Listening to Teachers

I have had the honour, with others, of representing Education International (EI) in all of the International Summits on the Teaching Profession from New York in 2011 to the most recent one in Berlin, where the theme was professional education and growth. I recall that, at the initial summit, there were some Education Ministers who did not really understand why they were sharing the platform with teacher unions, including with those from their own countries.

However, in the intervening years, there has been a major shift in the level of understanding about the capacity of teacher unions to meet the professional needs of teachers. We have not just shared our views, but also our experiences. For example, we discussed trade unions taking the responsibility for in-service training for their members in the UK, the US, the Netherlands, Denmark and Australia.

It has long been clear to us, but not always to others, that teacher unions must be at the centre of their members’ professional lives. The summits have helped to mainstream that thinking, at least at the global level. The serious work of the OECD has also been helpful. In Berlin, the OECD argued as well, that a profession’s practices must be determined by its members.

Far too often, school authorities and politicians have looked outside for guidance on education, including to corporate interests. But, this work cannot be done by outsiders. Only teachers, who combine professional training with daily experience, can lead the way. The potential for improving the quality of education is enormous if we follow that logical, critical path.

Our common dreams for better education need not be only dreams. With the full involvement of highly motivated and qualified teachers, those dreams can become reality. Summit participants had a shared understanding on that point, but making it reality requires listening to teachers.

Continuous professional learning and development is and has always been very important. It allows teachers to address the varied and changing needs of the children they teach. That continuous learning can only be fully effective and productive, however, if teachers have the freedom to determine their professional development needs.
Policies supporting teachers’ learning and their self-confidence to influence education policy and practice are vital to an effective and self-sustaining profession. Our experience at EI is that teachers’ unions can be and are providing teacher learning and vital professional space for the profession.

During the summit in Berlin, we had the opportunity to visit schools. Those visits demonstrated teachers in action and, like in some many other countries, it was clear how important and central teachers are in the lives of all children. That role, that leadership, reminds us of what our profession, our commitment, and our mission are all about
Education that recognises the central role of teachers and that is broad and comprehensive rather than narrow and limited to training in a few, marketable skills, makes a vital and irreplaceable contribution to students, but also to secure, fair, and safe societies. Good education supports and enables democracy and helps make our societies coherent and inclusive.

Anti-social attitudes and behaviour, whether it comes from the powerful or the weak cannot simply be suppressed. It must be overcome. Dealing with that challenge goes beyond the classroom, but within and beyond schools, bad habits and reactions must be educated away.

An important current example of the value of our concept of education is dealing with the refugee crisis. Many of our affiliates are working to ensure that refuges are properly educated so that refugee children can succeed, make new lives and taste the excitement of learning.

EI is gathering and exchanging that information. We plan to convene a forum of teachers and their unions from countries with a large influx of refugees to enable the sharing of good practice. As a profession, we accept our responsibility. We also hope that through this initiative we can influence and encourage governments and societies to meet their moral and legal responsibilities.

In the current environment, that is an important role for professional educators and their trade unions. It is fully in line with what we, as teachers and trade unionists, see as our job and our mission.

Note: This article is adapted from the closing remarks at the 2016 ISTP in Berlin of Susan Hopgood


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Susan Hopgood

Susan Hopgood is President of Education international and Federal Secretary of the Australian Education Union. She began her career as a mathematics teacher and later served with the union full-time in the position of Women’s Officer, a job she held until 1993. She was elected to AEU’s top office in 2006, the first woman to achieve that position. Ms. Hopgood was appointed President of EI by the Executive Board in 2009 and elected President at the 6th EI World Congress in Cape Town in 2011.  

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