Teachers' life paths in Hungary
The Source Institute for Social Research conducted a comprehensive qualitative study of Hungarian teachers, based on 36 interviews, giving insight into their lives. Why did they choose to become teachers? What does being a teacher mean to them? How do they see their past, present and future? How do they live their lives? How do they see themselves through the eyes of their students, parents and society? To what extent do they feel valued?
While the research did not focus on recent political events, the current climate was often brought into the conversation, even if we deliberately avoided the topic in the questions we posed. An invaluable feature of the research is that we did not hide teachers’ opinions behind statistical figures and percentages. Instead we got to know their humanity, stories that are often emotionally charged, astonishing, tear-jerking or even hopeful.
In reviewing the interviews, we learned countless stories that gave us a deep insight into the lives of the teachers interviewed. In the analysis, we have sought to unpack all layers and process every detail to give us deeper understanding.t. These insights could fill a whole volume, so in this preliminary analysis, we are only focusing on three themes of particular importance: vocation, respect and the invisible work of teachers.
List of contents
"The most beautiful profession in the world is ours"
In his Christmas 2020 letter, Miklós Kásler said that being a teacher is not a job, but a vocation. According to László Kövér, “Teachers do not make their performance dependent on how much they earn”. We did not refer to politicians or current political issues during the interviews, but we were curious to know how teachers see their chosen profession: is it a job or a vocation? The responses were unanimous, with every single teacher we interviewed saying that it was clearly a vocation for them. In the words of one interviewee,
„today’s pedagogy, our whole school system, is still sustained by a sense of vocation.”
But what does it really mean that something is not a job but a vocation? „I don’t know what a job is, I only know what a vocation is. I think a lot of teachers are like that, obsessive crazy like I am. What does it mean to have a vocation and not a job? It means going to LIDL and spending two or three thousand forints to buy the coloured cardboard and glue for the school decorations. That if I see something in the newspaper, on the internet, I immediately take a picture of it, put it in the appropriate teacher’s group, that we should do something like that in school . . . I can be contacted by the children on weekends, if there is a problem, I am on Messenger, parents can also call me.“
A recurring theme of the interviews is that their vocation is present in all aspects of their lives. Being a teacher is a way of life. It is not just the bureaucratic burden, stress and overtime that keeps them busy, their thoughts are constantly on school and their students. Some pointed out that when their child was born, they taught a class between breastfeeding, but there were also some who reported that they felt they had committed too much to their vocation when their own children were babysat by a colleague’s parents on several occasions.
We hear a lot about teachers trying to make up for the lack of equipment in schools, but much less has been said about the impact of their profession on teachers’ personal lives. Teaching has taken a toll on relationships, marriages and even the ability to work with their own children for many of those we interviewed. „Some teachers stay there during the weekends, they think about it at night, they try to be teachers in their free time. We can’t get rid of that. I’m a teacher at home too. I’ve been told by my husband several times not to speak in a raised voice, not to explain things in slow motion because I’m not in school.”
The blurred line between everyday life and their profession is not perceived negatively by teachers, because in all cases there is always a reason behind the overriding motive that drives them day after day, even in the face of bureaucratic difficulties and overload. This reason is the children entrusted to them: „For me, my profession means that I have tried to see each child as my own, as my own child.”
One of the key lessons of the research is that the main driver of vocation is the need to work with children, to feel a spiritual connection with them, to genuinely transfer knowledge. For teachers, everything else is secondary. Their main motivation is to know that the children they teach today will one day take flight and succeed in their lives.
„When I meet old students, I know who they are, who are studying to be doctors, who are residents at the county hospital. It’s a fantastic feeling when a music class of twenty-six children who were not destined to be musicians turned into five musicians. Among them was the world’s worst child, now a head teacher at the College of Music.”
But teachers are not only motivated by the future success of their students. They can also receive strong positive reinforcement from their daily work with children. „There was always a good feeling when I closed the door to the classroom behind me, where it was just the children and me.”
