SOFIA, Bulgaria – As Bulgarian children returned to school on Monday, 400 teaching positions remain unfilled across the country and Bulgaria's teachers' union predicts that the country's shortage of teachers will reach nearly 40,000 by 2026.
Officials say low wages — currently around 380 euros ($444) a month — and other factors are making it difficult to attract young people to the profession. Only 8 percent of all teachers in Bulgaria are younger than 35 and their average age is 50.
Valentina Kurinova, principal of the Vassil Levski Primary School in Kremikovtsi, an industrial district in northeastern Sofia, the capital, is proud of having a much younger group of teachers than the national average, and filled three open positions over the summer.
"It will be too late when we realize there is no one left to teach our children," Kurinova said.
While more than 4,000 teachers retire every year, many stay on because of the high need for need for them, and less than 1,000 university graduates annually choose a career in education. The aging demographic also means that 900 schools in less-populated areas have closed over the past 15 years.
The Ministry of Education has promised to raise teachers' wages as soon as next year and authorities are also working on new initiatives to attract young people to teaching.
Mariya Aleksieva, a graduate of the Vassil Levski Primary School, returned to teach here three years ago. She says young teachers are very important to any modern school as they bring in new methods and technology. Aleksieva uses electronic school books and diaries as well as interactive programs in her lessons.
A computer program allows teachers to get detailed statistics on how students did on each question, which she finds very useful.
"If the whole class didn't understand it, we ourselves might be to blame," Aleksieva said.
Ekaterina Yoncheva, another teacher at the school, said the profession is very challenging but also "really a calling."
"Once you see the happiness in the eyes of a child that you have helped become a better person, nothing can turn you away from this profession anymore," Yoncheva said.