Take a close look at the photograph above. What do you see? School courtyard? Teachers? Children?
Let me tell you a little about what I see when I look at this photograph. This is East Africa. The photograph was taken a couple of years ago, at an elementary school in a small town. I was standing inside the school’s staffroom, looking out the window at the school’s playground.
At first glance, there’s probably nothing extraordinary about this photograph: it looks like it’s recess and the children are enjoying their time away from their desks and textbooks. There are two teachers interacting with the students.
But look closely. Look at the teachers’ faces.
This story begins with those faces because they are not happy faces of teachers interacting with their pupils at recess. Both faces are serious. The teacher on the left seems lost in thought. She seems sad.
Let me tell you why.
Only 10 or 15 minutes before I took this photograph, these students were in class. Many of their classmates remained in class. But these students, the ones you see in this photograph, were asked to assemble in the courtyard. If you look closely you will see that the teacher on the right seems to be checking something, perhaps a clipboard or some notes. What she is holding in her hand is a list of students who have been asked to leave their classrooms and assemble here. The reason they had been instructed to leave class and meet the teacher here in the courtyard is because their parents have not paid their school fees. These students are being sent home.
Why am I telling you this? I wanted to share this story because today is Human Rights Day. As a teacher, whenever I think about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whenever I think of Human Rights, and whenever Human Rights Day comes along, I think of Article 26:
Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
And that’s exactly what I kept thinking about on that cloudy morning in East Africa, standing in front of that window, looking at a group of elementary school children pulled out of class to be told that they were being sent home. I wanted to help, and I knew I couldn’t really do much. I was angry. I was devastated.
All of this took place in a country that had abolished school fees several years prior to this morning assembly that I recorded with my camera. Yet, this was not an isolated incident, and later on the teachers explained to me that this happens throughout their country and many others in their part of the world. Yes, the tuition fees have been abolished, they said, but parents are still asked to pay for meals and for uniforms. In some cases, they have to pay to help cover maintenance fees. In many areas, parents chip in to cover the teachers’ salaries. So, yes, it’s true, the teachers said to me, the tuition fees don’t exist anymore, but education still costs money.
I live in a country where Article 26 is taken for granted. It is taken for granted by teachers, parents, children, teenagers. I also know of many other places around the world where Article 26 is taken for granted. But, I also know of and have visited places around the world where Article 26 and many, many other articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are fundamental human rights only on paper and where, for many different reasons – some of them very complex – human rights, including the right to education, are not respected.
As someone who cares deeply about education, I have spent a lot of time thinking about what I can do and what my colleagues – teachers around the world – can do to ensure that education is not taken for granted and that access to education is respected around the world as a fundamental human right. I believe that it is our responsibility as teachers – the largest professional group in the world that currently includes almost 60 million of us – to teach, every day, about Article 26 and the other, equally important articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Whenever I raise this issue, I am often asked to recommend organizations that accept donations to help improve access to education around the world. I am not going to do that here. In fact, I want to challenge you today not to donate money. Instead, I hope that you will do what you do best: teach.
Make sure that the students in your own classroom know about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that they know that education is a fundamental human right (most of them don’t, believe me), and that they also know and are deeply troubled by the fact that there are children around the world who do not attend school and who, for reasons beyond their control, cannot attend school. In doing this, you will be helping to build an army of human rights advocates, of young people who will grow up valuing their education and committed to human rights and global peace. That alone, that focus on human rights in your classroom, will do much more to advance human rights than your cash.
Think also about your own professional development. Teacher professional development needs to be more than attending conferences, reading professional journals, and engaging in online communities to exchange lesson ideas or links to valuable resources. Teacher professional development includes a responsibility to raise awareness about issues that affect teachers, classrooms, and students around the world. If our colleagues working in states run by dictatorships or rebels, in places plagued by conflict or poverty, or in places affected by natural disasters, cannot count on their fellow teachers around the world to make their stories heard and work towards global peace, who can they count on?
The photograph I shared with you at the beginning of this post does not depict an isolated incident. You and I know that access to education is being curtailed around the world. According to estimates by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 68 million children of primary school age were out of school in 2008. The reasons are varied, but this fact remains the same: millions of children around the world do not have access to education, to a fundamental human right.
Take a look at that photograph again and imagine being one of the teachers in that courtyard who have been told to interrupt their class, stop doing what they so passionately love, assemble a group of students, check off their names on the roster, and send them home.
Then, imagine walking back into your classroom to face their classmates, those fortunate enough to be allowed to stay, and to learn.
There’s a lot of work ahead of us, but I am hopeful that we’ll manage. After all, there’s almost 60 million of us.