Michael Abrahams | Sabotaging of our education system (and our country)
Think about it. Not everyone has had to deal with the police. Only some of us have been taken care of by nurses. But everyone has had repeated, often prolonged contact with teachers, from preschool to primary to secondary level. Teachers are one group of professionals with whom we have all had relationships.
Most teachers in this country are civil servants. Unfortunately, they are not well paid. Many struggle to make ends meet. It baffles me how the powers that be can watch teachers fight for a pittance and then turn around and increase their own salaries significantly. Every parliamentarian and every Cabinet minister has benefited from interactions with educators. Teachers have helped to educate them to reach the levels they have attained. How can these people sleep at night knowing that the people who have educated them and are responsible for imparting knowledge to the future leaders of our nation can barely manage?
Teachers had recently been involved in tense negotiations with the Government regarding their salaries. Many felt pressured by Dr Nigel Clarke, minister of finance and the public service, to agree to the proposed wage packages early, as he indicated that if they failed to do so before the end of the 2022-23 fiscal year (March 30) their retroactive payments would take years.
Unexpectedly, in the immediate aftermath of their negotiations, they saw the salaries of parliamentarians and Cabinet ministers skyrocket. Dr Clarke, who dealt with the teachers with a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude, increased his salary from approximately $7.5 million to over $21 million this year. Just like that, his salary tripled in the blink of an eye. His salary increase for this year is enough for him to purchase a luxury vehicle, as is the boost to over $19 million retroactive for last year, and the over $24 million he is set to earn next year.
However, many teachers’ total salary is not enough to afford a car, even on the lower end of the spectrum. For example, a high-school teacher I know, with 30 years of experience in the classroom, will be taking home less than $3 million per year after the recent increase. To make matters worse, Clarke, being a member of the Cabinet, would get perks that teachers would not, such as access to a vehicle and housing.
If you were a teacher, how would you feel? You do not have to be a psychology professor to understand that these actions, especially on the heels of their negotiations, would make many feel angry and demotivated. This scenario is like someone throwing you crumbs and telling you that is all they can manage to offer you, and then, in front of you, while looking in your face, helping themselves to a large slice of pie…and then taking seconds. Indeed, while researching this article, I spoke with several teachers, both at the primary and secondary levels, and all were disgruntled.
Demotivation is endemic among our teachers for many reasons. First, they are not remunerated well. Second, even though their salaries are woefully inadequate, many end up spending their own money on classroom supplies, and the evidence for this is not just anecdotal. For example, a study carried out by the US Department of Education and reported in 2018 found that during the 2014–15 school year, 94 per cent of teachers spent their own money on classroom supplies. In 2022, the National Education Association (NEA) in the United States reported, “Under-resourced schools and the unstated expectation that educators will spend their own money on supplies and equipment are factors that drive educators away from the profession.” Jamaican teachers are no exception; many will tell you that they have also used their money to feed needy children.
Third, our teachers live in an undisciplined, aggressive and violent society, and are faced with this behaviour not just from their students, but also from parents. Fourth, we have a shortage of teachers, which places more pressure on those who remain in the system.
Already plagued with these challenges, the latest pay-hike developments have further demotivated our teachers. And when workers are demotivated, the workplace suffers, leading to a reduction in productivity, a decline in the quality of work, increased absenteeism, high employee turnover, and behavioural and attitudinal changes such as apathy and nonchalance. In the case of teachers, the workplace is our schools. So, when the workplace (the school) suffers, our children suffer, and when our children, our future leaders, suffer, our country suffers.
One of the most worrying situations is the teacher shortage. Just last week, Fayval Williams, minister of education and youth, announced that there will be a shortage of teachers in the next school year, especially for mathematics and science. In fact, a high-school teacher informed me that of the 100 teachers employed by her school, 20 will not return next term. Some had planned to leave before, but for others, the actions of the Government were a catalyst.
COVID-19 negatively affected our children’s education, and the teacher exodus and the above-mentioned challenges are likely to worsen the situation. Already last year, there was a decline in the CSEC pass rates for mathematics, English, physics and chemistry, among others. We appear to be on a downward spiral.
There is no evidence that increasing the salaries of our political directorate will attract people with better quality, as Clarke suggested. It may or may not work. What is a no-brainer, however, is that if the Government takes steps to motivate and incentivise teachers to stay in the profession in Jamaica, the country will benefit. By failing to do so, and by their recent insensitive, callous and selfish behaviour, our leaders are, knowingly or not, sabotaging not just our education system, but also our country.
Michael Abrahams is an obstetrician and gynaecologist, social commentator and human-rights advocate. Send feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @mikeyabrahams.