Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Do Teachers Really Matter in Burma?

Do teachers really matter in Burma?
Thein Naing

World Teachers' Day, held annually on October 5 since 1994, commemorates teachers’ organisations worldwide. Its aim is to mobilise support for teachers and to ensure that the needs of future generations will continue to be met by teachers.

According to UNESCO, World Teachers' Day represents a significant token of the awareness, understanding and appreciation displayed for the vital contribution that teachers make to education and development. Since 2000, the international community has made solid progress towards Education For All. Enrolment rates have increased dramatically. However, UNESCO estimates that 18 million more teachers are needed worldwide if universal primary education is to be achieved by 2015. Education International (EI) (the global union federation that represents education professionals worldwide) strongly believes that World Teachers' Day should be internationally recognized and celebrated around the world. EI also believes that the principles of the 1966 and 1997 Recommendations should be considered for implementation in all nations. Over 100 countries observe World Teachers' Day. The efforts of Education International and its 390 member organisations have contributed to this widely spread recognition. Every year, EI launches a public awareness campaign to highlight the contributions of the teaching profession.

The shortage of qualified teachers is considered one of the biggest obstacles to achieving this goal. Accordingly, this year’s activities are focused on professional training for quality education. Teachers’ unions around the world are calling on public authorities to develop and provide adequate training programs to highlight the year’s theme - teachers matter! Teacher shortage, insufficient training, society’s lack of respect for the profession and the policies needed to tackle these challenges are the emphasis of World Teachers’ Day on 5 October 2008. The day, an annual acknowledgement of the essential role teachers play in the education of children, young people and adults, was marked on 3 October 2008 by a ceremony and expert panel discussions at UNESCO headquarters and by celebrations worldwide. An estimated 18 million additional teachers are needed worldwide simply to achieve universal primary education by 2015. Problems with recruitment, teacher training and retention as well as policy development and gender issues are to be addressed.We should look into the status of teachers in Burma, amidst the political turmoil and deadlock.

In the World Teacher Day’s publication of daily newspaper, Myanmar Alin (The New Light of Myanmar 5 October 2008), the country’s renowned leading educator, Sayagyi U Than Oo in his essay, emphasized the importance of creating an environment conducive to quality education and teachers’ professional status in the age of knowledge based society. This highlights the current critical situation. It should be noted here that Burma, in the distant past, had achieved certain standards in education. During the brief parliamentary democracy period, education in Burma was recognized as one of the leading sector in Southeast Asia The status of teachers was very high as it was also deeply rooted in cultural and traditional values of Burmese society. But those days were gone decades ago. The professional preparation of teachers has been recognized to be crucial for the qualitative improvement of education in Burma’s policy documents since 1948. However, very few concrete steps have been taken in the last three decades to operationalise this. This is one of the more important factors leading to the current poor state of education in the country. Declining socio-economic status of teachers and inadequate programs of teacher preparation lead to unsatisfactory quality of learning in schools. The content of the programme should be restructured to ensure its relevance to the changing needs of the school education and emergence of a democratic society. At the same time, authorities must ensure the teaching profession is appreciated by providing better salary and allowances.

In the mid nineties, the nation-wide survey of teaching profession by Burma Education Research Bureau in Rangoon suggested a shocking figure. More than fifty percent in the teaching workforce do not have teaching certificates. It can be clearly seen that, after all, Burma’s main two universities offering B.Ed courses cannot prepare annual need of estimated fifteen thousand new teachers. Although mushrooming teacher colleagues in major cities appear to be preparing the primary teachers, the official statistic shows these colleagues can only prepare fifty percent of annual need. More importantly there is a discriminating practice among the teachers in primary and secondary levels as the latter require a full bachelor degree whilst primary teachers are not valued because they only have one year training.

In Burma, teacher morale is at an all time low with teachers feeling undervalued, frustrated, unappreciated and demoralized. Currently, teachers in Burma have to take extra jobs as full time teachers cannot make end meets. The mere salary of thirty thousand kyats (1,100 Thai baht or 32 USD) per month for a primary teacher can support food alone for himself half of each month. It is no wonder that nobody dares to take teaching jobs. Less than five percent in the teaching profession are found to be male teachers. This is a critical issues regarding gender. High school graduates would not place education courses as their preferences.

Teacher’s turnover rates are also very high racing with the drop rate of school children. NHEC’s 2007 education surveys suggested that three millions children were not in schools. That is one fifth of the school aged children all over Burma. In one of major ethnic areas, Mon State, there are less than ten percent of teachers with five years of service. This simply is a reflection of the lowly paid salary. It is also not unusual to find former Burmese teachers doing menial jobs in neighboring countries. Teachers’ salary in Burma is one tenth of Thai or Indian teachers’ whilst the living costs are similar. Male Burmese teachers will not introduce or identify themselves as school teachers at local teashops for fear of demeaning himself. If we accept a reciprocal relationship between teacher morale and student learning students in many schools over the country are not getting the best possible value from teachers affected by low morale.

As the country has been under militarism for decades, corruption has severely affected the education and teaching profession. Moreover, there are no free trade unions to protect the rights of teachers. Every year on 5 October, millions of educators worldwide undertake public activities highlighting that quality education is a fundamental right for everyone. But our Burmese teachers and students do not a voice. The emergence of a teacher trade union is utmost importance to ensure that the needs of future generations are taken into consideration.

There is an urgent need to improve teaching and learning conditions, a decent working environment, living wages, more male teachers, initial and ongoing professional development,
involvement in policy-making, collective bargaining to defend and enhance teachers’ rights, to retain skilled teachers and to attract good candidates to become teachers. In every community, teachers – as well as parents and children - need to have their voice heard. It's another miracle in Burma that teachers can still push all these negativism out of their minds while they turn their full attention on their students. Teachers still enter the classroom with goodwill, interest and self-sacrifice (seidana, wathana, anitna), as practised thousand years old tradition. But it has been too long with too little for a contemporary age. The Burma’s cultural warriors are in need of massive support for both quality and quantity improvement in education and that is the only way to ensure peace, democracy and development. Because teachers matter!

Thein Naing is currently working as an academic in the education program of a multi-ethnic, multi-organizational NHEC. He supervises bi-annual publication of a school education research journal and facilitates research and teacher education courses. This is an excerpt of the article in Burmese version published online at