ISTANBUL – A massive amount of Turkish students found themselves without teachers as they started the new school year last week.
Eğitim Sen, a leftist teachers union critical of the government, told The Media Line that over a million students have been left without instructors, caused by a shortage of 130,000 teachers.
Since the failed coup attempt on July 15 that resulted in over 270 deaths, the government has fired or suspended nearly 40,000 teachers, adding to an already existing teacher shortage.
In July the government also shut down 15 universities and 1,043 private schools, affecting about 200,000 students. Over 1,500 university deans were ordered to resign and 2,349 academics were fired. The government says it will help fill the shortage by hiring an additional 20,000 teachers by October 10.
These sackings were just one part of a massive ongoing purge in which over 100,000 government employees, journalists and business people have been fired or suspended, over 40,000 detained and over 20,000 arrested.
Originally, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) targeted those it suspected of having links to Fethullah Gülen, exiled leader of a large global Islamic network who resides in the United States. Over the summer it fired 27,715 teachers accused of having links with Gülen.
The government accuses the Gülen movement, which used to be allied to the AKP before they became arch-rivals, of having orchestrated the failed coup. Most independent experts on Gülen say that a massive amount of his followers had positions in many government ministries, including the military, and believe these followers may have played a significant role in the attempted coup.
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However, government critics have accused the increasingly authoritarian AKP of targeting all of its many opponents in the purge, such as leftists and supporters of the Kurdish nationalist movement.
On September 4, Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım announced a second sweep of teacher purges, this time ostensibly aimed at all teachers it suspects of supporting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed political group unrelated to the failed coup. Yıldırım said the government suspects 14,000 teachers of supporting the PKK, and 11,285 were soon suspended (455 were later returned to work).
The Media Line spoke to three suspended or fired teachers who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity. All three said they were only given vague information about the charges against them, sometimes hearing them from the media before the authorities.
“We were suspended without being given any reason and without knowing the accusations,” says a 42-year-old vocational and technical training teacher with 19 years of experience who was suspended in early September during the purge targeting alleged PKK supporters. “Nobody asked us for any kind of statement, nobody told us what our crime was, there was no signed document showing I’ve been sacked from my job,” says a 40-year-old geography teacher of 21 years fired during the first sweep targeting alleged Gülen followers. The geography teacher, who is now forbidden from leaving the country, said he first found out about his suspension from reading it in the news.
Later he was charged with supporting the coup, not based on any evidence of actual participation, but for his alleged links to the Gülen movement. Specifically, for being a member of Aktif Sen, a teachers union with alleged links to the movement, and because his eight-year-old son went to an allegedly Gülen-linked school.
“I was against the coup and in the past I even put myself at risk to organize a demonstration to show that we’re against coups,” the geography teacher says.
The suspended teachers now receive just two-thirds of their regular salary, which was already quite low at about 1000 USD.
“My spouse is also a teacher and we were both suspended at the same time,” says the vocational and technical training teacher. “In this country’s conditions families like us are already just trying to make ends meet. It put us in a very difficult position financially, with loan repayments, house rent and school for our son,” she says.
“The ones with kids especially will have serious problems. Most of us have debts,” says a 27-year-old suspended English teacher from Tunceli, a Kurdish area known for its opposition to the government. The teachers said there’s a strong stigmatization with being labeled a terrorist or coup supporter.
“When I was suspended from my job, nobody sent their condolences to me,” the geography teacher says, because they were too scared or believed the government’s claims.
“People are so scared. I think this ‘terrorist’ and ‘connected to a terrorist organization’ discourse causes them to stay away [from us],” the vocational and technical training teacher says.
The English teacher says all of her suspended colleagues and her are members of Eğitim Sen, the teachers union, and believes that’s why they were targeted.
“They're trying to criminalize the whole union. We cannot be blamed for attending events held by our legal union,” she says.
The vocational and technical training teacher is a member of Eğitim Sen as well, and also thinks that’s the main reason she was targeted.
Mehmet Emin Kırşanlıoğlu, an Istanbul branch head of Eğitim Sen, says the union is being attacked because it’s critical of the government.
“The target is Eğitim Sen because it’s the most organized civil society organization with a strong stance against what the government has done to education and democratic life,” he tells The Media Line.
Bayram Erkül, the union’s international relations officer, says that 9,425 of the 11,285 teachers suspended in September are Eğitim Sen members, most of whom participated in a workers strike in the southeast last December protesting state violence.
Erkül says the consequences of the teachers purge will be especially devastating for students in the mostly Kurdish southeast, which is historically underdeveloped and has been devastated over the last year by fighting between the PKK and the state.
“In Kurdish cities there's already ongoing violence, and hundreds of thousands of students and their teachers couldn't go to school last year,” Erkül tells The Media Line.
“The results will be severe for education in the region, as there is already a big gap between students in the east and west in terms of equal opportunities. Kurdish students who already have the disadvantage of language now have the disadvantage of empty classes on top of that.”
Many teachers and students have protested against the purges. “Our members are detained during almost every protest. Only yesterday [September 24], 15 of our friends were detained during a protest in Diyarbakır,” Erkül says.
Police also detained and used water cannons against a group of several hundred teachers holding a demonstration on September 9 in the eastern province of Diyarbakır, where protests have been banned since mid-August under a three-month state of emergency. On September 19, 22 protesting students were also detained in Diyarbakır.
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