These days our education system is… convulsing. So something like paid additional lessons that a student theoretically can choose was created. It doesn’t work as you think though.
For starters, parents traditionally have way more say in what their children study than children themselves. Plus a possibility of manipulation and blackmail by the teacher in these circumstances is superhigh. I’ve heard my students say that some teacher would not give good grades unless you attend their paid lessons.
So here’s our beautiful free education for you.
Of course, not all teachers are like that. There are good teachers who believe in what they do. But this also happens. And in my opinion Russian education systems needs to change and radically.
But I’ll get to that soon. Now let me tell you that at the end of the 9th grade students have a series of exams in the form of tests. Russian and Maths are compulsory. There’s talk of making History and English compulsory too. Plus a couple of exams that a student can choose.
This test system is new in Russia. In the 20th century we had our own exam format. But in the early 2000s our leader that needn’t be named (because it’s the same one) was trying to integrate Russia into the western world (of which, one can argue it has never been truly a part of). And the part of it was making our education system compatible with the western.
Politics shifted somewhat, but the new exams format stayed. And it is hated by older generations. Young people who actually have to pass them don’t seem to enjoy them much either. But… I don’t think a lot of people truly enjoy exams in any format
What happens after Middle school?
After that ordeal is over, children and their parents have a choice to make – go to a High school. That’s two years of basically the same with another set of exams in the end. And then you can enter a university or other institution that provides higher education.
Or you could go to an institution that provides some sort of professional education right after the 9th grade. They are actually often called colleges in Russia. It can be a school that teaches some technical skills like plumbing or working with electricity. Or medical skills (but you’d need to go to a medical university to become a doctor), or a profession like a cook or a hairdresser.
I don’t want to cram higher education into this episode. So it’ll have to wait till some other time. I’m not done with the schools yet.
Most schools are general education schools. But if a particular school puts emphasis on teaching science-related subjects and Maths it might be called lyceum. And if it stresses humanities, it’ll be called a gymnasium.
In the ideal world. In reality sometimes schools pick those names just to sound cool.
Classes start on the 1st of September and end on the 25th of May. Students have 4 breaks during the year. Autumn break is about a week in the beginning of November.
Winter break is from the very end of December till 8th or 10th of January. That’s because the main holiday here is New Year and Christmas is actually on the 7th of January. And I’ll tell you all about that closer to the actual holiday season.
Spring break is about a week in the end of March. And Summer break starts when the exams end and last till the 1st of September.
Extracurricular activities completely depend on the school, students and parents interests and organisations that provide those activities separately from schools. For example, we have music schools and art schools that are not real schools, they just provide those extracurricular activities. So you are only taught music or art there.
Sports are often not connected to schools too. So children do them in separate places (separate from school, I mean) after or before school and on weekends.
School shifts (are a thing!)))
Oh, about the before school thing. I’m a Millennial and for Russian that means I was born during the baby-boom of the late 80s. My year was one of the last baby-boom years actually. So there were a lot of us at school. That’s why the school that I attended worked in shifts.
There was a morning shift and an afternoon shift. It was ok, because classes never last the whole day anyway. Morning shilt is from 8 or 8.30 till 1 p.m. or 1.30p.m. And the afternoon shift started… Well, maybe even before 1.30 if there were free classrooms and teachers.
Usually only grades that didn’t have too many classes got the afternoon shift. So the 2nd grade or the 4th grade or the 5th and 6th. That meant they would finish around 6 p.m.
I don’t remember how many years I had school in the afternoon. But I remember it wasn’t a problem. Because I’m a late riser and those hours actually suited me. Although it did feel like I wasted a lot of mornings in those times.
90s was the demographic pit period, so in early 2010s, most schools only had classes in the first half of the day. But now there are a lot of children again, and the shifts system returned.
How many people are there in one class?
That entirely depends on a school. In rural areas classes will obviously be small. In big cities like the one I live in, there easily could be 30 children in one class. I’ve heard from some of my students that there are 33 of them in class. But I don’t think I’ve heard about more than that.
When I went to a regular school there were 28 of us in class. But when I transferred to a science lyceum for 2 years of high school, there were 33. Although it was partially because that was a very popular school.
Ok, I think it’s time to tell you about
My own experience with Russian schools
I… hated school. That’s something I’m just beginning to realise properly. I knew I’ve never been one of those kids who looks forward to a new school year. I’ve never been especially vocal in my dislike. At least I think I haven’t. But I’ve never really liked it. I just felt it was something I was completely powerless to change.
And it was, in a lot of ways. And it led to me hating even the idea of an office job. I’ve never worked 9 to 5 (in Russia it’s actually 9 to 6), nor do I intend to. I resent school system and frankly I have a ton of baggage when it comes to school and kindergarten.