„I get these positive things every day: the child comes and says “Oh, teacher, give me a hug, I’m having a difficult lesson” or “Oh, teacher, you’re in a bad mood, what’s wrong with you?”. For me, every day there are these little highlights, we get a lot of love from the children, a lot of little love.”
In recent years the media has described teaching in tradgic terms. It is true that the teacher we spoke withadmit to having many difficulties, whether it is the school’s facilities, the curriculum, the career model or the impact of the social environment. Yet the moment we ask them whether they see their profession as a vocation or a job, it was as if we were opening a photo album – the best moments of their careers came alive, each teacher telling us that they see the children as the reason for their daily struggles and the reason for their own development: ‘Our vocation is to somehow show children that life is beautiful and that it is worth fighting for’. „It’s a vocation, a very beautiful vocation, which gives you the opportunity to constantly improve. I think of my career as one of continuous development as an educator and as a person, as a mother.”
Although teachers all report great experiences when it comes to children, they are also filtered through the social reality that surrounds them.
„Children ask us daily, “Teacher, why are you still here?” All I can always tell them is because I love you. Because what gives me the most is when a child comes up to me after graduation and says, ‘Thank you, I have you to thank. I wouldn’t have made it if you hadn’t given me special attention.” And this is where power, politics, comes in: “I think that’s what the system is exploiting, our sense of vocation.”
In the context of these experiences, it is interesting to note that the question of whether they would recommend a career in education to their students is raised several times, and in the current situation, most of them answer no, but they would not change their lives if they could start again.
„Each person may choose what to think about us”
When thinking about the role of an educator, we cannot view the profession in isolation. Like everyone else, they live their lives in the social reality that surrounds them. They are influenced by family members, acquaintances, parents, people who work in the school, people who run the school system among others. Teachers are human beings who live, breathe, think and feel autonomously, but who live in symbiosis with the actors around them. It is their sense of vocation and their close relationship with children that keeps them in the classroom This decision has many other influences that have a significant impact on their lives.
Many of the teachers we interviewed spoke about burnout, which can occur in any profession over decades. What is different in this case is that teachers who have been in the profession for a longer period of time repeatedly mention that burnout can occur very quickly even in early phases of their careers.. This is in part explained by the low pay, but it is also strongly influenced by the lack of positive feedback and reinforcement, which is only partly ofset by a positive, close emotional relationship with children and a sense of vocation.
For a long time, teaching was considered a privileged intellectual profession, a so-called honorary craft. Interview subjects often recall that a few decades ago, “doctors, priests and teachers” were the most respected intellectuals in society, associated with sacred and earthly knowledge. Some of the interviewees see the prestige of the profession as closely linked to changes in society’s perceptions of knowledge and science: „We are in the midst of a social change in values. It is not the social prestige of teachers per se that has declined, it is the prestige of knowledge that has declined and that has affected the perception of teachers.”
Members of the older generation of teachers recall that before the change of regime, the attitude of the authorities towards teachers was the opposite. They add that the current political elite could also improve their image if that was their aim. „I think that if from above, the politicians, the people who run education, were to promote respect and create the conditions for it, then we would expect society to adjust.”
Because what was under Kádár? „They put education on the banner, they put the flag up for the people to prosper, they raised a lot of people and educated them. A lot of people can tell you that they wouldn’t have become graduates under the current system because the conditions are not there.”
Social esteem is not an abstract phenomenon. Its decline is affecting teachers’ daily lives, their work and their social and community relations.
„Social esteem may sound pathetic, but it’s very important that in a conversation I don’t have to worry about what I can say about my school or my work. Because it’s a very divisive issue these days, and people don’t really understand, I don’t think they want to understand what we’re talking about. Everybody thinks there’s a big fight for our wages. Obviously that’s very important, but for me it’s far from being just about that.
I’ve come to the point, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this, that I don’t like to always admit that I’m a teacher everywhere because I don’t want to have the kind of disdain that comes with it these days.”
