While the educational sector in Myanmar has a long backlog of problems and reform needs, teachers – already struggling in their everyday work – are now expected to staff the polling stations on election day.
Recently, the Deputy Director of the Basic Education Department under the Ministry of Education told media that at least five teachers will be assigned to each polling station in the upcoming 2020 elections. There are altogether over 40,000 stations across the country. Staffing these stations according to plan would require a mobilization of no less than 200,000 teachers.
This practice is not new; in earlier elections in 2010, 2012, 2015 and some by-elections schools served as polling stations and teachers serve as administrators. They will do this again, on top of a long list of challenges they are facing every day in their work.
Myanmar has been pursuing educational reform with an ambitious National Education Strategic Plan (2016-2022) and mostly invested into Basic Education. By average 80% of the education budget goes to Basic Education sector annually. However, the overall spending for education, with around 8% of the total budget, is still low. 80% of it merely covers staff salary and infrastructure development, which is the most crucial part. Little is left for teachers training and skill development.
Whenever I visit a workshop for education officers across the country, their informal conversation is about their struggle with extremely low budgets. Officers are managing budget as low as a few hundred US dollars for each township. At the same time, in order to cover increased budget allocations for infrastructure development, budget cuts affect maintenance, refreshment, and entertainment. Very little is spent on soft-skill development of teachers.
Curriculum reform requires training for trainers for all basic education teachers but only a limited percentage of teachers can be trained. Resources are very scarce. At a training conducted in May and June 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic period, teachers were provided with just two disposable masks for ten days training and a per diem of 3000 MMK (ca. 2 USD).
Critical thinking and a child-centered approach are essential for the development of a new curriculum. In practice, teachers use whatever tools available to teach their students. We see such a range of creativity in them.
Curriculum reform includes decentralization and preparedness for federal education. Progress is seen in teaching of ethnic language and culture. The implementation is being made in collaboration with ethnic language and cultural associations. So far 63 languages text books are available and are being used in basic education. The teachers for this subject are locally recruited on a part-time basis.
Another systemic problem faced by teachers is the assignment of geographical positions: As all public schools are under the Ministry of Education, new graduates from Teachers Colleges are assigned to different location across the country, including remote areas. This is meant to improve quality of education especially in rural areas, but results in hardship. Some teachers decide to give up their career as they feel that the areas where they are posted to are too far; they also cannot afford to live there with their small salary. The Ministry claims to implement a new policy, making sure as much as possible that teachers are assigned to their native towns. But the implementation of this policy is difficult, due to a shortage of teachers.
These problems became visible, in an exemplary manner, during an essay competition conducted by the Myanmar office of the United States Institute of Peace in August 2020. All top prize winners happened to be teachers and teacher-in-training. The winner of the first prize is from Ayeyarwaddy region but her posting is in Gwa township in Southern Rakhine. The winner of the third prize is from Magway region (in the middle part of Myanmar), but assigned to a small village in Platwa township, Chin State. During his interview, he proudly showed his commitment to education. It took him seven days to travel to his school from his native town and he did not complain in any way.
Teachers in Society
In conflict areas, schools function as a refuge for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), and teachers serve as protectors of their students. However, several incidents were reported that young teachers sometime became victims of violence, and that there is little protection for them. That is a big issue in Myanmar which is home of a seven decades long civil war.
Even though they hold government jobs, teachers continue to be in short supply in Myanmar - not only in number but also with regard to skills. For the 2020-2021 academic year, at least 6000 more teachers are needed in high schools. Some elementary schools in remote areas had already to be closed down due to teachers shortage.
Despite all problems and limitations, a recent public opinion poll looking at public trust in government servants showed that teachers are the most trusted, while the police continues to be the least trusted group of government staff. People feel confident if teachers get involved in public issues like the solution of community disputes or community development project efforts. However, teachers remain ill equipped to handle such matters. This highlights the importance of soft skill trainings and thematic knowledge for teachers and teachers-to-be. If society relies on their judgment and leadership, it is important that they have such skill until institutional arrangement is in place. They are transitional key players. Exchange and training programs need to be intensified not just for the higher education sector but also for teachers in basic educations. Those teachers need to be supported and provided necessary exposure to provide better education to community and shape a better inclusive society for everyone. Human rights education and peace education is critically important for teachers who can influence thousands of students.