The possible role of teacher unions in supporting education reforms was in the highlights in the last week of December after their representatives attended the National Teachers Conference in Islamabad. Teacher unions have a long and powerful presence in Pakistan with many of them formed before partition. But whenever they have flexed their political muscles, it has usually been to protect the interests of schoolteachers on issues. They have been conspicuously absent in efforts to improve the state of education. Whether it is the problem of determining the form and content of initial teacher education, in-service activities, teacher absenteeism, or defining high standards of professional conduct, teacher unions and their representatives are seldom on the table.
But those occupied with education reforms know well that there can be no teacher-proof changes in the system. If teachers are so central to reforms, their participation must somehow be ensured in the policy and planning processes. Many fellow educators argue that since unions are teacher representative bodies, their participation in the process of reforms could fill this crucial gap. It has been a mistake, they say, to regard these teacher bodies as part of the problem, when no solution can succeed without teachers being on board.
It is in this context, that the participation of over 350 union representatives from all over Pakistan in Islamabads national teachers conference – convened by AlifAilaan, DFID funded education campaign – is being seen by some fellow educators as a new beginning. The potential contribution of this event to bring the unions on board, however, needs to be clearly understood by the education stakeholders in terms of the difference between education and other professions.
In order to think clearly about the potential roles of teacher unions, we must consider the distinction between the unions and other professional bodies.
Pakistan Engineering Council (PEC) or Medical and Dental Councils (PMDC) are examples of such professional bodies. Both oversee the professional conduct of certified professionals in ways that help them deliver the professional services in accordance with a shared professional code of conduct. They are also fully involved in the development of professional education programmes for their members.
The role of unions, however, is quite different. Unlike the professional bodies, they only seek better working conditions for the workers they represent. The work of teachers unions fit this definition quite well. Their raison dêtre is not to protect public interest, or to promote reforms at the risk of compromising the interests of teachers. Rather it is to secure the interests of teachers as employees against the potential excesses of the employer. This is the sort of role that teacher unions have also been playing in Pakistan. This distinction is too important to be ignored when engaging with the teacher unions as agents of change.
The question that those who are thinking about enhancing the role of unions in education must address is: what are the ways in which the interests and benefits of teachers are made to reconcile, in rhetoric as well as practice, with the interests and benefits of schools and students? In order to become participants in and agents of constructive change in the state of education in Pakistan, the unions will need to develop and expand their charters.
They should also take and justify well-defined positions on several issues related to state of education. For example, the unions should have a position on such issues as teacher absenteeism, dropout prevention, and professional development. Many of these issues are identified in broad strokes in Meesaq-e-Ilm. But Meesaq-e-Ilm is what it says it is and not a charter of the unions themselves. The teacher unions need to expand their charters to incorporate the elements of Meesaq.
The protection of students right to education and the responsibility of the teachers to provide each student with high quality instruction and equal opportunities should be part of a principled approach. The reformers, within and outside of the teacher unions, should encourage the development of a culture in which the unions always justify the positions they take not on the basis of interests of teachers as a group but to protect the students right to quality education.
Teaching will remain a lesser profession unless its members take charge of the professional preparation and conduct of teachers. It will only happen when the membership of teacher bodies is drawn from a diverse set of institutions representing the entire spectrum of the system of education, including teacher education institutions, the unions, and the civil society.
I have followed National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), a group that sets professional standards for curriculum, instruction, and evaluation for teachers of mathematics in the United States. Many of its members were also teachers in the universities and in K-12 schools and so also members of teacher unions at the same time. This diverse membership lent enough strength and credibility to the NCTM to play a central role in developing the standards for curriculum and instruction of mathematics education in the US.
The potential benefits of Meesaq-e-Ilm will only materialise if it spawns a process of professionalisation of teaching. The unions can and should play a role in raising teaching to the level of a proper profession by transforming themselves. They should be encouraged now to take clear and principled positions on critical issues that affect teachers, students, and schools.
However, the professionalisation of teaching will remain elusive unless teacher education faculties, schoolteachers, research organisations, and the civil society come together to form professional bodies of the kind that exist in other professions.