“Better dialogue, better schools, better communities”, by John Bangs

The fact that the International Summit on the Teaching Profession is now in its eighth year is one of those small miracles which counterbalance the mood of pessimism which affects the world’s politics. Founded in 2011 by the Obama Administration and the US teacher unions it is now an annual fixture.

What makes it remarkable is that it is the only event where teacher union leaders and education Ministers actually sit down together on an equal basis to learn from each other and agree practical policies which will improve the professional lives of teachers. Both the OECD and Education International (EI) act as the permanent organising partners, working alongside the host country.

This year’s host is Portugal which has stepped into the shoes of previous hosts; the US, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Canada, Germany and Scotland/UK. Taking place in Lisbon on March 22-23rd, eighteen countries are taking part. They are a remarkably diverse group ranging from Canada, Germany, the Russian Federation, China, Hong Kong, the UK, New Zealand and Finland. Trump’s Education Secretary, Betsy De Vos has boycotted the Summit for the last two years, presumably in an attempt to wipe out another of Obama’s achievements but it’s self-evidently failed.

Of course no Summit is perfect. Far from it. Some Ministers try to set the vaguest objectives in order to avoid any commitments. Sometimes union and Ministerial representatives are like ships that pass in the night. Indeed, in one Summit a Minister actually tried to hide from his delegation!  However, there have been enough achievements to make the Summits more than worthwhile. Some examples. At a previous Summit the US agreed to establish a teacher leadership network. The Danish Unions agreed with their government to end a teacher lockout and develop better relations. Sweden set up a National Professional Development Council involving teacher unions. They are reforms which may be relatively small scale but take the profession forward. And the Summit has had the effect of improving collaboration and dialogue between a number of unions and governments as EI’s internal review of the Summits found.

This year’s Summit themes add to the previous frames of teacher policy on professional learning and development. The three themes; “Schools at the Centre of their Communities”, “Pedagogies for the Future”, and “Teachers well-being, efficacy, confidence, and effectiveness” all focus on how teachers operate in the school communities – and how they can be supported. This is nowhere more important than in schools with disadvantaged communities. PISA evidence shows that schools in disadvantaged areas have the greatest teacher recruitment problems. This can lead them to be locked into a downward spiral punishing evaluations and low morale. EI is calling for a package of staffing reforms to attract and retain staff in these schools.

The second plenary on pedagogies for the future opens up the possibility of tackling the sterile debate that polarises teachers as modern, innovative and open on the one hand and closed reactionaries on the other. The signs are that it will be about the intelligent use of ICT driven by students’ learning needs and public values rather than how massive on-line courses can replace the learning relationship between student and teacher. We have argued in EI for the debate to focus on how teachers can network their innovations and share knowledge of what works across schools without their knowledge being commodified.

Albert Einstein once said, “it is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.” Awakening that joy in children requires teachers to feel good about themselves. Yet despite a mass of evidence from teacher union surveys over the years, teacher well-being has rarely been on governments’ agendas. For the first time a Summit is focusing on this issue. The last plenary asks governments and unions to agree strategies on creating the conditions for improving teacher well-being. Working with EI, the OECD is proposing to set up a global survey on teacher stress, well-being and its links to student achievement.

The irony is that such a unique event is hideously under reported. Even social media does not seem to have caught up.  Yet all three themes engage countries in discussions on major issues for society, for democracy, and for education. It may be the case that for all the global debate about the UN’s sustainable development goals in education there is a massive global void in reporting international education issues. We’re trying to fill that void at Education International. Follow our tweets (@eduint - #ISTPLISBON18) !


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John Bangs

John Bangs is a Senior Consultant to the EI General Secretary

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