Lebanon’s Teachers: Striking to Be Heard
Lebanon’s public school teachers are in a rut. With their demands being ignored by the state, they are forced to strike for improved working conditions, which always lead to accusations that they are acting selfishly and neglecting the welfare of their students.
Every time teachers go on strike, people question their “selfish” actions that include boycotting marking examinations and dicing with the futures of hundreds of thousands of students.
Teachers feel that their rights are violated daily. They are constantly battling to overcome political obstacles to their demands. The government ignores the teachers, until the “students become the scapegoats.”
Historically, the teachers movement, in both the public and private sectors, was influential – in its slogans and actions – in the period preceding the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990).
In his thesis on “The Dialectics of Movement and Awareness among Educators in Lebanon,” Imad Samaha describes how they formed a significant social current, especially with the spread of public education during the era of Lebanese President Fouad Chehab (1958-1970).
They attempted to reform the educational system by improving public education. Teachers called for “democratizing and nationalizing education,” and used slogans that reflected the political, economic, and cultural realities of the period.
At the time, political parties and movements played a significant role in supporting the teachers’ union activities, until the onset of the civil war.
While some individual teachers fell for sectarian and partisan influences, as a group they remained impervious to confessional or regional fragmentation.
This was apparent in various successful mobilizations during the most extreme periods of communal fragmentation.
Samaha believes the reason behind this was their trust in the professional outlook of their association’s leadership. They trusted its expertise in organizing and steering their mobilization.
The teachers trusted their leaders due to their long history of achieving rank-and-file demands and winning sustained gains.
What changed since then, according to Samaha, is the scope of their rhetoric, which used to tackle political and educational issues, in addition to professional demands. Today it is limited to the latter.
“In most teachers’ mobilizations, unity manifested itself in career and livelihood demands. This indicates a relationship that links these actions with an awareness based on the professional and sectoral awareness of educators,” Samaha explains.
“They ended their various mobilizations by reaching settlements with the political authorities. These agreements were often limited to addressing livelihood and professional demands, rather than education and learning,” he adds.
Amin illustrates the ups and downs of teachers’ mobilizations, its ups and downs.
But these days the general trend has been “downwards. On the one hand, there is a steadfast union mobilization. But on the other there is a decline in public education and public schools are being saturated with teachers who have only the lowest standards of professional training. Teachers are getting posts based on political allegiances and go through hasty training sessions for fast appointments.”
Still, the important question is whether union activities sometimes put educational issues on the back-burner.
Union leaders believe that progress in education is not possible unless the conditions for workers in the profession are improved.
Former head of the Public Primary Education Association in Beirut Ibrahim al-Rassi believes that the crux of the teachers’ issue can be summarized by the state’s repeated attempts to cancel the entitlements of the teaching profession.
It wants to eliminate the teaching allowance that sets the profession apart from other jobs.
Rassi says that teachers have to deal with human beings and not pieces of paper and transactions. Their performance has to be flawless and their nerves have to be firm throughout the day, from preparing lessons all the way through to grading assignments and exams.
This is in addition to the increase in the number of teaching hours.
But the transformation in slogans was due to the deterioration of the economic situation in the country, says Fouad Abdul-Sater, media secretary in the Public Secondary Education Association.
Some protests started focusing on purely material issues related to livelihoods after the collapse of the Lebanese currency in the mid-eighties.
“If public wages had been linked to a dynamic salary scale, they would have increased automatically based on the increase in cost of living. And we would not have been forced to be take action,” Abdul-Sater maintains.
Regardless, “our association – after receiving the financial allowance of 1999 – focused on its involvement in the new curricula workshop,” he says.
“Between 1998 and 2004, it organized four educational conferences on reforming and developing curricula, educational materials, the school map, the academic evaluation system, and improving the conditions of secondary education,” he adds.
The teachers are emphatic about going back to educational issues once they achieve their demand for a new rank and salaries scale.
Abdul-Sater cannot recall a single occasion when such demands were achieved through negotiations with officials, without teachers having to resort to strikes and demonstrations.
He explains how teachers associations try all available means before resorting to boycotting official exams. But the public never get to hear about this.
In the most recent mobilization, “we held five press conferences and presented officials with five memos, in addition to numerous meetings and negotiations,” Abdul-Sater explains.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.