THE clock ticks down and, moment by slow moment, we are coming to the first nationwide strike in years. I think this strike represents the slow build-up of dissatisfaction teachers have felt for many years, under more than one administration and president.
Those frustrations are legitimate, as are the frustrations each and every Guyanese has felt for the past few decades. But these are the frustrations of a different time, and we seem to be struggling to come to terms with the radical changes the oil economy will bring.
Just as it makes little sense to talk about Guyanese education without referencing oil, it makes little sense to view the strike, from any perspective, without that multi-year mindset. The risk teachers run with such aggressive demands is that they will alienate the administration, and already we hear the leader of the opposition alleging that government has the finances to pay for a massive increase in teachers’ salaries, throwing around words like corruption. These are distractions from the real question all concerned now need to ask: what is education going to look like in the oil economy?
I have previously written that the timing of such large demands is poor, because much higher increases might be expected in the longer term, as incredible increases in revenue begin to roll in. More than this, however, teachers need to realise that the government is just now beginning to recraft its education policy in the face of more and more oil discoveries, and this recrafting will only bend in their favour.
What economy can develop with half of those writing mathematics at CSEC failing? What economy can develop with only 2.3% of the population having bachelor’s degrees? Can’t we all see that in the oil economy, massive spending must take place in the education sector?
Rather than putting their energies into striking, this is the moment for teachers to express their vision for an ideal workplace, one producing a high degree of academic excellence. Teachers should strive to participate in this national deliberative process by highlighting important issues and themes, safe in the knowledge that all can be addressed when our education system experiences its renaissance.
Pulling away in the form of a strike will only harm the relationship between teachers and the administration, which no one wants, and the nation can seldom afford.
This is not to say I don’t respect the teachers’ right to strike, as labour movements are crucial to maintaining a stable national environment. My hope is that the current strike will instead illustrate more than the monetary issues that grab all the headlines.
Teachers complain about classrooms, bathrooms, athletic facilities and the lack of modern technology such as projectors or computers, and these are the things we truly want to hear. For perhaps the first time in our nation’s history we can fix all of these nuisances, allowing our teachers and students to focus on the task at hand.
Perhaps, in the end, the GTU doesn’t trust that there will be pay increases, now or in the future, without a strike. This is a regrettable, misplaced fear, born out of the experience of pre-oil Guyana. It makes little sense for a government, flush with revenue, focused on a vast education project, to neglect teachers’ salaries. That would simply lead to a counter-productive future.
What we need to avoid, however, is a counter-productive present. Have a little faith, teachers, and dream big. Don’t let our past anchor our hopes.
And it is these hopes we need now to cultivate as we set national goals. A 50 per cent pass rate in mathematics will be totally unacceptable as the oil economy rolls forward, and we need a timeline put in place for when we expect to get that number up, and then eventually at the levels of Korea or other top academic nations.
Such a timeline can be linked to increases in teachers salaries’ to incentivise them to give even more in service of the nation; and with that spirit of partnership, we will see progress. The way forward is partnership.
Most critical, my fellow Guyanese, is that we ask ourselves what we want from our education system in the oil economy. Let us not wait until the oil has arrived to set minimum acceptable standards, but set those frameworks up now, and only adjust them if necessary. Without preparation, without goal-setting and drawing up the basic requirements, progress will always be slow and achievement set back.
Guyanese often cry out for vision, but we each have some vision in ourselves for the nation we would like to see. Together, let us raise our voices in preparation for this new future.