Editorial | Rescuing the JTA
When the Jamaica Teachers’ Association (JTA) holds its annual conference in Montego Bay later this month, they must make it a substantial and substantive affair that delivers ideas and decisions that are transformative of education in Jamaica.
In other words, the teachers’ union has to move beyond the ho-hum and mostly whingeing welfare-related stuff that usually characterise the JTA’s general and conference discussions rather than robust policy debates on how to reverse the crisis in Jamaica’s education. In this regard, the association’s incoming president, La Sonja Harrison, principal of St Faith’s Primary School in St Catherine, has an ideal confluence of circumstances within which to lay out a vision for, and to begin the overhaul of, the association.
Ms Harrison must begin by recognising the JTA’s serious slippage in relevance and engagement as a professional organisation and policy forum, and by taking a cold, unsentimental look at the mandate which assumes office and what that tells her about the organisation. First, it says that the JTA has a large, and largely disengaged, membership. Which probably accounts for intellectual flaccidity and disinterest with which teachers, and the teaching profession, generally addresses matters relating to education in Jamaica.
There are more than 26,000 teachers on the island, all of whom are eligible for membership in the JTA. Nearly 90 per cent are. The JTA, therefore, should have in the region of 23,000 teachers on its books, who, all things being equal, should be eligible to vote in its elections. But the organisation has a curious governance arrangement, in which there is the incumbent president; a president in-waiting, who holds that position for a year, contemporaneously with the sitting president; and the immediate past president. These three form a leadership triumvirate of sorts.
So Ms Harrison’s elevation to the presidency on August 22 will be a year after her election. In the June 2021 election in which Ms Harrison prevailed over four other candidates, only 7,581 teachers voted. That is perhaps 33 per cent of its registered members. The turnout was even worse than that for Jamaica’s parliamentary election (37 per cent) in 2020.
The situation was even worse in the vote for the new president-elect, Leighton Johnson, the principal of Muschett High School, Trelawny, who will be inaugurated at this year’s conference. Only 2,758 case ballots – or no more than 12 per cent of the membership. To put the matter more starkly, the 1, 587 votes received by Mr Johnson was around seven per cent of JTA’s members.
CRISIS OF DISENGAGEMENT
These figures cannot be interpreted as anything less than a crisis of disengagement of teachers from their professional organisation. The problem is not only with teachers. Most serious people perceive the JTA the same way – as a listless, meandering organisation that rustles up energy only for the pay-negotiating cycles. With wider society, the JTA faces a crisis of confidence.
For Ms Harrison to engineer a rescue and rejuvenation of the JTA, she has to convince its immediate constituents, teachers, that they are part of something serious and substantive that . Simultaneously, the JTA has to show its other stakeholders, other Jamaicans, all of whom have a stake in education, that it can be a thought leader in education and on other national issues.
Circumstances align for Ms Harrison and the JTA in this regard. Nearly a year ago, the Orlando Patterson Commission issued its report on education transformation, aimed at reversing the system’s admitted poor outcomes. The commission made a raft of far-reaching recommendations for reform, some of which directly affect how teachers are governed and how they go about their jobs.
But while a number of current and former leaders and stalwarts of the JTA participated in the work of the commission, or are members of a committee to monitor the implementation of the findings, the JTA is yet to offer a full and coherent, robust and intellectually grounded critique of the Patterson Report. If it has fashioned one, the document has not been shared with the public. Neither has the JTA’s membership been seriously engaged on the matter.
That should change. The coming conference is an ideal platform from which the JTA, even at this stage, can begin to offer a deliberative response to the report, including the philosophy in which the review was framed, as well as how teachers are compensated for their work. Indeed, this conference should also be the start of a discussion, absent the JTA reflexive resistance to the idea, about performance-based pay for teachers.