The most common experience is that they encounter forms of loss of prestige at the parental level. Although many note that they maintain good relationships with a significant proportion of parents, those we interviewed perceive a change in the parent-teacher relationship. Parents have begun to have a different attitude towards their work. In addition,the questioning of the professionalism of the teachers is impacting their daily lives. „Now that I am at the end of my career, when I really have a lot of experience, the question comes up more than once. I have big conflicts with parents about this.”
Many see the roots of this phenomenon in the transformation of upbringing habits and the closely related decline in the role of respect:
„In the past, the better development of social skills, habits, upbringing principles within the family, family cohesion were much more important. This also had an impact on the relationship between the children and the teacher.” “The transformation of the role of the family obviously has an impact on the whole of life, from the upbringing of children to the parent-educator, parent-child relationship. Respect for each other was much more serious.” “I don’t want to say that the world has become a bad place. The world has changed, the parents are different, but the children are the same.”
The majority of teachers not only look for the reasons behind the changes in respect in others but also within themselves. When it comes to conflicts with parents, it is often recognized that “we also raised them,” while others feel that they themselves did not advocate enough for their profession. „We are also at fault for this; we allowed prestige to drop. This is a process, it eroded slowly. We did not stand up for ourselves because we thought that if we did our job with honour, everyone would see it.”
While a lack of financial compensation is missing from the system, the real pain for teachers is caused by the absence of symbolic gestures that express respect, both on the part of the maintainer and the parents.„Appreciation could be expressed with very small gestures. For example, it was very unpleasant that so much could not fit into the budget that when the teachers went on a day trip at the beginning of the year, the school invited us to lunch. But you had to choose between dessert or a small bowl of soup; it didn’t fit into the budget for both. And everyone had to pay for their own coffee.”
The Christmas greeting letter and accompanying candy from Miklós Kásler, which also received a lot of attention in the public, also offended the teachers. Several of them said that this type of “appreciation” is more humiliating than appreciative. „The provider is not able to provide normal pay, but you get a letter saying that your work is not a job, but a vocation, so you should be content with what you have.”
The behavior of the leadership of the centralised educational organisation also causes tension. „The provider does not appreciate us, our provider is a vocational training centre, they ensure that there is a proper temperature in the office so that the workers don’t get cold, and they buy electric cars, and they have money for everything. It doesn’t bother them that it’s raining through the roof in our school, and we have to hold buckets under it. It doesn’t bother them that there is not even 16 degrees in many classrooms, let alone 18 degrees. For them, everything is fine, our appreciation is at the bottom of the pond.”
Behind this phenomenon, we can also see a decrease in prestige and social esteem. The tradition of giving gifts to teachers at the end of the year stems from the same sociocultural phenomenon as when many people give gifts to their doctors or lawyers. Throughout societal development, people have expressed their gratitude and respect for the representatives of highly respected professions. Those who work in these professions receive not just payment but also honoraria, which is where the name “honorific professions” comes from. Poorer people often could not pay in cash, so they expressed their respect in some non-monetary form, which is where gift-giving comes from. Of course, these traditions have also changed over time, and during the socialist era, even honorific professions mainly received their payment from the state, but the social behavioural forms tied to respect have persisted in the form of gifts. The absence of flowers, chocolates, and greeting cards signifies the loss and further degradation of this expression of respect – even if not necessarily consciously – felt by teachers.
They experience this situation as a profound loss: „I don’t think that parents today are poorer than they were in the 80s when I started. The intention is missing nowadays to show appreciation for the effort put into raising my child, for paying attention to them, for stroking them, for listening to their dreams. How is it possible that I know more about their child than they do? Because I spend more time with them, have more interactions than the parent who, unfortunately, doesn’t have time because they go home, cook dinner, put the child to bed, and maybe manage to talk to them for 7-8 minutes in between.”
The invisible work
"I must feel responsible for every situation."
Listening to public discourse, we might believe that teachers do an ordinary, comfortable job: they come in a few minutes before class, present the material, and they’re done. They correct exams, have coffee during free periods, chat, then go home at two and start everything over the next day. On weekends and school breaks, they leave everything behind to rest, then start again with renewed vigour. Of course, they hear about overtime and substitutions, but we can also see this as just an ordinary workplace –everyone has to work overtime sometimes. As an outsider, the teacher’s work seems to be limited to teaching the child during the day.
