08 October 2011

World Teachers' Day: Teachers' status

Every year, 5 October is celebrated as World Teachers' Day (exactly a month after the day is celebrated in India).

In ancient India, teachers were a revered lot as they were role models for youngsters to emulate in the communities which they served for. But over the years, things changed, particularly in the past few decades.

People of my generation began our first day at school only when we were at least five years old. Our school began at 10 in the morning and ended at 4 in the afternoon. In general, our teachers were very strict but not harsh. Though we never had `mathematics laboratories' and `comprehensive evaluation' in our schools, moral education, arts and crafts (such as drawing, weaving etc), games and cultural activities were integral components of the school curriculum. There were inter-school competitions with positive aims and objectives. (I was considered to be excellent in elocution competitions in both English and Tamil during my student days. Being a strict headmaster of the high school where I studied, my father had always seen that I got the same treatment as all other students. Infact if my father happened to be one of the judges, he would see that he never gave highest ranking to me, though I would have been the top performer. It was not uncommon to see impartial teachers and headmasters in those days).    

In our high schools we had two main curricular streams: Academic and Bifurcated. Academic curriculum centred on typical curricular subjects whereas bifurcated curriculum included courses in typewriting etc. Students used to literally work with  typewriters, unlike in many schools today with no facilities for students to handle computers on an individual basis.

There were problems such as emphasis on rote learning (which remains to be so to this day though conspicuously) and drop-out rate. Many such problems were due to wrong policy making by politically driven bureaucrats, in spite of several education commissions. 

Teaching was a noble profession on 5 September (Teachers' Day in India) and the least respected profession on all other days. Teachers with university degrees drew less salary than other workers such as bank clerks who would have completed only upto secondary school final. Movies depicted teachers in a wrong stereotyped manner: An old male elementary school teacher borrowing money form someone or the bank to get his daughter/s married off and finding it difficult to repay his loan.

In the '80sand '90s, it was common in India for many teachers like me to seek teaching careers abroad. On 16 October 1981, I signed a contract with the Ministry of Education, Government of Ethiopia (officially known as 'Provisional Military Government of Socialist Ethiopia' at that time) alongwith many young teachers like me, to teach in schools in Ethiopia, after an interview held at Chennai (known as `Madras' then). At the time of interview I  asked the interview panel as to whether I could come to India during school summer holidays in order to get married and take my wife to Ethiopia. The panel members said that there was no problem.

I left for Ethiopia in January 1982. I was posted along with Sebastian Perunmcheril  John, a very nice guy from Kerala, to teach in a remote village known as Shire, Endaselassie in Tigrai region, of which Makelle is the capital town. Sebastian and I taught Chemistry and Physics respectively to Grades 11 and 12 in Shire Seconday School.  
Sebastian and I with a colleague's daugher who liked to be photographed with  us
Though telephonic communication was not possible from there, we could communicate with our parents in India using snailmail. The local post office marketed nice picture postcards with blank space for messages. Sebastian and I used these cards when communicating with our parents. Following picture shows a picture postcard which I used.

Picture postcard
Though Shire was a small village with just one Government Senior Secondary School, the people were very friendly. Mr Asafa, Director of the school, was a very nice man as were other colleagues. (I think that he had a degree in Economics and a degree in Education from the University of Addis Ababa).

With Assafa
As Shire was remote, Sebastian and I sought a transfer. I applied for transfer to Addis Ababa or any place near Addis Ababa, so that I could take my wife.

As soon as summer holdiays began, I was in Addis to follow up my application for transfer and to apply for my exit and re-entry visa. When I went to the education ministry to get my exit and re-entry visa processed, officials said that my application would be processed only  if I deposited 6 month's salary as  guarantee to the education ministry. This was not a small amount, for any teacher from India who  worked in Ethiopia at that time. I was shocked to hear this. I told the ministry that my marriage was getting fixed and that this condition was neither informed at the time of interview nor mentioned in any part of the contract. I  also let the education ministry officials know that it was wrong on the ministry's part in not having been transparent.

The ministry officials said that they had to introduce this condition as many Indian teachers breached the terms of their contract by leaving the country on leave and never returned to rejoin duty (after seeking greener pastures in Nigeria, Ghana etc. where the salary was higher) when the ministry bore the airfares of teachers and their families (spouse and children) from India to Ethipia and back at the beginning and end of their contracts respectively. I was also told that many teachers cheated their Indian colleagues who stood gurantee by incurring financial loss (of six month's salary) by not repaying the amount. (Many Indian teachers faced such problems). Though I tried to convince  them that I would never behave like such teachers and hence there was no reason as to why I should be victimised, the ministry was firm in its stand.

