The teacher supply problem Dr. Henry B. Jeffrey, Minister of Education
Guyana Chronicle
April 14, 2002

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THOUGH in gestation for some weeks, the following presentation is merely exploratory. Indeed, had it not been for a recent editorial in this newspaper and an ensuing discourse between the editor and myself, it would not have seen the light of day at this time. As such, it is a discussion paper that may well become more definitive.

Given its nature and scope, the teacher supply problem seems insoluble. Although closer scrutiny indicates that teacher shortage is not a universal problem, it appears so to us as it exists throughout CARICOM and on both sides of the prosperous Atlantic and these countries inform much of our worldview.

I believe that even the most intractable social problem is susceptible to mutual beneficial solutions and that the shortage of teachers is no exception. In this instance, a single solution will not fit all countries, but I am confident that within half a decade, teacher supply will not pose a difficulty. However, Guyana needs an immediate solution to its teacher supply problem. Finding one requires an accurate definition of the problem, its context and our objectives.

Within the resources available to it, the government of Guyana is willing to do all it can to solve the teacher supply problem. This conditional stance is necessary because to be politically feasible, a solution must be crafted within the perspective of the major stakeholder. We can idealise as to what might or might not be possible under different conditions, but to be immediately meaningful, it is best that we attempt to locate our suggestions within the context of presently defined conditions, particularly as they relate to teacher remuneration.

Let me say in passing that we should not be tempted to use the current difficulty to leverage responses that will not solve it. For example, all teachers in Guyana cannot take advantage of the current teacher shortage and further, given the universal experience and the size of the national purse, it is just not possible to increase wages to a point that will prevent the departure of those teachers willing and able to leave. Therefore, although we should continually endeavour to improve the standard of living of our teachers, given our financial situation, a purely remunerative solution is not workable.

Teacher quality is vital to educational outcomes. The problem is that our best-trained teachers are being lured away by what they see as better life opportunities. At present, the demand appears insatiable and an increase in the number of trained teachers will therefore have only a limited effect. Another response would be for us to attract teachers from less developed countries. Unfortunately, for obvious reasons, this avenue is not open to us.

For years, teachers, like members of other professions, have been leaving Guyana in large numbers. Globalisation and teacher supply problems in some countries have made the education authorities of those countries less morally concerned about international recruiting. But globalisation and the wider use of information and communication technology have also led to greater democratisation and a wider demand for quality and professionalism, with the result that school authorities prefer to recruit teachers with proper academic qualifications and a satisfactory professional record.

The core of this proposal is to stretch the professional life of teachers beyond our borders. Borders mean little these days: products, finance, innovations and people are moving as never before, and of itself, professional life already extends beyond national borders. Why should we not deliberately use this development to our own benefit? If our trained teachers are leaving and there is little we can do about it financially, why not seek to take the level of control this situation offers by structuring the teacherís professional life beyond the borders of Guyana?

A major problem in both public and private spheres in Guyana is that, largely because of low remuneration and the hope of migration, many people have little incentive to carefully nurture and develop an indigenous career. The result is shoddy work, indisciplined behaviour, high staff turnover and the perennial search for escape by way of a visa. If it were possible to link professional records, so that what happens after migration is directly dependent upon what occurred before, substantial value could be gained.

The government, either by itself or (preferably) through some agency, could seek to make extra-border arrangements for teachers with good professional records. Not all teachers will leave and not all will remain abroad, but the knowledge that those with dubious academic and professional records are not likely to be in great demand at home or abroad would have a significant positive impact on the local quality of the profession.

Today, on average, a teacher has to be in the profession for about a decade before s/he becomes internationally academically qualified. If we will facilitate those who wish to leave after this period, these ten years constitute our window of opportunity. The challenge is to improve teacher quality in this period somewhat beyond the norm. Given modern developments, this is not impossible.

What is required are, inter alia: improved education management, supervision and inspection; the wider use of information and communications technology; master teacher advisors and cluster mentoring; the creation of teacher/student friendly curricula and teaching approaches; a properly defined system of testing and improved physical environment and material supply. These can significantly improve teacher training, knowledge, programme delivery and general professionalism.

This suggestion is open to a range of objections, for example that it is irrelevant if, as I have stated, the teacher supply problem will cease in a few years! I believe that it is always best to have alternative plans and that even if eventually there is no need for one, cross border professional planning has an intrinsic value. People are leaving now without the imprimatur of the Government: why should they not continue to do so? In my view, once it is widely known that credible records exist and that the governing authority enthusiastically facilitates their release (even now some foreign authorities request our records), most school authorities will not risk employing teachers without recourse to such records.

The shortage of teachers is a problem shared by many countries, rich and poor alike. These are only some initial ideas in the direction of a solution within the context of Guyana.