We are going through trying times in this country. The people in general are facing unprecedented hardships. Those in unions, like the teachers, are asserting their rights to protest.
In the case of the Jamaica Teachers' Association (JTA), many people share their struggles. They received a 'bashing' from some people, with another voice asking them to take it easy with the Government, which is under pressure. There is also a serious concern about return on investment in spending on education in terms of the perennial poor academic performance in the system.
The JTA is associated with a rich history of educational leadership of the 19th century Jamaica Union of Teachers (JUT). JUT was not a simple bread and butter group but an advanced union that was concerned about teachers' welfare and equally on the matter concerning the colonial system of education.
There is a feeling that the JTA is just a bread and butter organisation now, with not much concern about change and education in Jamaica. It is my thinking that that the current president of the JTA, La Sonja Harrison is a breath of fresh air in terms of providing a new type of leadership in that union.
Education must be a priority
The scarce financial resources of the country is being used in a manner that has negative impact on the State's ability to serve the nation. The level of corruption, the wasteful expenditure to shore up party base for elections, the excessive spending to assist foreign investors, and also huge spending by the Ministry of Tourism coupled with disproportionate cost to serve foreign debt, all have restricted the spending on education.
The colonial authorities did not treat education as priority and I think we have reverted to that period. Spending on education must be a priority. All workers in Jamaica deserves better salaries. Teachers deserve better salaries too. In recent times teachers were given the opportunity to buy motor vehicles and, of course, the new change in lifestyle comes with higher personal costs.
There are those who are calling for pay by performance policy. This is a policy that I oppose, because even though there is the issue of teacher incompetence, it is my thinking that historical and institutional factors are the main foundations of the perennial poor academic performance. Additionally, teacher training institutions are a major part of the problem in the educational system. There is a need for revolution in the teacher training institutions and acute attention to be paid to philosophy and the language problem.
Philosophy of education
Any attempt to change/transform education must begin with the discussion on philosophy. There is a view that, "Philosophy gives meaning to our decisions and actions. In the absence of a philosophy, education is vulnerable to externally imposed prescriptions, to fads and frills, to authoritarian schemes and to other 'isms'."
Philosophy guides the form, the content, and the practice of education. Millicent White in A Short History of Jamaica highlights that colonial philosophy is manifested in the educational system as rote learning. One lecturer at The University of the West Indies, Cave Hill, suggests that the colonial philosophy of education is alive and well in the region. He argues that many students cannot perform beyond the first rung on the cognitive ladder -- comprehension. The lecturer concludes that critical and creative thinking were the first victims of rote learning; and there is the need for the emergence of a new philosophy of education for countries in the region.
The thinking that guides the system of education in Jamaica lacks emancipative and creative qualities. There is this talk about early childhood teacher training, more resources, among other things, but there will never be any improvement without change in philosophy and a creative response to the language crisis in this dysfunctional system of education.
The language crisis
I have seen evidence of students sent into high schools who cannot read at grade seven level. This is not something that is discussed publicly. I have spoken to a principal who told me that he would be taking early retirement because he cannot continue to work with the system sending him students reading at grade three and lower grades, and that those students have to be promoted to higher grades to facilitate another incoming cohort. The evidence of the preceding is revealed in the newspaper article 'Major change in Denham Town's literacy programme' (Jamaica Observer, March 12, 2023) that "grade seven to 11 students reading at grade one level" and that there are many schools across the island with similar challenges.
The language crisis is highly associated with this major weakness in teaching and learning. These students left primary schools without a working knowledge of English language because their mother tongue is patois. Since the 1990s there has been sustained discussions on the issue of the language crisis in Jamaica. I have been a consistent advocate for the official recognition of patois. Once the existence of the language is officially recognised, the next step is to teach English as a second language so that the children will be able to learn the rules of the game and develop adequate competencies in English language.
Further to this, educational researchers at The University of the West Indies, Mona, built a body of work on poor performance in English language, mathematics and the sciences, and that the poor knowledge in English is associated with poor performance in mathematics and the sciences. Language is more than grammar, sentences and paragraphs, it is also about critical thinking and reasoning. It is my thinking that our political leaders on both sides of the aisle are afraid to challenge the language of status quo by recognising the slave language. The political leadership on both sides are concerned about elite perceptions and not the problem it is associated with in education.
La Sonja Harrison,
In her early days of leadership at the helm of the JTA, La Sonja Harrison made some strong statements that, in a little way, reminded me of the powerful JUT. This organisation produced many of the early black representatives in the Legislative Council. The JUT also contributed to changes in the colonial system of education.
In her opening statements of her tenure she called for a national debate on philosophy and education as well as an approach to treat the historical language crisis in education. I have not heard this kind of utterances from previous leaders of the JTA. Those two areas, colonial philosophy and the language crisis, are two of the foundational pillars that hold up the structure of the dysfunctional education in Jamaica. I hope that after her tenure she will be able to lead a group of teachers that will continue to struggle for those profound changes that will certainly lead to real transformation in our educational system. Indeed, her entry into the leadership of the JTA was a breath of fresh air, quite a distance from the kind of "mongrel dog" narrative that we have witnessed in the past. I stand with her in her position taken in the present wage negotiation with the Government. Continue to stand firm, Ms Harrison.