I explained the situation to my parents. As there was increasing pressure from my would-be inlaws, I had to sort out the problem as soon as I could. Though I had a very nice friend by name Harris Suganandam (He was Vice Principal of a Seminary in Addis Ababa) who volunteered to help me out by remitting my six months' salary so that I could come to  India, the Education Ministry would not accept his remittance because he was not employed in a Government Organisation. Mr Harris Suganandam's parents were our neigbours in Vellore and they had known my parents for many years. On Harris' suggestion (a practically viable one), I made an announcement to the audience in an Indian Association Meeting by laying out my plan clearly  as follows: If any one was willing to give me guarantee, he/she and I would enter into a formal agreement that my father would remit my six months' salary into this person's bank account; on receipt of debit adivce from his/her bank, this person would remit the said amount to the Education Ministry. On my return to Addis Ababa, this person would remit the amount back into my father's bank account.  On hearing this, one fellow Indian teacher came forward to help me. The process took several days and there was mounting pressure from the parents of my would- be wife.

The delay in processing the papers was so much that I could get my Addis Ababa to Chennai flight booking confirmed only on the day before my marriage.

By the time I returned home, I only had a few days left to spend in India after marriage. As I had to get a passport for my wife, even these few days had to  be spenrt in Chennai, where I had to get my wife's application for passport processed at the Regional Passport Office, get the emigration clearance for her from the Protector of Emigrants and then book her airticket to Addis Ababa. This obviously caused a lot of physical and mental  strain.   Due to repeated shuttling between Vellore (my hometown) and Chennai, I didn't have much time even  to  pack my things for travel back to Ethiopia.  In the meantime, my request to Ethiopian Ministry of Education for extension of leave was turned down. So my newly married wife and I flew to Mumbai en route Addis Ababa. When we reached Mumbai, I realised that I had fogotten  to bring money from home which meant that I wouldn't be able to pay even the airport tax at Mumbai. I telephoned to the Ministry of Education in Addis Ababa explaining the situation and assured them that I and my wife would be able to reach  Addis Ababa in the next available flight. But still the Education Ministry officials were firm in their stand. If the Education Ministry had given permission to my request, I would have phoned my father and got some money by telegraphic money order though it would have taken a few days. As I had no alternative, we had to pledge my wife's ear studs in a nationalised bank, borrow some money as loan on the jewel, pay the airport tax and leave for Addis Ababa. Of course later, the jewel was redeemed and returned to my wife.

On our reaching Addis Ababa, after my marriage, my wife came to know of the difficulties which I had experienced before leaving for India, from our Indian friends, particularly Harris Suganandam and Mr K O Chacko (a good friend of Harris and a senior teacher in a high school in Addis Ababa).

I remember the hospitality and kindness extented by Mrs and Mr Harris Suganandam in receiving me and my wife at Addis Ababa airport and hosting us in their house for a few days until we got settled in the city. Mr Harris Suganandam and Mr Chacko were instrumental in getting a furnished apartment near the main campus of the University of Addis Ababa for us to stay for a few days (A professor and his family who occupied the apartment  had gone on holidays to Kerala, their home state). It was a fabulous place very near modern supermarkets, restaurants, Ministry of Education Offices and UNECO office (the library of which I  used to  visit).

Meanwhile, my request for transfer was granted and I was posted to a small, beautiful town known as Sheno in Shoa region (in the middle of which Addis Ababa metropolitan  area was located). Sheno was nearly 65 km from Addis and was located on the national highway. We used to travel to Addis almost every weekend.

After returning from Ethiopia for good in 1983, I wrote to our Ministry of External Affairs about the problems faced by me and many Indian teachers and requested them to take appropriate steps. The ministry replied that that it would respond to my request and that the terms of the contract would be modified.

Later, when I went to Africa to work, I never encountered any such problems.

Well, coming back to the scenery in India, even after more than 50 years since independence, not much has changed as far as status of the teacher is concerned. It has become worse with increasingly large classrooms, administrative work, quantity driven syllabus, `rank' obsession from parents etc. Teachers' role warrants adjusting to a complexity of problems, a global factor, particularly in developing countries, as documented in a Trinidadian newspaper article.

Though agencies such as UNESCO are striving hard to coordinate with Education Ministries on teachers' status, it is very important for Governments (not only of Ethiopia and India but also of all other countries) to take initiative and implement policies, which would enhance the status of the teaching profession across barriers.

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About Me

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Chennai, Tamilnadu, India
I am a retired K-12 Education Management Professional. I have worked at different levels in K-12 school systems, textbook publishing, elearning and Education NGOs. I have held memberships in The Association for Science Education (UK), American Association of Physics Teachers and The Malaysian Institute of Physics. I hold a 1st class B Sc Degree in Physics followed by B Ed [English and Physical Science] and M A [Childcare and Education] degrees. My published works include 59 articles in teacher development magazines in India and the US and a book entitled `Creative Classrooms and Child Friendly Schools' (listed in Amazon). This book is almost an anecdotal account of my professional experience in six countries (including Cambodia where I worked as Technical Adviser to the Ministry of Education, Youth And Sports). I served as mentor in the Certificate of Teaching Mastery Program offered by Teachers Without Borders.