This year the theme of World Teachers’Day is "Valuing Teachers, Improving Their Status."
At first blush, this theme may seem self-serving since our public opinion polling shows that the general public appreciates our work . In fact, our latest poll showed that more than three-quarters of Albertans think it is reasonable to establish provincewide guidelines for teachers’ work hours and that addressing teachers’ workloads would improve public education. So why would we need to improve our status?
Well, the World Teachers’ Day theme is decided by Education International, the global union federation that represents more than 32 million education professionals in 170 countries. The sad fact is that not all teachers enjoy the same level of support as we do here in Alberta. In fact, in many countries, teachers’ conditions are getting worse instead of better.
In 1994, UNESCO inaugurated Oct. 5 as World Teachers’ Day to commemorate the joint UNESCO and International Labour Organization’s (ILO) signing of the Recommendation Concerning the Status of Teachers. Adopted in 1966, the Recommendation has essentially served as a charter of rights for teachers worldwide.
In adopting the recommendations, governments unanimously recognized the fundamental importance to society of having highly qualified education workers who are equipped to do their best for the next generation. Although governments the world over claim to support the values and principles in the recommendations, many do not actually demonstrate respect for the rights enshrined in them, nor do they implement compliant policies. We have to ask, in the 50 years since that signing, have things changed?
In September 2015, at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit, world leaders adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which includes a set of 17 goals to end poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and tackle climate change by 2030. When it adopted the new agenda, the international community recognized that education was essential for all 17 of its goals. Goal four aims to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” As part of goal four, the international community pledged to provide every child with 12 years of education by 2030.
One of the first steps in making that goal a reality is to ensure that there are enough teachers. Today, at least 74 countries face an acute teacher shortage. More than 59 million children are excluded from primary education and millions more struggle in overcrowded classrooms. To teach every child in 2015, the world would have had to have hired an additional 2.7 million primary school teachers, assuming class sizes of 40 students for every teacher. Given those statistics, how can we possibly meet the 2030 targets?
Seven out of 10 African countries face an acute shortage of teachers, and the situation will worsen as governments struggle with overcrowded classrooms and an increasing population of school-aged children. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics database, for every 100 children in sub-Saharan Africa in 2013, there will be 142 in 2030. This region alone will need to create 2.2 million new teaching positions by 2030 while at the same time filling 3.9 million vacant positions that will be lost through attrition.
The crisis isn’t just in Africa. The Arab states region has the second largest shortage of teachers. By 2030, UNESCO predicts that the region will need to accommodate an extra 7.1 million children, and the list of countries that will need to take drastic action to expand their teacher base is growing.
Who will these teachers be? We know that teacher attrition is a serious problem in many countries. Teachers work in deplorable conditions, for little pay, and often with little or no support. In the rush to get more teachers into classrooms, many countries are hiring people with little to no teacher education, and some are starting to privatize their education systems.
But giving over control to for-profit companies is not going to ensure that students receive a quality education from a qualified professional teacher. By choosing quantity over quality, many countries run the risk of harming the learning of generations of children. Teacher organizations around the world are fighting both the privatization of education and the deprofessionalization of the teaching profession.
There is some good news. Several countries have recently begun to close the gap by steadily increasing their teacher recruitment efforts. However, as their populations continue to increase, they will have to be diligent in maintaining the balance between teacher supply and demand.
I hope you plan to celebrate World Teachers’ Day on Oct. 5. I hope a parent thanks you for the great work you are doing with their child. I hope you take some time to reflect on your own teaching career, its ups and downs, its rewards and its frustrations. I hope that you also take a minute to remember that, in some countries, the fight is just beginning. ❚
Shelley Magnusson oversees the Alberta Teachers’ Association’s
involvement in World Teachers’ Day.