The tragedy of MH17 shook me up quite a bit – both as a civilian person who reads about conflict without having to live in it, and also as a Malaysian in Europe. My annual summer route is MH20 which does Paris-Kuala Lumpur. Not that dissimilar to the one from Amsterdam. I’ve collected so many stories, lived my expatriating emotions, nursed my babies, missed my family, lost and found my friends and grown into adulthood on this route.
This tragedy illustrates very poignantly the extent to which we are failing as a whole world. How the passenger list reveals such spectacular human achievements so brutally wiped out by equally human conflict over land and over life. Societal breakdown.
This also illustrates how we need to change something in the way we make our world, our whole world. We need to say and to say again how education is the most powerful way to build these broken channels of understanding and communication. But what kind of education, for whom, by whom, and when?
I’m not writing this to comment on the politics of Russia-Ukraine, nor to analyse what the newspapers are doing so avidly already. I’m writing this as someone who teaches a course on societal challenges, as a teacher who cares very deeply about the conditions of teachers and as a member of a discourse community that is interested in education.
My question is: what would happen if we started paying our teachers like we paid our bankers?
What if teaching became a prestigious profession? One that our top graduates wanted to get into… What if being a teacher trainer wasn’t something that you branded yourself as but the result of committed study, engagement and experience? What if teachers were as important as academics, if not more important? What if classroom life, research and practice was at the core of educational policy decisions and not on the habitual fringe?
What would happen if we all took education a lot more seriously? What if education stopped being there to make sure that those who didn’t fit the hierarchy of subjects were siphoned off from access to economic power and potential?
What if we stopped pouring the big money into the data on education, into the tools with which we educate, into the materials with which we advise on how to educate? What if we started pouring big money into the professional development of teachers? What if paying teachers to undergo further training was every teacher’s basic right and not that of the occasional lucky winner?
What if musical education stopped being associated with learning the recorder? What if physical education became mandatory in the daily timetable? What if childhood nutrition became part of the curriculum? What if we stopped insisting that children colour within the lines and started talking to them about art? What if drama were in the core curriculum?
What if we started directly investing in developing the human beings that make education? What would happen?
It would probably throw the world upside down. Our economic model would break. The whole world still may not work. We don’t know. But if you imagine my ‘what if’s realised to an achievable extent in our current world, to tweaks, changes and evolutions that slowly and surely place human beings and the human condition at the core of how we educate… we would still all start taking education a lot more seriously. And we might communicate with less agenda and more intelligence.
How would this make our world better?
There are so many angles from which to answer this but I’ll choose one: the greatness of teachers.
Try and remember your favourite teacher, and what an incredible person that teacher was. I’m sure things like their energy, intelligence, enthusiasm, interest and sheer enchantment with what they do come to mind, whatever culture you’re from. I’m sure their burning desire to make their local environment better is something you remember. I’m sure you’ll describe them with all the essential qualities that help do this; they’re caring, they’re helpful, they work more than they’re ‘supposed to’ because they love what they do. Now imagine if that teacher was someone that people listened to outside their classroom as well. Imagine if their voices extended beyond informing parents of how their children are doing, or grades.
“What do you do?”
“I’m a teacher”
What if the best teacher you’ve had was someone who had real social influence in your local community, whose opinions and analyses were given importance, given an audience and allowed continuity. Imagine the heights to which that exceptional teacher would have soared had the society around them treasured them a little more. Imagine the human revolution this would cause if all around the world, these gifted teachers’ roles were the ones that our talented, educated youth coveted.
The world would change. Human agency would spread, like wildfire, across any society that did this. It is hardly imaginable, yet so worth imagining.
“threatened institutions, while they are still powerful, possess themselves of the educational machine, and install a respect for their own excellence into the malleable minds of the young. Reformers retort by trying to oust their opponents from their position of vantage. The children themselves are not considered by either party ; they are merely so much material, to be recruited into one army or the other. If the children themselves were considered by either party ; they would not aim at making them belong to this party or that, but at enabling them to choose intelligently between the parties ; it would aim at making them able to think, not at making them think what their teachers think”
Bertrand Russell, Principles of Social Reconstruction, 1916