If government values teachers, it should show them more respect | Marco Bonnici

MUT president MARCO BONNICI warns that the education sector should brace itself for more staff shortages, in future… if government continues to foster a ‘culture of disrespect’, towards the teaching profession

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the state of education in Malta: partly, in response to recent Eurobarometer surveys, which indicate a mismatch in academic performance between State and private schools. You have contributed through a number of press articles: most of which, however, focus on much more specific, ‘ground-level’ problems’… including ‘staff shortages’, ‘saturation’, and ‘mobility’. Would I be right, then, in concluding that the Malta Union of Teachers is impatient, with a discussion that seems to ignore the real issues faced by teachers on a daily basis?

Let me start by saying that there are always going to be two fundamental aspects, to any discussion about education. On one hand, there is the philosophical aspect: which is concerned with ‘how we should be assisting students, to reach their full potential’.

On the other hand, there’s the purely practical dimension… which basically asks the question, ‘do we have the resources to be able reach that target, in the first place’?

So yes: it is true that, when we discuss ‘education’, there is often a tendency to look a little more at the ‘philosophical’ side of things, than at the concrete practicalities on the ground. And what we often end up saying, as a union, is that: ‘Yes, that is all very important, BUT… to reach that position, you have to first make sure that there is enough manpower, on the ground. And right now… there isn’t, quite frankly.’

Having said this, though: while I agree that that is very often the case, in Malta… it doesn’t necessarily apply to the discussion you alluded to in your question. These two issues [i.e., the disparity between State and private schools; and the practical shortcomings of the profession] both emerged separately…

So your recent articles were not in response to, say, the one written by Prof. Ronald Sultana in the Times last June, under the headline: ‘Educational apartheid in Malta’?

No, not at all. Even because – when we do officially respond to such issues, as a union – we are usually much more direct in our replies. And we don’t hold back from responding, either. On countless occasions, we have felt the need to officially ‘respond’ to such statements; but no, this wasn’t one of them.

If I was referring to anything at all, it was to another press interview – published before the Sultana article – which, for a change, actually focused on the issue of staff shortages in schools. And I felt it was important to expand on this topic further; because, as I was saying before, there is a tendency to talk about the ‘educational sector’ – and the problems it is facing – as though the sector itself was somehow ‘homogenous’. But it isn’t.

If we’re going to split up the education sector, and look at its component parts: we would have to start with childcare, which is the basis on which we are trying to build its foundations. We have first to look at kindergarten; then primary; then secondary… before moving on up to post-secondary, and tertiary.

Now: the exigencies of each individual segment are all very different. If you ask, me for instance, about ‘staff shortages’ in kindergarten… I would tell you that ‘there aren’t any’. In fact, the problem at kindergarten level is the very opposite: there are qualified, graduated candidates who can’t find a job….

That, I presume, is what you meant by ‘saturation’…

Precisely. If we look at the situation in post-secondary, on the other hand: here, the problem is different; and it probably has more to do with a lack of ‘technical’ people – that is to say, people who are academically qualified enough, to fill certain ‘technical’ vacancies – than with ‘staff shortages’, as such.

In fact, there is no real ‘shortage’ in this segment at all. Whenever there are calls for teaching positions in post-secondary, or tertiary education… there will always be tens of applications, for every vacancy. The problem, very often, is that the candidates’ qualifications will not match the specific skills-set, that is required for that particular position.

It’s an academic mismatch, at the end of the day. There are certain vocational subjects, that simply do not attract as many students as others…

By exclusion, that leaves us with the sectors which ARE currently facing staff shortages: a problem which – as you argued in a previous article – can only be addressed by “a strategy that increases respect: because one of the things that we’ve lost in this sector is respect for the profession”. Could you elaborate on that? Are teachers really abandoning their own vocations… because they don’t feel respected enough?

There are various factors affecting the teacher shortage, right now. The lack of respect is certainly one of them – and I’ll come back to it shortly – but again: we have to also look at the practical issues, on the ground.

In the article you’ve been quoting, I mentioned another area which needs urgent attention: ‘mobility’. Because another thing that we tend to forget, when discussing education, is that the sector itself does not exist ‘in a vacuum’. It also exists in competition with all other sectors.   

In fact, one thing we’ve been pushing for – and we’re moving in that direction; though we haven’t got there, yet – is the possibility of recruiting people, from other professions, to take up a career in teaching. There may be people, out there, who are – for argument’s sake – ‘tired’ of their present employment; and given the right incentives, and training, these people may be enticed to join our own profession, as teachers.

Now: is this happening? Yes… but not quickly enough. Unfortunately, however: much more often, it tends to happen the other way round. Nowadays, the private [non-educational] sector is managing to attract a lot of people away from the teaching profession, just by offering better salaries and financial packages.

Take the case of an Information Technology teacher, for instance; who is approached by a private company, to work as an IT technician, or consultant, etc. The chances are that the teacher will, in fact, take up the offer. Because the education sector, with its current salary structure, cannot realistically compete, with the sort of financial packages offered by the private sector…

But surely, there is more to the teaching profession that just the salary? I was under the impression that most people are attracted to that profession, by the ‘job satisfaction’… the personal interaction with students… the desire to (as you put it) ‘help people reach their full potential’…

Yes: that’s precisely what I was coming to. There is also an element of ‘gratification’ involved. So let’s go back to that choice, between ‘being an IT teacher’, and ‘working for a IT company’. What’s actually involved in the decision?

