When I was in school, teachers enjoyed the respect of society; they were revered, and often feared, and classrooms were always orderly. They earned barely enough to keep their heads above water, but not many complained. There were exceptions, but hardly ever in the Zila School I went to in a district town.
The teachers I respected and still remember and try to follow believed in the philosophy of "plain living, high thinking". I do not know who coined the phrase – not certainly a philosopher – but it aptly describes the ethos of an age which is long gone.
Our teachers encouraged the "first boys" to go for science and professions of respect. Teaching was not one of those in their list because they knew from their own experiences how difficult it was for them to make ends meet. Yet when one opted for teaching, they were delighted. I too was an occasional first boy, and when I decided to join teaching after my Master's results were out, the teachers I met were really happy. They blessed me profusely but cautioned me about a life ahead without much material advancement.
Both my parents were also teachers – my father only for a few years towards the end of his career in education. My mother wanted me to be a doctor; my father, an engineer. But when I told them I had opted for teaching, they were not in the least upset. My father, after congratulating me for my choice, reminded me of my responsibilities as a teacher. Citing the example of a formidable teacher of his he told me: if you fail to motivate your students to achieve what to them appears unachievable, you will remain just an instructor, not a teacher.
I am still trying to come up to my father's expectations but let me confess how difficult the task is. I should also confess that teaching at the country's premier educational institution shielded me from the slings and arrows life throws quite unkindly at teachers. I had always been amazed and humbled to see how so many of our teachers, working even in remote areas, delivered their best by pursuing their vision. Poor salaries and unsatisfactory living conditions could not stand in their way; they kept trying to motivate the students to give their best. And many teachers still do that, but their number is not rising in proportion to the recruitments we make. Those recruitments often lack transparency, particularly those that are overseen by local level politicians.
The working conditions of teachers, especially for those who teach at the primary and secondary levels, have improved over the years, but not significantly. The remuneration they get does not match the cost of living. Unless they teach privately – at home or in coaching centers – many of their needs remain unfulfilled. Teaching hours are long, checking tons of exam scripts is tedious and time consuming, and there are no provisions of rest and relaxation.
Once on a trip to Indonesia I came across a bus load of teachers, mostly women, going on a holiday, all expenses paid, in their R&R week set by the school. Imagine the level of energy they brought back to the class after the holiday.
Apart from a list of daily deprivations, the teachers in our schools are not given the respect their predecessors once enjoyed. I was in an Upazila level school several years back and met its governing body chair, a politician from the ruling party. He referred to the head teacher a few times as "that master" in a tone that sounded to me downright insulting. Which young man or woman, in their right mind, would volunteer to be a teacher in such a setup, unless they have the dire need of a job?
Teaching is measured nowadays not in terms of moral and intellectual output – it is no longer seen to be a profession dedicated to creating "enlightened souls" – but against the number of GPA 5 certificate holders they turn out. The more a school produces those, the better its ranking, no matter what they are taught. It is not surprising that many of these students are hardly taught to respect elders, be compassionate to fellow human beings, love nature and the outdoors, develop a sense of responsibility towards society and be able to judge between right and wrong.
If one asks me, on this World Teachers' Day, why teaching in our country has lost the earlier aura and respectability, I would point out three areas characterized by a mixture of complacency, neglect and mismanagement. First of all, the country still lacks an educational policy that clearly sets out educational goals; qualifications, recruitment and training of teachers and their roles and responsibilities; curriculum design and content; methods of teaching, testing and evaluation and many other related issues that education broadly encompasses. An educational policy is not simply a policy document, it also brings out the philosophy of education a country pursues.
Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in the three and a half years he got before being so brutally assassinated by people bent on taking us back to the dark ages, appointed a scientist to prepare an education policy. Known as the Qudrat-E-Khuda Commission Report, the document is simply amazing for its vision and broadness of approach to education. If that report were materialized, our teachers even in rural schools would be happily and meaningfully joining in the celebrations of Teachers' Day today. Because we do not have a policy, things are done piecemeal, as institutions do on executive orders. There is no coherence between one instruction and the other since the term coordination has disappeared from our administrative lexicon. The results are chaotic and despairing. We do have an education policy passed by the parliament in 2010, but like the proverbial Kazi's cow, it exists only on paper, not in its shed.
A second reason why teaching as a profession is failing to attract bright young minds is a lack of motivation: they find teaching less rewarding and more demanding, as salaries and benefits remain far from ideal. Besides, they find the four key factors that make up a healthy teaching environment largely missing (except in front ranking schools in the cities): teacher-student ratio and classroom facilities; institutional capabilities and support; teaching and testing methods and strategies, including curriculum and training meant to constantly update teachers. A third reason is the lure of more attractive alternatives. An overwhelming number of our university graduates prefer to join the civil service – teaching is an alternative only when a bank or corporate or even an NGO job is not available. BCS is the clear winner because it offers a guaranteed job which also enjoys a great deal of social prestige. Besides, one can join the civil service on one's merit, without the help of a big shot "uncle" or an "influential".
In all fairness, I must also sound a note of optimism here. I firmly believe we have a large number of dedicated teachers who are doing their best to give students the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed and inspire them to develop a passion for learning. Many university graduates also want to join them to bring sea changes in our education. The government also remains committed to creating an enabling atmosphere for them. But we need to do more, and I emphasise the word more.
Things must change if we plan to take Bangladesh to the rank of developed nations by 2041. We must invest in education, at least 3% of our GDP in the next budget and 6% by 2030. Without all round improvements in education – both in terms of quality and quantity – we cannot claim to be developed in terms of our achievement in education, not in twenty or fifty years' time. Teaching as a profession must be attractive. Teachers should have a separate pay scale, and the profession should once again be made respectable – not through an office or executive order, but by the active convergence of political will, vision and action.
When Unesco declared 5 October as World Teachers' Day in 1994, it had an expectation that teachers' role in promoting education in their countries would be recognized and respected. The day was set aside not just to "promote teachers' status in the interest of quality education" but also to honour their contribution to nation building.
When the new coronavirus pandemic brought huge disruptions in our lives, and educational institutions closed their doors, teachers, like other frontline workers, joined the fight against the virus. They put all their efforts to offset the social and educational impacts of the pandemic. With little or no training, they switched to online teaching, and connected with the students to give them hope. With their support, students overcame their loneliness and frustration and made the best use that the virtual domain could offer them. And when in person, face to face teaching resumes, hopefully soon, they have promised to do their best to clear the backlog created by long closures of educational institutions.
This year's Teachers' Day theme is "Teachers: Leading in crisis, reimagining the future". Clearly, the theme refers to the crisis we are facing more than six months into the pandemic, and how teachers are not only leading in facing it, but are also reimagining a post-pandemic future full of hope. That hope, we expect, is of bouncing back and going full steam ahead, and of achieving all the goals we have set for our education.
As teachers continue to educate, inspire and bring all round changes in the lives of the students, the state and the society should also come forward to make their task easy. Unless they are supported in their mission to lead and reimagine the future, the vision that this year's theme spells out will remain unfulfilled.
The author is a former professor of English at Dhaka University and currently professor of English and Humanities at ULAB