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October 2, 2016

When Teachers Strike: I Am Here for Them, Where Are You?

Posted: Sunday, October 2, 2016. 9:43 am CST.

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By Leon Westby: Teachers are not audiobooks. They are not recordings of interesting facts or fascinating literature which students sit and listen to, idly passing time. Teachers are bridges. They close the gap between ignorance and intelligence – schooling our children in the vital art of critical thinking.

As a society, we praise our politicians and government leaders and esteem successful professionals but too often forget that each one of them started out as students under the inspired tutelage of some teacher. Educators are factory workers on a long assembly line putting together the cognitive pieces of what will someday be the brilliant mind of a doctor, lawyer, police or other important public officer and our business leaders. While we reductively class teachers as persons who transfer knowledge that could easily be learnt from reading books, teachers are in fact personally invested in, and responsible for, building a cadre of respectful, productive, community-oriented, and socially conscientious citizens.

Still, some of us struggle to see how the Belize National Teachers’ Union (BTNU) fight against corruption in Government falls within the scope of their labour responsibilities. The BNTU has called on its teachers to strike this Monday, October 3 as a way of compelling GOB to take immediate and meaningful action for a culture change away from corruption in public life and the abuse and ineffective use of government finances.

The government argues that this does not properly constitute a labour dispute under the education rules. While this might be technically correct under the law, we just have to reflect on human slavery and women suffrage to know that not everything technically sound in law is constitutionally right in a democracy.

The plain reality is that corruption maybe the root cause of GOB’s inability to fulfill its promise to teachers for a 3% salary increase and rather than deal superficially with the matter of due recompense the union wants to go to the heart of the problem and work towards more efficient public spending. But that is not the whole of it, and certainly cannot fully entitle teachers to take actions that, in the words of Hon. Michael Finnegan, has the potential of “toppling the Government of Belize.”

Research shows that there is a strong correlation between educational achievement and economic growth as well as suggestive evidence of a causal link between the extent of education in a given population and the wealth of that nation. This makes perfect sense: schools provide the human capital (skilled, thinking workers) that the economy, including the government sector, relies on to generate income. At the risk of oversimplifying the calculus, the more skilled graduates that our teachers can produce the greater our potential as a country for economic success. We also sell this logic, albeit in a different package, to our youths. Children are told that if they apply themselves in school, get that diploma, work arduously, then they will be able to earn an honest living. They will be able to lead that3-bedroom, 2-bathroom house with the nice late model SUV parked out in the front yard kind of life. We condition them from infancy to believe that financial success is a function of educational attainment and hard work. But if we condone and thereby encourage political leadership that is not based on meritocracy, but rather nepotism and political favoritism, then we undermine the foundational principles which fuel teachers’ work ethic and support our educational system.

Teachers will not be able to go into classrooms and tell students to comport themselves like elite professionals when the business reality is that being the son of the Prime Minister may be more sufficient qualification than an experienced MBA to run a multi-million dollar national company. Educators will not be able convincingly convey to students the need for commitment to purpose and integrity in work delivery when public officers with familial connections to Ministers can sit at home on full salary for admitted incompetence. Corruption in public life undermines a teacher’s ability to mold and shape young leaders because it presents an insidious truth that runs contrary to what teachers would have their students believe: honest, hard work does not necessarily pay.

We could also look at the connection between education and the economy in reverse. The research on how poverty constrains classroom success is overwhelming and unnecessary to repeat here. In essence, a poor economy means limited public resources for schools as teachers at Queen Square Anglican could tell you, having had to “beg lodging” at St. John’s Primary for over a year because of the utterly dilapidated state of one of their buildings. But beyond that, widespread poverty means that teachers too often have to deal with hungry students from troubled neighborhoods who have limited emotional energy and psychological presence to be concerned with two old angels sitting on high chatting about heaven nor yet the more obvious things like what makes Boo Radley a mockingbird. That teachers would want a Government that employs it resources in such a way to reduce poverty as much as possible is understandable: corruption and consequent waste of public finances contribute to impossible work conditions for educators.

Now some will say, perhaps fairly so, that this assessment of a teacher’s labour context is overreaching. But to say that teachers are not entitled to fight corruption, as a collective bargaining unit, is in many ways an admission that we as a people undervalue the role they play in building a productive society. They are the gatekeepers, the ones who ferry across leaders from one generation to the next and it is most properly the object of their employment to ensure that the system which our youths transition into is one that functions to the benefit of each and every Belizean, regardless of race, color, or political affiliation. I don’t imagine it is the interest of teachers to see the Government fall, but to see it stand properly on transparency, integrity, and equity. This is why I am here for the teachers when they strike on Monday. My question is, where are you?

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Breaking Belize News.

Leon Westby is employed as a Business Analyst at a leading private sector firm in Belize. His freelance research and writing focuses on youth employment, youth development and civic engagement. He holds a Masters Degree in Environmental Management from Oxford University and an LLB from the University of London. Questions or comments on the article? Email him at [email protected]






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