The Malta Independent 22 July 2024, Monday
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The courage to teach in present precarity

Luke Fenech Sunday, 1 October 2023, 07:22 Last update: about 11 months ago

As the scholastic year 2023/4 has embarked, students and teachers in Malta are facing another year of scholastic education. Everything seems to commence with the same routine, more or less, having teachers and students who are ‘rested’ and ‘ready’ for education. Yet, in the precarious times that we are living in, are we truly rested? Are we truly ready?

Ready for what, may I ask? As an educator, am I ready to present myself as a role model for my students, who are living in a society with a backload of socio-political issues, including the increasing rates of suicide and mental health issues, the destruction of the environment, the growth of far-right politics and xenophobia, the neoliberal economic model, corruption, and so on? Am I truly ready to carry the weight of the mask I have to put on in class – a mask which should offer an ‘alternative behaviour’ to the above issues? Or are we forgetting that the students are living in the same society, facing the same problems?

Several students spend more time in school than with their families during the day. Teachers, LSEs, the school’s management, psychosocial and technical teams, cleaners, and other stakeholders present at school serve as reference points and ideally good role models during the students’ weekdays. However, in everything that is happening around us, the school’s staff is expected by the public (and rightly so), to deliver a professional service for our learners. However, here lies the problem. The education of our students cannot simply be an “expectation”. The formation and pediment of society and its prospects cannot rely on expectations, or be negotiated with “what we have in stock.” Teachers, the builders of such pediments cannot remain at the periphery – they need a place at the core of education discourse and policies; they need to be recognised, respected, educated, and above all motivated, to find the courage to teach and lead in these precarious times.

It is not only the general public that needs to recalibrate its position on educators. People in charge of curricula, management, and education policies also need to be in line with the classroom’s pulse. How can the teacher be expected to swiftly follow the curriculum when there are more important issues at stake that need immediate attention, more than any other academic conquests? Issues of suicidal thoughts, self-harm, drugs, cyberbullying, xenophobia, self-esteem, oversharing on social media, vulnerability & dependence, suffering, aggression, and hate. These issues amongst others cannot be disregarded, even if the teacher intentionally tries to – they will continue to bounce back in class, and possibly aggravated. How can these issues and others which call for social justice be given second place in our societies’ education? Or do we need to go back to the drawing board and re-think what the meaning of education is?

In a society which discredits and disrespects the teacher and the teaching vocation, a society which does not realise what a class of 20+ students (hence 20+ different psychosocial problems) entails, and a society which expects teachers to do their jobs narrowly, forgetting the other roles that teachers serve (such as social workers, psychologists, councillors, and above all role models) for their students – then we are a precursor to today’s precarity. Teachers are not holiday-grabbers, as we are constantly reminded. If that was so, the lack of teaching personnel should be a myth and not a reality. If that were so, teachers would be the most motivated people around. And if that was so, I would not be here writing on the issues that are present.

As philosopher of education Maxine Greene states, we need to engage more in our capacity for imagination. We need to imagine ourselves in the students’ and teachers’ lives during this scholastic year. What priorities should the teacher hold when teaching and leading the students? How can the teacher be more encouraged to remain consistent with his or her vocation? What role does education have in solving some of the psychosocial (and even political) problems that were mentioned earlier? And what can be done, on a national level, to position education as a lifelong process?

From the book The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer, I would like to add the following words:

“In our rush to reform education, we have forgotten a simple truth: reform will never be achieved by renewing appropriations, restructuring schools, rewriting curricula, and revising texts if we continue to demean and dishearten the human resource called the teacher on whom so much depends. Teachers must be better compensated, freed from bureaucratic harassment, given a role in academic governance, and provided with the best possible methods and materials.”

Ultimately, building new schools and facilities alone won’t save Malta’s education problems. Let us realise which building blocks ought to be prioritised; not the concrete ones, but the ‘human’ ones – the people inside such buildings who are trying to teach and lead a better society. It is pointless to cut the dying leaves of a dying plant, hoping that the plant will stand upright; the roots need to be cultivated and valued for the plant to prosper.

 

Luke Fenech

Ethics Education Teacher

 

 

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