Dr. Anand D. Awootar PhD, DLitt Chairperson,
Education Commission, Le Mouvement Patriotique
The history of education has been in part a history punctuated by perpetual attempts to improve both quantity and quality. That is so because education has traditionally been considered as being the ‘mother’s milk’ and primary determinant of overall development. Today’s system carries its own unique features in the wake of intense global competition in which wars are being waged essentially around the quality of education systems among different nations.
If Mauritius may justifiably pride itself on the percentage of student enrolment, as enjoined by the Education For All (EFA) Agenda, it appears, however, that the path to all-time deterioration in terms of quality is set. Discussions about the practice of Supply Teachers generally remain marginal to policy debates. Yet, it is a symptom of a larger underlying problem regarding which inertia and silence may not be the best options.
It needs to be raised urgently and kept as constructive and dispassionate as possible, despite the well-rehearsed mantra of ‘world-class education’ from successive governments. In that respect, the flippant and indifference-fuelled system of supply teachers is an oxymoron and a bitter irony. Questions regarding the exact purpose and nature of Supply Teachers lead to wider questions about the relevance of pedagogy and the future role of teachers. Are their services occasional, temporary, floating, emergency replacement, short-term, or long-term? In any case, they are all short-term fixes for long-standing problems. Most Supply Teachers have been working the whole year for several years, being paid pro-rata only on days on which they actually work. That, automatically, entails deprivation of sick leave, casual leave, pension scheme, professional development, guarantee of continuity, end-of-year pay and bonus (with marching order given at beginning of school vacation, end of October).
Certainty of re-employment for the ensuing January resumption is also non-existent even after undergoing yet another interview. Worse, in a move to further injure the already-injured, the precarious situation is made more volatile through their services liable to be axed anytime along the line. In other words, plans to secure a loan or to tie the marital knot have to be shelved pending a more secure footing. With their professional pride thus badly battered, bruised and limping, this category of teachers finds it difficult to manifest the least outward sign of the inner flame to serve. The relationship with the parent Ministry, then, is one of dysfunctional marriage in which hope and trust have bottomed out though a complete break-up is not an option. Ironically, these teachers are expected to give their best to enable children to blossom into charming versions of themselves and give wings to their dreams.
Since the Supply Teacher is pedagogically under-qualified, under-paid, and under-estimated, they get into a state of defensive emotional fragility once within the precincts of the school. With hardly any handy hints or helping hand from other colleagues who are themselves wrapped up in their own challenges and problems, they plough their lone furrow, mostly unchaperoned. They, thus, are parachuted onto the very core business of teaching and learning to teach children sorely lacking in basic knowledge despite being themselves uninitiated into pedagogical and classroom management skills. Paradoxically, parents at the school gate watch their ‘educated’ children pour out of the classroom with shrieks of intellectual victory! In the absence of appropriate information about pupils’ academic abilities and behaviour procedure, the Supply Teacher becomes unsure whether the lesson is pitched appropriately for the students’ current level of understanding. They have to adapt to ever-changing terrains, make on-spot classroom decisions, stay calm under pressure and come out smiling — in the absence of parental tongue lashings, that is. In such a situation, teaching style gets highly influenced by pre-conceived ideas about what constitutes good teaching: in the absence of any professional preparation, the Supply Teacher is tempted to teach the way they themselves were taught. They then fail to effectively break various concepts down to their understandable components, to the great disadvantage of students whose interests appear to be greeted with indifference in various quarters, including parents.
Thus, in the unspoken silence of the Supply Teacher’s helpless acquiescence lies depths of frustration. They find no other option than to sheepishly accommodate their impatience while others look for opportunities to call it quits and migrate to greener pastures elsewhere. Consequently, instances abound where the same class finds itself bidding ‘hi and bye’ to several teachers within the same term. The amount of academic harm inflicted to such students through itinerant teachers made to transit from school to school as stop-gap measures, is beyond repair: there is no consistency, no continuity, no concrete results, and all accountability measures are thus made irrelevant. Under-performing schools are also at the receiving end of a glaring weakness plugged into the system in that there has traditionally been an over-concentration of teachers with proven competence and commitment posted in essentially star schools to the detriment of students and schools in other regions. If it is true that there has been no arm-twisting to force anyone to join the system with all its underlying imperfections, it is equally true that a drowning person may be reduced to no other option than to cling to even a floating straw. But to capitalise on the highly vulnerable conditions of our unemployed young graduates by offering them less than decent conditions at the expense of our children’s academic future may be viewed as an exploitative practice.
At a time when the Country is bursting at the seams with unemployed young graduates and the coffers awash with readily-available funds for the Supply Teacher project, there is no need for truths to be twisted and tortured, no ground for wrong reasons to be massaged into believable narratives, no pretext to look any further: the problem lies squarely with the pebble in the Ministry’s shoe. The matter is all the more urgent as each passing day is a crying academic injustice injurious to the overall development of thousands of our children. It would, therefore, be in the interest of education and to the Ministry’s credit if the following could be considered even if, to quote Aesop, it takes only a child to discover the Emperor is naked: – get rid of the Supply Teacher system by inducting the cohort of Supply Teachers into the mainstream after completion of a part-time professional degree course at the MIE.
That would provide coherence, continuity and competence to the class besides providing an audible exhalation of relief to present Supply Teachers by sucking all uncertainty and apprehension away from an otherwise uncertain future. – come up with a ‘Teach for Mauritius Scheme’ whereby competent and committed teachers with a proven track record are encouraged to accept posting to under-performing schools for a minimum of 5 years against a special tantalising incentive package. Such a move is in perfect accordance with the tenet of education, the function of which is to serve as an equalising agent for society by enabling the benefits of good teaching to seep down evenly. – devise a fair and equitable rotation system for teachers and heads of institutions.
The actual prevailing ‘rule’ is honoured more in the breach than in the observance. – professionally meet the exigencies of emergency replacements in schools by drawing from a pool of retired teachers (preferably below the age of 65) to continue the work without prejudice to students who often have to wait for weeks, if not months, for a replacement teacher. A giant leap will have been made if a category of our students were given cause to believe they are no longer considered as being children of a lesser god!