My postgraduate classroom was filled with teachers and social workers. Self-proclaimed idealists. Once, during a highly theoretical discussion, someone made a comment about how we are not all as selfless as we claim. She conjectured that most of us in the classroom are there because they know that a postgraduate degree from McGill would earn us a bigger paycheque. At that point, a little turned off by what I thought was cynicism, I blurted out that if that were the case, we wouldn't pick, of all things, education as a subject of study. In fact, I think my exact words were, “You are fooling yourself if you think you're going to make more money with a degree in Education. Nobody cares about teachers.” My teacher, who was present in the classroom, gasped at me in faux dismay.
Thank God for her sense of humour. But what I stated so bluntly in a fit of my foot-in-the-mouth-disorder wasn't too far from the truth. Many educationists join the profession from an idealism that stems from wanting to play a role in breeding the country's brightest minds. Often, they are some of the country's brightest minds themselves. That is why, of the intellectuals systematically murdered in 1971, 991 were teachers.
On the first day of the new year, the front page of The Daily Star featured a report titled “English, Math Exams: Lack of quality teachers behind poor show.” The report painted a grim picture of a drop in the pass rate in the Junior School Certificate (JSC) exams under the eight general education boards. The main reason behind the sub-standard performance of the examinees has been deemed by experts to be the lack of qualified teachers.
In other news, on December 31, teachers and employees of the non-MPO (Monthly Pay Order) educational institutions started a fast-till-death programme after staging demonstrations for five consecutive days near the National Press Club. Around 200 teachers started the strike in front of the club. A local daily cited some teachers saying the number of non-MPO educational institutions is 5,242, where around 80,000 teachers are working without any pay, some for more than a decade.
Idealism is beautiful. But unfortunately, it doesn't pay the bills. Low income levels of one of the most demanding professions, and I daresay, the most significant professions, in terms of their contribution to society, is a global predicament. Teachers are paid poorly all across the world. According to the Economic Policy Institute Issue Brief 298, teachers in the USA make 14 percent less than professionals in other occupations that require similar levels of education. Most people undertake the profession because there is a certain sense of respectability that is attached to it. But we live in a country where teachers are beaten up by mobs and made to do sit-ups holding their ears in the presence of local leaders. So, I wonder why teachers take up the jobs they do.
Some say that being associated with an educational institution allows them to earn a good income in other ways, such as through private tutoring or coaching centres. Some say it helps with their social status. There are allegations that they do not teach in school as sincerely as they should. Most critics cite teachers' engagement in coaching centres as reason to disregard any positive contribution they make to society.
And maybe they are not wrong. Teachers have become increasingly commercial, and despite rising fees at coaching centres, the quality of education is not improving. In fact, according to the latest government report cited in The Daily Star report, around 88 percent of the 78,415 teachers giving English lessons at secondary level did not study English as a core subject in graduation and master's levels.
While, I am not sure we need subject-based specialisations to teach at primary or secondary level. I am certain that we need a love for teaching and a thirst for learning. But sometimes love needs reason and many teachers view their job as more of a profession than passion. So, their sole purpose of engaging in the profession is to make a living. However, we have to ask ourselves, why are we so rigorous in our scrutiny of how much money a teacher is making when we don't question high salaries that CEOs of multinational companies and banks make? Whether by default or by choice, isn't a teacher playing a direct role in shaping the country's future? Then why do we place such a demand on teachers to be so self-sacrificial?
We must also ask ourselves, are we doing anything significant for those who play such a vital role in building the country's future? The remuneration that teachers are offered is meagre. Capacity building initiatives are inadequate. There are few training opportunities that teachers can avail themselves of. An example of this is when the government introduced the creative curriculum in schools which took most teachers by surprise as they had not received any training when this was done.
So, there is little money and little growth in the profession.
While it is the non-MPO enlisted teachers who have been covered by recent news, the MPO listed school teachers aren't too happy either. In July last year, The Daily Star reported on the brewing resentment among non-government teachers and employees of MPO-enlisted schools and colleges. The reason behind their dissatisfaction was that the government had decided to increase the amount of monthly contribution from their salaries for their retirement benefits and welfare allowances. Understandably, this created much pressure on the teachers to sustain their families in the present.
I understand many of our teachers have disappointed us. And so instead of listening to the pleas of our teachers or raising havoc about their issues, our social media is better used in talking about why Jerusalem is or isn't recognised as Israel's capital.
But, in truth, there is no room to let disappointment fester. We must offer our teachers something. We have to ensure that they are adequately trained. We have to ensure that they are adequately paid. As a country that aspires to achieve middle-income status, and one that has numerous unprecedented challenges to tackle, we must create a solid foundation. And we can only do this by valuing those who pave the way for the foundation to be built. It is what our future depends on.
On January 3, 2018, the protests continue. The front page of The Daily Star shows a picture of about half a dozen men, lying on the ground, eyes half-closed or staring coldly. The picture was captioned: “Teachers continue their fast unto death, well into the night, demanding their institutions be given the Monthly Pay Order benefits. The photo was taken around 9 pm. last night.”
But it may as well have been captioned with a quote from Of Human Bondage: “The idealist withdrew himself, because he could not suffer the jostling of the human crowd...and since his fellows would not take him at his own estimate, he consoled himself with despising his fellows.”
Shagufe Hossain is the founder of Leaping Boundaries and a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.