I watched in disbelief a video news clip in which Orville Carrington, TTUTA's (Trinidad and Tobago Unified Teachers' Association) second vice-president, was berating a departing Dr Tim Gopeesingh, Education Minister, for belittling Cunupia High School teachers in the presence of their pupils. Carrington was visibly incensed. What had worked him up? Why was he speaking at the minister's back in what seemed to be a disrespectful way? What had the minister, a man not unknown for his arrogance and dismissiveness, done now? I had to find out. And then an mp3 file of his speech dropped into my lap.
A teacher at the school—I'm sure there were others—had taped his speech with her cellphone that fateful day. And, now, I listened in equal disbelief as the minister unmistakably was remonstrating with the teachers of Cunupia High. And, yes, he was boofing them, as Carrington claimed, in the presence of their pupils.
An assembly of the pupils and teachers had clearly been convened, and the minister was spilling the beans to the pupils on various acts of teacher misconduct and threatening to report them to the Teaching Service Commission and get offending teachers transferred or, worse, fired.
In the clip, he started off by observing that there were 15 exemplary teachers at the school every day and, he implied, were taking care of business. And then he turned his guns on ten teachers who were "dysfunctional to the conduct of discipline" in the school. He had taken the trouble to read their 2012 files, and some of them had taken "way beyond" 14 days' sick leave; others had taken more than 20 half-days of vacation leave; still, others had been at least 300 minutes late (he was "very, very sad" that "half of the teachers" had been "hundreds of minutes late"), and all had abandoned their pupils, leaving them to their own devices. To give things some context, he noted that he and Minister Cadiz, the parliamentary representative for the area, who had accompanied him, had been in office almost 32 months now and had not taken a single day's sick leave.
"If you don't pull up your socks," he threatened, "I will send your file to the Teaching Service Commission for disciplinary action."
"If you not performing," he warned, "we removing you!"
"Lift your performance," he fumed, "or you are out!"
"Do what you are paid to do," he urged. "Be in school on time and teach properly."
It is clear from the clip that Minister Gopeesingh was angry with the teachers; indeed, he was enraged. If a minister could put teachers down like that in front of their pupils and not care about the damage to their reputation, then he must have been beyond anger. What was fuelling his rage was teacher dereliction of duty in the form of chronic late arrival at school, opportunistic exhaustion of their sick and vacation leave, and callous abandonment of their pupils. How could they? It was enough to drive a caring minister crazy. In fact, so crazy had he become that he banned Carrington from appearing on the compound of his ministry's Woodbrook compound—and, I suspect, all the other compounds—immediately after.
I do not doubt for one moment that the minister cares about Cunupia High's pupils, but I am far from being persuaded that the minister, a politician, is more caring than the teachers—or TTUTA, for that matter. His occupation of office is simply too short, too transitory, too opportunistic. He does not have the time or the daily engagement to care.
But far more important than whether he cares or not is how he explains the clear truancy of the teachers. Does he see those ten "dysfunctional" teachers as being naturally heartless and wicked? Did they just wake up heartless and wicked one morning early in 2012? Or were they like that the moment they took up their jobs at Cunupia High? Weren't there serious conditions at the school that made them misbehave?
In the clip, the minister does not give us an analysis that explains teacher errancy; he prefers to point to acts of misconduct and to see these from the perspective of dysfunctionality, which he gratuitously proposes. But where does the dysfunctionality come from? Was it there when they were recruited by the agents of the Teaching Service Commission and, if so, is the commission therefore guilty of hiring misfits? But isn't it improbable that the commission (or its agents) would send ten misfits to the same school?
TTUTA claims that serious acts of violence had been taking place at the school, which caused teachers to fear for their safety and their lives, but which the ministry had done nothing about. Is this true? What does the minister have to say about that? Or has he been dismissive of the claim? TTUTA further claims that the teachers' dereliction of duty as specified by Gopeesingh amounts to protest action to protect themselves and get the ministry to act.
Is this teacher behaviour defensible? While I would support protest action by workers in the context of an unresponsive employer, I cannot see how regular late arrival at school and using up sick and vacation leave—in the process, abandoning your pupils many days—can solve the problem of teacher safety at a school being troubled by unprecedented acts of violence.
But nor do I see how Gopeesingh's belittling of teachers in front of their pupils and bullying them with extreme action can solve the problem of teacher dysfunctionality. In teacher-ministry relations, as in so many other matters, we should have gone beyond bullying and the big stick to a permanent embrace of dialogue and suasion, infused with an attitude of mutual respect.
This should have been a settled matter, but so many of the leading lights of the Government have become adept at throwing aside settled approaches with a facileness that suggests that they (the approaches) had never earned their stripes in the first place.
Dr Gopeesingh should have known that bullying creates problems, not solve them.
—Dr Winford James is a University of the West Indies (UWI) lecturer and political analyst.