Columns

Legalising teaching

Franklin Johnston

Friday, August 17, 2012    

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THE glorious avocation of teaching may soon gain professional standing and the respect and reward it deserves. In Abrahamic religions teaching was "in the beginning", and the Torah, Bible and Koran extol the power of teaching.

Fast-forward to modern times and we find teaching is just as important but less exalted. So what happened? Formal teaching here started some three centuries ago, training teachers in "normal schools" a century later, and the Lady Mico Trust soon after. A man from Mars would be shocked that after centuries so many Jamaicans cannot read, write and cipher in English, Twi or any language - not even in patois, and the greatest surprise of all, teaching is not yet a profession.

In early times we had trained and pre-trained teachers; teachers were exemplars in dress, deportment and could not even marry. Teaching was mission and job, second only to the gospel. As teaching evolved it experienced mission drift much as medicine drifted from its roots in magic. Pre-trained teachers went out of fashion and the teaching diploma became the benchmark; it is moving now to the degree.

Back then the doctor, teacher, lawyer were anchors of society. Merchant or businessman was at the rear, and architect and engineer were menial. Teacher was called "Master" and the classroom was his domain. Fast-forward again and we find doctor and lawyer are tops; accountant and architect joined them, but where is teacher? Teaching slid to the bottom. Most people teach for laudable reasons, but the reality is that teaching is not in the winner's circle. My batchmate Bobby Pickersgill had lots of choices but our youthful commitment was teaching and we made minor history as the first men to teach at Immaculate High. Many of the best people still choose teaching, but opportunists and knaves are also in the ranks.

What went wrong with teaching? Is it chance that the two major vocations which chose unionisation are the ones which are not professions in law? If your group has union protection, does that security cause you to forfeit the protection of your avocation in law? Politics was a problem too. Most teachers are missionary types and the PNP was attractive for its nationalism, intellect and social conscience.The JLP started with a terrible "dumbed down" image and quibbles about who could not spell bread. It had no attractive mantras, yet it had bright men. It had a knack for not engaging with educated worker groups - nurses and police included; some leaders exulted in being anti-intellectual, bashing UWI, alienating instead of wooing academics, and pushed teachers away. The JLP now has some good young people who must change this. Teachers are no more PNP than the rest of the population, and it's for them to create attractive mantras and select wise leaders to engage and win them.

This is a defining year for teaching. The move from avocation to profession is imminent. Last year in London I read about the Jamaica Teaching Council. This is the most revolutionary thing to happen to teaching for a century. God bless transformation! Why was there so much cass-cass? Was it bungling? Teachers, like others, need the facts in plain English to agree to changes to their jobs. You can't bully people, even if it is for their own good. A Bill is a complex document and if there is any shadow of distrust between the parties - pure grief. Fear of the unknown is real so dialogue is the key to success. But there are some interesting sidelights to baptising a vocation, so it rises as a profession.

Normally, the practitioners want protection in law, but strangely,teachers did not demand it. Did they not want to protect their jobs, standards and students from quacks? In some cases the state seeks to protect the public as we see in laws professionalising stockbrokers. Imagine, anyone can teach or start a school, but to sell land you have to be a legal realtor. Is selling land more serious than teaching? Wow! A teacher is sometimes her own worst enemy. Do you know a bad teacher is more likely to be uncovered by a parent, not by another teacher? That it takes a minister to get a convicted child molester out of the school? Not pressure from other teachers! But a dentist will blow the whistle on a quack pulling teeth at the drop of a hat. Being a professional makes a person zealous about protecting her profession.

People get confused about what we loosely call "government". The state proposes, Parliament passes law and the Ministry of Education employs most teachers. Does this mean government wants to control teachers? Most accountants and architects are not employed by the state but still need an Act to protect their profession, ergo "Accountancy Act - 1970" or "Legal Profession Act - 1972" or "Architects Act - 1987". None is perfect and all are amended regularly. Registration and licensing are basic to a profession. My car is registered and has a permanent plate, but every year it is licensed to prove it is fit to be on the road. Teachers may be registered for life but licensed at intervals to prove they are still fit to teach. Doctors get dementia and can no longer practise but are still registered medical practitioners. The right to charge fees, to have your job protected from "quacks and shysters" carries the responsibility to live by rules and be punished proportionate to your offence. Accountants can be struck from the Register if found "to have been guilty in a professional respect of grave impropriety or infamous conduct" - nice phrase! This is no employer-employee issue but a professional body protecting the profession itself.

The benefits of a profession are many. The unification of teaching should be significant. A teacher is a teacher regardless of employer; no more government teacher, independent school or private school teacher, only Registered Teacher (RT) - licensed to teach, like James Bond. I want to be registered first - say, teacher 007? One profession, one code. As an RT your principal may say, "You pay back the tuck shop money and we forget it" ,but you may have breached the code of your profession and your council may have something to say to you despite your employer's bly. But look, the benefits outweigh the grief:

* Private practice: The hallmark of a profession is you may take a job or put up your brass plate and be in business.

* Protection: The hustler who wants to teach has to do the time - get qualified, registered, practising certificate and come through the front door.Students are also protected and you have to buy Professional Indemnity insurance.

* My profession: I like "Franklin Johnston RT Number 00001" on the Teacher Registry of Jamaica. I pledge to live by the code of practice of my profession (not some government Education Code) and may be "struck off" for bringing my profession into disrepute.

* My job: I may work for the MOE or Hillel - different pay, leave, terms; but I am an RT and my profession does not change with my employer.

* Differential incomes: Professional incomes may vary even in the same firm. Many professionals work with government, have security and never earn like their private peers - your choice! Professional life is not a race to the bottom. If you are good you want performance pay so you earn top dollar.

* Foreign teachers: A teacher from abroad who meets the specs may be registered - it's not automatic. The registrar may have protocols so teachers are pre-accredited to work in other countries.

* Para-professionals: There are paramedics, paralegals, and to perform well the RT may need a teacher's aide in her classroom. Teaching needs to come into the 21st century and it needs the brightest and best. The professional route will bring them in and weed out the lazybones. Teaching is coming of age. May the force be with all teachers and their associations! Stay conscious, my friend!

Dr Franklin Johnston is a strategist, project manager and advises the minister of education.

franklinjohnstontoo@gmail.com

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