Sooner, hopefully rather than later, government and the Guyana Teachers’ Union (GTU) will sit down together again to see through the satisfactory settlement of what has become the difficult issue of settling on a mutually agreed offer to teachers in relation to their salaries, allowances and other conditions of service given a universal acceptance of the reality that there is a gap, a considerable one, between the service that teachers give to this nation and the extent of the material reward that they receive.
Professional teachers never seem to tire of making the point that teaching is a vocation rather than a ‘job’ and that it requires a special appetite for knowledge-sharing and for disseminating enlightenment to want to become a teacher in the first place. Whether or not we can still hold on to this as an axiom, however, is debatable since what is also true is that low levels of remuneration have made teaching less attractive for those young people whose qualifications provide them with access to better-paying jobs. But then it has to be said that that is hardly the profession’s fault. Say what you will about the conditions of service, teaching remains a noble profession in the absence of which no amount of oil or gold or any other natural resource would afford our country the ‘development’ that it seeks.
That is precisely the perspective from which teaching should be seen though, sadly, that perspective often does not appear to obtain here in Guyana. While there is no shortage of platitudes mouthed about the invaluable role that teachers play in nation-building one cannot deny the yawning gap between those platitudes, as expressed chiefly by politicians and social commentators and the meagerness with which we actualize our appreciation for the role that teachers play.
Government, over time, has been the chief culprit in this regard. Repeated praise for the role that teachers have, for years, (doubtless we will hear more such platitudes during the current month, Education Month) continue to stand in stark contrast to their conditions of service, from the extent of their remuneration to those other conditions of service that include opportunities for upward mobility to the physical conditions that they must endure at many workplaces on the coast and in the hinterland. One of the striking things about the annual rush to ‘show off’ the accomplishments of children of the Grade Six, CXC and other examinations is that the Ministry of Education never really troubles itself to pay tribute to those teachers who, in many instances, leaving aside the challenges arising out of their decidedly unattractive conditions of service, put in the physical and intellectual effort to help our children students to perform at the top of their game and at the top of the Caribbean. To put it bluntly, by and large the contribution to the growth and development of our nation’s teachers is largely taken for granted.
It is against this backdrop – in the midst of an industrial dispute underpinned by no more than a desire by the GTU to secure significantly improved conditions of service for teachers – that Junior Minister of Social Protection Keith Scott’s description of the striking teachers as “selfish” and “uncaring” should be seen. Here, it is not a question of the demands being made by the GTU. Those demands and the extent of their reasonableness or otherwise belong in the realm of the discourses that ensue around the negotiating table and whatever eventual understanding is reached or not reached as the case may be, should, as far as possible, be arrived at in an environment that at least affords continuity to the discourse based on a universal understanding that the retention of a convivial environment provides the best hope of arriving at something resembling an amicable settlement.
One would have thought that given his role as the Minister responsible for Labour, Mr. Scott would be aware of the need for the creation and retention of the best possible environment out of which a satisfactory outcome might arise. Here, one might add that to describe striking teachers as “selfish” and “uncaring” is not only to run the risk of creating an environment in which continued negotiations, even if those were to take place, would become seriously soured, but also to make a value judgement which, on the basis of the available evidence, is decidedly at variance with the facts. It is to miss the point that teachers, over many years, and in the face of what in many instances have been continually worsening conditions of service, those striking and otherwise, have steadfastly demonstrated the highest levels of unselfishness and care. Resort to the right to strike in the face of a manifestly legitimate grievance is not reason to demonize them thereby putting at risk any kind of amicable re-engagement. By indicating that government is still searching for funds with which to make what hopefully will be an acceptable offer President Granger himself has indicated that his administration remains in engagement mode as far as the negotiations with the teachers and if that is indeed the case then there is every reason why Minister Scott should be required by his government to withdraw what in the circumstances are remarks that are not only inappropriate but decidedly incendiary.