At a recent conference in the north of England some two or three hundred local politicians, directors of education, and a smattering of trade unionists and teachers attended a conference with Maestro Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and an inspirational speaker on leadership.
He stood before us on the stage and exhorted us to “give everyone an ‘A’,” to practice “one-buttock living”—an allusion to the style of an inspired piano player. And, above all, he cautioned us to avoid “downward spiral thinking” and concentrate instead on the “art of possibility.”
He had us off our chairs singing. He made us cry by playing a Chopin prelude and urging us to think of someone we loved who has died. Everyone was dewy-eyed just imagining the potential. The maestro was moved, exhilarated. Then he asked for questions. One of the few teachers in the audience raised her hand.
“One of our big problems in the U.K., Maestro, is poor pupil behavior. How do you think we should tackle this?”
“There you are,” the Maestro replied quickly, “Typical downward spiral thinking. Don’t think of it as bad behavior; think of it as possibilities!”
The audience clapped, they hooted, they laughed.
The teacher was clearly using two buttocks to sit on and did not deserve an ‘A’—a typical whining teacher, unprepared for the infinite possibilities of education.
But this is what is happening to teachers all over the world: Our voices are marginalized, and if they are listened to at all, they are dismissed as reactionary. The best of our progressive ideas have been hijacked and turned into gobbledygook to be used against us.
The questioning teacher had made the mistake of asking someone who knew almost nothing about education for some tips. And this is the other problem: Instead of standing up for ourselves, teachers too often fall for the rhetoric and allow ourselves to be bullied into silence and compliance.
The State of the Profession
The reality is that we are often teaching children in the most difficult circumstances. In South Africa, there are teachers with classes of 100, sometimes teaching under trees or in churches. In Turkey, teachers who wish to teach the Kurdish language are making themselves liable to imprisonment, and their union, Egitem Sen, is being threatened with illegality. In Australia, teachers in remote schools are working in reservations hundreds of miles from the nearest town, far from the culture with which they are familiar and largely cut off from the aboriginal culture in which they are working. In the United Kingdom, teachers are working in schools on estates where the police will only patrol in pairs. In the favellas of Rio de Janeiro there are schools in areas considered much too dangerous for tourists to enter.
In Germany, teachers in Hauptschulen (high schools) are taking classes of children who are branded as academic failures even before they start at their secondary schools. In the Caribbean, teachers are struggling for the right to a proper teacher training. In the Gaza strip, teachers and their pupils are hiding under desks to escape from bullets. And in Indonesia, in the wake of the tsunami, teachers are struggling to provide education for traumatized children in ruined school buildings.
Despite the most difficult of circumstances, millions of teachers around the world are doing their best to educate children in societies torn by poverty, division, disaster, and war—and more often than not in situations where governments either can’t or won’t provide the resources needed.
Yet governments need their populations to be educated. As Tony Blair so revealingly put it recently, “Education used to be regarded as a social good. Now it is an economic necessity.”
The State of the Unions
So in a situation where unions are fighting for education, and governments of all varieties accept the need for it, we should be in a very favorable situation.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case. All over the world, education is becoming a commodity.
Corporations are raking in huge profits from education. In the United Kingdom, there’s the Private Finance Initiative. The private school sector is blossoming in Australia, in South Africa, in Jamaica, to name just a few. Vouchers and charters are proliferating in the United States. In Turkey, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is interfering with teacher education. Global capital is getting its hands on this potentially huge market opportunity.
In Zambia, the collapse of the copper industry has turned a highly successful education system into one forced by the IMF to cut teachers’ pay and where the amount spent on education is a fraction of that spent on servicing the national debt. Iraq’s education system, which had won a UNESCO prize, has been reduced to rubble by two wars and the sanctions regime in the 1990s. From North to South, teachers are meeting the ugly face of globalization.
For the last year, I have been the president of the National Union of Teachers in the United Kingdom. I have had the opportunity to visit teacher unions all over the world. In every single country, from the richest to the poorest, the same items are on their agendas: quality control, accountability measures, performance-related pay, and standardized tests. Too often our unions and teachers are accepting aspects of these things uncritically, blaming themselves for the shortcomings in their schools when the fault lies not with them but with the governments that are abdicating their duties to provide education.
I attended a conference in the United Kingdom recently where we were told that the “good years” for funding were over, and now is the time to “extract more productivity from static budgets.” If we argue the obvious truth that teaching children in shabby buildings and in oversized classes is not good enough, we’re accused of being dinosaurs, of not thinking outside the box and of wanting to “throw money at the problem.”
Public education is at a crossroads. The world recognizes that all children deserve an education. The international community has set the relatively modest goal of universal primary education for all by 2015. But there is a very real danger that this opportunity will be used to further the interests of those who see schools as sausage factories, churning out profits from their product.
Are teachers in a position to combat the seemingly inexorable march of corporate globalization? Though it will be a long fight, I believe that if we are united, we can do it. One of globalization’s most effective weapons has been the ability of firms to export jobs from relatively well-paid and well-organized workforces in the North to low-paid and unorganized workforces in the South. But to a large extent, the nature of our work protects teachers from these forces. If a car firm in Coventry or a factory in Texas decides to close down its operations and move to Asia, there is little the workers can do except protest. Teachers’ jobs on the other hand cannot be exported. Although governments and private companies have attempted to break teacher trade unionism through such measures as local pay determination and the de-professionalization of teachers, they have a long way to go before they succeed.
In the meantime, teachers and teacher unions have it in their power to reverse the drive towards privatization and to fight for proper publicly funded education.
And, as teachers, we have an added bonus: Corporations can try all they like to control education to produce unquestioning, quiescent workers, but we have the ability to ensure that we educate young people to develop a proper understanding of the world and to make their voices heard. In our positions as teachers and teacher trade unionists, we can and must exercise our historic responsibility to the children of the world and the teachers of the future. We can ensure that education will enable children to live full and rich lives through properly funded public education systems.