Some invisible tasks are closely related to education, especially its development. „I self-published a math problem collection in 2009. I took it to conferences and gave seminars about it. It was successful. I had fantastic experiences, I was practically floating ten centimetres above the ground. As a result, I was approached by the University of Szeged to participate in editing their problem collections. A serious work began, and I practically took part in editing all of their problem collections. The books were completed. They were published. And it felt good, because at the end of every year, the publisher sent statistics of sales and royalties. Then we were involved in editing an advanced level textbook. And we did that too. It was an incredible job, we enjoyed every moment of it, working day and night. (…) There was still a textbook market then. The books were proofread and approved by external experts before they could be declared textbooks. Then, with a stroke of a pen, the textbook market was abolished. So this developmental opportunity, this experience, ended abruptly, and they took millions of forints out of my pocket every year.”
The research revealed that the work of educators is multifaceted and is not simply atriangle of teaching, grading, and documentation. Regarding opinions on professional conscience, we saw that pedagogical work is extremely diverse. It is not a job that one can put down at the end of the day; it is a way of life. Thus, there is a layer of the profession that is not visible on the surface but is an organic part of it: this is education. Education is not only about the teacher teaching children how to read, write, and count; there is a complex part of pedagogy where the teacher sets a moral example, pays attention to the child and their emotions, and helps them cope with various difficulties, be it a challenging math problem or an emotional crisis. „I always see love as the secret to the teaching profession. It is not about what we teach, but how we teach it.”
This type of activity goes hand in hand with emotional involvement of educators in different situations. „You have to emotionally involve yourself, and at night, you cry on your pillow with the child.” “The teacher is not just there to teach classes. The teacher is a substitute mother, if needed, a lightning rod, if needed, a soft pillow, if needed, someone who hugs you.”
During their work, teachers can experience a lot of joy and success, but they also often come face to face with the less beautiful side of life. The problems of disadvantaged children do not disappear within the walls of the school building, and in fact, they often fall on the shoulders of educators: „I don’t necessarily go to school to see how well the children can do in Hungarian anymore, but rather to be there for them throughout the school year if they need someone to turn to when they’re upset, and to somehow get through the school year. They don’t necessarily have a support system at home, as their family is falling apart.”
Teachers face situations on a daily basis that would be a big challenge even for a trained psychologist. Their task is difficult because they have to differentiate between whether a student’s behaviour is due to serious external issues or just normal teenage behaviour. „One of my students made suicidal jokes in class, and when we reached the umpteenth joke and I saw that something wasn’t right, I thought I would talk to the homeroom teacher and the school psychologist.” These decisions come with great responsibility, and educators must weigh when to intervene and be able to feel the seriousness of different situations. It requires continuous attention: „When a student says something during class that they may not do at home, and it may be a subtle cry for help, I have to do something about it, it can’t be ignored.”
Teachers care for the physical and mental well-being of children in school. This responsibility takes on an entirely new dimension when dealing with children who have problems at home, live in deep poverty, have alcoholic parents, are being abused, or are possibly addicted to different substances. Educators feel that they must deal with these issues.
„You can see human tragedies up close that I never even thought existed. Helping a child cope with a divorce is practically a daily routine.” In these situations, it is very difficult to find a balance between when a teacher can effectively provide assistance within healthy boundaries for a child within the school framework and when they become too involved and risk their own mental health and life. „There are teachers who take on students from a difficult background to the point where they take them home and practically adopt them as their own children, which is highly commendable, but not everyone can be taken home.”
According to Eurostat data, in Hungary in 2021, 21.7 percent of children under 18 were affected by poverty, which means that almost every classroom has someone affected, so teachers almost daily encounter this issue.
