Transforming teacher unions

Transforming teacher unions

Submitted by alvin on Sat, 2016-07-23 13:36 I was invited to be part of an event to mark the starting of a Teacher Learning Centre in one of the eight educational blocks of Mandya district last year.I sat alongside the DIET Principal, the taluk Block Education Officer, the vice-president of the state teacher association (who is also the district president of the larger government employees association), the taluk teacher association president and my colleague, the head of the Azim Premji Foundation’s district institute. More than 100 teachers had gathered at the premises of the block resource centre, the venue of the programme, as the occasion was also used to orient the teachers on how they could make use of the centre for their professional development.As one of the teachers stood up to welcome the invitees and set the context, the powerful vice-president of the state teacher association almost threatened to walk out of the event for not following protocol. The BEO had to genuinely apologise and pacify the leader to prevent a great deal of embarrassment, assuring him that he would make sure that the mistake does not recur in future! I could quickly make sense of what was transpiring between them (as I was ironically placed right in the middle, alongside the helpless DIET Principal!), even while the unassuming teacher was going through her address.The association president was visibly miffed on two counts: first that the BEO himself did not make the welcome address and second, that the teacher had failed in her address to welcome him at the beginning, probably immediately following that of the DIET Principal’s.Subsequently, the whole programme went on smoothly but the above incident brought back to me memories of my earlier stint in the industrial sector, wherein trade union leaders would similarly show their clout with the manufacturing heads and shop-floor managers to score brownie points with their followers.  The clout teacher unions have amongst government employees in Karnataka can be gauged from the fact that out of a total of 5.4 lakh government employees, teachers constitute a significant 2.2 lakh (roughly over 40� All political parties are wary of them as they form a significant vote bank, and have potentially become influential opinion makers. Perhaps taking advantage of the vulnerability of the political establishment, teacher unions have become stronger in the last few years under the patronage of various political parties.Even at the taluk level, there are multiple teacher unions catering separately to teachers of primary, secondary, and senior secondary levels, with the Head Teachers Association retaining its distinct identity from those of teachers. The total teacher union membership in a taluk would approximately be around 700-800, and in a district with say 5 taluks, this number would go up to 4,000.Roughly 15-20�embers of these unions are ‘politically active’, not only being the close followers of leaders but enormously influencing their leaders’ actions. They will be the best placed to corner all the benefits from the government through these leaders, be it transfers, postings, deputations, appointment of guest teachers etc., besides fighting for lighter work schedules and greater say in the decision making process.Apart from 12-15 of the current taluk level office-bearers, a few more ex office-bearers too gain advantage of their dominant position in the system and avoid teaching regularly in their schools, defeating the very purpose for which they were employed by the government. In their own schools, they would play truant or would be seen loitering around the offices of the BEO, BRC and other education functionaries, or with the office-bearers, forever acting as vigilant ‘watch dogs’. They thus shift their responsibility of teaching the children onto the remaining teachers, turning their own schools into single- or two-teacher schools.The leaders expect that they are consulted on all important issues concerning educational administration by the district and taluk level officers. On their part, most of the officers treat them with a lot of circumspection, fearing that their day to day functioning may get disrupted.At the state level, the teacher association leaders have close access to the education minister and the top bureaucrats, frequently taking up issues on behalf of the teaching community. Due to their political clout, they demand and receive pride of place in the corridors of power.However, a simple look at the kind of issues they take up leaves anyone genuinely interested in education disappointed. They mostly bring up issues pertaining to teachers’ benefits and service conditions. No right thinking individual has any serious objection with their cause as the teachers’ professional identity has to be protected, but the objection is that they don’t look beyond their limited ‘here and now’ self-centered approach.Teacher unions rarely participate in any serious discourse that impacts the quality of education. For instance, in the recent past, the unions have vehemently argued in favour of taking a relook at the Nali-Kali system, arguing that it caused extra burden on the lower primary teachers.A more constructive approach from them would have been to go a few steps forward in understanding the real challenges facing teachers: whether the existing processes were facilitating the teachers on the ground to transact effectively, whether the learning materials were reaching all schools in adequate quantity and in time, whether the teachers needed any refresher training and additional support on the ground or whether the existing academic support structure was fulfilling its mandate reasonably well.The same lackadaisical approach could be seen from the unions in many other critical aspects that impinge on educational quality in the long term, be it contributing their ideas towards the new education policy, exerting pressure on the government to fill vacant teacher positions, deploying at least one teacher per class, consolidation of neighbourhood schools for providing conducive learning environment for children, improving the quality of in-service training for teachers or simply demanding improved budgetary allocations for school education.Unions have a greater moral responsibility in the current times than at any juncture in the past — to arrest the declining trend of children’s enrolment in government schools and in restoring the confidence of parents and communities in the public education system.              Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has long been a staunch votary of unions’ pro-active role in bringing about desirable change in the socio-economic fabric of the country. Pratichi trust—set up by him in West Bengal (from the earnings from the Nobel award) to improve educational and health opportunities for the marginalised—has involved unions in its mission.In his inaugural Hiren Mukerjee lecture, delivered in the central hall of the Parliament in August 2008, Sen had pointed out that though a small proportion of the organised sector workforce is unionised, nearly everyone is affected by their activities across health, education, postal, railway, and a host of other services.Sen argued that instead of either showing unconcealed disdain towards unions (in view of them being a nuisance) or being too nice to them (requiring no alteration), a constructive partnership should be evolved, wherein unions play an integrative role and not merely serve as watch dogs of partisan interest. He termed it as public responsibility of the unionised workforce, linking with rightful recognition of its constructive capacity. The neglect of teaching responsibility—revealed in the prevalence of high incidence of absenteeism, reliance on private tuition, need for paying greater attention to the content and style of teaching, and of regular discussion in parent-teacher meetings—would profoundly affect the schooling of poor and underprivileged children. These issues have been sought to be addressed with unions’ involvement.Unions have a role in reforming the work culture and cultivating accountability among teachers. Though it is a humongous challenge to get the active cooperation of unions in bringing about necessary changes across the board, it is very much possible if we go by Pratichi trust’s experience with the All Bengal Primary school teachers’ association (affiliated to the CPI-M) — by far the largest union of private school teachers in West Bengal.            Playright Bernard Shaw had said, “The most sensible man is my tailor for he is the only one who takes fresh measurements every time I go to him.”Perhaps it is time for teacher unions to reflect deeply on what their role should be in the national reconstruction.