August 1, 2004
In the UNESCO newsletter Education Today from the first quarter of this year, thirteen interviews with education ministers from across the globe were published. The ministers represented nations as diverse as the Czech Republic and Burkino Faso on the one hand, and Samoa and the United States on the other. Speaking about the challenges they faced, they were all agreed on one thing, namely, the crucial role of the teacher in education today. Many of the ministers referred to the loss of prestige suffered by the teaching profession, and how this had adversely affected education. "The main challenge for education in Brazil is the teacher," Minister Cristovam Buarque was quoted as saying. "The salaries are low and teaching has lost its social status." Minister Kiddu Makubuya of Uganda clearly concurred: "We must create an environment where teachers are highly respected. But salaries unfortunately do not correspond." Even in the Czech Republic teachers had lost status, according to Minister Petra Buzkova, who commented, "Our biggest problem in society today is the little appreciated position of teachers." Taking a slightly different line, however, Minister Zobaida Jalal expressed the view that the problem was not simply one of money, and that the teachers themselves had to take responsibility for raising the status of the profession. "When you demand respect," she said, "people give it to you."
All of this sounds very familiar to Guyanese. There has been considerable discussion here on the question of the decline in the professional status of teachers. Doing something about that, however, in our context where wages are not very remunerative is not an easy task. If salaries were competitive with those of the Anglophone Caribbean, for example, at least some of the Guyanese teachers currently manning the school systems of the small islands might be enticed back, and better qualified people locally might be persuaded to enter the profession. If we want a cadre of teachers who have a sense of professionalism and vocation, then the majority of them need to be qualified. It might be added that better salary scales would induce more men to enter teaching, providing role models for tearaway male youngsters, and the kind of disciplinary ambience which is so necessary for instruction in the classroom.
It is clear, however, that dramatically improved wages are not going to materialise in a hurry, although whether the Government has explored all the possibilities for a meaningful upgrade of teachers' salaries is not clear. What is clear is that the administration has adopted an unnecessarily confrontational approach towards the teachers in the past, and has not followed through on undertakings such as making house lots available to them. The last thing that is helpful in a situation such as ours, is a lack of trust between the teachers - and more particularly those who represent them - and their employers.
If we want to encourage a respect for the professional status of our educators among ordinary members of the society, then the Government must lead the way. There is nothing to be gained by the administration's public spokesmen lecturing us constantly on how many salary upgrades the teachers have received, and how well-paid they are comparatively speaking, in order to demonstrate how unreasonable their demands are. The truth of the matter is that however many increases this Government has awarded, the salaries are still not appealing enough to attract a sufficient number of suitable candidates into the profession. A far less hostile posture in which the relevant officials stress how important the administration regards teachers as being to the development of the nation, even although it cannot pay the kind of remuneration they deserve, would be the preferable approach.
Furthermore, the onus is on the Government to mount a sustained campaign in the wider society, so parents understand the importance of education, the importance of reading, and the importance of teachers to the future of children, especially the poorest children. If those who govern in this land do not indicate their public respect for the teaching profession, then why should parents do so. For its part, the Ministry of Education has to give its teachers unequivocal and timely support on disciplinary matters (although clearly not when they are in breach of the law), and provide an efficient bureaucratic context for those who work in the schools - something which it does not always do.
Having said all of that, however, the point made by the Pakistan Minister of Education cannot be ignored. Teachers themselves also have a role to play in ensuring that they are treated in the way to which they are entitled. Above all else, they have to ensure they are not guilty of indiscipline, or breaches of the education code. From the days of the late Mr Bertram Hamilton, the teachers have always been competently represented by the Guyana Teachers' Union, but the union too must reiterate the message to its members that abiding by the rules, and behaving with dignity breeds respect.