Sunday 21 April 2024

What’s really happening in the education sector?

This column first appeared in Malta Today

We were informed through a PQ this week that, over the past 12 weeks, six teachers have resigned from primary schools and seven from secondary and other levels. The Government was quick to counter this information by pointing out that all the teachers have since been replaced.

The report ended with the usual rhetoric: “The Ministry said it had proposed substantial rises for educators in its talks with the MUT. Educators, it said, would benefit from a suitable and sustainable raise and an improvement in their conditions of work.”

Be that as it may, every day I read posts by teachers who are ready to call it quits, leave their jobs and start afresh in a new field. They are at their wits’ end, demoralised, underpaid and under-appreciated. Despite the one day strike on 27 November of last year, it seems nothing has shifted, nothing has changed and no progress has been made in the negotiations. For let’s face it, if the Ministry’s statement were actually true, why would so many teachers openly declare their intention to completely change their career path a mere week after the scholastic year started again after the Christmas holidays? One would think they would be back in their classrooms, rested and refreshed and ready to face the challenges of a new term. Instead, it seems that the time away from their workplace has only served to reinforce their disillusionment and (unfortunately, for everyone concerned) they have started to dread waking up in the morning. Rather than looking forward to going back to work, their resolve to throw in the towel has been strengthened, and they seem more determined to leave than ever before.

I think we would all agree that there is nothing worse than hating one’s job, for whatever reason. It’s bad enough if it is an office job, but imagine how trapped one must feel day in, day out, having to face students and deliver a lesson, when your heart is no longer in it. Certainly, one’s financial commitments might prevent you from taking the drastic step to leave but, when it comes to the teaching profession, it’s not just the income which might make you think twice. There are also the child care arrangements one has to figure out when your new job no longer fits in with the school holidays. So the fact that so many teachers are resigning points to a very real crisis which is not only not being addressed by the government but seems to be getting worse.

Teachers speak about the constant changes to the syllabus, the difficult task of covering the entire syllabus within the expected timeframe, the endless administrative work which keeps increasing their workload, and above all, the way children’s unruly behaviour keeps getting worse, with little to no support from the authorities and laissez-faire parents.The daily stress and lack of respect towards their professional status ends up becoming the last straw for many….so they leave.

This exodus from teaching is extremely worrying because education is a specialised field which requires specialisation and pedagogical skills. Not everyone who has a degree in a subject necessarily knows how to teach it. If one does try to fill the vacant spots with stop gap measures what you will end up with are woefully unqualified personnel, who are completely out of their depth, which will have repercussions on the children and adolescents to whom they are meant to be imparting knowledge.

Much like the health care profession, I believe that the teaching profession is one sector which needs to be well-paid if we are to avoid further resignations. We cannot afford to lose any more teachers (just like we cannot afford to lose any more nurses) and there needs to be a concerted drive to attract the best and the brightest to these essential roles. But, as the teachers themselves have been saying repeatedly, it is not simply the money, but the constant changes and reforms which make it difficult to have any form of continuity. Then there is the increased administrative work which is often mentioned: what is the reason behind making teachers fill out so many reports and paperwork when their time would be better spent coming up with creative ways to teach their respective subjects?

I know teachers often get a bad rap when they complain, and are sometimes told to “suck it up” since they have so many school holidays. But I think those who cannot empathise with teachers have never actually faced or tried to control a classroom (especially one which is composed of children or teenagers who simply do not want to be there). Personally, the idea of having to cope in that situation would be enough to make me reach for some Valium. The profession has also become much harder because parents often do not support “what the teacher says” but on the contrary, actually undermine them.

I recently came across a cartoon which illustrates this perfectly: the first image is dated 1960 and shows parents yelling at their child who brought home an “F” telling him, “these grades are terrible!”. The second image, dated 2010, shows the parents AND the child, waving the same “F’ grade, yelling at a terrified teacher, using the same exact phrase, “these grades are terrible!”

The cartoon perfectly encapsulates how the tables have turned and how the balance of power now no longer rests with what used to be the authoritative role of the teacher. Instead, the children and parents now storm in and berate the teacher for failing their precious Johnny and demand an upgrade, even though he does not deserve it. It is a twist of events which is symptomatic of so many things which have become flawed in society and which often repeat themselves at the workplace. For, no matter how much we would like to think otherwise, it is at school that we get our first taste of what it will be like when we eventually join the workforce: we learn what it is like to have to attend every day whether we like it or not, to obey the rules, to adhere to discipline, to do what is expected of us, to understand obligations and responsibilities and to be tested on our aptitude. The reward at school for diligence and hard work is a good grade; the reward at work is (or should be) a good pay cheque.

Devaluating and diminishing the role of teachers will only have a domino effect on the type of employees we will end up with in the future. In fact, the effects of this are already being felt today – just ask any employer.