On teaching thorns and pruning flowers

 A classroom teacher’s job is not an easy one. It is made even more difficult when the teacher’s focus is not on the classroom.

Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Kidder once noted that most teachers have little control over school policy or curriculum, or choice of texts or special placement of students. However, he also asserted that most of them have a great deal of autonomy inside the classroom. Kidder noted that public education rested precariously on the skill and virtue of teachers who were at the bottom of the institutional pyramid.

It appears that we have arrived at a juncture in our development where teachers are seeking not to concentrate mainly on the autonomy which they command in their individual classrooms, but to exercise more control over school policy and attendant features such as curriculum and even placement of students.

Perhaps, this explains why some preoccupy themselves with a principal’s management style that really is not their primary business; or take to making curriculum changes behind the principal’s back, which is not within their remit; or refuse to teach certain students, which is not their call.

In most disciplined relationships among employer, principal and teacher, day-to-day management of the school is usually left to the principal. Teaching of the students should be the concentrated domain of teachers from the time they arrive at their site of employment until they return to their respective homes. This is the routine in most working environments –– arrival, work, return home.

But there is now a phenomenon in Barbados where, it seems, teachers are suggesting that they spend so much time in the company of the principal that management style, tone of speech or, as some would facetiously suggest, the state of his or her dental work concern them more than teaching in their classrooms.

We are not aware of any complaint from any teachers’ union to the Ministry of Education that any principal in Barbados has put policies in place to prevent teachers from going to their classes and teaching. We are aware, though, of reports of teachers at some schools, one of which was highlighted in the Justice Frederick Waterman-led enquiry into The Alexandra School, attending school and not seeing the inside of a classroom, or seeing the inside of classrooms for periods of time not consistent with their employment.

There are industrial procedures which are in place and have been agreed upon to deal with matters related to teachers’ concerns at our nation’s schools. But there is the suspicion that some teachers have been rather swift in withdrawing their services without allowing full industrial best practices to take place. There is also some suggestion that industrial action is being taken in circumstances, where if the letter of their employment was strictly adhered to, teachers would have no case in many a dispute.

We will always respect the rights of teachers to fight for the best conditions of service possible, but this must be done within the rule of law and the terms of their employment. Industrial action should not be done to stoke egos, taken at the whim and fancy of union leaders, and most importantly, carried out to the disadvantage of innocent students.

Teachers are now withdrawing their services at Parkinson Memorial Secondary, ostensibly, because of their fear of some students and their possession of weaponry. While they claim that their principal is doing nothing about that situation, he is suggesting and demonstrating that pieces of weaponry have been confiscated. One must ask whether the Ministry of Education has been informed of this situation and what action has been taken.

Of course, teachers must feel safe at our schools and are within their rights to raise the issue. But is staying away from their duties the manner to deal with the situation? Are those students bringing weaponry to the school in the minority? If they are, why aren’t they being dealt with assertively, and why should the majority of students be deprived of an education because of the indiscipline of a few?

This state of affairs is nothing new. Students have been bringing all manner of instruments to schools for more than 40 years and this country has never seen this level of industrial demonstration. Indeed, we stand to be corrected if we suggest that there would be no teaching at any of our schools if teachers took industrial action whenever their charges brought dangerous implements to school.

About 30 years ago little June Haynes lost her life at the Foundation School after being stabbed by a fellow female student. There was no industrial action called for then by teachers, and we do not believe this was due to the fact that a teacher was not the victim. This was an isolated incident that did not define the school, and the majority of the students still deserved the attention of their teachers.

We do not believe that any school –– inclusive of Parkinson Memorial –– is defined by a few lawless children. We also do not believe that difficult children should be abandoned to their own purposes. We get the impression that the relationship among teachers, principal Broomes and the Ministry of Education is unnecessarily confrontational.

Perhaps a return to respecting and adhering to individual roles would lead to less bombast. None of these players find any difficulty in adhering to the procedures in place to avail themselves of their monthly salaries. As has been articulated previously, teachers who inspire know that teaching is like cultivating a garden, and those who would have nothing to do with thorns must never attempt to gather flowers.

Perhaps if teaching has become too heavy a burden, with all the distractions outside the classroom now defining the profession for some, then a complete change of environment could be an option. We suspect, though, the problems will follow.

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