The John Thompson programme, a tool for union development and renewal

published 22 December 2022 updated 17 June 2024

This year’s John Thompson Fellowship (JTF) programme for North Asia contributed to direct and valuable exchanges of experience, ideas, and best practices across Education International’s member organisations in the region. It also boosted union renewal and the participation of young unionists.

A training took place from 3-10 August 2022 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in the framework of the JTF programme. It represented the culmination of the two years of online training which started in February 2021Representatives of the National Teachers’ Association (NTA)/Taiwan, the Federation of Mongolian Education and Science Unions (FMESU), the Japan Teachers’ Union (JTU), the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union (KTU/South Korea), as well as AIPTF Innovative Project Coordinator Nitin Kumar, participated.

The training was coordinated by the Director of the Education International Asia-Pacific (EIAP) regional office Anand Singh and EI’s Undarmaa Batsukh, as well as three resource persons, i.e. Beverley Park of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF), Nicole Calnan of the Australian Education Union (AEU) and Eva Elmstedt Frisk of the Lärarförbundet/Sweden.

Key union-related issues tackled

Topics covered during the JTF programme training ranged from leadership to campaigning and effective messaging, from gender equality to union finances, recruitment, and from engagement to the vision and mission of unions. The discussions, in presential, contributed to more direct and valuable exchange of experience, ideas, and best practices across the organisations, and fostering solidarity among the organisations in the sub-region Singh explained.

He went on underline difficulties participants will face back home after this training: “Many participants noted that much convincing is still needed to further update existing union policies and provisions, and deplored the insufficient budgets available to lead such programmes in their home countries, a continuous decrease in union membership, an insufficient engagement and participation of young members coupled with low recruitment rates within the youth”.

Developing youth leadership

He however insisted that “youth leadership and the presence of young participants added a unique dynamic to the overall programme. It was interesting to note that the young members felt more motivated and connected to their unions and the work they carry out after the training. It also served as a learning platform for many members about their unions and why they do what they do.”

He also recognised that the online part of the training programme was essential to familiarise participants with the main issues and topics and to ensure that they came prepared with basic information needed for the in-person training. “For future training linked to the JTF programme, we will certainly use virtual tools to efficiently do the preparatory work ahead of the meeting in presential,” he said.

He concluded by welcoming the fact that “the John Thompson Fellowship Programme for North Asia was successfully implemented. Knowledge acquired through the programme was transmitted by participants to union colleagues. The participants and the unions have committed, as individuals and as collective beings, to an action plan focused on increasing the engagement, presence, and participation of young members in the union activities.”

As a follow-up to the programme, Singh concluded, EIAP committed to continue supporting the participants to work on the priorities they identified for their unions, to provide avenues to the participants to upgrade their skills and establish channels for regular communication and exchange of ideas and experiences.

Participants infused knowledge gained into their unions

“The JTF programme was wonderful,” stressed Tamaki Terazawa, Director of the JTU Department of International Affairs, adding that “the online training sessions due to the COVID-19 pandemic were well-organised, with much knowledge and insights, plus they provided us with spaces to exchange views and experiences. Also, each organisation had the opportunity to develop and moderate one session based on its own theme, which was very important and much appreciated.”

Asked if she learnt anything from other participants that was then useful to her in her own union, Terazawa was clear that she “learned a lot from all three other Education International member organisations. For instance, I was made aware that KTU has been at the forefront for democratising South Korea since its establishment. I believe that it was very challenging for KTU members, but they were successful. Also, KTU regained its legal status after they won a case in front of their national supreme court. I was generally very impressed by KTU's genuine unionism.”

She also mentioned that JTU participants in the JTF programme are members of their union’s Youth Committee and reported to JTF and shared the training details with other members. The Youth Committee made use of the translated programme documents and messages from resource persons.

For Terazawa, “the most important thing we learned was about leadership. The other JTU participants, the Director of the Youth Committee and the Vice-President of a union branch at prefecture level, are taking initiatives as leaders in accordance with what they learned to try and renew the union.”

She also wished to show her appreciation and gratitude towards the training’s resource persons: “Beverley, Nicole and Eva created a welcoming atmosphere, respected participants’ views, and gave significant inputs. Thanks to them, I enjoyed this important programme.”

Successful online training paved the way to profitable face-to-face discussions

Beverley Park of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, resource person for the JTF programme, agreed that, because of the pandemic, “the online version of the programme evolved – and was more successful than we dreamt”.

Before we even began though, she said, there was a needs assessment done through the EIAP regional office. “We knew that the starting point would be to introduce the participants from the four unions to the ‘idea’ of the programme – the foundational principles – and to situate the programme in the research on union renewal that was carried out in the region. This was done mostly with the Education International staff and resource persons presenting.”

Then, she added, the group was given “homework”, asking them to come prepared with one clear thing which they presented to each other. Following their presentations, we did analysis, gave feedback and asked for elaboration.

Park also noted that the face-to-face sessions were different because of the first phase online, as “the participants knew each other and were eager to meet. There were strong bonds from day One. This is typically something that we must work on – breaking down barriers of competition/pride/mistrust and helping participants to let down their guard and ask others for help.”

She also remarked that thanks to the fact that participants had already dealt with some themes online, “we could go much more in-depth with the content. We scaled back on some of the activities we might typically do and dived right into the content as of the first afternoon.”

She further stressed the importance of having excellent internet access and electrical services to engage in proper distance training. Having someone coordinate the meeting – schedule, communicate, troubleshoot, and offer the technical tools support – and solid interpretation was critical in her view.

Congratulating JTF programme participants for being “excellent ‘students’ in that they always completed tasks, they were always present and always very actively engaged”, Park reminded that “those of us who were present at the EIAP Regional conference in Siem Reap took the opportunity to connect and heard reports of good things happening by way of follow-up, in Taiwan and in Mongolia in particular. And it is no coincidence that in those delegations there were decision-makers. South Korea and Japan are reporting activity, but they must convince their decision-makers since they were not in the programme.”

We have planned in January 2023 an online follow-up session when the participants will be expected to report on progress and when participants left Kuala Lumpur at the end of the session, they were all committed to staying in contact and fully expected that there would be formal follow-up as well, Park also stressed.

Saying that the amount and level of learning among and between the groups was “phenomenal”, she went on to say that, while many of the activities required them to share on a particular theme – e.g., how we recruit; how we engage youth members; how we organise and campaign; how we communicate; how we build leadership; etc. –, participants went well beyond that, constantly in problem-solving mode, solving many of the communications issues, and breaks were spent often in front of flipcharts as they went deeper into understanding a union’s strategy.

She concluded: “It is fair to say that while YES, they learned from each other, the facilitation team learned a lot as well. It was an extremely demanding but also an extremely rich experience for everyone”.


The JTF programme aims to offer participants the opportunity to:

  • Examine the elements of a well-run union.
  • Reflect on the mission of their organisation.
  • Examine their “reason for being”, to reaffirm their commitment to that cause.
  • Analise their current level of effectiveness and their capacity.
  • Develop practical leadership and managerial skills that will make them more effective as teachers/union leaders.
  • Gain understanding, knowledge and skills to advocate for their rights and for other educational and social issues.
  • Promote equity and representation within unions.

In Asia-Pacific, the JTF training is guided by the research “Union Renewal in the Education Sector: Prospects for the Asia-Pacific report”, by Professor Michele Ford and Dr. Kristy Ward. The report, launched in June 2021, provided an opportunity to reflect on the need for education unions to overcome challenges, embrace renewal, and seize opportunities offered by the COVID-19 pandemic. It revitalised, strengthened, and enriched the work of teacher unions.