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Ridding Our Schools of Errant Teachers

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
June 13, 2012

There can be no doubt that a teacher's job is fraught with great anxiety and the competing demands of their professional responsibilities and the rapidly changing social climate. However any observant reader must be alarmed by the concerns of Tim Gopeesingh, Minister of Education, when he says that errant teachers must be disciplined. If teaching is merely a job to them, then any other job would do since the ultimate purpose of a job is to take care of one's basic needs (eating, drinking and surviving) whereas a vocation or a profession has to do with fulfilling of one's life calling. I am aware that a young person today may change jobs as many as six or seven times in his lifetime. I have a feeling that things are a bit different in the professions.

Therefore, I was saddened when Gopeesingh complained that "fifteen per cent of our teachers and more [he does not say how much more] take time beyond their 14 days sick leave and 28 half days casual leave. How long can we continue to accept that?" [Express, June 11]. This situation should be rectified forthwith. Although in the home parents play a primary role in a child's development, many problems of youths can be mitigated through a teacher's commitment to his or her vocation and how he or she behaves in an out of school.

I have been a teacher all of my life. It is the only thing that I have done for the last fifty of my sixty-eight years. I taught in primary schools in Trinidad for six years (1958-64) and at the university level for the last forty two years, taking brief intervals to do my doctorate and an unsuccessful attempt to reenter the Trinidad educational system in the 1980s. Most of what I have learned in terms of discipline and commitment to my field can be attributed to the years I spent as a primary school teacher.

I admit that things have changed since I taught at the primary school level: there are more distractions (both in terms of electronic gadgets and popular culture); standards of discipline have fallen; and respect for teachers has decreased. Added to these are increasing incidents of bullying, school violence, parental and child-abuse of teachers. These factors have made teaching at the primary and secondary school level much more difficult and a more stressful and challenging situation as well.

In spite of these drawbacks, there are three fundamental truths that have remained constant within the profession: teaching is still a noble profession; teachers should still be committed to its ideals; and they should still take pride in what they do. If they do not possess these qualities, they should be drummed out of the profession as quickly as possible and leave room for those who are willing to make a contribution to the nation via the teaching of the nation's school children.

A majority of teachers are living up to their responsibilities and giving over and beyond their capacity but the danger lies in the minority of teachers who are abusing the system. They are not likely to stop their bad behavior if they are not re-educated and the Ministry and the School Boards do not attend to this problem immediately.

The first is a conceptual challenge. Teachers do not have 14 days sick leave and 28 days causal leave to take at will. Teachers have these days at their disposal if they get sick or if there is a dire emergency to which they must attend. Teachers who adopt the attitude that these days are theirs to take as a matter of course regardless of the circumstances may be violating the principle of this provision. Taking these days as a matter of course rather than out of necessity is not only a violation of their contractual obligations but reflects poorly on their professional judgment. It is dishonorable as well.

I don't know how the Education Department organizes its business but at some point it must do so in such a way that a teacher knows how to differentiate between the behavior of a professional and a slave. A professional is self-responsible; a slave only works when a master has a whip hovering over his back to ensure that he does what is required of him.

When a teacher fails to be self-responsible then the regulations ought to be enforced. Anyone one who violates the rules of the organization during his probation should not be given a permanent job. Anyone who takes an excess of sick days and half-day leaves during his probation period should be looked at carefully, subjected to a serious talk, and be told that if he repeats this behavior he has no future in the profession.

If he/she violates these structures within the first year of teaching he/she should be fired. There is no other way around this. If the ministry is unwilling to stand by its own rules then there is no reason why the teacher should respect and obey those rules. Unless teachers understand what it means to be a professional and that the violation of those rules has certain consequences things are not likely to change.

Our teachers have one quarter of a million students under their care. Dumping more money into the profession is not likely to solve the problem although consideration should be given to redirecting more monies into human and technical resources such as employing more guidance professionals. We should also revisit the rules that govern the hiring process and make provisions for sabbaticals for teachers. This will make it more attractive for those who would like to join the profession.

Only a disciplined, professional staff is likely to turn around the shortcomings that confront us. We cannot do without teacher- discipline; conscientiousness; and professional pride. The Ministry must also carry out its function. If it fails to do so, it would be just as culpable as the teachers it supervises.

The Ministry and TTUTA should work together to solve this challenging problem.

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