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The Trouble with Teachers

The other week, there was this public school teacher featured by one of the networks who was cited by her school as one of its most outstanding. The feature was well-meaning and was aired to coincide with the celebration of World Teachers’ Day.

Her story was all too sadly familiar. She woke up at dawn each day to prepare for the rest of the day; gave everything to her students during the school day; and then hurried back home at the end of it to set up a stall somewhere to sell odd things so that she might augment the meagre take-home pay that was due to her as a teacher. Sometimes, she confessed, she had to suffer the indignity of her own students approaching her stall to buy what she had to sell. Because she was also trying to raise a family, she would swallow her pride and hold her head up high, safe in the knowledge that she had not short-changed these very students.

For her principles, for her hard work and for her quality inside the classroom, her school gave her a citation. In fairness, it was probably no more than what she deserved; and she seemed to have enjoyed her brief moment in the limelight. After the news cameras had left, what then? Probably to hurry back home to set up her stall.

Have we not all seen, in our next-door sari-sarî store, this ubiquitous notice written with pentel pen on a hastily cut-out piece of cardboard: “Your credit is good; but your cash is better.” This very Filipino statement, in a metaphorical sense, more or less sums up that poor teacher’s predicament. It also sums up what awards and citations are to talented, dedicated and outstanding teachers.

So, alright! I will not deny that it is “nice” to receive a certificate – never mind that it was probably designed on somebody’s desktop computer, adorned with the most inappropriate decorative fonts, printed on a piece of bond paper and placed inside a cheap off-the-shelf picture frame. Then, the recipient gets something to proudly hang on the wall back home.

But do find me a store that will take a certificate in exchange for a bar of detergent or even a bowl of Lucky Me noodles! I believe we all know the answer to that.

Around the time that that teacher received her citation, there were also groups of teachers who took to the streets to protest their pitiable pay checks. I thought the students who planked on the streets to protest skyrocketing fuel prices were daft; for the teachers who did exactly the same, I have no adjectives. Perhaps I do: desperate.

Why is this government announcing to the public that its anti-corruption campaign is already yielding savings, when public school teachers are protesting that their allowance for chalk is insufficient? Why are we being told that such savings are being earmarked for future infrastructures when the human infrastructure continues to be neglected and under-subsidized? Why are we even talking about a 12-year basic education program when there are not even sufficient funds allocated for something as basic as chalk inside the classroom?

The problem with government – and not only the current one – is that it cannot see what is staring it right in the eye and has definitely not been brave enough to start over if need be.

Who teaches the engineers who build bridges? Who teaches the architects who design buildings? Who teaches the doctors who perform delicate surgeries? Who teaches the programmers who design the applications sitting on your desktop? No prizes, I daresay, for answering these questions.

You would imagine – in a perfect world – that government would want the best minds working as teachers then. And that these teachers would have the best facilities and equipment so that they could nurture the next generation of brilliant minds. What do we have here in this country, exactly, but the opposite?

In the eighties, a now-defunct but brilliant national broadsheet published a well-researched article about what it called “a vicious cycle.” Because teachers were so poorly remunerated – as they continue to be – teaching as a profession was seldom the first choice for senior high school students shopping for careers. This, I have first hand experience of. In 19 years of teaching high school, you can count on the fingers of one hand the number of each graduating class’ best students who went into Education.

It goes without saying that those who eventually did were the ones who could never hope to make it to the Science, Engineering or Medical programs. Therefore, the article went on, those who were going into teaching were basically mediocre students who could not get into the more academically-challenging programs; study to become teachers whilst carrying in their heads the teacher-lang mentality; themselves become mediocre teachers; and then breed a whole new generation of mediocre students to perpetuate the vicious cycle that the article was all about.

The article, of course, was being overly simplistic; and I, having been an educator myself, know for a fact that intellect alone does not guarantee that a teacher will be a good one. One has to admit, though, that the article’s main argument has merits; and especially so since teachers are, after all, in the business of knowledge.

On this basis alone, one wonders why government has made no tangible effort to really make teaching an attractive enough profession for the young to consider. And, for those who actually did become teachers whatever their intellectual levels were, why they are still complaining not only about the pay but also about something as basic to teaching like chalk. Remember that the article was written back in the eighties.

One would imagine that any government that is capable and willing to think long term – instead of only until the end of an incumbency – would have figured out a long time ago that one must-do as a corrective measure to an entire society is the upgrade of the educational system. But guess what; teachers of the present have even resorted to planking.

Not that government alone is responsible for the general sorry state of teaching as a profession and its lack of attractiveness as a choice for the young. Educators themselves can be just as guilty of perpetuating the notion that teaching is a profession for martyrs – with meagre pay and long hours of labour.

When I was still a young teacher back in the eighties and had to attend those countless seminars given by so-called education experts, it was not uncommon for us to be told that if we wanted to become wealthy, we should leave the profession. Fancy that warped sort of thinking! It was an open invitation for those who could to leave! Now, what if we all suddenly stood up and took them up on their suggestion?

Besides, who said anything about wanting to become wealthy? The purpose of seeking employment – in whatever profession – is to be able to sustain one’s self and one’s family, be able to pay the bills and have a little left over for a rainy day; else, what is the point? Believe me, in management – whether in government or within a school – making funds available is always a conscious and deliberate decision. If funds are not being made available for the upgrade of remunerations, then they are being used for something else.

Hearing one young nun, during one seminar about education as a mission, say the same thing was particularly galling. No teacher has to be told of his or her mission to take care of the students. That a teacher knows is a given; albeit, whether he or she lives that mission is a different matter altogether.

However, even as a young teacher, the question that would gnaw at me was who, then, would take care of us teachers? To be perfectly honest, I would wonder if those seminars were being held only to deflect attention away from the fact that schools were defaulting on their responsibilities to take care of their own employees by dumping practically all the burden of education on the teachers; and all the time conditioning them not to expect rewards except those that can be had in the afterlife in Heaven.

Baloney! What would that nun know about life when she was guaranteed at least three meals a day and was taken care of by her religious order till the angels come to sing at her deathbed? To get back to that sari-sarî store sign… God’s graces are all well and good; but the teachers still need the cash.

If I owned a school, I will not want my teachers to be setting up some fish-ball cart in the street corner after hours instead of preparing their lessons for the next day. I will not want them to be up to their noses in debt unless they are the capricious sorts who like to spend more than they can afford. I will take pride if they are able to afford decent clothes, eat good food and – if they are savvy with their earnings – perhaps be able to afford cars. At the end of the day, what they are will all reflect back on me, the owner.

I wonder if government – and those in the education industry – ever pauses to think about things this way. You can issue truckloads of citations every Teachers’ Day; but you still only and always get what you pay for. In the final reckoning, it is the quality of those who stand in front of the classroom that will determine the quality of the next generation.

So what is the trouble with teachers, you may wish to ask? If you have not figured it out already, it is that they are – at least in this country – seldom paid enough.

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