HUNGARY: Interview with Pedagógus Egység – a Hungarian teachers’ organisation

Read our Interview with Szilvia Imre, Anikó Talyigás, and Kinga Weszely from Pedagógus Egység – a Hungarian teachers’ organisation fighting for public education, one of the four laureates from the Civic Pride Awards 2023. 

Could you tell us a little bit about your movement, how it came together and how it started?

Kinga: This movement that we are talking about is much more widespread than our little organisation. As you know, we are part of the teacher part, but there are also other teacher, parent, and student organisations. So, it is extremely widespread at the moment. 

The origins of the protest started with the coming down of the Berlin Wall in 1989, because this is where the first challenges appeared. So, the fight started then. Since then, different governments in power haven’t been able to answer these challenges. Almost from the beginning, there was a rise in different civil organisations supporting new ideas in Hungarian education. 

In 2011, the first organised civil movement, called “uninvited” in English, was created and tried to hold together all the groups that had been working on education challenges that were scattered throughout the country. However, they haven’t received any practical answers to their work either. 

Szilvia: We have always had formal unions and teachers’ unions, but the inheritance of the communist regime made it more difficult for everyday teachers to join because of the past. 

Kinga: 2016 was the next big milestone when a school in the countryside issued an open letter about how unsolved the problems of Hungarian education are. More than 35, 000 individuals and almost 1000 institutions joined this open letter. We count this as one of the most significant milestones in today’s movement.

Practically, this letter and the following debates had been ignored by anyone in power, including the government and this led to debates, strikes and wider protests, which were greatly hindered by the years of COVID. 

After COVID, there was a new surge in the movement. After the first strikes at the beginning of last year (2022), the Hungarian government issued a law which made strikes almost invisible in Hungarian schools because the rules were designed in a way that a significant portion of the classes must still be held during the strike.

Then this law became effective, and protests took the form of civil disobedience because, from then on, whatever counted as strike before, counted as civil disobedience. And since then, it’s been about 1 1/2 years since we have been organising strikes, as well as civil disobedient acts, as civil disobedience meant that some of the teachers who undertook this didn’t teach during these days. As a result, the educational authorities chose a handful of teachers, seemingly randomly, and fired them.

When this happened around the 5th of October last year, a number of colleagues started engaging in continuous civil disobedience acts, and that was the point when parent organisations and student organisations had also become very active and more radical in their appearance and actions.

It is very moving to see how big a number and what creative ways our students and parents joined in the movement to show their solidarity with teachers and the whole Hungarian public education.

At the beginning of this year, the government has issued a plan which has been passed as a law, the so-called revenge law, which further curbs teachers’ freedom and possibility to strike or even to work autonomously.

Protests have also become increasingly fierce. Early last year, a protest started in the Buda Castle in Budapest, and students were trying to pull down cordons around some of the buildings of the castle and it was at that point when the police intervened using tear gas. These acts on behalf of the government further enhanced the solidarity between teacher, student, and parent movements and since then, we have been working even more fiercely on solving these issues and trying to be as effective as possible. 

Anikó: In the spring of 2022, when schools started to strike, they each decided individually whether to participate in the strike or not. There was no communication between individual schools.

In my school, the idea came up as we thought that it would be nice to work together with other schools so I started a group chat  with some colleagues in which more than 250 people joined in a very short time from different institutions.

None of us had known each other before this point. Independently, Kinga was also organising a personal meet-up in a local Budapest pub and the news of this meeting got into the group chat, and that was the first moment that we met in person. So, the first meeting took place on the 20th of September, and it was very magical to see people from 38 different institutions come together, but altogether there were over 50 institutes represented in the meeting from all over the country, including in the countryside. That’s how Pedagógus Egység, Teachers United, started.

One of the most basic agreements, and a very important principle in the organisation, is that we accept each other’s decision related to what form of protest we want to take part in: civil disobedience as the most radical, strikes, or just the signing of open letters. But we are all fighting for a more equal and fair public education in Hungary.

There were two other very fundamental issues addressed during this meeting, one of which is crucial because it had been lacking in the country before that. That is, that the countryside should be represented very strongly in the movement, and that their requests and point of view should be taken into account so that the movement does not only support education in cities. The other, which is equally as important, is that it is crucial that all other sectors of education like nursery teachers, psychologists, other school workers, and non-teaching workers of schools can participate as well as their issues are just as important as the most prestigious schools in Budapest.

Ever since then, it became very important that to reach the above-mentioned aims, we needed to start organising and strengthening relationships between different teachers, parents and student organisations and have very close contact with them. This meant having weekly online meetings and sharing a lot of emails to spread information and involve as many people as possible in decision-making.