And that’s probably one of the reasons I don’t want kids all that much. The possibility that I might subject another person to that, apart from the rest of the crap that exists in the world. Let’s just say it doesn’t fill me with joy.
Ironically I’m good at learning and I’ve always been a good student. I didn’t have straight As but my As were rarely diluted by more that a couple of Bs. I didn’t study hard in the sense that I didn’t have to work my ass off to get those grades. A lot of it just came naturally.
Because I am one of those rare people whom our model of education actually fit a lot of the time. I’ve got a good memory, I read a lot, I memorise stuff by writing it down. It could have been even more effective with other methods if anybody would have bothered to try them. But a lot of it worked just as it was.
Because I’m lucky to… sort of be built this way. Though I did always or nearly always do my homework, worked in class and generally I think I was a pretty good student.
Why did I feel this way?
But school had never made me especially happy. I’m a very curious person. I was curious about some subjects in my school curriculum. But the general education school I went to from 7 till 15 was not one of those places that’s built to stipulate learning and natural curiosity. They had a program to teach and they didn’t give a fuck about your wants or desires.
I had a couple of good teachers. My Russian and literature teacher was great. And my English teacher (I now understand) was very good. Though I’ve always felt she didn’t like me for some reason.
The process of studying was bearable. The worst part was my classmates. They were… not the group of people I was ever truly happy with. I think at the end of the 9th grade, that’s the end of middle school they thought we were great friends and everything.
But I remember how I and my best friend were bullied, and… It wasn’t terrible compared to some account I’ve read about. But it was damaging enough to give me a lot of issues concerning people and working in groups. I don’t have fond memories of them, my school or anything that had happened there during my time.
The main reason though it still that I had very little choice in the matter. I didn’t choose the school, in Russia you usually are expected to go to a closest school. I didn’t choose my classmates, my teachers or the subjects I studied. I didn’t choose to go to school or kindergarten. And I resent that because the biggest lesson that system has taught me is powerlessness. And I’m still reaping the fruits of that.
My high school experience
However my high school experience was very different. I went to a science-oriented lyceum, a private school. And the atmosphere there was completely different. The teachers were amazing, I felt like they really cared, they were attentive and just good at teaching their subjects. So I was enjoying studying, even when I wasn’t all that interested in the subjects.
I can’t say I was superfriendly with all my classmates. But we were never really unfriendly. Everybody was nice to each other. I had several close friends, and there was never anything even remotely like bullying.
It wasn’t suddenly all my choice. But I’ve never felt trapped or completely powerless and isolated there. And I was truly sorry to leave when high school was over. I think it was one of the places I’ve felt most comfortable in. So I kinda found a way to get back.
And spoil it.
My experience as a school teacher
Because it was there that I’ve worked one year as an English teacher. And it was… not good.
I was inexperienced as hell. The program that I had to use didn’t suit a lot of children in my classes. Because it was a science lyceum, English was not considered a terribly important subject. Just something that you can’t throw out of the curriculum. And students knew that and treated it as such. They liked to ask me why the heck do they even need to learn English.
Which… well, I was a young and didn’t have an especially good self-esteem. Now I would have treated those questions differently. But then… I was already working as a private tutor and making more money doing that than I was in my official job. (Teachers are horribly underpaid in Russia, btw)
Why it wasn’t much fun
So I was thinking WTF? Why should I spend my time debating obvious things with spoiled brats (and by then my beloved lyceum became a school for spoiled brats because it is a private school and it became so expensive that only very rich people could afford to send their children there).
I mean there always have been people willing to pay me money to teach them English, and I didn’t have to prove the merits of it to them.
Also enforcement of discipline in Russian schools often involves a lot of yelling and punishments. And I don’t enjoy doing that. It frankly felt like a lot of those kids wanted a dominatrix instead of a friendly person.
You could say I wasn’t terribly good at it, since I couldn’t make them all enthralled with my teaching. And I’d say you have very idealistic ideas about teaching.
Of course, I wasn’t terribly good. That was my first year as a teacher. But with all the limitation of the program you have to teach, there isn’t a lot of place for enthralling students. And a lot of teachers far older and more experienced than me struggle with discipline. Because it’s freaking hard, you know!
It wasn’t terrible all the time. But it’s not the favourite year of my life that’s for sure.
But there were so many insights!))
Insights about grading
The best and most life-changing part of it was discovering how ridiculous and unreliable the grading system actually is. Oh, btw, our grades are not letters from A to E, but numbers from 1 to 5 with 5 being the highest. So when you get an A in Russia, you get a 5.
When I was the one giving people 5s, 4s and less pleasant grades it quickly became apparent to me, how little do they really reflect the student’s level of knowledge.
