by Thu Huong
An estimated 18 million students from kindergarten to university level will officially kick off the new school year today, a figure that illustrates how young the Vietnamese population is and that education is a topic that is never far from the headlines.
There's also another stand-out figure amid all of the headlines about education: 27,000.
As another academic year begins, this figure represents the number of teaching positions that are vacant for all levels nationwide. This figure amazes many people in and out of the sector, but especially those graduates with a teaching degree who can't find teaching jobs.
The figure was first released by Deputy Education and Training Minister Nguyen Vinh Hien. at the assessment meeting of the school year 2012-13.
At another press meeting held last week Hong Duc Minh, head of the Ministry of Education and Training's Department of Teachers and Educational Administrators, said the figure is based on an assessment of both provincial and urban areas.
He explained that HCM City is short of 2,500 teachers while the number is around 1,000 in provinces such as Nghe An, Thanh Hoa, and Bac Giang.
Minh reasoned that the shortage of teaching staff was due to recent efforts to universalize kindergarten teaching for kids up to five years old, which demanded teachers fill-up classes and offer two sessions per day.
In addition, more skilled and experienced teachers are in demand to implement projects and programmes to renovate teaching methods as well as to improve English language learning in schools.
Last year, central Quang Ngai, Thanh Hoa provinces reportedly had up to 1,400 jobless graduates with teaching degrees. While in Phu Yen province, 3,000 graduates with teaching degrees reportedly had to wait in vain because recruitment for teachers for secondary schools closed.
But, what ever the excuses given, the harsh reality is that many graduates with teaching degrees can't find teaching jobs, and end up working as labourers or selling street food.
Where does this irony stand in the nation's education picture, which already is in critical need of comprehensive renovation and puts such importance on the values of education?
Trainee teachers are often perceived as lacking in experience, while as talks on modernizing our education system and teaching methods go on, we supposedly must rely on the young teachers to apply new technology and put fresh ideas into classes.
The ministry has acknowledged the situation of "shortage and surplus." However, as we know without good teachers, other educational goals can never be accomplished.
The surplus of teachers, according to experts, has to do with teaching schools that recruit and produce new teachers without assessing the real demands from within the job market.
As most curriculums put emphasis on the main subjects such as math, literature, physics, would-be teachers understandably flow to the same teaching programmes with hopes of getting positions to teach these main subjects.
The ministry says for the past two years, it has asked localities to develop a human resources plan for the education sector and make sure that the output of teaching schools is tied with the real need of the locality.
Right before the school year begins, the ministry requested all localities to reassess the need for teachers and the current scale of their teaching programmes.
Secondly, the transparency of recruitment also plays a role. Fierce competition for permanent teaching positions at public schools has paved the way for bribes and the exploitation of personal connections. I have relatives who have to pay US$2,000-3,000 to get jobs at the only secondary school in town.
The rationale for the payment was based on the knowledge that there would be no further recruitment for several more academic years in that school, which was close to my relative's home, and even if there was, not knowing anyone there was a tremendous disadvantage.
Further to this issue of recruitment fees, many graduates at teaching schools say they aren't given enough time for "practical training". Even at teaching schools or real-life schools on internship, the newbie teachers are mostly requested to "perform" the lesson plans.
Remember the old days when we, the then fifth or sixth graders, did not bother asking questions or participating in the class discussion because we knew the trainee teachers would not have any power over our grades.
Deputy Minister Hien said that in the 2013-14 academic year, the education sector would prioritize restructuring the allocation of teachers according to the need of each region, improving the skill sets of teachers and enhancing benefits and preferential policies for teachers, especially in far-flung areas.
Initiatives to counteract both the shortcomings in recruitment transparency and staffing shortages need to be considered. For example, a bond and bonus system for new graduates who agree to teach for two years at school not of their choosing, but based on the assessments made by the ministry. Although these schools may be far from their hometown or in far-flung provinces, on completion of their contract they will have gain documented experience and the sweetener of a financial bonus at the end of their internship.
As our education system becomes more open and globalised, would-be teachers must also equip themselves with enough skills to teach in private schools, various programmes and understand that teachers of the new era are those that can equip with out-of-textbook skills such as communications and teamwork.
As one professor from a teaching university in HCM City said, teaching training schools must also change and adapt to the new environment of knowledge and acknowledge that children now learn differently and have different demands.
This means more must be done to modernise teaching training as well as the way in which trainees are supported and integrated from training into teaching.
We need to restructure the teaching programmes at teachers' schools and make sure that the students can have enough practical training on the job, thus allowing them to take up positions in public schools or in other educational institutes.
We also need preferential policies and appropriate-level salaries for teachers who accept positions in difficult areas.
Whether or not the shortage of 27,000 teachers reflects the real picture, the ministry needs to announce a clear-cut picture on the situation, detailing the number of schools and their real needs.
If we can't fix this "shortage and surplus" problem, in the long-term, we waste money, time and resources on educating teachers, as well as shortchanging the millions of eager young students who this week, for the first time, are finding their seat in a new classroom. — VNS