It was the three of us who started the group, but very early on, there was a group of seven people who tried to share the workload and make the decisions together. We also have a closed group of more than 800 people who participate in the activities of the organisation, and we also try and ask for their opinion regularly or to include them in the decision-making processes if the nature of the issue allows us to do so. Since November last year, we also have a public social media site which is followed by over 3,000 people regularly where we try to inform the wider public on our activities and what issues we are dealing with at the moment.

Szilvia: To add to this, I think that being connected online is a very unique feature of Pedagogues United as it made it possible to spread the word throughout the country. However horrible the COVID period was, it has also been very useful for us because this is how we acquired the skills to go on and to build new types of relationships with colleagues all over the country.

Anikó: One more very important feature is that, although it started out as a public schools movement, we try to include church-based schools, schools which are founded by parents, and alternative schools as much as possible because they are in the same situation as us in many respects, especially after the revenge law.

You have said that this is a movement that routes back to the fall of the Berlin Wall and that there have been issues for decades. Why is education so important for democracy and for the democratic future of Hungary? And why has it been so difficult to solve these issues?

Szilvia: The education that children and young people receive forms their future self. You cannot have a democratic society without a democratic school. It doesn’t just happen that when you leave school, you turn out to be a democratic being. Our school system must reflect the values that we are striving for in adults. If the school doesn’t reflect the society that we are working for, then it’s just simply and practically not possible to build up a society like that. 

And why is it difficult? There are multiple reasons why it’s difficult. The first is that our society today is not a democratic society. We are striving for a democracy in many ways – although less and less in the past 12 years as a country and as a government. But even before that, we had a society which had democratic values as aims, but we were not living the everyday practices of the democratic culture. The second thing is that changes in schools require a lot of investment and not just material investment, but investment into teacher training. People who are dealing with children should be democratic people themselves. These things in themselves require a long time and I think that one reason why we have become so active is because this time gap has passed. By now, we should be able to provide these new generations with more modern education. I think it’s high time that any government realises that there is no 21st century society without a 21st century school. 

Kinga: Another issue is that social mobility is extremely low in Hungarian society. We are very backwards, and I believe that during socialism, social mobility was one aspect that was better. Because most of us grew up in socialism, it is very shocking to see that this is not only stagnating, but in some aspects, we are going backwards. 

Anikó: Segregation is still an ever-growing issue. Now we have segregated schools in the Hungarian countryside where gypsy children learn separately from other students, and there is official support for this in our country.

What are the demands of the movement in terms of improving the situation in Hungary?

Kinga: Last autumn, we came up with nine points which reflect the basic ideas that we would like to tackle as the most important and urgent in Hungarian education.

One very important issue is to make information public on the debates in education, because these have been very secret discussions, and for Hungarian media to be informed fairly and openly about these discussions and their results.

Anikó: Currently, education is under the Hungarian Ministry of Interior Affairs. We would like a separate Ministry of Education and Culture as there used to be. We think that it’s absolutely essential that professionals take care of educational matters and not politicians. Both students and teachers are extremely overburdened in the Hungarian education system. As there are no structural changes, new subjects and core materials are just piled on students and teachers to work with. We would like to have reduced workload with structural changes for both students and teachers.

Szilvia: To illustrate this, a Hungarian student can currently have seven or eight lessons a day plus homework, and this is usual, even in primary schools. Moreover, it is not unusual to have three or four hours of homework if you are a secondary school student and as a teacher, you are expected to have approximately 24 total classes, but your workload can also be as much as 32 or 34 classes a week. However, if you are working in a region where there is a huge lack of teachers, this very often means that workload can go up to 54 to 60 hours of working hours a week, which is really huge and very difficult to cope with if you want to do meaningful work in the classroom. This is a very important practical issue. 

Anikó: Salaries are a very important issue too because simply, more and more colleagues are unable to afford to work in the public sector. Especially since the start of high inflation last September, it’s more and more impossible to make ends meet as a teacher. Most of our colleagues need to take up extra work in the afternoons, evenings, weekends, or in the school holidays to make ends meet. This is also very difficult to schedule in a way that you end up doing meaningful work. It cannot be a burden of spouses and families to maintain Hungarian education.

In the past years, the publication of educational books has been centralised, which means that you can only choose from a very limited list of school books to teach from. On the other hand, these school books have been made free for the families and this is how the government could gain support from the wider public. It’s a very problematic part that a great majority of these books are full of factual mistakes. Therefore, teachers tend not to use them because they were made-up and published in an awful haste as well. 

