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Fred van Leeuwen: An autonomous teaching profession | Pt.3

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Fred van Leeuwen Fred van Leeuwen JIS Photo
Fred van Leeuwen: An autonomous teaching profession | Pt.3 The following is Part III of a three-part edited version of a presentation by General Secretary of Education International Mr Fred van Leeuwen, who was the keynote speaker at the Jamaica Teachers’ Association Education Conference held in Montego Bay, April 18-20, 2017.

The messages of the recommendation are more necessary than ever. To protect teachers and to help them strengthen their profession. We have to ensure, however, that the recommendation comes out of the shadows. We need to work harder to bring it alive. The recommendation on the status of teachers is in fact the recommendation on the future of children. We must stand up for their right to have access to a rigorous, rich curriculum, taught by well supported qualified teachers in safe environments conducive to good teaching and learning.

There are some positive signs. Influential organizations such as UNESCO, ILO and OECD, as well as a growing number of internationally renowned academics, are closing ranks with Education International. In the battle of arguments on the future of education and the strengthening of the teaching profession they have moved to our side of the aisle, are subscribing to our view that governments must take their responsibility and protect and improve their public school systems by funding them properly, respect the rights of teachers and help strengthen the teaching profession. Strengthening the profession means more professional freedom for the classroom teacher. To achieve quality teaching and learning we need an autonomous teaching profession.

I am sure you are with me when I say that we live in turbulent times. The world is in crisis, one challenging the strength of our democratic institutions, a crisis also, if you will, of half-truths and outright lies.

One of the best ways to counter these turbulent times is to invest in those who work to impart truth: our teachers. And If there is one more thing that the teaching profession is integral to, it is the transfer of democratic and human rights values in our societies.

Obviously, there is a corollary to the famous Delors report I mentioned earlier of learning to know, be, do and live together...it is TEACHING to know, do, be, and live together. In many ways this forms the core of our professional obligations and of our responsibility to our students, to our societies and to truth itself.

There is a social, human dynamic at the core of quality teaching and learning. Teachers are part of the glue that holds society together. They create bonds within groups and create the bridges across groups and communities. Nation building, but also peace, are essential mandates and functions for education. This makes teachers vulnerable. Sometimes they are squeezed between political groupings, caught between ethnic, linguistic and religious rivalries, or targeted by public authorities, as we have seen in Turkey recently. And not only there. In some democratic nations which claim that teachers’ professional freedom and space are essential to quality teaching and learning, they are decreasing that space, and limiting that freedom, for example by imposing one particular history syllabus or, even worse, have ideology creep into the curriculum.

We see our tasks in line with John Deweys seminal text on Education for Democracy where it is the role of the profession to ensure that students grow up to be critical thinking and informed citizens who make informed decisions on fact and not on political ideology.

We take this responsibility even more seriously in the face of rising trends in some jurisdictions to undermine the fifth estate, the free press, as they question and inform our societies. Media literacy in fact has become a key concern of the teaching profession the world over in light of the rise of fake news and isolated opinion bubbles of reinforced propaganda.

Therefore, we must make it perfectly clear that we have the right to use our professional discretion to interrogate and outright reject curricular directives that defy facts, falsify history, or lead to ethnocentrism, intolerance and hate.

Whether that means rejecting curricula written by the non-renewable fuel industry about clean coal and climate change, by ‘Big Tobacco’ about good health or history written by racists, we will be in pursuit of the true and the good, the fair and the just before all else.

This is how serious we take our obligation to our professional and human values as this is what society expects of us and what we expect of each other. Beyond left and right there is true and false and it is our responsibility to prepare future generations to know the difference.

We need to regain full control of our profession

A key characteristic of a profession, any profession, is that its standards, principles and objectives are determined by its members. Doctors, architects, lawyers, to give some examples, set their own professional standards, within legal frameworks defined by the public authorities. But we, teachers, educators, seem to be gradually losing our identity as, what Jacques Delors, former Head of the European Commission, once called, the noblest of professions. I put the question to you today: Are we being transformed from a teaching profession into a teaching force directed by strict marching orders?

Colleagues, de-professionalization is, I believe, one of the main challenges facing our sector today. The writing is on the wall.

There are seven signs, signals, or perhaps I should say “plagues”, which pose a serious threat to the future of our profession and its capacity to ensure high quality teaching. Number one: the influx of unqualified teachers; number two: the casualization of teaching; number three: the growing gap between teachers’ pay and remuneration in other sectors; number four: the restriction of teachers’ autonomy; number five: the rapid spread of standardized testing; number six: (mechanistic forms of) high stake teachers’ evaluation; and number seven: private sector management practices sneaking into our educational institutions. It all points in the same direction, conveying one troublesome message: Education Is Too Important To Leave To Teachers.

I believe that our profession is our most valuable asset, our most effective weapon to realize our democratic ideals and aspirations. We should not allow outsiders, self-proclaimed experts, consultancy agencies, and corporations to determine our professional standards. For that reason we have started developing our own international guidelines for the teaching profession that will help member organizations to take the lead in setting professional standards in their countries. There is no contradiction between our professional aspirations and the terms, employment conditions and trade union rights we want to achieve. They are complimentary. Whether we call ourselves education unions or professional associations, all of our affiliates have this dual objective of improving the status of teachers and of improving education quality.

In 2015 the international community agreed on a path to create a better, just world. The sustainable development goals reflect the world we want. When I look through all of the 17 goals, from gender equality, to clean water and the eradication of poverty, I see the education goal as a central component in all of them. From the earliest age to advanced university and tertiary studies, education is an equaliser, it lifts people out of poverty, and it fuels innovation. We are certain that the pathway to a sustainable future travels through the classroom.

We face in so many countries, more than ever, I believe, a crossing of the roads. One path leads towards de-professionalization, weakening of our public schools, privatization, commercialization and continuing inequity in society.

The other road leads to a new vision for the teaching profession, quality education for all, equity, justice and sustainable growth.

My key message is this: We are not, must not, be mere bystanders watching to see which road our governments will take. We are a movement of proposition. Through the union movement, through a united profession, through our impact on public opinion, we can muster the strength to have our elected representatives to make the right choices.

So this is the time for us to work together and go on the offensive – nationally, regionally and globally. Colleagues, let us be very clear: The stakes are high. One: Democracy and human rights are not a gift of nature, they are battles to be won every single day. Two: A new global economy must be built on a stronger foundation – based on the education, the skills and the capacities of citizens. Professor Fernando Reimers, dean of the global education faculty of Harvard University, and a good friend of EI, wrote a couple of months ago, commenting on the state of our planet, ‘The way things will go in the world rests on what teachers do.’ I think he is right.

Together, through our education unions and in solidarity with others, we can make a difference. That conviction – that we can make a difference – must drive us forward. Quality public education and solidarity are powerful weapons. Solidarity between nations, solidarity between trade unions, solidarity between people. And quality education for everybody.

We must be optimistic. We have no other choice as educators. Education International counts on all of you, like you can continue counting on us.

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