A kid could get a 3 (so a C) or a 2 (a D), and they would feel stupid. But the truth of the matter would be that they didn’t prepare for a particular test and didn’t know the particular set of words. Not that they were stupid. Yet that’s what a bad grade often makes you feel, doesn’t it?
Or if it wasn’t a test but an oral answer the kid would be the best in the class and I would give them a good grade. Yet I knew that if that same kid was in my other class where students were better at English, I would give him or her a 4 or even a 3 which is a C.
It was all so relative! And to think that just several years ago I worried about that! That I took that bullshit to heart! That I felt my grades reflected my worth as a person… When now I could see that my students were so much more than a sum of grades I or somebody else gave them…
I realised that this grading system is very often ineffective and almost always damaging. And I didn’t want to work with it. But since my own oh so fine education left me with a low self-esteem and something close to phobia of office jobs, I decided to become a private tutor full time.
My experience as a private tutor
This role is a much better fit for me. I never give grades to my students. (Unless they ask me. Which they hardly ever do). I create my own program suited to a particular student. The question of discipline is way easier to solve when you have one kid or teenager instead of 10 in front of you. And so is enthralling with your material.
The teaching itself is also way easier. So I think one-on-one is a much more effective way to teach languages, at least at the beginner level than studying it in groups. It’s just much more profitable in groups. But I prefer one-on-one.
Still, even though I’m not an official part of the Russian education system, I have enough criticism about it to fill a book.
The sore subject 🙂
Ironically my most sore subject is not English, but Literature. Because I think the curriculum is just ridiculously bad and not age appropriate.
Like we are supposed to read Достоевский/Dostoevsky и Толстой/Tolstoy at 16 or 17. The war and peace! How the fuck is that even possible? The thing is huge, not to mention the fact that the author is a misogynist.
But I mentioned them because they are famous abroad. There are a lot of other Russian writers (and in school kids are supposed to read almost exclusively Russian literature), the writers who didn’t write for kids or teenagers. The topics, the themes, the characters are so far from the students life that, of course, a lot of them never relate. Students often don’t read the full text, just the summary. Those books have no chance of making a kid like reading unless they already enjoy it.
Plus a lot of the texts that children are supposed to read were written in the 19th century, so they have a very different pacing. I’m not saying children should read thrillers but something like Harry Potter series would be a much better fit if you want to make reading cool for a kid.
Problems with Literature
You are also not encouraged to voice your own opinion about the things you read. You are not taught to think about what you read, but rather to have an opinion that it “right” (which is what the teacher says or your coursebook). And the right one is… I’ve no idea how the fuck did they came up with those.
Some of it is opinion of critics, all of them dead old white… you know, from now on I’m going to change that for Russian dudes. Because Russia is a freaking huge country with more than a hundred nationalities living here. But take a wild guess which nationality gets to voice its opinion in most cases? So, that’s our equivalent of white.
And after kids are dragged through the outdated program that reflect their life and problems very little, they often don’t read much (and probably not Russian classics). And the grown-ups are all like: those horribly lazy young people! They don’t read for pleasure!
And I’m like… why would they? Unless they’ve been taught to read for pleasure at home, there was no way they could have learned it at school. And I say it as a person who liked all her Literature teachers and thought they were good at their job!
Also our education system is extremely conservative. It’s a soul-sucking torture for a lot of students. But how do LGBTQ youngsters survive that I honestly have no idea. Just the thought of them stuck in some general education school in a small provincial town makes me wanna pray for them, and I’m not even religious.
Oh, btw, about religion. Church here is intertwined with government ideology. Because Russian Orthodox church is good for making folks obedient. So the church tries to influence that sphere of people’s life too. And that makes me mad.
By law our education is supposed to be secular and I’d love for it to stay that way. Because I have a lot of reasons to have highly negative feelings and opinions about Russian Orthodox church. I’ve been gearing up to the episode about that for a while now.
So to sum up, I think Russian schools do more damage than they do good. They kill curiosity in a lot of children. That’s a system that makes us feel like we can’t change our life and society.
Of course, I know that true not just about Russian education system. I know that a lot of schools around the world operate similarly. But it makes it common, not acceptable. I think our system doesn’t work anymore and should be changed.
And that was another one of my small contributions to changing it.
How do you say it in Russian?
I know what I want to teach you today! It’s not the word for school. It’s a word for friend. It’s друг/drOOg. As a lot of words in Russian it has gendered forms. So droog is a male version, and female version is подруга/podrooga.
And that’s all for now.
If you like the show, please, rate it and leave a review however and wherever you listen, cause apparently it’s very helpful! And would be ever so pleased!:)
Till next week.
Gigi, from Russia with love and schools!