The Malta Independent 8 December 2019, Sunday

Hiring foreign teachers is ‘taking the easy way out, far-fetched’ – MUT president

Giulia Magri Monday, 23 September 2019, 10:49 Last update: about 3 months ago

For many, today marks the start of a new scholastic year, where parents, students and educators wave goodbye to the summer holidays and prepare for another year of studies. Issues related to school transport, a shortage of teachers and a heavy workload for educators made the headlines throughout the last scholastic year, and similar issues are being raised this time round too. Giulia Magri spoke to Marco Bonnici, the president of the Malta Union of Teachers.

While the Education Commissioner said last week that he would rather have foreign teachers in the classroom rather than an empty classroom, MUT President Marco Bonnici would rather have trained professionals who know the language and syllabus.

In an interview published today, Bonnici said there is a huge problem in importing teachers to make up for the current shortage.

“It is as if we are in the construction industry, where we are importing workers to build a block of flats, but this cannot be done in the education sector as it is directly affecting our students.”

Today marks the return to school for many students, teachers and other educators.

Teachers and their quality of living made the headlines recently, with the government looking into hiring foreign educators. 

Bonnici dismissed the authorities’ decision as the “easy option”, saying the proposal is “farfetched.”

“If the Minister believes that a group of foreign teachers would be able to teach on their first day, it is the exact opposite of what would happen. These new teachers would be facing a language barrier, a completely different curriculum and syllabus, where they would find themselves spending their first year just learning all of this to be able to cope.”

Bonnici also asked what would happen to these foreign teachers, who are being employed as  “last resort”, when more local educators find employment in the sector. “Do we just thank them for their services and kick them out? This is not acceptable.”

The issue of shortage of teachers has been highly discussed this year. What has caused the lack of interest amongst youths to take up teaching as a profession? Why have so many teachers resigned and what can be done to solve this issue?

There are numerous factors that have led to the crisis we are in. A main reason is that today there are numerous courses and career choices a student can apply for, whilst in the past the main careers were education, law, engineering and doctor. So now we are seeing a change in the job market and increasing competition. Whilst in the past graduates would mostly look for job security, today many are looking for a job which provides a decent salary, fulfilment and experience which they can then take with them to their next career. Of course, cost of living also plays a role in all this. When I began my teaching profession, I was able to keep up with the cost of living on my teaching wage. Today, the situation is very different and if youths see that they cannot afford to buy or rent a property and start their lives with a profession in teaching, I can understand why they are not inclined to take that step.  Of course, teachers also resign if their work conditions are not up to standard. In that case, not only do we lose our current teachers but we end up discouraging potential new ones.

How can we solve this issue?

Firstly, we could invest more in the educational sector, and provide teacher graduates a financial package similar to what ICT students receive. When it comes to students doing their teaching practice they too should receive a wage, as these students are learnins whilst also providing a service.

That way, whilst schools are benefitting from their services, the students are being compensated. As a union we also highlighted that retired members who wish to continue their teaching profession should receive a salary and allowance that reflect their years of service and qualifications, and not be provided the minimum salary. 

We must also focus our attention on those teachers who have resigned or are considering doing so. We should understand the reasons and work on them, so as not to have a chain-effect leading to more resignations. For the first time, the government has introduced ‘exist interviews’ which we proposed, to provide information on what is causing teachers to resign and to work forward on these issues.

 

Teachers have complained on the increasing demand for paperwork, recordings and schemes of work. As a union, what are you doing to highlight the issue of teacher burnout?

Our profession faces numerous issues. One of them is that our work is not trusted; everyone believes they know better than the teacher and finds ways to correct our work.

When I say everyone I mean everyone, from students, to parents to the department itself. We are then over-scrutinised and our work is constantly being observed and checked.

This is something which needs to be addressed constantly. Previously, we had inspectors who would come to the classroom and observe the teacher in their element. If there is someone who wishes to inspect me, by all means come in and watch the lesson and see me teach and judge me on how I deliver my lessons. Many teachers feel the same way. How can it be that we never watch a teacher in their own element but then judge them on their paperwork, without even seeing their lesson? Once a teacher has experience, they have the skills and the capability to direct the lesson towards the needs of the students at that time.

