VIEW: On teachers and teaching —Dr Faisal Bari - Thursday, November 25, 2010

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If we want our children to be better educated, we need better teachers — teachers who are not only qualified, but who want to be teachers, can inspire and motivate and are happy and satisfied with being teachers. Nobody joins the teaching profession to become rich, but nobody should be asked to starve to show their commitment to teaching either

The teachers I remember fondly were the ones who had a love for learning and for their subject, who had a way of engaging and inspiring students, who had moral character and were role models for me. And the ones whose memories still give me the shivers were the exact opposite: angry and unhappy with themselves and the world. They did not want to be teachers but were forced to become them; they could not hide it, nor could they get over it and get on with the job. It made them bitter. They were not happy individuals and they made the lives of their students miserable.

I attended good schools that, relatively speaking, paid their teachers well. But even then the inspiring kind were a select few. Others fell into the latter category. But do we not want our teachers to be of the first kind? We give them our children, our future, for six to seven hours a day. We want teachers to shape and form our children, how can we not want that these teachers be the very best teachers and humans that society can muster? But that is not how we have set up the teaching profession in Pakistan.

How many children, growing up, have the ambition to be teachers? The only place I have heard school children saying this is in poor rural communities where some girls from grades three to six said they wanted to grow up and be teachers, like their dedicated ones. Otherwise, children want to grow up to be doctors, engineers, MBA graduates and computer experts — not teachers.

Quite a few people put stickers on their cars to identify their professions or affiliations. Registration plates automatically identify army and government vehicles. Senators, MNAs, MPAs and other elected officials also often have their identity pasted on their cars, as do many lawyers and people from the media. But have you ever seen a car or motorcycle that has the word ‘teacher’ written on it? I have not.

This is no surprise. In fact, the returns of being a teacher in Pakistan are very low. Public sector schoolteachers have low salaries and, though they might have some job security, even those with master’s degrees and teaching certificates make a salary that would put them in the lower middle class for their entire lives. So, with a low standard of living guaranteed for your entire life, and with little opportunity for advancement for your children, why would anyone want to become a teacher? Unless there was no option and the alternative was worse — unemployment.

If we want our children to be better educated, we need better teachers — teachers who are not only qualified, but who want to be teachers, can inspire and motivate and are happy and satisfied with being teachers. Nobody joins the teaching profession to become rich, but nobody should be asked to starve to show their commitment to teaching either.

The situation is the same across the profession. Public school teachers have low pays and most low fee private schools pay even less. We have a supply of female graduates who, for lack of job options, are willing to work as teachers for low salaries, but that does not mean that this should be the case.

There are many who argue that even the salaries of the current set of teachers, given their quality, are too high. Most of them, though they might have formal certification, are poor teachers. But that is exactly the problem. We have a pooling equilibrium in at least the public and low fee private sectors, where there is no way of identifying good and bad teachers and paying them differentially. Since we have one pool, we pay an average low salary to everyone. But the low salary discourages good teachers from joining the pool and, over time, we have only poor quality accumulating in the pool, which is an example of the classic Akerlof market failure argument.

The solution is not lowering salaries any further. We need to start implementing mechanisms that can identify better teachers, reward them more and retrain the poorer teachers. Only thus can we ensure that better teachers enter the system and stay in the system.

Some of the high fee private schools are able to do exactly that. Given the pressure to get good results, they are forced to ensure they have better teachers. And, though the narrow gauge of exam results is used to determine better teachers, still these schools are forced to pay more to all their teachers in general (to retain them) and pay differentials to those who are able to get better than average results.

The debate in Pakistan on reforms for teachers has been stuck on the issue of taking away ‘tenure’: the debate on permanent versus contract employment. But that is not where the actual traction on this issue lies. Termination of employment, or its threat, even when possible to implement, is at best a fairly blunt instrument in the hands of large bureaucracies for managing the quality of teaching. It can work at the individual school level, to an extent, but not in large systems. For large numbers, like teachers in any of our provincial departments, we need much more targeted tools that tie teacher compensation to school attendance and other administrative and broad outcomes, teaching outcomes and process outcomes. These have been developed and implemented in many other countries. It is not a novel thing we are talking about here.

Teacher unions are taken as an obstacle to reform, and in many places they have been. If the issue is taking away tenure and/or firing teachers without due warnings and opportunities for reform, teacher unions should resist that. But experiences in other countries have also shown that where reforms make sense for teaching quality outcomes and for ensuring better returns to teachers who are good, teacher unions have supported such reforms. Before assuming the worst about unions, it would probably be better for the education departments to come up with pilots that introduce these quality-based recognition/compensation systems at the tehsil level, learn from the pilots and perfect these systems, and in the process give time to unions and teacher associations to also see the benefits of such a system, and then move forward with general implementation. If the system makes sense for teachers, it is hard to see why associations would continue to resist it (imputing irrationality a priori to people is a very irrational way to start).

My love for mathematics and physics stems from the motivation that was given to me by one teacher for whom these subjects were a joy to engage. When he taught, teaching these subjects and imparting a love for them seemed to be the only things that mattered. An Urdu literature teacher taught me how literature was all about engaging with living and life. And philosophy and economics teachers taught me about principles and ethics. As people say in the prefaces of books, if there is anything good in me, I owe it to my mistakes are mine (though with some sharing with them there too).

Teachers will shape the future of our children and hence our future. If we do not put in systems that attract the best of our society to become teachers, and make them work, we are doomed. Right now, the teaching profession is in the pits in Pakistan. Fixing the system does not require rocket science; all it requires is some out-of-the-box thinking and experimentation with incentives and accountability/support systems, resources to do it with and the political will that comes from the conviction that it is one of the most important priorities for us to have. Is that too much to ask for?

The writer is an Associate Professor of Economics at LUMS (currently on leave) and a Senior Advisor at Open Society Foundation ((OSF). He can be reached at

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