Teacher migration in 2023 has further contextualised the chronic issue of brain drain for Jamaica and the wider Caribbean community.
The report iterated by our own Minister of Education and Youth (MOEY) Fayval Williams succinctly spoke to the disconcerting notion of over 800 teacher resignations, primarily from the secondary school quadrant.
Notwithstanding the number of resignations (854 as of September 2023) compared to the entire educator populace, this churn rate shouldn't sit well with anyone and is no laughing matter. Suffice to say, this is not the entire picture of the forest and thus the number will exponentially increase as 2023 comes to a close. The teachers are leaving, now what?
Furthermore, teachers are resigning without notice, leaving school leadership in a frantic scramble to find replacements. Administrators, understandably, were taken aback as the departing educators had operated under the guise that they would stay for another academic year to be the patriotic patron of guidance for students on their tumultuous educational journey.
Frankly, we can't blame the veteran educators for their rationale. The mental health of our teachers is constantly on the line and was exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Throw into the mix rising cost of living, increased pressure to raise their families comfortably, and a steadily climaxing crime rate, this combination would wear down the most robust of teachers.
Over the course of the last two years, multiple requests were made to the political directorate to grant a modest increase to their remuneration packages, only to be met with delay and denial on the premise that it would put the country's finances in jeopardy. In March 2023, a temporary stand-off occurred between the Jamaica Teachers' Association (JTA) and the Government, which consequently led to a memorandum of understanding (MOU).
As expected, teachers were fuming, knowing full well that they asked for more than the proposed minimum increase of 20 per cent, which, to be fair, they rejected. One would say that teachers would have been better off with the 20 per cent, but their eyes were notoriously fixated on the two- to three-fold increase of other public sector workers thereafter.
A 2023 article in The Gleaner titled 'What teachers have rejected from the gov't' shed some light on the revised remuneration packages. Pretrained teachers would get a gross salary of $1.4 million by April 2024; trained teachers would ultimately receive a maximum of $3.6 million; and primary and high school principals would get $9.4 million per annum.
This remuneration campaign failure led many teachers to set sail to their promised land — almost anywhere that justly caters to them would do just fine. Teachers are in survival mode; loyalty has now taken the back seat with folded arms, unfortunately.
Cost of living comparisons
According to Daniel James in his article 'Cost of living in Jamaica', the median salary in Jamaica is roughly US$7,800 per year, which translates to roughly over a million per year or $83,333 per month, and he didn't take into account the tax bracket and the net salary afterwards. When compared to data collected from the Numbeo website, the cost of living in Jamaica for one person monthly is $122,671, excluding rent. Raising a family of four means nearly four times as much or $436,670. No rocket science is needed to see the difference.
Let's examine a sample location where teachers are diligently sought after — the United States of America (USA). According to the Salary.com website, the average salary for a teacher in the states is US$64,000 per annum or US $5333.33 per month, which translates to over $800,000. Taking into consideration taxation, higher living expenses, and remittances, the average Jamaican teacher achieves the expected trade-off.
Across the United Kingdom (UK), the average salary of a trained graduate teacher is £23,720 – £35,008 or £1976 – £2917 per month and is heavily predicated on experience, as highlighted by the Engage Education website. The cost of living, however, is around £700 without rent. Jamaicans are inclined to make the best use of their money initially and share living expenses with relatives and friends, so it is only a matter of time before they return periodically to their native land with the funds to live comfortably and in prosperity.
In spite of the complexity of this migration entanglement and the consequences it will bring in the long run without pre-emptive intervention, we need to have a robust retention plan if we want to keep our teachers. How can Jamaica competitively offer better wages and a higher standard of living to the ones that are currently here?
A few months ago I had the pleasure of reading Lloyd B Smith's column in the Jamaica Observer titled 'Why not import teachers?' Smith argued that teachers could be imported from countries like India, where the average salary package is US$390 or $58,500 per year. These teachers would be more than happy to take the offer, once living and travelling costs are covered.
Not to be ignored are the multiple agreements and the good relationship developed over the years between Jamaica and Cuba as well as key African nations for exchange of health-care professionals and educators, thereby encouraging the 'brain gain' phenomenon.
Another solution suggested by the president of the Jamaica Association of Principals of Secondary Schools (JAPSS) Linvern Wight is to use the nation's sixth form students to cover the shortfall. This is an excellent avenue for sixth form students to gain invaluable job experience and early exposure to the public sector work environment, including all its shortcomings.
In addition to their decades of experience and wisdom, retired teachers also possess the qualifications to match the needs of the system, although this is also a temporary solution. They are called retirees for a reason.
A beacon of hope
We still have the teachers' colleges to rely on to provide us with the trained graduates we need to compensate for our loss to overseas markets. Their novel approach, efficiency, and eagerness to make a long-term impact on the nation's children, in my opinion, will be a game changer once nurtured properly and patiently.
Jamaica is slowly indoctrinating itself into the artificial intelligence (AI) paradigm, so we should also seek to revolutionise education with this tool alongside the newly minted trained graduates. The MOEY and the JTA must heavily invest in this 21st-century initiative with urgency to reap rewards.
Dujean Edwards is an adjunct lecturer at University of Commonwealth Caribbean and a graduate of The University of the West Indies. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or email@example.com.