On the issue of work scheme and paperwork, one could spend the whole evening planning a lesson but when it comes to teaching the classroom they might end up not even using it. As a teacher you have to adapt your lesson for all the students in your classroom and their different levels, and a syllabus which is changing.

We cannot have a rigid system that does not allow teachers the freedom to experiment and to be able to adapt their lesson for the benefit of the students.  We had this issue with LSEs who had to spend a lot of time on paperwork which no one took note of, and with no one providing any feedback.  We brought this up with the Ministry and things have changed, with LSEs now having to do less paperwork than in previous years.

 

Earlier this year MUT launched two new services for members facing aggressive behaviour in schools. Has MUT received any feedback regarding the use of these services? What other measures can be done to decrease acts of aggression within schools?

They are working - both the emergency SMS and psycho-therapeutic support. Currently, we have two members who are using the psycho-therapeutic support service. It is a confidential process. As a union we simply book the space for these sessions and the rest is between the therapist and their client. We have had members who started the service and then stopped, whilst others have continued using the service.

There has also been good feedback on the emergency SMS system. We have had members using this service after they faced aggressive behaviour. This issue is a top priority for the union. Once we receive an SMS we call that member within minutes and help them. We wish to extend this service to all emergencies, not just aggressive behaviour. It is important that we inform our members on what we mean by emergency so, for example, they do not come to us when they have issues with their wages, but if a child is hurt in the classroom then, yes, that is an emergency.

 

This summer saw new MATSEC reforms launched. Have you gained feedback from teachers on the matter? How much is your union involved in the change of the curriculum?

We had provided our feedback on the MATSEC reform both to MATSEC and the Ministry. What is the biggest issue with these new reforms? MATSEC is proposing five to six big measures, and from the feedback we received the biggest problem is the compulsory foreign language at Intermediate or Advanced level. 

Whilst we agree that there should be a bigger emphasis on language, it should be at an earlier stage.

In previous years, a foreign language was a requirement to enter Junior College, and we believe that this measure should be in place once again. MATSEC decided that a foreign language should be studied at an intermediate level, but we do not believe we should go in that direction.

With regard to Systems of Knowledge, I spoke to many SOK teachers and many are against this change. I am not sure who gave their feedback to MATSEC, but ultimately if they do not have the teachers on board, they can make as many changes as they like, but it just won’t work.

MATSEC should speak to all teachers and departments to make sure that these measures are feasible and that feedback from the educators is positive. MATSEC needs to rethink these measures.

Currently, there is a committee of post-secondary teachers who have presented a document for reforms in post-secondary schools. But in the meantime, MATSEC came up with these measures, without any assurance that there was no overlapping between the two reports. My concern is that the country keeps pushing for measures and changes without involving all the necessary committees that will be affected by these same measures.

 

Why do schools still start at the end of September when most classrooms now come with air conditioning and many children come from working families? Is it not time for the scholastic year to begin at the beginning of September?

One of MUT’s first fights was to change the dates of the scholastic year, which used to be based on an English system where school would finish at the end of July.  MUT pushed for this to change so that schools would finish at the end of June. Our position on the scholastic year is clear and we are not ready to change this. Previously, this argument was used a lot when we did not have initiatives such as homework clubs, better known today as Club 16 or Breakfast Club. These initiatives are catering for parents’ needs and give the children a different service and means of learning.

Also, there are few schools which have ACs. This summer, many summer schools suffered due to not having an AC. MUT’s position is that the scholastic year should be kept as it is.

Apart from MUT, there is also the Union of Professional Educators (UPE). Does having two unions bring more benefits for teachers or cause more issues?

I have always said that teachers should remain united as a profession, otherwise we would lose the strength to negotiate. I have never reacted to the provocation coming from UPE. As a union we believe that our focus should be on our own members. Our main opponent, so to speak, is the government. I also represent the Forum Unions Maltin, where the aim is for all member unions to work together. Unions should help each other and strengthen one another, but when you have a union that does everything to bicker and fight, MUT will not be part of these provocations.

 

A similar opportunity for an interview was given to the Union of Professional Educators, but no reply was forthcoming

 

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