Let’s say I go for the ‘teacher’ option. The first thing I would consider is that: the general ‘respect’, towards that profession, is… what it is, basically. Then, there’s the financial package: which, in the case of a teacher, is pegged to the Public Service salary-scale. So that, too, ‘is what it is’…

The private sector, on the other hand, can offer me a much better financial incentive, to quit my job: anywhere up to double a teacher’s salary, if not more. And while it is true, that I would also be losing some of the ‘flexibility’ that comes with teaching… when you weigh everything up in the same scale, what emerges is that it is the salary difference – not the ‘job satisfaction’ – that usually ends up swaying the decision, in the private sector’s favour.

Ultimately, the financial package remains the basis of everything. That is, I think, is one of the main reasons our profession is failing to attract as many people, today. The financial package is simply no longer competitive: especially, when it comes to certain specific sectors.

This also explains why the staff shortages tend to affect some subjects, a lot more than others. Maths? Those teachers are being attracted to I-gaming; financial services, and so on. We’ve already mentioned IT… but it can be extended to ‘sciences’ as a whole. Today, there are many private laboratories, where people can pursue a career in scientific research.

And it’s affecting languages, too. We are noticing, for example, that a lot of people with language qualifications are now seeking positions – mostly, at European Union level – as translators, interpreters, and so on.

Put it all together, and automatically, you are going to end up with a severe shortage of teachers, across the board. Especially now, as we are coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic…

Excuse my ignorance, but… what has the pandemic got to do with this, exactly?

Let’s look back at what happened, over the past two years. During the pandemic, there was a slow-down in ‘external mobility’, throughout the sector. Owing to the restrictions, and uncertainties, very few people joined the teaching profession, from the outside, between March 2020 and this year. At the same time, though: very few teachers left, either… for the same reason. There was too much uncertainty, at the time, to be thinking of a ‘change in career’.

Now, however, all this looks set to change. We’re already seeing certain ‘movements’, here and there, this summer: how many teachers are applying for ‘study leave’, for instance… possibly, with a view to changing career. Because it’s bound to happen, really. People are most likely reasoning that: “I’ve waited patiently, for the two-and-a-half years of the pandemic; but now, if an opportunity arises… I’ll take it!”

And what this effectively means, is that we can expect the staff shortages to get much worse, in the near future. Because what we experienced, in these past two years, was really just an ‘illusion’. If people didn’t abandon the teaching profession, in the same numbers as before… it was mainly because ‘they simply couldn’t’. There was nowhere for them to actually go…

Coming back to the financial package: you yourself acknowledged that it is ‘pegged to the civil service scale’; which places automatic limits on what the government can do, in practical terms, to improve teachers’ salaries. What other options are we left with, to tackle the shortage? What SHOULD government be doing… and how does it compare with what (if anything) it is actually doing, right now?

Let’s start with the ‘should’ part. What should government be doing? I would say that the first thing it should do, is to re-establish a culture of respect towards the teaching profession. And this can only be done, if the government starts showing some respect towards our profession, itself.

In other words: if the government continues to insist on taking all the relevant decisions itself – in a centralised manner; and without any input from the educators themselves: who are the ones actually in the classroom; and who know, from experience, what the exigencies of students really are – all it would mean, in practice, is the government doesn’t even ‘trust’ the teaching profession… and therefore, obviously, doesn’t ‘respect’ it, either.   

And if the government itself treats the teaching profession with open disrespect: we can only expect parents - and the wider public in general - to do the same. Because what we end up with, in those circumstances, is a ‘vicious circle’. The government’s lack of respect, breeds disrespect in others.

Now: you also asked me, what is the government doing – or trying to do – about this situation? To be fair, certain steps have been taken, to address this lack of respect. We have had several meetings with the ministry, outlining areas where the government could be setting a better example; and there are indications that the minister has taken note of some of our concerns.

But then, there are also certain ‘incidents’ that – while they may appear ‘small’, to people on the outside – once again, re-open all the existing wounds. There are situations, for instance - and this happens all the time – when parents knock at the minister’s door, to ‘get something they want, done’.  And it could even be something trivial: to give you one example, ‘that their children are allowed to go to school wearing shorts’.

Now: something like that may well appear ‘insignificant’, to most people out there… but then, why did the school not allow those children to ‘wear shorts’ in the first place? Because it has its own policy regarding uniforms - a ‘dress-code’, which was agreed upon by everybody; and as such, should be respected by everyone – and also because, as a school, it has to apply the same rules to everybody, equally.

But if a politician suddenly comes along and says: ‘No! That child has to be allowed to come to school wearing shorts! Because that’s what I decided!’… right there, he would be undermining the entire authority of the school; and exposing the entire profession to more public contempt, and ridicule.

And the example I just gave you, by the way, is real. It happened; and very recently, too… but still: it’s only one small example, of the sort of thing that happens all the time; and which continues to erode the morale of the entire profession.