Beyond Tokenism

Ho-hum. Another Teachers’ Day has come…and gone. In some schools, children perhaps dress up in adult clothes and pretend to take charge of classes for a day. In others, the children entertain their teachers with song, dance and drama. There are gifts and speeches of appreciation, and for a day, the teacher takes centre stage. Then the day passes, like so many others, and everything goes back to normal. Teachers go back to the daily grind in dusty classrooms filled with children who resent them, parents who expect them to deliver the world and more at low cost, and school administrations that make the process of teaching a burden. So is Teachers’ Day then just another token, a meaningless symbol without substance?

This could lead us to the deeper question of whether such commemorative days really have any role to play, apart from providing a welcome break from the routine. Teachers’ Day is celebrated in several countries, on different days, and in honour of different people. In China, for instance, it used to be observed on August 27, which is thought to be Confucius’ birthday. In other countries like Turkey and Iran, the choice of day is more political than cultural. In the United States the first Tuesday of the second full week in May is dedicated to teachers. In some countries it is a celebration that takes place on a school day while in others it is a national holiday. Whatever the form, the basic purpose remains the same; to officially recognize the role teachers play in shaping individuals and therefore society.

Official recognition and tokenism apart, can we use Teachers’ Day as an advocacy opportunity to better working conditions, to bring attention to not only the difficult conditions within which teaching happens, but to larger issues of education and schooling and their relationship with the creation of a healthy society? For this to happen, the day must move away from notional awards and speeches to more pointed action and reflection on sharply defined issues. Organisations and associations concerned with school education and its mechanisms must come together as advocates and find common cause. If the education system in the country is to change, the demand must come from society – represented by parents – and driven by the system – represented by teachers. So why not begin now?

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