I first read the book “I am Malala” in August 2023, very late and almost a decade after its publication in 2013. Malala Yousafzai has gone on to become a Nobel Peace prize laureate, she has her own fund that helps girls get educated and she remains as brave and outspoken as ever. She risked death for education and I wonder if I would ever do the same. I chose this month to write about it, because Malala was shot on the 9th of October 2012, and on November 10th 2012, the UN called on the international community to observe “International Malala Day”. It is now celebrated every year on July 12th, but since I missed the opportunity to speak about it in July, I will now.
Additionally, it’s November 2023 and it’s no longer just up to Malala and those like her, to champion the cause of education. EVERYONE has to. The world is getting smaller, but it’s like we’re distancing ourselves from one another, or even worse, numbing ourselves to what’s happening to our neighbors. The war is happening over there, not here. It doesn’t affect us, that’s their battle to fight, so we switch off the T.V, scroll past the videos/ newsfeed and focus on our own lives. If the conflict gets under our skin, we contribute to a Go Fund me page or donate to a charity. Our conscience is quieted if only for a moment, but guess what? You can’t just throw money at a problem and expect things to get better (try telling that to some stakeholders in education 🙂).
When war breaks out, one of the first systems to be affected is the Education system. And of course that makes sense: survival comes before skills attainment. Maslow before Bloom, we know the drill (if not, please google both). Yet we need to face the fact that the casualties of war are more than the number of mortalities. It’s the world’s future that’s at stake…..the children.
Allow me to refer to Article 28 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child from UNICEF:
1. States Parties recognize the right of the child to education, and with a view to achieving this right progressively and on the basis of equal opportunity, they shall, in particular:
(a) Make primary education compulsory and available free to all;
(b) Encourage the development of different forms of secondary education, including general and vocational education, make them available and accessible to every child, and take appropriate measures such as the introduction of free education and offering financial assistance in case of need;
(c) Make higher education accessible to all on the basis of capacity by every appropriate means;
(d) Make educational and vocational information and guidance available and accessible to all children;
(e) Take measures to encourage regular attendance at schools and the reduction of drop-out rates.
2. States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that school discipline is administered in a manner consistent with the child's human dignity and in conformity with the present Convention.
3. States Parties shall promote and encourage international cooperation in matters relating to education, in particular with a view to contributing to the elimination of ignorance and illiteracy throughout the world and facilitating access to scientific and technical knowledge and modern teaching methods. In this regard, particular account shall be taken of the needs of developing countries.
You don’t have to read very far into Article 28 to realize that:
1) Not all state parties are delivering on these agreements.
2) Not all children are enjoying their right to education.
The most depressing part is that I’m not just talking about war-torn countries. Some of us simply have to look at the system of education that we’re a part of and we see the holes in the wall. And those holes aren’t made from bullets. My country isn’t at war, but there are definitely some areas in its education system that need to be re-imaged (but more on that next week 🙂).
What does it mean to be a champion for education? Does it mean risking/ losing your life? Does it mean facing death/ assassination attempts?
No, it simply means you don’t wait for the problem to be right at your door, before you start looking for ways to solve it. Particularly, as educators, it means opening our mouths, putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and respectfully calling out what isn’t working for both our students and ourselves.
Unfortunately, some of us have been so long in the system that we’ve adjusted to working with what is. We grumble under our breaths but we don’t actually advocate for better. Maybe we’re hoping that someone else will speak up for us and our students. Yet the result is, we keep facilitating a system that takes advantage of us, sweeps the number of students who fall off the grid under the carpet and states that teachers always find a way to circumvent a problem, so they’ll just have to do it again with the current crisis.
So it’s time to be reflective and ask yourself a simple question: “Am I invested in Education enough to take a stand?” And if you want to take it beyond borders : “Am I willing to add my voice to the global community and campaign for children’s rights to a proper education?”
If the answer is Yes (and I’m really hoping it’s a ‘yes’), it’s time to start harnessing your voice. How can you do that?
1. Stop waiting for your colleagues to fight your battles: If you see injustice in the system, speak up. Pen a letter, send an email, take your voice out of the classroom. What you have to say matters: you’re the one in the overcrowded class, you’re the one trying to teach in the unrelenting heat…don’t just buy fans and teach in front of tired and dehydrated children. You can be respectful AND assertive. Don’t circumvent, demand a solution or at least, a response.
2. Don’t discourage younger colleagues from standing up for themselves: Sometimes when new teachers join our staff, and they point out issues that need addressing, we tell them ‘That’s just how it is. You’ll get used to it.” So you leave them to do extra work they shouldn’t be doing, buy software and pay for subscriptions on already low salaries, and let it fall on deaf ears when they’re being misinformed about school policies and procedures.
Make the extra effort to check in on new teachers, guide them where you can, and more than ever, prevent others from taking advantage of them. Heal from the ‘nobody helped me when I started’ narrative and replace it with the “I’m wise enough to be the mentor I didn’t have” mindset.
3. Commit to the ‘no child left behind’ slogan: You have to know your students. It’s the only way you can pick up when something’s off. Example, recently one of my most diligent students failed to complete a mid-term assessment on Formative. I knew this was extremely unusual for him, so I went looking for him, I found him and asked “Why did this happen? This isn’t you.” He finally opened up and told me about financial challenges and how his Internet had been cut, and when it was restored, the assessment had closed. He was close to tears and it broke my heart. Happy ending though: I reopened the assessment for him and he got total. My point is, I noticed he was the one student who didn’t submit the exam. I knew it was an anomaly and I searched for an answer/ explanation. Don’t be blasé and just say ‘Tough luck’, ‘Zero for he, yes.’
4. Track student attendance and punctuality like a hawk: You know, the same way admin tracks yours? ( 😂) If a student is absent frequently from your class, ask a question. Whether that means reaching out to his/ her Form teacher or Dean, or picking up the phone yourself and making a call home. Last year, one of my students had sporadic attendance and a colleague of mine accused him of breaking class, because he had stayed in the Form class, with his head down on the desk, instead of going to her class. A call home revealed that there were financial issues and he needed to be put on both school feeding and school transport. He hadn’t gone to the class because he had a belly-ache from eating nothing, and he only attended school on days when his parents could pay the traveling fare. The call home gave me information that helped me work with admin staff to make sure he was in school everyday and fed at least breakfast and lunch. My point is, students are more than a (/) or a (o) on your roster.
5. Invest in Education or exit the field: This is my last point and a very brutal one. It’s for anyone who answered ‘No’ to the question: “Am I invested enough in Education to take a stand?” If you’re not, please step aside. It’s just like when someone comes to you with a business idea. You either buy in or you say you’re not interested. If you’re not interested, admit it to yourself and MOVE ON. Don’t stay in a field you’re willing to contribute nothing or the bare minimum to. Some of us out here actually want to make a difference in Education. If that isn’t you, make space for us and move out of the way.
I chose the above quote from Malala, because it’s just a simple fact, stated in the simplest of language. Education belongs to the world, it’s a human right that too often, we either take for granted or assume everyone has. No… at this very moment, there are children who are being prevented from learning, and teachers who can’t do what they love. As an educator, you have to be willing to campaign for your field. And my point is this: if you’re not willing to do it on the national level, how can you champion the cause on a global scale? Now more than ever, we need a global voice to stand up for the human right to an education. Will you harness your voice and champion the cause? Whatever you answer, remember you have three choices:
“Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way.”
-Ted Turner’s famous entreaty shared by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.