Worlds of Education

Teaching in an age of crises: rediscovering the importance of dignity

published 25 September 2023 updated 25 September 2023
written by:

In 1968, Martin Luther King addressed striking sanitation workers in Memphis, but his words will resonate with teachers around the world today: “. . . whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity and it has worth”. Tackling what UNESCO has called ‘the global crisis in teacher supply’, as set out in the mandate given to the UN High-Level Panel on the Teaching Profession, cannot go without returning to the concept of dignity – something that teachers in many parts of the world do not believe they experience in their work.

Dignity is inevitably a complex concept, but in the thematic background paper I prepared for the UN High-Level Panel, I argue that it rests, fundamentally, on three foundational elements.

Recognition - dignity depends on recognising worth and value. For teachers this requires working conditions that allow teachers to undertake their work in ways that are consonant with their expertise and professional judgement. In this context ‘working conditions’ refer to all those factors that contribute to creating the context in which teachers’ work is enacted.

Agency - dignity in work is the ability to perform the activity in a way that provides space for personal judgement and expertise to be exercised. It is about being able to exercise levels of autonomy that are consistent with the skills of the worker, the complexity of the task and the legitimate aspirations of the wider community.

Rights - Dignity is something that has to be actively established, and continually maintained. This requires, as a necessary condition, the existence of appropriate individual and collective rights that both ensure, and protect, the right to dignity in work.

The problems that are experienced today in relation to teacher supply exist because in very many contexts these foundational elements of dignity have been progressively eroded.

Recognition is not limited to material factors, but remuneration and working conditions are tangible reflections of recognition. However, in the vast majority of jurisdictions teachers are paid less than average graduate earnings, and working conditions are poor. In relation to both factors, there is clear evidence of a poor situation deteriorating.

However, the trends in relation to agency and professional autonomy are if anything more dramatic. Teachers find themselves subject to increasing levels of prescription and surveillance, with diminished capacity to act in ways that acknowledge professional experience and expertise. High trust environments are being replaced by low trust systems and the growth of cultures of compliance.

Furthermore, the rights that are essential to protecting teachers’ access to good working conditions and professional autonomy are also being undermined. Not always, and not everywhere – but in far too many places.

In my contribution to the UN High-Level Panel, I provide a conceptual framework for thinking about how re-engaging with the concept of dignity can help make teaching the job it deserves to be – working in the best interests of students, as well as making teaching an attractive job for prospective educators. Such an approach would begin to tackle the long term, global, trends in the teaching profession that have created the current crises of teacher supply and that are undermining educational advance in so many parts of the world.

The model is based on the foundational elements of recognition, agency and rights which in turn ensure fairness and justice in employment, a democratic professionalism, decent working conditions and a real voice for teachers in relation to all aspects of their work.

“Strong education trade unions are not only a source of dignity (by providing a powerful, independent voice for teachers) but, crucially, they act as guarantors of dignity in work.”

This ‘voice’ can assume many forms, for example authentic teacher leadership and collegial governance, but it is important to recognise that that there can be no genuine teacher voice without the existence of strong, independent and democratic trade unions capable of representing the collective views of the profession through social dialogue.

In such circumstances strong education trade unions are not only a source of dignity (by providing a powerful, independent voice for teachers) but, crucially, they act as guarantors of dignity in work by asserting the rights needed to underpin the status of an independent and valued profession.

The global crisis of teacher supply, is but one manifestation of a wider set of crises (economic and social, environmental, democratic) that make the job of a teacher simultaneously both more demanding, and more vital. In order to tackle these crises, and the societal challenges they represent, a much more ambitious vison is urgently required.

The radical solution is to re-discover, re-think and re-invigorate the notion of dignity in teachers’ work, and to place it at the heart of a new democratic teacher professionalism. The ‘building of humanity’ demands nothing less.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.