Also, since 2020, we have a new national curriculum which is much more backward in its views than the previous one. For example, in Hungarian literature and history, the ideals of the 19th or earliest early 20th century are back in the curriculum. In addition, the rules are much stricter and teachers have less freedom on how to use these teaching materials. In this new national curriculum, there is simply no time for teachers to have autonomy or choice as the final exams require students to produce the knowledge on compulsory material. Of course, it is very important for us to fight this tendency.

Kinga: An important reflection of last year’s movements is that we also want the deregulation of the strike law, or to have the original law of strike without limitations. Finally, we would like the colleagues who were fired to be taken back because this is an important principle issue for us.

What was the impact on those involved in the movement of this repression and on those who were laid off? Did it make it more difficult in terms of organising and mobilising people? How did it affect the movement more generally?

Kinga: There were two directions as a result of these repressions. There are some colleagues who have become remarkably intimidated by them. It’s a very shocking thought that you can lose your livelihood, your contacts with all colleagues, and with the children, especially if you work these long hours, who were basically your world. For a number of teachers, this was enough to hold them back, as even though they were very critical of the government move, they were afraid of losing their job and livelihood. 

Others like us, have become so enraged by this possibility because this is something we hadn’t experienced before. Personally, I hadn’t been able to imagine that I could be kicked out of my school just because I would like to discuss the welfare of children and colleagues. For us, this was the point when we started to be more fierce and take part in civil disobedience actions because this treatment had simply enraged us. This started a very difficult kind of game between the government and the movement where we were trying to be more effective and reach practical goals, and the government tried to repress the movement even more.

What have you learned that could be inspiring for other movements in Europe in terms of keeping the movement alive, keeping the solidarity alive, and working through differences?

Kinga: Within Hungary, sharing information is crucial. The wider public is simply unaware of the difficulties of educators and schools, even though they have their children in schools. However, this is very difficult because the biggest part of the media is either owned or influenced by the government in Hungary. So, we have to find alternative ways to spread the news. 

It’s also very important to strengthen people and their hope in the case, because unfortunately historically we had been conditioned to be quite hopeless when it comes to social movements. It’s very important to strengthen the belief that it can be otherwise, this is not the only possibility. It’s very important and can give us optimism that when teachers stood back from the mobilisations last autumn because of the repressions and the threats for dismissal, a lot of parents and students joined because they understood what was at stake.

Anikó: It’s very important that we need to build personal relationships between people because it’s totally different to get information via other media and through a chat or a video chat, or to have real personal ties and bonds with other people. 

Szilvia: For me personally, I think this is very self-rewarding. If you start this kind of work, it is very difficult and very tiring sometimes, but at the same time, you find that you are among people who fight for the same thing as you and we experience solidarity together in a society where we had been traditionally lacking it. There have been a lot of studies that say how solidarity disappeared from ex-communist countries after 1989 and how everyone tried to solve their issues on an individual level first. I think in this respect, this is a very new phase.

Anikó: I think that it is a common notion that we wouldn’t be able to do this as individuals. It’s a group thing and we are able to do it because of each other.

An important thing to add is that people who expected easy solutions or easy results have been disappointed and we just need to prepare that this is a long march. We need to press on and to prepare ourselves for longer work than just a year or a couple of months.

And do you feel hopeful? Do you feel optimistic?

Kinga: There is a long way ahead of us and sometimes or often it’s very difficult to be hopeful, but our freedom stops if we don’t have the energy or strength to protest if something unfair is happening to us. We need to prepare for the long term. Our hope is not necessarily in a short-term practical solution, but in the conviction that these are important issues and the act of fighting itself is worth it.

What can be the role as civil society abroad to support this movement in Hungary?

Anikó: For the Hungarian community, one of the most popular forms of support was when colleagues from abroad sent us photos and messages showing how they stand with us. This is how we felt that we were visible and when we post these messages on social media, they have been the most popular and successful acts that show that our protest doesn’t go unnoticed. I think that this is very important. 

It’s quite accidental that we get information about articles in foreign media on the Hungarian teachers’ movement but it would be useful to be kept informed in some way about this.  A couple of students started to write their theses on the Hungarian teachers’ movement. There was also a documentary film that was shot in the Netherlands. I think that these are very empowering instances.

One very crucial thing is that we are not fully aware of what’s going on in the European Union or the Parliament on Hungarian educational issues, because our information is mainly obtained through governmental media sources, and they are just simply not reliable. So, it would be very useful and nice to know what is happening over there. It would be important to know how much influence the European Union has on our issues. I know that these are national issues, but it would be nice to know the extent of support.

One very practical other issue is that because our organisation is very young, we are still struggling to find ways to best get involved with politics, politicians, political parties,

and unions, and this is an area that we could learn from other movements and organisations abroad.

Find out more about the Civic Pride campaign here!  

Read more about Pedagógus Egység here!