On Tuesday morning, teacher Mr Sheldon Williams took dramatic steps never taken before when he climbed onto the roof of the Richard Ishmael Secondary School where he teaches in protest against the non-payment of his salary and the non-approval of his application for no-pay leave.
Mr Williams, who has been a senior teacher for 13 of the 20 years of his teaching career, had reached the peak of his frustration and took the unprecedented action to bring his plight to the attention of the Ministry of Education. Not that the ministry was unaware of Mr Williams’s situation. As he had related to this newspaper, he had gone to the ministry and spoken with various officers prior to taking that drastic step on Tuesday. But he said no one could tell him why he was not being paid and when this would be rectified.
Such treatment of an educator, who has given 20 years of service to Guyana’s children, could only be described as appalling. Even if Mr Williams had contravened any rules that warranted his salary being withheld, he ought to have been notified by way of writing as to what those infractions were. As it is, the fact that soon after a meeting was held with Chief Education Officer Mr Olato Sam on Tuesday, a decision was taken to have Mr Williams’s salary paid meant that this was not the case.
The other reasons point to inefficiency, bureaucracy or just plain vindictiveness. Mr Sam referred to it as failures on the part of the Education Department to respond to some of the issues Mr Williams had and to have them addressed and said mechanisms would have to be put in place to have issues faced by teachers dealt with in a timely manner.
Mr Williams is not the first teacher to have had issues and to have them ignored by the powers that be in the education sector. Over the years, this newspaper’s letter columns have provided a forum for teachers to air their grievances and for the most part they have been about money.
In January this year, we published a letter from a newly appointed teacher in Region Four, who had not been paid a cent after five months on the job. In the letter, which was written towards the end of December 2012, the teacher, who wanted to remain anonymous, had related that this same issue was affecting several other new teachers. Sadly, these teachers were forced to endure the Christmas holidays without any finances.
On January 19, we published another letter from an aggrieved teacher, this time from Berbice, complaining that teachers would have been paid late for the second consecutive month.
“The non-payment of salaries is also affecting commerce, and hurting every single family in Berbice. For those single parents with only one source of income, how will they pay their utility bills and buy even the most essential items such as food? We in Berbice do not live in mansions and drive fancy cars like some officials. We live on tight budgets and are severely hurt when we are not paid on time,” the teacher said in the letter.
Teachers who conducted six weeks of remedial classes during the August holidays in 2010 were paid in December 2010, only after letters were published on the situation.
Last October, this newspaper highlighted the plight of the new headmistress of the Mahdia Secondary School, who was forced to take up residence under the stairs in a guesthouse in the community when faced with a dearth of funds and an uninhabitable house. After the issue was made public, the headmistress, Mrs Vanessa Wilson-Johnson’s character was maligned by the regional officials responsible for ensuring her living quarters were up to standard. However, action was taken to have it made livable.
The crisis in Guyana’s education, including the burgeoning violence in schools, is inextricably linked to the shoddy treatment of Mr Williams, Mrs Wilson-Johnson and their numerous peers, who are afraid to speak out or to have their names made public when they do so. Teachers who are underpaid or not paid at all; teachers who have grievances that are not addressed; teachers who are treated with a lack of respect might not choose to write letters to the editor or climb on the roof, but their dissatisfaction is reflected in the way they serve the nation’s children. The domino effect is apparent in poor exam results and a growing illiteracy level. Will Mr Williams’s radical protest be the catalyst that finally brings about the change that is needed? Only time will tell.