FASTOM and the struggle for ‘dignity’

By Benjamin Lyngdoh

We must not make the mistake of thinking that any teachers’ agitation is one that can be viewed in isolation. Teachers are the most important elements in society building. This is truer in the case of school teachers. They teach the very foundation of life and ethos of good citizenship right from the elementary levels. As such, a teachers’ agitation can be construed as a society’s agitation. While keeping in mind the poor state and treatment of teachers in Meghalaya; in particular, this column is focussed on the recent struggles of FASTOM (Federation of All School Teachers of Meghalaya). It was quite an effort to find an appropriate term to signify the struggles of FASTOM. Is it about pay only thereby making it a struggle for monetary security? Is it about job security thereby making it a struggle for personal well-being? Well, it is not! In fact, it is a struggle for ‘dignity’. It is about telling the society and the state government that the teachers are worthy partners in development and as such are deserving of honour and respect.
A number of studies have established a positive relationship between teachers’ dignity and performance outcomes. In particular, a research by Miller et al (2010) titled ‘what teachers want in their leaders: voices from the field’ states that ‘teachers’ professional dignity implies that the school community dutifully knows the teachers both professionally and personally and this fosters a sense of caring and a behaviour that builds a relationship of mutual trust’. Such studies have shown two things. Firstly, it is the duty of the leadership like the state government including the school governing bodies to care for the teachers’ dignity. This in turn has beneficial returns such as better teacher and student performance outcomes. Secondly, the teacher is in the spotlight. The dignity of teacher means that he/she religiously fulfils the duties as required, he/she is a coach and a mentor to the students and in particular to those who need extra and special attention, he/she is someone that the society looks up to for change and progress.
In addition, the teacher enjoys going to the classroom and interacts with a sense of respect and belongingness with the students. But, the real question is this. In a situation where the state government (leader and regulator) does not care for the dignity of teachers, how are the teachers supposed to have a sense of dignity about themselves and be motivated towards their duties? This is the crux of the matter!
Now, let us look at some numbers. Say, the number of ad hoc teachers in Meghalaya is 1000. We can still consider this to be small and hence, may be ignored. However, the actual number is a strong 8000 plus as of today. Just take a minute and picture the number of students who are taught by ad-hoc teachers. Yes, it is a lot. If on average we take that every ad-hoc teacher teaches 100 students, the total number of students taught by such teachers is 8,00,000. Are we willing to let such a huge pool of human resources amongst a disgruntled lot of teachers? Should we not be concerned that the very teachers who are supposed to shape and mould the life of the young minds are themselves looking and fighting for dignity from the state government? Similarly, the call of FASTOM to a public agitation on 22nd April, 2022 will see a huge gathering. On first thought, the call to bring along parents, children, students and even boyfriends and girlfriends sound funny. Indeed, many cannot do without a smile/laugh while processing the news in their minds. But in reality, it is not funny at all; rather, a depiction of the fact that we all are in one way or the other related to the teachers. Plus, the good of the teaching community is for the good of the society at large.
If we look at how the Meghalaya government has been dealing with the issue of teachers’ demands over the years, its behaviour can be equated to that of an ostrich that buries its head in the sand when a storm brews. It is also referred to as the ostrich effect or ostrich problem. It indicates behaviour where a government ignores or refuses to solve the problems at hand despite the many calls and requests of the affected. The complainants knock on the doors at regular intervals, but the government is oblivious to them. In many cases, the complainants plead with respect for authority, yet the government continues to lie still. Why is there no reciprocity? At least on humanitarian grounds, talk and interact with them. In the process of adopting the ostrich mentality, the problems accumulate and snowball into issues of gigantic proportions. The struggle of FASTOM is a very good example of this. If the complaints and grievances are not tackled early and the teachers accorded their dignity, things may get out of hand. As far as the experience of this writer goes, FASTOM as an association is a pretty determined and stubborn lot. It looks like they are here for a prolonged fight till their demands are met. The government would do well to not take their gentle behaviour as a sign of weakness.
One thing that we can see in this agitation is the inherent nature of teachers. The personality of a teacher prevails. When they came to know that the government would not consider a deficit system for them, they narrowed down to a more realistically achievable demand of Rs. 18,000 per month with a yearly increment of 5%. But there is an area of concern here. How can all ad-hoc teachers across lower primary, upper primary, secondary school, etc be subjected to the same pay structure. This will create problems in future. Maybe, it will cause discontent amongst the ranks. The government may take advantage of this lacuna and break-up the entire struggle. Hence, it is best for FASTOM to revisit this area and come up with a more realistic and logical pay structure demand as per the levels of school education. For the government, it would be good to initiate the negotiation process by stating clearly what it offers to give and how it intends to meet the struggle for dignity. It should be seen that teaching-learning has a domino effect. Resolving the issues raised by FASTOM will lead to a better people, workforce, citizens and society as a whole.
In the end, the teachers are not asking for anything unrealistic. After all, they are involved in a very noble and difficult profession. Over their lifetime, they shape the lives and livelihoods of thousands. As such, they deserve their due and their dignity. Will they get it? Let us see. But, one thing is clear. FASTOM has cast the die and are ready to struggle into the long-term with hope. Now, the only thing that remains to be seen is when and how far the state government is willing to reciprocate/negotiate?!
(Email: [email protected]; the writer teaches at NEHU)

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