A Moral Dilemma (Magarich)

by Meri Avetisyan

Issues of integrity in education are in the focus of many international and national organizations. In 2011 Transparency International reported that 35% of the world population considered education in their respective countries to be extremely corrupt (Transparency International, 2011). Reports usually indicate high level of corruption in a number of Central Asian and East European countries’ educational systems and Armenia is not an exemption in this regard.

According to Transparency International’s household sector survey, education is the 3rd most corrupt institution in Armenia.1 Apart from reports of various organizations, there are numerous accounts of school teachers' integrity violations in media.2 However, in Armenia tips or thank you gifts, popularly known as ‘magarich,’ have been so common and wide-spread in all sectors of public service, including education, that they are often not perceived as reprehensible.3

For measuring and subsequently tackling corrupt behavior in schools, it is very important to understand how school teachers perceive and interpret their professional integrity. Therefore we contacted school teachers from urban and rural parts of Armenia, and asked them to write anonymous stories from school life which, in their opinion, involve teacher integrity issues. As the majority of research projects that involve sensitive subjects, we also faced various difficulties in participant recruitment. Many teachers refused to participate in our study, offering various justifications for refusing to do so. In our opinion, the reasons for refusing to participate could also explain the current state of affairs in schools. Therefore we would like to briefly introduce these reasons.

Teachers who refused to participate feared for their jobs. We assured them of the confidentiality of their personal data, and explained that there is no possibility of identifying the writer of a particular story. However, teachers were too afraid of school principals, local authorities, and authorities in general who would reprimand or dismiss them from their jobs, if they wrote about sensitive issues concerning schools. Moreover, they have a general distrust towards both governmental and non-governmental organizations, media, and surveys in general. Further reasons of refusal to participate were the lack of hope for any positive change, and distrust towards confidentiality of surveys.

Although we were aware of integrity violations at schools from reports of various organizations and media stories, we were very much surprised by the collected stories. Our participants indeed wrote striking stories. Before we finalize our research and write up a scientific report, we would like to share a remarkable story from our research . Our respondent in this case is a 24-year-old female with 2 years' experience working as a school teacher at a village school.

 

A Story of a Rural School Teacher

"I live in a town which is the regional center, but I work in a rural school where the standards of education are pretty low, because teachers do not make efforts to properly teach their respective subjects. However, they give students undeservedly high grades: all villagers are interconnected via family ties, close friendship, or are neighbors. Everybody is happy with the situation, because all parties get what they want; students receive high grades without much efforts, teachers do not have to spend much energy on teaching, but they receive various agricultural goods in exchange for generous grades.

I refused to follow the mainstream culture in this school from the beginning, and contrary to the majority of my colleagues, graded fairly. Thus, most of the students who were getting highest grades before I started to teach at the school, received lower than usual, but fair grades for my classes. I was doing my best to teach them, but was not gifting grades. My approach has made the school principal, my colleagues, students and their families unhappy: the principal and my colleagues were not able to ensure high grades for the children of their friends, neighbors, and relatives for the classes that I taught. My opposition to the mainstream organizational culture was received with angry criticism. I received several warnings from the principal, my colleagues were blackmailing me, and the students were making fun of me. Although the situation was very humiliating, I refused to give up and continued to follow my principles.

The situation became more hostile when at the end of the semester the nephew of the head of the village administration failed my exam. The principal and the majority of my colleagues tried to convince me to change the grade, but I told them that until the student is ready for the exam on a satisfactory level, he will not get a pass. After unsuccessful efforts to break my resistance by putting pressure on me, they found another way. The head of administration via his contacts in the office where my father worked threatened to fire my father from his job, if I will not give a pass grade to the nephew of the head of the village administration.

At the end I gave up and had to give a satisfactory grade to this student. I could not allow my family members to suffer because of my position. I was degraded in the eyes of the students and colleagues, and could not talk about honesty and moral principles. As a teacher I was supposed not only to teach students traditional school subjects, but also moral principles and integrity. However, what would be the value of my words, if I cannot follow the principles that I teach. I know that I violated principles of professional integrity, but did I have a choice? Should I have allowed my father to lose his job? Maybe I have chosen the wrong side by trying to keep high professional standards in a rural school, and the people who tried to teach me how things are done in their village are right. If cover-up and patronage are the norms in the society, what can I do against it? What would have you done in my place?"

 

1UNDP & Transparency International Armenia, 2006, CRRC, 2011

2“For Non-Learners “Romano” is an Expensive Pleasure, “Aravot” daily newspaper, March 13, p. 5.; “Diploma With and Without Flowers, “Haikakan Jamanak” daily newspaper, June 29, p. 6.;“There is a Corruption in Armenia’s Schools- Parliament Vice Chair”, http://news.am/eng/news/122451.html

3Transparency International, Armenia 2003

See also: Meri Avetisyan