Safety, environmental hazards and dwindling membership have emerged as the major issues among a trio of presidential candidates, as the country’s largest teachers’ trade union prepares to elect a new executive.
On Friday, a new contender will challenge two familiar faces for the leadership of the Barbados Union of Teachers (BUT) amid mounting challenges facing workers in the critical sector.
Nathaniel Boyce, a teacher for over 12 years assigned to the Luther Thorne Memorial Primary School has blamed a lack of strong leadership over the past 12 months for an increasing level of disrespect shown by the country’s leadership.
“I don’t know if everybody is quiet because government has changed, but certainly the BUT has been quiet and sat back and allowed certain statements to be made that were very disrespectful to teachers.
“The reason why I decided to run was not simply to address the issues, but to solve the problems going forward. Critical issues such as discipline in schools as well as health and security, because these things are causing teachers a lot of stress.
Boyce argued that teachers remained passive in the face of an education crisis, waiting on the union to respond.
“Even at my school recently, we had a situation where an irate parent threatened a teacher. We have a lot of broken fences where people can just wonder onto the compound. We have rats in schools, which I see on a day-to-day basis. At some schools there are no groundsmen and there is trash in the gutters and the pastures need to be cut,” he said, while declaring that he could spearhead the changes needed.
In contrast to newcomer Boyce, veteran union leader, Pedro Shepherd who served as the BUT’s president for six years is staking his claim for a return to leadership after standing on the sidelines for just a year.
In his 32 years as a teacher, Shepherd has served on the executive from 1996. Shepherd told Barbados TODAY that after presiding over a union, which oversaw 749 appointments between 2015 and 2016, improvements to the union’s properties and continuous agitation for the rights of teachers, he was confident that his record would speak for itself.
Like his younger counterpart, Shepherd complained that a lack of “vocal leadership” was preventing the teaching profession from returning to its former glory.
Stressing that he felt no urgency to return to the position Shepherd said he entered the race after being urged by numerous teachers to return.
“I think that people saw my worth and my record and asked me to come back, because they saw in the last few years that the union was not as vocal as it was in its 44 or so years of existence and they missed seeing and hearing the union,” added Shepherd.
The veteran has placed unification of teachers and a level of respect from external parties for the teaching service as two major priorities.
“There are other issues of health and safety, better conditions under which the teachers work, discipline and so on. But I think as a body, we have a lot to do in terms of getting the status of teachers back up to where it was and if I am elected, I intend to meet with membership more than once a year. We have over 1700 members and we have to afford them the opportunity to operate in the union’s business,” he added.
Current President, Sean Spencer meanwhile defended his representation of teachers as he made a case for his re-election.
Despite some criticism from opponents, Spencer indicated that his chance of retaining the presidency was as good as any.
“There’s no mathematical certainty, but I have a chance and I would like to think that what I have done over the past months would speak sufficiently for persons to give me another mandate,” said Spencer.
He also admitted that there was much work to be done in restoring a greater level of respect and awareness of issues affecting teachers.
“We have been openly castigated on various platforms and I think that it’s time we took our good work further afield to the wider public. We also need to start to secure a certain measure of direct benefits and services for our members.
Spencer said plans were in place to facilitate greater collaboration with corporate partners to restart the unions discount programmes to help educators “stretch their dollars”.
In a second term, Spencer promised to investigate to a greater extent, best practices in education, to spearhead educational reform and improve conditions for teachers.
“While I was campaigning, the point was reinforced that we really need to address the deficits in the maintenance of the school plants. Perimeters, facilities, furniture and a number of areas need to be examined, because these are causing serious problems for the teachers and for the student bodies as well.”
The three candidates all pleaded with members to display a greater level of participation in this year’s election which will be held on Friday, April 12.