please move across the country in negative two days

The teachers' office at S's school on the island.

I went to both private and public schools in the US. We don’t have kids. But I still know far more than I should about public education in Greece: my husband is a teacher in the public schools here.

The teachers in Greek public schools are excellent – overqualified in many cases – and the kids are great: helpful, respectful, friendly. They work together to overcome tremendous shortcomings in infrastructure, funding, and administration, and they do it with creativity, resourcefulness, and good cheer.

But the Ministry of Education, Religions, and Life-Long Learning, as it’s known, is incredibly poorly organized and is constantly missing its own deadlines and doing a half-ass job at the absolutely last minute.  (Textbooks weren’t even in schools until November this year – yes, that means exactly what it sounds like – and even now in March, many students haven’t received all their books.)

School starts in early September in Greece; teachers have to be ‘on campus’ on September 1 (or the first Monday after, if the 1st is a Saturday or Sunday) for set-up and meetings. If you aren’t there on September 1 for whatever reason, it’s counted like a sick day. In short, you gotta be there.

On September 1, 2010, however, S was not in his school. He and I were sitting on the couch in his parents’ living room hitting ‘refresh’ on his computer over and over, waiting for a website to update with a list telling him which part of the country to go to.  Just like we had done every day for the previous week.

Sometime around noon on the 1st, the list was posted. S was posted to a school on a tiny island in the southern Cycladic archipelago.  And we had to boogie to get there, because the clock was ticking.

We had already packed up the car earlier that morning with whatever we thought we would need for the year. (Oh, who am I kidding. We have a mini European car. It was packed to the gills with whatever we could cram into it.) I even took a photo.

We hugged the in-laws and the chow chow mix goodbye –

and started on the nine-hour drive to Peiraias, the port of Athens. We drove straight through, stopping only for coffee in the glorious, though time-forgotten, hamlet of Paradeisos (‘Paradise’) with its beautiful springs, and for dinner at some crappy highway rest stop near Lamia.

We arrived in Peiraias port around 3:00am and went straight to our hotel. We set our alarm for 6:30am and passed out. We were extremely lucky to find a ferry going the next morning; there are only a few boats each week to the island.  So first thing in the morning we drove the short distance to the port and boarded the ferry with our car; the ferry left at 7:30am. Nine hours later, we arrived at the island.

The island's port.

S had spent a fair amount of time on his phone, calling around to find a place for us to live. So we drove straight off the ferry and up to the village where we would be living. We couldn’t spend the first night at our new home – which we wouldn’t see for a few more days – because tourists were staying there. The second day, while S reported to work – after having missed the 1st and the 2nd and having those days cut from his sick days – I wandered around and found our new home. I admired it from the outside. We spent that night in another room belonging to our future landlord, and the next day we finally saw our new home. S was lucky to have me around to set up house while he was at work.

We lived on the upper level, behind the bougainvillea.

You might think “wow, that’s crazy – finding out on September 1 where to go, based on a website!” However, this actually represents a minor improvement over the way he found out what school to go to for the school year 2008-2009. On September 14, when he was assuming he’d been forgotten, he received a text message on his cell phone saying “go to Zakynthos to teach.” (Zakynthos is an island in the far west of Greece.) He thought it was a joke played on him by a friend. It wasn’t. The school system actually sent him to Zakynthos by text message.

If you’re wondering what’s up with all the moving around… S is a tenured teacher. But he doesn’t have a school of his own. Many teachers in Greece don’t. Getting a school of one’s own – which would mean you could buy a home, your spouse could have a career in the same city, your children could have a stable life, etc. – is becoming increasingly rare. Instead, they prefer to stick you in a series of one-year positions, moving you all over the place at their convenience. As of this year, he’s now in the somewhat privileged position of knowing that he can’t be moved more than about two hours in each direction from where we are now. Someday, he may even get assigned to a particular school for longer than a year. If that happens, we might be able to start our life!

