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North American and Caribbean education leaders work towards strong leadership in times of crises

As Education International convenes its regional affiliates in Trinidad and Tobago, the challenges they face are as varied as they are common, from strengthening democracy, ensuring quality education to the future of trade unionism.

In his speech to open the conference, the President of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, Anthony Carmona, noted that “it is easier to raise strong children than to repair them.” Therefore, he mentioned, “we must have a quality education, these years are the most important for children”.

Stating that teachers are daily training transformative leaders for tomorrow, he said that their important role must be recognised.

His words helped set the tone for the more than 100 top education unionists from the Education International (EI) North America/Caribbean region met from 24-26 February in Trinidad and Tobago for their regional conference. Hosted by the Trinidad and Tobago Unified Teachers’ Association in collaboration with the Caribbean Union of Teachers, the conference focused on “Leadership in Times of Crises”.

Schools being attacked

Commenting on the massacre in a school in Parkland, Florida, USA, Education International (EI) General Secretary Fred van Leeuwen said: “The reaction to the school massacres and the inability to reach a consensus on something as fundamental as the carnage of our children is but one sign of the failure of politicians, but also of a larger failure of democracy”.

In addition, large numbers of students and teachers have been killed in Nigeria and Pakistan and elsewhere in attacks linked with Islamic fundamentalism and with political motives. “What they have in common with the American shootings is that schools were targets, many teachers fell defending their students and communities were devastated.”

EI resolution

These and other recent events threaten democracy and challenge its foundations, he said. It is worth re-visiting the “resolution on the promotion and protection of standards and values in the world”, adopted by EI’s Congress in Canada in 2015, describing “a multi-faceted problem having to do with the influence of the market and alienation, poor governance, and international government lawlessness”, said van Leeuwen.

For him, the resolution correctly underlines the crucial role of trade unions, and especially education trade unions, to re-build support for democratic values and strengthen the functioning of democracy. It also identifies these challenges as global, although few would have imagined at that time that the international dimensions would include interference by foreign powers in the practice of democracy in other countries.

The arsenal of educator unionists, he said, includes trade union rights, the right to education, and the right of expression – these are enabling rights that protect other rights, and whose effective and strategic exercise will leverage change.

Davanand Sinanan, President of the Trinidad and Tobago Unified Teachers Association (TTUTA) and EI Executive Board Member, insisted that “in the Caribbean, teachers played a fundamental role in achieving democracy after the period of colonisation”.

“What brings us together is the belief that our work is fundamental to our nations,” also insisted National Education Association (NEA) President and EI Vice-President Lily Eskelsen García. “Education humanises us, protects us from demagogues. People who are educated are dangerous for demagogues, our unions are dangerous for demagogues.”

Privatisation of education

A constraint on the contribution of education unions to democracy and on democracy itself is the commercialisation and privatisation of education in many countries, van Leeuwen stressed.

Noting that some of the worst “reforms” in education are based on measurement and evaluation techniques developed by the private sector for widgets, not people, he added that some of the market-style “innovations”, such as vouchers and so-called school choice programmes, are intrinsically and directly anti-democratic.

Not only is bad education bad for democracy, he underlined, but bad democracy is bad for education, as “one of the historic missions of free, public education has been to be a force for equality”. This has always been critical, but “it is particularly important in times of growing diversity with, for example, many migrant and refugee households where there is a need for both tolerance and integration as well as other ‘intangible’ values”.

Van Leeuwen also highlighted how academic freedom is an important contribution of education to democracy. This is sometimes endangered by relationships with private firms, because many universities are becoming dependent on private funding as public funds have become scarce.

Regional priorities

During this conference, after the EI Executive Board’s endorsement in January, Mexico and EI’s national affiliate, the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (SNTE), were officially introduced into EI’s North America/Caribbean region.

To help set regional priorities, EI member organisations also learned about priorities across unions. Discussion topics at the regional conference further included: precarious labour conditions, disaster preparedness and response, countering privatisation, mental health and wellbeing, equity and diversity, engaging young members, strengthening the profession, sexual harassment, and protecting migrant students.

The various development cooperation initiatives made possible through partnerships among EI affiliates in (as well as beyond) the region were also presented, with particular attention paid to solidarity in light of the 2017 hurricane season. “We salute the courage and commitment of the teachers who faced the disasters last year,” said Caribbean Union of Teachers (CUT) President Julian Monrose.

Participants also reviewed regional priorities by sector, such as higher education, education support personnel, and early childhood education, and the conference allowed them to provide feedback on resolutions for the 2019 EI World Congress.

Education International

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