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 A  Personal View of Teachers' Rights

World Child Rights Day is celebrated annually on 20th November and World Human Rights Day is observed less than a month later on 10th December. What do these days mean for us in India with regard to schools – particularly teachers and children?

Let's examine 10 indisputable facts about school education in India:
1. India has the largest number of school-going children in the world – with nearly 450 million being under 18 years.
2. Since 2009, access to quality education has been made a fundamental right for every child in India between the ages of 6 and 14 years. But four years on, children in the vast majority of our schools, still get a very inadequate, even poor, education
3. Teachers are expected to be adequately trained and qualified to teach. 
4. Teachers are also required to teach effectively and sensitively using child-centred approaches
5. Teachers are however given training, both at the pre-service and in-service levels, that's uninspiring, rote-based and theoretical. The focus is less on building teachers' skills and more on filling them with information. Moreover teachers don't receive any mentoring to make that difficult shift from teaching to enabling learning amongst all their students.
6. Teachers are required to teach and children are required to learn in conditions that would be deemed  in the developed world, as violations of basic human rights - no access to clean drinking water, hygienic toilets or decent work spaces.
7.  Teachers in the burgeoning affordable private schools sector get salaries that would put daily wage workers and domestic helpers to shame ranging from an appalling Rs. 3000 to a menial Rs. 6000 per month.
8. When learning doesn't happen the teachers blame their students and the world at large blames the teachers – the classic blame game and shifting of responsibilities.
9. Departments of education, Principals and school managements rarely ask teachers for their inputs or opinions on any aspect of school functioning, including teaching.
10.  Teaching is one of the least sought after professions in India and owing to that, there is a serious shortage of teachers across the country.

A familiar and dismaying pattern of the profession emerges from the above! Teaching as a career has been systematically undermined and teachers have been disempowered over the past over six decades since Independence. While everyone recognizes that “our schools are only as good as their teachers”, yet  “this occupation that makes all others possible is eroding at its very foundation”. If teaching is seen as a last resort career, it will remain a ‘third-rate profession’ and India’s human potential and economy will be driven by third-rate skills! 

Against this backdrop let's explore the idea of Teachers' Rights, in much the same way as Child Rights and  Human Rights. According to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, of which India is also a signatory, every child must have (put briefly here) the rights to – survival, development, protection and participation. Whereas, the UN Declaration of Human Rights recognises in its preamble, the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all human beings. It lays the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. 

So what about Rights for school teachers? Do they actually enjoy the rights inherent in this dignified profession?  I make a case for  teachers' rights existing at the cusp of Human Rights and Child Rights because teachers serve as the catalysts to promote, honour and enact the Rights of every Child, while preparing them as citizens of the world equipped with ideas of humanity, fairness and courage. However  Children's Rights cannot be nurtured in an environment that disregards, discourages and sometimes is even devoid of the same rights! That is the plight of the average Indian school teacher.  Our teachers have long been rendered voiceless functionaries  who carry out orders from school owners and principals, or demands decreed by the Education Departments. Since they lack the agency to do the right thing as education professionals, they overtly or covertly neglect the potential to do good as teachers in the classroom and thereby uphold children's rights  in schools. The loss of voice has resulted in the deterioration of many precious faculties - the capacity to think, reflect, feel, articulate ideas and competently carry out their role effectively as educators. The loss of voice has also been misused by politically motivated teachers' unions and associations who ostensibly stand up for teachers' rights, but in fact prevent teachers from functioning as accountable and committed professionals, by safeguarding them from any legitimate professional sanction. This of course pertains only to school teachers employed by the government – central or state, for whom employment is secure and there is little risk of them getting 'fired'. So if one considers teachers' rights to employment security, lakhs of government school teachers in our country have it – but these rights are 'enjoyed' at the risk of ignoring every child's right to quality education.  Meanwhile thousands and thousands of teachers are ill-trained and ill-equipped to teach and nurture children's learning –  sadly flouting the right of every child in India to a quality education.
Other challenges  exist with regard to teachers who are employed by private schools. Private schools in India are highly stratified – there are the low-cost affordable private schools, the mid-end schools and the high-end elite private schools. Teachers working in the private schools serving the poor are the worst of. The basic human rights of equitable pay and favourable conditions of work are violated frequently. In a September 2011 hearing, the Madras High Court held that teachers' pay cannot be governed by labour laws. So teachers aren't safeguarded by labour laws in India. However as long ago as 1966, the International Labour Organisation and UNESCO had provided recommendations concerning the status of teachers, which relate to the most important professional, social, ethical, and material concerns of teachers. These issues include:
✔ initial and continuing training
✔ recruitment
✔ advancement and promotion
✔ security of tenure
✔ disciplinary procedures
✔ part-time service
✔ professional freedom
✔ supervision and assessment
✔ responsibilities and rights
✔ participation in educational decision-making
✔ negotiation
✔ conditions for effective teaching and learning
✔ social security
Unfortunately these recommendations are not legally binding. They only serve as a basis for national laws or practices concerning teachers, and are meant to influence the development of those laws and practices.
At the other end of the spectrum we have private schools for the wealthy and urban upwardly mobile aspirational sections of society. Here the scene is different. Competent teachers are highly sought after and wooed from other schools, for a few thousand rupees more. Such teachers know that they are a precious and rare commodity and often call the shots with school managements. They are a breed who have found a 'voice' in recent times, but they perhaps use this 'voice' in a way not very different from the government school teacher. They object to working longer hours than students or putting in more days of work during term time. This prevents them from providing students the progressive and global education that their glossy school brochures claim. School heads and managements often buckle under pressure from these teachers. Of course there are teachers and schools who are remarkable exceptions to the case – but they are unfortunately in the minority.
Within this overall scenario of Indian schools– the question of 'rights' needs to be considered in conjunction with responsibilities. Teachers' Rights must be fostered within the ambit of their responsibilities in the profession, more importantly towards the children placed under their care. Teachers' Rights cannot supersede children's rights. Nor can they gain pre-eminence over teachers' essential responsibilities, one of which should be upholding rights of the child. While the Right to Education Act details out the wide ranging, even overwhelming responsibilities of teachers, no mechanisms are in place to enable, support, strengthen  and oversee teachers' functioning at the school and classroom level. There is a disconnect between teachers'  responsibilities and teachers' right to relevant and meaningful professional development and mentoring support.
Teaching is a complex and exceedingly demanding and stressful profession. Policy makers need to work towards ensuring all teachers have access to decent salaries, humane working conditions, adequate non-teaching time for planning, preparation and reflection, and finally professional growth. In short India must implement the recommendations of the 1966 ILO-UNESCO Report.
But teachers also need to recognise that they are accountable to the young children placed in their care for 10-15 years. They need to treat the aspirations of a nation that they hold in their grasp with gentleness and reverence. That would be doing the right thing!

Maya Menon
mayamenon@teacherfoundation.org 

(This article has been published in the January 2014 issue of Mentor Magazine)

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