Feature Story | 3-Jun-2024

Doctoral thesis studied the agency of the Russian-medium schools’ teachers in Estonia through their concerns and reflexive practices

Estonian Research Council

Liudmila Zaichenko used qualitative research methodology – interviews with experts and interviews with teachers working in Russian-medium schools – to study this sensitive topic in the cultural context of Estonia. The experts’ interviews showed that the teachers of the Russian-medium schools are seen through the certain ‘memory filters’ and are largely associated with the past, Soviet education system. The teachers themselves define various structural and cultural constraints and enablements for themselves on the regulative, normative, and ideational levels.

The most resourceful parts of their job come from serving their own community, dealing with the children from disadvantaged families (in which they find their mission), and enjoying the pedagogical autonomy given by the state. Teachers find the most inhibiting practices to be connected with the regulation to teach in Estonian, which many find a challenging task for the Russian-speaking children; the ‘vulnerable position’ of schools instructing in Russian in terms of various policy decisions (and first of all the decision to transition into Estonian as the language of instruction); as well as professional development opportunities, which, from the point of view of some teachers, are scarce in Russian. The main constraint, however, is the ideational environment for these teachers. Teachers, participating in the study quite clearly acknowledged that in the society they are largely associated with ‘obsolete pedagogies and conservative value systems, which immensely constrains theirs professional identities and agency.

One of the main concerns of the teachers is to preserve own culture, give voice to own cultural values. Among the teachers participated in the study even those who spoke Estonian on a level that would allow them to work in the Estonian-speaking milieu would rather use their language skills to empower colleagues and children from the Russian-speaking community and serve as a bridge between the two ethnolinguistically divided groups.

The dissertation highlights the importance of the Russian-medium schools teachers concerns as well as the significance of public discourses which surround their professional journeys. The author gives several policy suggestions for further successful integration, such as divorcing remembrance of the ‘oppressive Soviet school’ from the perception of teachers who are working in Estonia nowadays and rather considering these teachers experience and practices especially in terms of working with disadvantaged children.

Liudmila Zaichenko from the School of Educational Sciences defended the doctoral thesis "Teachers Agency Through the Morphogenetic Lens: The Case of Russian-medium Schools in Estonia" on 29 January. The thesis supervisors were distinguished professor Krista Loogma and associate professor Meril Ümarik at Tallinn University, opponents were professor at the University of Padova Andrea M. Maccarini and distinguished professor at Tallinn University Ellu Saar.

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