Few things can be more inspiring for our struggling education system than teachers, mostly females, (these days it appears that males run a proverbial mile to avoid teaching) fending off their less than appealing conditions of service, and presenting themselves, day after day, fully prepared to draw a line under the frustrations of the previous day and to simply soldier on. Of course, no fair-minded person would deny that the rewards accruing to teachers are hugely disproportionate when set alongside their responsibilities. More than that, there are times, when, in the opinion of many, the authorities are considerably less appreciative than they ought to be of the role that teachers play in us engendering a sense of pride in ourselves as a nation.
As it happens – and this is only one of the disturbing features of a much wider crisis facing the education system – it is the patently obvious problem of teacher shortage and the manner in which this shortage impacts on the ability of the system to deliver a structured regimen of tuition delivery (particularly at the lower secondary school level) in the various subjects that is the real headache. There are, we are reliably informed, secondary schools in our capital where teacher shortage and the periodic absence from school of teachers assigned particular subject areas means that in any given term some children sometimes experience the absence of direct teacher tutoring for around twenty per cent (sometimes more) of a term in a single subject area, in which instances they must not only depend on some makeshift arrangement that might, for example, include being asked to go over old notes and test papers but must, as well, spend a fair part of the day in school unsupervised. It is of course widely known that the blossoming of the ‘extra lessons’ industry is, in considerable measure, a reflection of the shortage of teachers for high-demand (Mathematics, English and the sciences are among these) subjects in the secondary school system.
A senior teacher attached to one of the country’s oldest secondary schools told this newspaper recently that arguably one of the more demanding aspects of day to day school administration is the frequent need to ‘juggle’ teachers around (every day, she says) in order to limit the ‘damage’ arising out of the unavailability of teachers for reasons that can range from a substantive shortage of specialist subject teachers to teacher absences for an assortment of other reasons. It has, we are told, become par for the course for children (particularly in the lower forms) to find themselves untutored and unsupervised for parts of the school day, a circumstance which we are told, Heads of Schools have come to take ‘in their stride,’ so to speak.
The problem of teacher unavailability, we are told, has given rise to a frustratingly fluid and unpredictable situation over any school day since set timetables must be shuffled around or else, set aside altogether, teachers reassigned, sometimes to serve as no more than classroom monitors and where children who perhaps lack the discipline to work unsupervised take advantage of being left to their own devices. These days, the school environment is mostly denied the lengthy periods of quiet and tranquility that used to obtain and which was associated with children (at least most of them) being tutored in their classrooms. The practice, these days, we are told, is that, over time, children drift into excursions of idleness (sometimes worse) resulting from their being idle, which circumstance imposes additional onerous monitoring responsibilities on the teachers.
The issue of (secondary school) teacher shortage is largely a function of the disparity between the sheer numbers of children seeking secondary education and the lack of success in recruiting more people into the profession, the primary issue here being an overwhelming absence of attraction in the rewards of the profession which translates into the enthusiastic pursuit by, qualified, younger people, of employment options that are both more emotionally appealing and materially rewarding.
We have suggested, too, in previous editorials, that part of the problem could well have to do with what would appear to be a continually eroding relationship between those responsible for policy administration in the state school system and the teachers who are, in effect, the engine room of the system. “It is a psychological thing where you feel that your contribution is not really valued and where much of what comes from the people at the top are rules and admonition. After a while you develop a sort of work-to-rule attitude,” a secondary school Graduate Teacher with just over four years in the system told us recently.
It seems – at least this is the impression we get – that the prevailing combination of a substantive shortage of teachers in the school system and a condition of passive resistance to a counterproductive Ministry of Education management system in which teachers are criticized and censured much more frequently than they are commended and rewarded for their work, have combined to create the current state of affairs and that for as long as those functionaries in charge of our education system persist in their ostrich-like posture of failing to open up the system to a culture of dialogue with teachers rather than persistent criticism, not only will teachers remain deflated and demotivated but the environment will provide little incentive for others to be attracted to the system.
Whether the Ministry of Education believes it or not, we have found from our discourses with teachers (whom we engage in the course of preparing editorials such as this one) that a worryingly large number of teachers feel both disrespected and intimidated by the system and are, accordingly, lacking in any real incentive to perform at the peak of their powers.
No less worrying is the state of mind amongst teacher trainees at the Cyril Potter College of Education where, we are told, (and we have raised this matter previously) the shortage of lecturers and other requisites associated with education delivery persist. Here again, we are told by the student teachers with whom we have spoken that they do not detect a sense of caring on the part of the Ministry. They too, bemoan what they consider to be the many disincentives ranging from the laughable level of the stipend that they receive (many CPCE students are men and women with family responsibilities) to the scarcity of lecturers.
The worrisome thing about all this is the impression you get that the Ministry of Education has embraced a sort of Ivory Tower posture in which it does not consider itself accountable to the education system that it is designed to serve. Everywhere we check – among Heads of schools and teachers the message is the same…there is little if any room for open two-way communication. What obtains is a dialogue in which one party would appear to be deaf to the views of the other. More worrying, is what is appearing, increasingly, like a knee-jerk propensity on the part of the professional leadership to resort to a strong-arm posture that seeks to send a message about who’s in charge. If the education system is to deliver to a level that we are entitled to expect, pressure has to be brought to bear on those who ‘run things’ to understand that things will only get worse if they persist in ‘playing‘ God.