THESSALONIKI, GREECE—Evi Giannati sits in a cafe in the center of Greece’s second-largest city. She is an English teacher in the public school system, and even after 20 years of teaching she has no stability. Last year, she taught elementary school. The year before, high school. Now it’s July, and she is still waiting to find out where and at what grade level she’ll be teaching in September.
And when school resumes, Giannati will have the unenviable task of explaining what happened over the summer to Greece’s shattered economy. Why did the banks close? Why were people fighting in front of parliament? Why is everyone so mad at the Germans?
Against this backdrop, as locals drink frappés amid homeless yia-yias begging for handouts, Giannati tells Quartz that the hardest question she gets from students is, “What should I do with my life?”
She tells them to “follow their heart,” she says. “There is no logical explanation for what is going on now. As teachers, we have to give students a dream to reach for. I always tell them to not decide in terms of money or work, because in five years maybe things will be different. But it’s getting more and more difficult.”
Greece’s public-school systems have always been underfunded, so the past five years of austerity-driven cuts have hit them especially hard. According to Greece’s schoolteachers union, the country has 28,500 fewer teachers and 1,200 fewer schools than in 2008. Public spending on education has been cut to less than 3% of GDP, well below the EU average.
In turn, Greek teachers now work more hours with bigger classes for less money. Salaries have been reduced by up to 45%, with some young teachers making as little as €700 ($766) per month, before taxes. What’s more, given a shortage of supplies, Giannati often finds herself buying supplies out of her own pocket: markers, notebooks, and paper for the photocopy machine.
Irini Vlazaki is an elementary school teacher in the rural town of Plati, 30 miles from Thessaloniki. There, school buildings are “badly restored,” she tells Quartz. “They’re just painted. That’s not enough. We have to fix the septic systems, fix the walls, not just paint them on top.”
Both Vlazaki and Giannati teach at schools in working-class areas, where austerity measures and soaring unemployment have hit local families particularly hard. Students have started coming to Giannati’s schools with holes in their shoes. Before two years ago, she had never seen that level of poverty in her classrooms.
“We have a lot of kids without food, so sometimes we buy them something from the canteen,” she says. “But you can’t do this every day, and you can’t do this for every child. We can’t buy the children shoes because we also have our own problems. We have to handle our own financial situation. This breaks our hearts.”
So these teachers, who are struggling to make ends meet themselves, have the added responsibility to help their students make sense of the confusing and increasingly hostile world around them. For her young students, Vlazaki has found it best to keep it emotional, not intellectual.
“Most children don’t have an idea of what ‘economy’ means. So if I use words they don’t know, it’s no use. I used to try, but now I use physical contact,” she says. “I hug them. I try to have them open up and build trust so they can come tell me how they feel. And I try as much as I can to show them that knowledge can empower them.”
Giannati often brings political conversations into her high-school classrooms, because she wants her students to understand the issues at stake. Since students are heavily influenced by their parents’ politics, she adds an educational element to the sometimes fractious discussions by getting the students to express their political opinions in English, and bases the conversations on English-language newspaper articles.
It’s difficult to end conversations with Greek teachers on a hopeful note. Schools are understaffed and staff are underpaid. Many students could use the help of social workers during these unstable times, but that is a luxury for schools where even basic supplies are scarce. But can teachers at least feel empowered by the influence they have on young people’s lives? By the stability, guidance, and knowledge that they can provide in these trying times?
“A lot of us feel weak,” Vlazaki says. “We believe that because we’re in a system that’s so oppressing, and because we’re in a country that’s been so taken advantage of, that we’ll always be under someone’s boot and cannot do anything about it.”
But it doesn’t have to stay that way. “It’s true, of course, that we cannot press a button and have things change, but we don’t believe in the difference we as teachers can make in these communities,” she says. “This is something I would like to see us fight.”