When S and I fell in love, we decided that we would stay together, no matter what happened. But most teachers don’t do that.  We know many teachers who live apart from their spouses and children.

One of the teachers at S’s school lives here in town during the week, but drives all night on Friday to spend the weekends with his wife and two adolescent daughters in another city.

A good friend (who was a witness at our wedding) who worked at S’s school in 2009-2010 was pregnant while her husband lived a 9 hour ferry ride + 6 hour car ride away.  That year they really only saw each other long enough to conceive little Evita.

A teacher at S’s school who is in my Turkish class lives here during the week but takes a bus 5 hours each way on the weekends to see her husband and children in another city.

The German teacher at S’s school, who is married and has a two year old son, uprooted her husband, who had to quit his job, in order to work here – her husband is still unemployed – all to keep their family together.

These are not isolated stories at all – this is pretty much the norm for teachers in Greece.  It is very common that teachers who love children and dedicate their lives to other people’s children never manage to have their own because of this system.

S is the son of two teachers.  Although his mother spent the last decade or so of her career as a school principal, she started out in the classroom at a time when school was six days/week (Saturday was a regular school day) and there was no planning period.  The first school to which she was assigned was in a small village where there were no houses or apartments to rent.  The place where she had to live didn’t even have a toilet.  She was hospitalized for exhaustion toward the end of her first year teaching.  So I suppose one could say that things have improved.

Somehow I think further improvement is called for.

Our home on the island.

The village where we lived on the island. Both our house and the school are in this photo.

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18 thoughts on “please move across the country in negative two days

  1. Wow, your story really give a snapshot into the Greek school system. (Love the gorgeous photos.Bougainvillea is one of my favorite flowers. I first saw it while working in L.A. – it grows wild, up house, over garbage cans – lol.)

    Our local school district has had to laid off all non-tenured teachers and teaching assistants for the past 2 or 3 years. Then as money started flowing back the District hired back as many as they could – but not necessarily into the school they had or the grade they preferred. Since our districts are small, even if they accepted a position in another school it would only be a few miles away. The state of Illinois owes our district millions of unpaid promised funds. Yeah, millions of dollars, unpaid.

    Still, it’s better than finding out you have to move across the country via text message.

    The point you made about many Greek teachers either not having kids or only being around on weekends to raise and nurture them is sobering. Really sad…

    I’ll just sit and look at the bougainvillea a while now.

    • In Greece, ALL non-tenured teachers are routinely fired every June and re-hired (if they’re lucky) in September, October, November, even as late as January as funds become available. On the island, there was only one elementary school teacher (grades 1-6) for quite some time before eventually two more teachers joined her. She and the other two teachers were duly fired in June.

  2. What a crazy arrangement – a bit like the Greek ferry timetable system I think? The island has to be Folegandros? It is a marvellous place for a tourist but what is it like to live there?

    • It’s… an adventure. I promise there will be plenty of posts about it. It is a breathtakingly beautiful place, but it is difficult to live there, especially with a low income and not being from there with a home of our own. We were turned out (forced to leave) because tourists pay more than teachers do, at the end of the school year – other teachers were not so lucky and were forced to leave their homes BEFORE the end of the school year. No teacher would want to stay for more than 2-4 years if they aren’t allowed to live there year round – it’s crazy having to move in and out all the time, even if you do have a precious ‘permanent’ position, you still need to find a summer residence off the island – and yet the islanders bitch about how the faculty is always changing.

    • It is crazy… I don’t know how they do it either. I mean, I know them really well, they’re our friends, we talk about it a fair amount. I just don’t know how you get to the point emotionally where you split up your family. I know they all do it because they believe ultimately it’s the best choice for their families, but what a heartbreaking decision to have to make.

    • thank you! I hope he does too! Unfortunately when a teacher retires from a permanent position, instead of hiring someone to a permanent position in their place, their new policy seems to be to eliminate that position altogether. We can only stay optimistic, though!

