Yes, teachers need to be valued more

Dealing with children coming from varied backgrounds, each with their individual life stories, aspirations and values, is no easy job. It requires an extraordinary level of commitment and concentration. The least that can be done is for their job to be appreciated in concrete terms

Last Saturday marked UNESCO World Teachers’ Day: an occasion to celebrate the teaching profession worldwide, to take stock of its achievements, and to address some of the issues central for attracting and keeping the brightest minds to the profession.

It is perhaps ironic, that this year’s commemoration of World Teacher’s Day’ coincided with an ongoing national discussion about whether Malta is currently facing a national shortage of professional teachers: as the Education Ministry recently seemed to admit.

Whether this is true on the ground in Maltese schools is as yet unclear. A few weeks ago, Education Minister Evarist Bartolo said the government was considering getting foreign teachers to plug the shortages in the educational system.

Bartolo faced a backlash and the proposal was opposed by the Union of Professional Educators, one of two unions representing educators.

Despite the Education Ministry’s apparent admission of the problem, Finance Minister Edwards Scicluna denied its existence in a subsequent interview on TVM’s Extra.

Asked about the pay packets of educators and the problem of attracting people to the profession, Scicluna explained that Malta had a high teacher-to-student ratio when the overall picture is taken into consideration.

“You won’t hear this from the ministers concerned but we do not have a teacher shortage… I cannot exclude that in some subjects and some schools there are shortages but the overall ratio of teachers to students is high,” Scicluna said.

Nonetheless, the Malta Union of Teachers paints a considerably bleaker picture, which goes well beyond the question of teacher shortages:
“Locally, educators and students are suffering from wrong decisions and mistakes which are being taken by the education authorities. All newly recruited educators in state schools have not been provided with proper resources such as laptops.

This has been caused by delays in the issuing of the procurement process leaving educators without the essential tools to provide the best educational experience to students,” MUT President Marco Bonnici said in a statement issued for World Teacher’s Day.

It is also an undeniable fact that the classroom realities of today are a far cry from the traditional educational models of yesteryear. Teachers, LSEs and kindergarten educators, in particular, are required to be much more than simple ‘educators imparting information’; on many cases they are also expected to double up as frontline social workers, sometimes in very difficult circumstances.

Security in schools has also a major bone of contention: according to Bonnici, “educational authorities have not yet […] allocated the required number of educators to carry out supervision before and after school hours. This seemingly cost-cutting exercise is leaving the most vulnerable students unsupervised. Apart from this, our appeal is once again being made for measures to increase proper security in schools before similar accidents to the ones we had in the past years.”

Clearly, demands on educators have increased over the years, in response to a changing society that values inclusion. Dealing with children coming from varied backgrounds, each with their individual life stories, aspirations and values, is no easy job. It requires an extraordinary level of commitment and concentration. The least that can be done is for their job to be appreciated in concrete terms.

But, equally clearly, the increase in demands and expectations on teachers was not matched by an increase in appreciation, respect and monetary compensation.

In an age when the classroom responsibility of any teacher can extend to identifying (and reporting) suspected cases of domestic abuse; acting as impromptu ‘psychologists’ when faced with depression, or newly diagnosed disorders such as ‘Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder’ (which might, in years gone by, have been regarded as merely ‘extreme naughtiness’)…. whilst also remaining responsible for the already difficult job of educating younger generations… it would not be remiss to revisit teachers’ basic employment conditions.

Current wages do not match the level of responsibility teachers are expected to shoulder. The last collective agreement delivered improved pay packages, but evidently this is not enough.

Within this context it is worth exploring the MUT’s suggestion that the obligatory teaching set-up, from Kindergarten all the way to secondary school, be hived off into a separate agency, similar to University and MCAST. In this way, wages could be pulled out of the stringent public sector wage scales and made to reflect the present-day realities.

But there is also the issue of respect, and for this there is no monetary solution. The lack of respect is more of a societal issue; though it would help if teachers received immediate backing when faced with problematic situations, and action is taken against perpetrators.

Elsewhere, educators are burdened with report-writing that more often than not has no practical value. They sometimes face flak from parents, for trying to discipline their children. They have to deal with endless frustration caused by uncooperative parents, limited resources, and lack of administrative backup.

In view of all this, the meagre remuneration may also reflect the generally low esteem in which teachers are regarded. If so, however, this view does not take into account to full debt society owes to this profession.

If we want a higher standard of education tomorrow, we should start by valuing educators more today.