No Honor Among Teachers

Marj al-Hamam, suburban Amman, Jordan

I find all my conversations turning to education in Jordan recently. Perhaps it’s partly Nas’s recent posts on education and the long comments I left on this one. As Jordan slips further into recession, and slips on the Freedom House scale from “partly free” to “not free,” reforms of all sorts seem more important and elusive than ever. It may just be because I’m a teacher, but I feel very strongly that none of these reforms are possible without a foundation of education reform.

King Abdullah II’s Jordan First and National Agenda programs both included comprehensive education reforms, and the Amman Message also calls for more critical thinking in religious and civic curricula. There have been significant (though hardly sufficient) improvements made to the national curriculum and teacher training, both in universities and in-service training (for those teachers who can actually attend). But none of that means anything if teachers aren’t appropriately compensated.

The average public school teacher makes less than $350 a month, and is technically forbidden by the Ministry of Education from holding another job. In practice, of course, most male teachers are also doing private tutoring or teaching at after-school centers, as salaries are well below the cost of living for most people.

The student who comes most regularly to Bell’s free Conversation Club on Thursdays is a physics teacher, Firas. Today he explained to me that he has 3 jobs and works an average of 18-20 hours per day, sleeping an average of 3 hours a night. In addition, he’s taking English classes in hopes of being able to get a higher-paying job, perhaps $500 a month, teaching at a private school. He’s also taking an International Computer Driving License course, a U.N. certification he will have to obtain to keep his teaching job with the Ministry.

Teachers in the U.S. or Europe would have gone on strike 5 years ago, when wages had already been stagnant for 8 years, and the cost of living suddenly doubled as a result of the Iraq War. As far as I can tell, though, there’s no teachers’ union in Jordan. Teachers have been voicing their discontent, but the government’s response has been less than encouraging.

A prime example is this week’s announcement by the Minister of Education. In response to teachers’ complaints about wages, he made a statement on public television. Perhaps, he opined, if teachers shaved in the morning and ironed their clothes, it might be worth giving them a raise. He said this on public television.

As a result of this and other abuses, teachers feel undervalued and unsupported. They work 7:40-2:00, and whatever can’t be finished in that time doesn’t get done. They never take grading or lesson planning home. In fact, where lesson planning goes, after their first year of teaching, they just copy last year’s lesson plans into this year’s notebook. Any education reform, no matter how well-intentioned or theoretically sound, is doomed to failure in the face of completely understandable teacher apathy.

Firas was telling me of his and his friends’ attempts to marry. When his friends have gone to meet the fathers of the girls they’re hoping to marry, of course they are asked about their jobs. They are all teachers. Fathers say, “I’ve even had taxi drivers want to marry my daughter and turned them away!” Even as cheap as taxi fare is here, and as high as the overhead is in that industry, taxi drivers can still make 2 or 3 times as much as a teacher.

It’s a real shame, given the history of the Arab world. Students would come from the very ends of the known earth – China, Morocco, Tanzania, Zanzibar – to study with the great Arab masters in Kufa, Basra and Andalusia. Abbassid Baghdad was a Mecca of great learning. Teachers and scholars garnered the highest respect in that world. How different the world would have been if they hadn’t been able to preserve all the masterpieces of the Classical world? That kind of respect inspired greatness. JD150 a month inspires apathy. Can you blame them?

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