  3. Heidi, I had no idea teachers were treated like that. Shocking at the very least, scandalous, when their job should be one of the most highly valued. Well, we know that’s not true in most countries. Folegandros, being so isolated and so small, must have been quite depressing on occasion, quite wonderful at other times. I remember the lemon trees surrounded by mini-fortress walls to keep them out of the wind and away from the goats. The spine bush used as fuel for the traditional oven in Ano Mera. And those dramatic terraces plunging down to the sea. Not to mention the Danube fountain in Hora, so called because it had the most abundant water. We loved it but were there for only 4-5 days at the gorgeous, friendly Anemomylos. Hope you get to stay in Komotini a bit longer.

    • Honestly I think I had a better time on Folegandros than S did. Because he had to deal with the infighting and the parents being difficult (quick example: he took a group of students to Milos to compete in a Cycladic-wide competition, at which they placed quite high, but some parents complained that S went ‘on vacation’ instead of being in school, because he missed a Friday – come on!!!! Herding other people’s teenagers is not a vacation!), and because the political b.s. in a small place is insane, he was way more miserable than I was. Another example: daily he used equipment in the building immediately next to the school building, which the school uses everyday (mainly for Phys Ed class but for other things too) but which belongs to City Hall; but when City Hall decided to hold a party or political rally of some sort for one day, they locked out S and the kids and wouldn’t let them use the equipment for close to a month. They later complained that the students having class in there was running up their electric bill and they should stop. All this because the Phys Ed teacher’s husband ran against the mayor in the election and they wanted to piss her off and make her have gym outside in the cold and rain. I’m only giving two examples but I could give you fifty if either you or I had the patience.

      I was just talking to Danae today (from Anemomylos). Although we never stayed at Anemomylos ourselves, we used to go there for coffee. She would always give us our drinks for a fraction of the price. There were a few people like her who understood that there is a difference between being an established business owner on a wildly profitable tourist island, and being a poorly paid nomadic public servant. Unfortunately for every one of them, there were ten who just saw us as easier to take advantage of – like the French teacher whose rent was higher than her total monthly salary….

      The experience of living there taught me so much – most of which I would never have realized in a million years if S hadn’t been with me. I tend to see the world through rose-colored glasses. I would have remained totally clueless for most of it because my mind just doesn’t go there. He would come home from work swearing and I was smiling and enjoying the view. I think we truly had very different experiences despite living through the whole thing hand in hand.

  4. Greece, oh Greece is so ridiculous. I love it and yet it is so crazy and tourists never, ever understand how deep it runs. My husband thinks he wants to go live in Greece! Because he’s been there on vacation with me and vacations are wonderful. I’ve tried to tell him just what madness exists there, especially coming from an organized country like the US,which has it’s own craziness to be sure, but nothing like Greece. My dad who is Greek moved us all there for a year and even though he had been born and raised there he couldn’t handle more than that. I’ve never been to that island, it does look gorgeous. Keep your optimism, look at the view!

    • vacations are wonderful!! But sadly they are not real life. If your husband mentions it again, you can ask him “why do you think Greeks all look forward to their vacations as much as you look forward to yours?” hehehe. That said, there are so many wonderful things about living here that I don’t regret it for a moment. Money issues are out of control bad, bureaucracy is mind-numbing, and there is always a reason to be infuriated if you need one, but I just love Greece so much that it works out (although I have my moments… trust me!). But having traveled in Greece for periods of up to a year over the course of 10 years, it wasn’t until I took the plunge in 2009 and actually moved here that I finally *got it* as far as how ridiculously difficult it is to get anything done here.

      A funny postscript to this post is that S woke up last night at 4am very agitated: he’d had a nightmare that he had been ordered to move to a totally different city (Tripoli in the south) and we had to move right away and he was very upset about it. He was also upset because his pay would be cut further (living close to the border = a modest increase in salary). He was so upset from this dream that he didn’t fall asleep for hours. Apparently he has been traumatized!

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