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‘A government driver and peon gets paid more than a primary school teacher’

Since her childhood, Kalpana Khatun had heard of the honour and prestige of being a teacher. She dreamt of being standing before a bunch of vibrant children and shape them through their impressionable years into the great men and women they were going to be. And she struggled hard to turn her dreams into reality.

‘I belonged to a very poor family where I was expected to do household and agricultural work and eventually get married. But I had my own dreams ever since childhood, dreamt of being a respected person, an honourable teacher,’ says Khatun, who completed her degree and made her way to become a primary school teacher.

It’s been now twelve years since she has been teaching in a Government Primary School in Tangail. Over the years her perception and passion towards teaching has changed a great deal. The job that she felt gave her so much prestige is now a job that has become a cause of great distress to her.

Like other teachers Khatun’s work starts early in the morning and goes on till late afternoon. ‘I have to wake up early in the morning and feed my children and be at school at 8 am. It’s a lot of hard work as we have to teach in two shifts. I get a half an hour break and teach till 4.15 at noon. My husband left us about six years ago and I have to feed my three children and the remuneration I get is not enough to maintain my living costs,’ says Khatun who lives in a cramped house with two rooms, one of which doubles as a kitchen.

‘I constantly live in the fear of not being able to pay the house rent and sustain the day to day expenses. There is so much uncertainty involved even with my own children’s education. On one hand if I pay for the daily expenditure and education expenses, I do not have enough to pay the house rent. If I can’t pay the rent where will I go with my children?’ asks Khatun helplessly.

It these distressful conditions in the lives of primary and community schoolteachers that has prompted last week’s indefinite strike by them. The 37,000 teachers who have called a fast-unto-death programme have left over 30,000 primary schools in the country closed this week, in their demand for better pay.

‘A government employed driver gets a higher salary than we do. Moreover, we receive much less than any other government teachers. The discrimination is simply intolerable and we have waited enough. This time we want a change’ demands Khatun.

Had the teachers thought years back that the state of schools and the remuneration structure would not improve, perhaps the number of teachers entering the primary schools would have not have increased as much as it has today.

It was years back when the government recognising the importance of primary education, made universal primary education a major objective of its educational development plans, which focused on increasing access to school, improving teacher training, and revising the primary school curricula. As a result, in the mid 80’s the country saw a significant rise in the primary government schools across the country. At present there are about 37,000 government primary schools across the country employing about 1.8 lakh teachers.

Although the introduction of compulsory primary education seemed to bring a ray of light to the nation and it is supposedly an important element of government expenditure and policy making, the primary teachers are not paid anywhere close the amount paid to other government officials be it high school teachers, workers or even a clerk. “In spite of having the same qualifications, a government high school teacher gets Tk 5,100 per month while a government primary school teacher receives Tk 2,600 only,’said Kazi AK Fazlul Haque, general secretary of the association of primary school teachers.

‘The wage discrimination is so acute even in the higher posts. A headmaster gets only Tk 2,850 per month while a government high school headmaster receives Tk 9,000,’ he added.

He also urged the government to introduce school-based examinations at the primary school level for greater interest of primary school students and teachers. Now the examinations of government primary schools are held under Thana Education Officers (TEO).

‘Primary school teachers should prepare questions for the examinations because the teachers know the ability of the students,’ says Harun-ur-Rashid, treasurer of the association.

While the condition of primary schools in Dhaka is moderately endurable, the conditions of schools in other parts of the country are atrocious, say teachers.

‘Electricity is a major problem and most days students have to do classes out in the open,’ says Mansoor Huq, who is a teacher for the past eight years at a primary school in Gazipur.

‘Primary schools are meant to encourage children to learn and have fun. But the classroom in which they study is grimy and suffocating. During the monsoon the rain enters through the roof which go unrepaired for years despite repeated requests,’ he added. Like thousands of other primary school teachers across the nation, the low remuneration affects his family badly, he says.

‘I am not able to get my oldest daughter married yet as I am having difficulty managing the daily expenditure of maintaining a good standard of living for my two other daughters, wife and my parents,’ says Huq, tired of waiting for a pay raise and improvement in living condition for the past years.

‘Although we play a vital role in teaching children how to become good citizens and work hard in bringing about a more educated future for them, our contribution is never recognised. It’s truly a pity that even government drivers get more paid then us. Is this the kind of respect and honour we deserve to get after being qualified and being a teacher?’ asks Jamal Uddin, one of the teachers.

With the passage of years at various times the desperate cries of teachers like Mansoor, Kalpana and Jamal has been left unheard. The state of the primary schools and mainly the remuneration of these teachers have become a matter of prime concern.

‘There is no other choice left for us other than going on an indefinite strike as the government did not take any measure to meet our demands even after we had observed a strike in all government primary schools on June 10,’ Abul Kalam Azad told the rally.

According to him, a 20-member team from the association met Prime Minister Khaleda Zia on October 20 last year and she assured them of taking effective measures to eliminate wage discrimination. ‘But the government did not take any step to meet our demands even after eight months of the PM’s assurance,’ he said.

The rally of teachers took place in Central Shahid Minar and Muktangan where thousands of teachers from different parts of the country gathered carrying banners, festoons and placards. They also submitted a memorandum to the prime minister through Acting Speaker of the Parliament Akhter Hamid Siddiqui. At the rally, leaders of the association vowed to continue their strike at government primary schools until their demands are met. Furthermore, they said they will lay a siege to the Prime Minister’s Office on June 24 if their demand for increasing their salary are not met within seven days. Although discussions with the state minister has taken place, no specific assurance has been given.

This unresolved situation and indefinite strike has put the future of around one crore primary school-going students into jeopardy. Though most of the schools were kept under lock and key, a few primary schools in the capital were seen open with classes in progress. A teacher of Mirpur Government Primary School said they did not want to hamper the students’ academic life. Most schools at Tejgaon, Moghbazar, Mohammadpur, Sutrapur, and Demra in Dhaka remained open; some schools at Motijheel and Mirpur were locked up.

An assistant teacher of the BG Press Government Primary School at Tejgaon, Saidur Rahman, said ‘We do not want to affect the lives of these students. The closure of schools is affecting thousands of children’s education. We prefer movement only when the schools remain closed.’

‘The association, led by Azad, launched the programme all on a sudden with an ill motive,’ he said. ‘Education at primary schools has been severely hampered. Foreign donations depend mostly on the results of primary scholarships. If the schools remain closed for days, how will the students do better in the examinations?’

‘Children usually do not want to go to school and we always try so that they love going to school. If the students find their school closed without any reason, it would discourage them. Apart from general strikes, there are so many other reasons for keeping schools closed which only hampers education. Unfortunately, the teachers have now gone on a strike. They could continue their agitation programme on public holidays to push for their demands,’ said a concerned parent.

The country in the last few years has seen a drastic drop in school enrolment in the primary level. With such unresolved issues and closure of some 37,000 schools across the nation, the students are being adversely affected. If this continues on, it is feared that drop out rates may slowly rise.

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