A teacher's realityTuesday, August 03, 2021
BY MICHAEL HUGGAN
Sometime ago, having made the decision to enter into this most noble profession, I vividly recall an older, experienced individual's remarks. Having shared my decision to become a teacher, his feedback was in the vernacular. It went like this: “Teacha! Teacha? Smady can tun teacha? Hungry wi kill yu. Affa dat cyaa feed yu family pon dat deh money deh.”
Fast-forward to today and I have now served more than a decade in teaching and gleefully, I can say that I haven't died of “hungry”. It is early days, yes, as I still have another two decades to go. You'll never know. So, what have I learnt from the hidden curriculum of the teaching profession, and is there any truth to that individual's pronouncement about becoming a teacher?
The Ministry of Education employs around 23,811 teachers in the public service. Of that number, 18,869 are females and 4,942 are males, according to a report published by the Statistical Institute of Jamaica in 2016. The statistical data also highlight a disturbing trend in which there is an annual decline in the number of teachers in the service. The average salary of a medical doctor is $4,250,764, in contrast to that of the classroom teacher which is $1,775,282. Could this disparity in salary be one of a number of push factors contributing to the exodus of teachers from the profession?
Let us examine some of the dilemmas faced in the teaching profession and the probable effect on the sector.
A lack of prestige
In this modern society, teaching has seemingly lost some amount of its lustre. Many people would disagree with this but the education profession does not have the same cachet compared to the medical or legal field, if the conventional definition of status is taken into consideration.
The teaching profession has become overburdened with non-teaching duties unbeknownst to the casual observer. Teachers are tasked with greater clerical, administrative, health and childcare responsibilities. These responsibilities, unfortunately, curtail the amount of time teachers have to invest in what is supposed to be their core function — facilitating the academic development of their students and pursing their own professional development as subject matter experts. Ironically, in this type of scenario, the school administrators are seen as having the prestige and are deemed educational experts because they have taken on more than their share of directing the pedagogical direction of schools almost to the complete exclusion of the teachers, who have been bogged down with other activities.
Teaching is certainly not esteemed for its financial rewards as my friend emphasised before. It can be convincingly argued that the low salary paid to a teacher contributes to how the profession is perceived.
The media usually covers the negotiation cycle for improvement in wage and fringe benefits for teachers like that of no other profession. This coverage is not well received in some quarters of society, where it is believed that seeking to improve wages is an overreach by “greedy teachers”. However, the media coverage of the wage negotiations for the medical doctor, for example, does not stir up the same frenzy as that of the teacher. This may stem from the ignorance of the salary disparity between various public sector groups.
Notwithstanding, the Jamaica Teachers' Association, acting on behalf of its members, has worked assiduously to make the salaries of teachers equal to, or comparable with, those of our public sector counterparts holding the same qualifications.
Retention of teachers
I would argue that the majority of the individuals entering the profession do so out of the passion they feel for teaching the nation's children, and those who never had that passion have been slowly infected by it.
Who can resist the allure of becoming a role model or a mentor to the youth? Teaching is synonymous with the care and nurturing of young minds. Indeed, it takes some amount of patience to shape these children into civic-minded and productive citizens.
It, however, becomes easy to forget the reason you first fell in love with teaching when faced with the many difficulties that accompany the profession. I want you to visualise working in an institution and giving your best, despite overcrowded classrooms that are poorly ventilated and limited resources, while still having to perform miracles with some students who see the education process as tedious and unfulfilling.
Additionally, some parents have lofty expectations of their children because of the narrative that is articulated by some sections of the society, even though their children may not possess the academic ability to reach the dizzying heights anticipated. It is no wonder that so many of my frustrated colleagues succumb to the the promise of greener pastures in foreign counties.
It is ironic that the stakeholders who should provide the partnerships and be responsible for fanning the flames of passion for teaching are the same ones who attempt to inoculate the teacher with the vaccine that will ensure their passion dies. I am happy to say that I have naturally acquired immunity. Maybe I am a fool. Maybe 'a di hungry jus fly up inna mi head, but mi good', and I feel a real sense of pride when somebody says, “Yu a real teacha enuh yute.”
In concluding, the issues addressed are deep-rooted in tradition, spanning generations, and form the core of the dilemma faced by teachers. A large-scale social change is needed to alter this mindset, which demonstrates an unwillingness to place teaching at the zenith of the professional landscape.
There is consensus that teachers' salaries are low, and this is a significant part of the problem. The solution is simple in principle, but still proves elusive. An across-the-board increase in salary would be fiscally expensive. Notwithstanding this, all the stakeholders in the education system must, ultimately, pay attention to the opportunity cost of “doing the right thing”.
We want to take a step back from the old-fashioned, stereotypical way of thinking and come to appreciate that all the professionals we revere were seated in a classroom where a soft, nurturing voice guided their walk to becoming the men and women they are today.
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