„There was a girl taking her final exams whose father was murdered and her mother was an alcoholic. When I was teaching her in the years leading up to her exams, her house was almost collapsing and they moved into a tent. I helped her a lot, and after she graduated, she wanted to move out of her home while completing her year of technical studies. Obviously, I could see that she needed this, but there was no solution. She couldn’t stay in the dormitory on the weekends, and couldn’t work while studying to pay for an apartment. She asked if she could move in with me for that one year. It was very difficult to make a decision, and in the end, I had to say no. I empathise with her situation, but I experienced that if I can’t offer something voluntarily with a clear conscience, I shouldn’t promise it because I would be deceiving the child. If I’m not sure I can take her in for a year, then it’s better to say no. It was difficult, and it caused her a lot of pain for a while. We are in contact again now, but we both found it very difficult at the time.”
Alcoholism is also a very serious problem in Hungary. Alcoholic parents also have an effect on children’s behaviour, which then teachers have to deal with. „There was a very cute little girl, incredibly smart, but she was always late, everywhere. We finally figured out that her mother was a heavy alcoholic and had cancer, and her father was later diagnosed with leukaemia. The girl studied well, and she did what she could. In the 12th grade, we found out that her mother was such a heavy alcoholic that the children occasionally wiped her vomit and took care of her at home when she lay unconscious. One day, the girl cried to us in the teacher’s room that her mother had caused an accident in such a drunken state, then fled the scene of the accident. The next day, the girl called us sobbing, saying that she found her mother hanging in their stairwell, and all of this happened a month before the final exams. She still managed to get an excellent score on her final exams.”
In difficult life situations, it is very hard for teachers to keep supporting the children while obviously being affected by the situation themselves. To be able to help, they need to maintain a distance, so they can act as a support. If this distance is not maintained, it may happen that a student seeking support becomes too attached to a teacher, causing a completely different problem. „There was a girl who seemed to need help, she claimed to have panic attacks, and I sat down and talked to her 1-2 times. This quickly turned into a fan stalking story, and no matter how much I tried to step back, the closer she got, the more aggressive she became. In six months, it escalated to street stalking and visiting my home, and when the situation got really bad, there was also phone harassment.” Dealing with such situations is difficult for teachers, and it is hard to go to school and teach in such cases. The system does not provide enough support – there is no security that protects teachers in these cases sothey are forced to deal with these situations on their own: „No one thought it was possible for a student to abuse a teacher, instead of the other way around.” The teacher community is constantly confronted with the flaws of the education system, the fact that there is no chalk or heating in a school is just scratching the surface of the problems, but in addition to these material problems, they face numerous serious problems: „There was no safety net, no legal help, no mental help, the staff protected themselves because they were afraid it would become a story, and then it didn’t matter what the truth was, they would be the ones in the spotlight. But they didn’t fear for me, they feared for themselves. So, I was completely vulnerable.”
The invisible work of educators demonstrates more than anything else how comprehensive their work is and what an important role they play in the lives of children. In addition to teaching them, they are called upon by children when they are in trouble, confide in them about their problems, trust them, and expect solutions, assistance, and understanding from them. Educators feel responsible for children and take on their burdens. „This is also part of the work of educators, so it is just as necessary as providing care for the dying in healthcare.”
During the research, we conducted 36 semi-structured interviews with teachers, recording a total of 2092 minutes of stories about their lives. The characteristic of the semi-structured interview method is that the interviewer only raises topics, and the respondent shapes their opinion completely at their own discretion along the given topic. The interviewer does not influence in any way what is relevant to the given topic. This allows us to gain information about how the thinking of respondents is structured within certain areas.
We aimed to involve educators with the most diverse life experiences possible, while obtaining information from the entire spectrum of the profession. Therefore, we segmented the selection of interviewees by region and type of school. We interviewed kindergarten teachers, elementary school teachers, vocational school teachers, skills development school teachers, vocational high school teachers, and high school teachers from all major regions (Budapest, Central Hungary, Transdanubia, and Eastern Hungary).
Written by: Galgóczi Eszter, Déri Hanna
Edited by: Vető Balázs
The interviews were conducted by: