Is the JTA becoming the new intellectual ghetto?
Jamaica Teachers’ Association head offices in Kingston

As an alum of The University of the West Indies (UWI) I never quite agreed with or appreciated the description of that noble institution by the late and indefatigable Wilmot "Motty" Perkins as the intellectual ghetto.

I understood where he was coming from in his criticism of the institution as not having given its full intellectual weight to the transformation of the society. Too often there was not the bold, progressive thinking that could be used to galvanise the society to new ways of looking at things. Too often there was intellectual bankruptcy and scholarly myopia from those from whom better was expected.

As one assesses the present iteration of the Jamaica Teachers' Association (JTA), one is forced to wonder whether this important institution is itself becoming an intellectual ghetto. Over the past 20 years the association has become increasingly bereft of common sense and a wider vision for education that transcends the narrow confines of its shrivelled domains as a self-aggrandising union for teachers. Especially over the past 10 years, there has been an increasing absence of the intellectual rigour which defined this institution in the bygone era and made it respectable in the eyes of the Jamaican people. Oh that we could resurrect the likes of a Faye Saunders or a Helen Stills or a Wesley Powell!

There have been a number of factors over the last two decades which I believe merit criticism of the JTA as an intellectual ghetto, but the behaviour of its members at its last annual conference in Ocho Rios was quite an alarming indicator of the current state of this institution.

As is customary, the minister of education was a featured speaker. There were two important matters highlighted by Education Minister Fayval Williams that seemed not to have gone down too well with the teachers: one is the Sixth Form Pathway Programme and the other is the licensing regime for teachers.

It is difficult to understand why a body which is dedicated to teaching and learning and has the educational future of children as the fulcrum of its concern should be so opposed to either matter. The teachers' response to the issue of the pathway programme was most troubling and irritating. When the minister announced that the programme was going to be implemented in the next academic year and asked for an amen from the teachers, she was largely met with stony silence from the teaching body or with a "no" from those who were brave enough to respond.

The minister has not said it loudly, but one can be sure that she was embarrassed and taken aback by the lacklustre response. She had to have been surprised that the body did not erupt in applause and a standing ovation — not for her — but for something revolutionary that could impact the lives of students for good. One would have thought that as teachers they would have been glad that young people were being given a greater opportunity to develop the necessary skills to provide them a platform to make it in society rather than becoming pawns in the hands of predators in gangs and other unworthy pursuits.

But, alas, they gave no resounding assurance that they were prepared to lend their support to such a worthy cause. There was no resounding encouragement from them that they were prepared to lend their time, talent, and effort to assisting these children. By not doing so they missed a glorious opportunity to demonstrate to the Jamaican people that they do care. As a body they failed to do this. One can be sure that if the minister had made an announcement about a whopping increase in their salaries the roof of the building in which they were assembled would have had to be repaired the day following as it would have been blown off by the shouts of support that would have gone up.

The importance of giving two extra years to students who do not show an aptitude for straight academic subjects but who possess the skills and talents for certain practical areas should not be lost on teachers. Why would teachers not want to give them this fighting chance? Some cite lack of resources, but is this really the elephant in the room? Teachers have always had to wrestle with a lack of resources in schools, and the more resourceful among them use their talents to get blood out of stone as the saying goes.

I once had a conversation with the principal of a junior high school that was about to transition to a non-traditional high school. He related the difficulties he experienced in trying to get teachers to expend the extra effort needed to help their students. Because he loved teaching, he found himself picking up the slack with the upper grades. Some called him a slave driver because he pushed them to go the extra mile. He bemoaned the lethargy and nonchalance that he saw among many of his teachers and how much the students were being underserved.

I believe that many teachers take their work seriously and work hard to ensure the success of their students. They adhere to and observe the best canons of professionalism consistent with their training, but far too many do not show the level of interest and willingness to make the sacrifices that the work demands. Remuneration and working conditions, though not to be disputed, are at the top of their agenda. But a comprehensive, working vision for education seems not to be at the centre of their concern. The JTA, by its adversarial relationship with the Ministry of Education, tends to reinforce this narrative.

If teachers want to be considered true professionals, why resist being licensed? Licensing holds professionals to a certain level of accountability for the work they do. Doctors, nurses, and lawyers, among other professionals, have to be licensed. Is it that teachers do not want to be held to the standards of professionalism that is expected of other professions? Is it that they do not want to come under the scrutiny to which other professionals are subjected? Do they believe that the JTA is the best guarantor of their relevance to the Jamaican education system?

There are problems in the education system, but these are not beyond our power as a country to resolve. The Joint Board of Teacher Education (JBTE), which oversees the training of teachers, must be part of an overall workable vision that can make the system work more efficiently and sustainably. But there seems to be too much of a disconnect, too much of a silo mentality among critical stakeholders, which stymie any progress that can be made. At every level there seems to be the need for serious attitudinal change.

Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest, social commentator, and author of the books Finding Peace in the Midst of Life's Storm, Your Self-esteem Guide to a Better Life, and Beyond Petulance: Republican Politics and the Future of America. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or stead6655@aol.com.

Raulston Nembhard

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