Educators ready to play an active role in transforming education in North America and the Caribbean

published 26 January 2024 updated 27 February 2024

“Our activities here together these next few days are varied, but our purpose is fundamental – to reflect and learn from each other and to plan ways to encourage our members to play an active role in transforming education across this vast and varied region.”

This was the call by Education International (EI) President Susan Hopgood to top education unionists from 27 countries in Mérida, Mexico, from January 22nd 24th, for the EI’S North America and Caribbean Regional Conference.

“In this work, all of us are well motivated by the risks and opportunities facing our unions, our members, and our students. We hear and see and experience firsthand the real-world lessons that have become attached to our professional lives – the economics of equity and inclusiveness versus poverty and austerity, the social studies of politicians inciting communities against schools and unions and the maths of growing workload and massive teacher shortages,” Hopgood said in her opening remarks at the conference inaugurated by Mexico’s Secretary of Public Education, Leticia Ramírez Amaya, and held under the theme, Meeting the Challenges for the Future with Solutions that Strengthen Public Education.

Hopgood added that “the issues facing you seem intensely local, but we know they are regional, and we need to understand that they are global as well,” the EI leader said: “It is certainly not news to you that the resources necessary for the public sector to meet the fundamental needs of the people are declining.

No lack of resources to fund public education, but a lack of political will

She added that there is no lack of resources to fund public education, but a lack of political will to make education the priority the world needs. “We need to ensure that public financing is directed to the public good – ensuring that every student has a professionally-trained, qualified, and well-supported teacher, in a quality learning environment. Our response will be as always to do what we do best. We will mobilise.”

Hopgood also reminded that, for the first time ever, a UN High-Level Panel examined the role of teachers and the supports they need to do their work. “I was proud to serve on this Panel as one of your representatives. It was comprised of government leaders, ministers of education, employers, educators and union leaders, and civil society. I’m very happy to say we achieved a breakthrough. Your message, our message, was adopted in a broad consensus and will be used by the UN to lead the global education dialogue.”

The Panel said that teachers and education support personnel must be supported, valued, and paid their worth; with workloads and working conditions that support mental and physical wellbeing; negotiated salaries competitive with those in comparable professions and an end to the hiring of contract or unqualified teachers.

For Hopgood, the goal of EI and its member organisations “is nothing short of a new social contract that connects the crisis in funding to the sustainable world we want to create.” This is the foundation of the campaign EI launched last year – Go Public! Fund Education.

The EI President concluded: “The theme of this conference states it well – ‘Meeting the Challenges of the Future with Solutions that Strengthen Public Education’.” There is only one way to make inclusive quality education a universal human right and priority; there is only one way to get the public’s resources for the public good; there is only one way forward to create a sustainable world. That way is to ‘Meet the Challenges,’ to mobilise our unions and our communities to build and maintain a consensus for democratic governance and a vibrant public sector, engage our governments and hold them accountable to fund the future through quality education. That is our challenge and responsibility. But that is also our strength.”

Education unionists united to strengthen their region

In his welcome message, Alfonso Cepeda Salas, Coordinator of the EI North American and Caribbean region and General Secretary of the National Union of Education Workers (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación, SNTE) in Mexico, stated that the union leaders’ “participation will allow us to deepen our knowledge of our respective countries, their challenges and achievements, as well as to strengthen the region.”

He also highlighted the importance of proposals for the defence and financing of public education, and insisted on the urgent call issued to governments and other economic and social actors to invest in public education and teachers.

Prior to the opening of the Regional Conference, a women's caucus was held, moderated by Dianne Woloschuk, chairperson of the EI Committee on the Status of Women. One of the key concern of the caucus, she reported, was that women in education bear the brunt of the teacher shortage, government underfunding, and violence in the classroom.

Urgent warning: global shortage of teachers

During the Conference's second day of activities, teacher leaders warned that the global teacher shortage is worsening, due to, among other factors, low salaries, excessive workload, stress at work, violence by students against their teachers and the disengagement of governments in public education.

