Teachers and the Law

Jyothi Padmanabhan Iyer

We hear often enough about the high expectations we have of teachers and the difficulties they face in terms of working conditions, compensation and resources available to do their job. We also hear about teachers’ strikes and the associated demands made by unionised teacher groups. While government teachers do have some form of recourse to speak up for their rights, teachers in the private sector are usually not adequately informed nor have access to means of demanding redressal of grievances. This article outlines some of the rights and legal provisions available to teachers. While the wide variation across teaching contexts and situations makes it difficult for any uniform application of legal or professional policies, teachers can take the first step to change by staying informed.

In October 2008, a teacher with work experience of nine years was offered a salary of Rs. 3,000/- per month by a city school, an amount that is probably less than what she would have spent on conveyance had she accepted the job.

This salary for the job of teaching a class of 40 students, correcting their notebooks regularly, conducting tests and correcting test papers, maintaining discipline, being a role model, inculcating in them good values, performing administrative and other duties that a teacher is called upon to fulfill. This salary of Rs. 3,000/- for imparting knowledge and building the nation.

In another instance, a school teacher was subjected to disciplinary action by the school management, for raising her voice at a student who was misbehaving in the class.Interestingly, there are about 38 Supreme Court judgments reported in Judis (Judgment Information Centre) on issues relating to teachers from January to August 2008. In All India Reporter, another database for court judgments, in 2007, about 21 Supreme Court judgments on teachers’ issues have been reported. Similarly, in the year 2006 it was 16, in 2005, 21, in 2004, 20 and so on. A miniscule number, one may say, compared to the total number of cases decided and reported every year. However, these cases only reinforce the growing discontent among the declining number of professionals taking to teaching.

No wonder, then, as noted by Mohammad Akhtar Siddiqui, Chairperson, National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE), in a recent media report, “There’s a shortage of three lakh teachers at the elementary level in India”. The situation at the higher education level is no better. The reasons, he believes are that “we give our teachers authority and responsibility but not autonomy to experiment and innovate”.

balance Under these circumstances, with the ever increasing demands/expectations from students/parents/management and the society on the one hand and an unequal rather mismatched reward mechanism in terms of status and economic compensation on the other, is it not apt for teachers to, at the least, be cognizant of their rights that go hand in hand with their responsibilities, if not fight for them?

In fact, the government at various levels, some NGOs and many organisations such as the Jan Shiksha Adhiniyam are working jointly and/or independently towards ensuring the enjoyment of rights by teachers. Yet, unless the efforts at individual institution level are strengthened, a perceivable change cannot be brought about.

It is imperative that teachers are made aware of their basic rights even as a host of responsibilities are thrust on them. Some of these rights are listed below:

  • Teachers cannot be deputed for non-teaching tasks except with explicit orders of Government so as to provide them with more time to focus on improving the quality of education.
  • Teachers have the right for their professional development.
  • Teachers, though governed by the rules of the organisation they work for, have full freedom to enjoy their fundamental rights of freedom of speech and expression bestowed on them by the Constitution of India.
  • Dress codes such as sari cannot be forced upon women teachers. As long as they are decently dressed, it should suffice.
  • Minimum salary, as prescribed by the board to which the educational institute is affiliated to, has to be paid to the teacher.
  • Teachers cannot be subjected to racial/gender discrimination at the work place.
  • Teachers cannot be forced to practice, advocate a certain religion.
  • Teachers have a right to form unions/associations and put forth their requirements before the authorities concerned.
  • Teachers have a right to security of tenure (subject to contractual conditions).
  • Teachers have a right against sexual harassment at their work place.
  • Teachers have a right to human rights education.
  • Teachers have right to privacy, or to keep one’s image and likeness from being exploited without permission or contractual compensation.
  • Teachers have a right to publicity/use of one’s identity.
  • Teachers have a right to attribution, the right to have a work published anonymously or pseudonymously and the right to the integrity of the work (i.e. it cannot be distorted or otherwise mutilated).

It is pertinent to note that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and International Labour Organisation (ILO) framed recommendations, back in 1966, on improving the status of teachers in India by equipping them with adequate knowledge of their rights and responsibilities.

While it may be not be justified to say that the spirit and letter of the ILO recommendations have not been incorporated by the National Policy of Education, 1986, yet there is indisputably a lot more left to be done in terms of actual practice and implementation. This is evident from the fact that even today, according to a recent study, at least 50 per cent of the Indian teachers do not have access to information pertaining to their rights, leave alone demanding/putting forth their ideas.

Amidst this, at another, very theoretical level, some purists profess that responsibilities of a teacher alone need constant scrutiny and more stress, citing Abraham Lincoln’s (the sixteenth President of the United States) famous letter to the headmaster of his son’s school extracted below, which is certainly as relevant today as it was then:

“…teach him if you can, that a dollar earned is of far more value than five found… In school, teach him it is far more honourable to fall than to cheat… Teach him to listen to all men; but teach him also to filter all he hears on a screen of truth, and take only the good that comes through… Teach him to sell his brawn and brain to the highest bidders; but never to put a price tag on his heart and soul. This is a big order, but see what you can do…”

However, are these responsibilities, by being a tall order in themselves, not an adequate reason for a teacher to be provided with proportionate rights? In the contemporary context, it is perhaps superfluous to emphasise that the responsibilities of a teacher without parallel and proportionate rights are akin to a coin with just one side, an unthinkable proposition, to say the least, in common parlance and definitely a perceptible wrong liable to penal action in legal parlance.

The author works with Deloitte Haskins and Sells. She can be reached at .

The views expressed are the author’s personal opinions and not that of the organisation she works for.

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