They emphasised that this situation has been aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which also caused serious educational delays and psycho-emotional issues in the educational community.

In this regard, Cepeda Salas highlighted the importance of union solidarity, at the international level, to face the various challenges that confront public education and teachers.

He o said that the union struggle is a daily effort to defend education workers’ rights, but also to help them use new technologies. He stressed that the use of Artificial Intelligence in an ethical, rational and equitable way, for the benefit of students and teachers, is one of the three priorities for basic education identified by the unions in North America and Caribbean, the other two priorities being inclusive education and the professionalisation of teachers.

“Artificial intelligence is coming in force, but no robot or machine, no matter how perfect, will replace teachers. Nothing can replace this emotional and affective bond that exists between the teacher and his students. We are convinced of that.”

Regional challenges to quality education and unionism

During the panel on “Deepening Understandings – Regional Priorities in Publicly Funded Public Education,” moderated by Randi Weingarten, EI Executive Board member and President of the American Federation of Teachers, participants mentioned that some governments have created a very disconcerting moment, due to their lack of support for education and teachers.

This is the case of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, where arrests of teachers demanding respect for their labour rights were recorded.

EI Executive Board member and representative of the Quebecois union confederation Centrale des Syndicats du Québec (CSQ), Marjolaine Perreault, also explained that in the Canadian province of Quebec, following strong union mobilisation, nine days of strike action, and many weeks of intensive bargaining, the Front Commun that brings together Quebec’s public sector unions and the provincial government reached an agreement in principle for the renewal of public sector collective agreements at the end of December. The agreement is now in the hands of union members.

“We carried out this negotiation always having in mind to improve the working conditions of workers in our public education and health services. We were facing a government which, while publicly praising the strength of its public networks, was quite timid about the investments and resources needed to strengthen them. This agreement in principle provides for several improvements to the collective agreement, in addition to salary increases: leave, retirement plan, insurance, parental rights and other gains,” she said.

Perreault added that CSQ will “tirelessly” continue its campaigns and actions “to remind both the government and the population of the importance of adequately supporting our public services, which are real assets for our society, as demonstrated by the important EI campaign Go Public! Fund Education.”

She further thanked all EI member organisations which sent letters to put pressure on Quebec’s Prime Minister, as well as solidarity messages to her union.

For its part, a representative of Haiti stated that the high rates of violence have forced the closure of schools and the situation students who studied in these schools currently find themselves in is unknown. This is why EI issued a call for solidarity with this country where teachers are also facing a critical situation.

The President of the National Education Association in the United States and EI Executive Board member, Becky Pringle, also underlined the importance of collaborating with other EI affiliates in the region to protect and strengthen public education.

Nothing is possible without teachers

On January 24th, the conference’s third and final day, the educators celebrated the International Day of Education.

Angelo Gavrielatos, representing the EI Go Public! Fund Education campaign, urged participants to mobilise to provide greater impetus to this campaign which calls on governments, international financial and intergovernmental organisations, to invest more in education – a human right and a public good – and teachers globally.

Remembering that, according to UNESCO, there is a shortage of 44 million teachers in the world, only at the primary and secondary levels, he said: “it is time to increase investment in public schools and their teachers. And there are no excuses. If the right to education is denied to girls, boys and young people, they will never be able to recover it.”

Gavrielatos also warned that it is necessary to hire more teachers and create strategies to retain them, as well as improve the status of the teaching profession with competitive salaries, respect for their labour rights and support for their professionalisation.

He also pointed out that “women are at a greater disadvantage, and we must remember that our women colleagues are the ones who mainly make up our unions. We must organise because precarious employment weakens us. And without teachers nothing works.”

In his conclusion speech, Cepeda Salas noted that “the extraordinary contributions of the members of this Regional Conference have made us reflect on the relevant role that unions have to take on, with high social responsibility, the defence of the best causes of our countries, ensuring public education and workers’ rights in education. We will arrive strengthened as a region to Education International’s 10th World Congress to be held in Buenos Aires, Argentina.”