Teachers on Strike
The tragedy is that teachers in Portugal have felt 'unrespected' and treated like numbers since the time of the troika. Image: Fenprof

Marcelo holds out for teachers; sends government diploma back 

President cites iniquity of law, echoing teachers own opinions

President Marcelo has decided to send the government back its unpopular ‘diploma’ (draft law) conceived in a bid to move forwards from an academic year marked by bitter industrial action.

His essential reasoning is that the government diploma (as it stands) needs “restructuring”, in certain respects.

Some points are sound, he accepts. Others not so.

In a long explanation on the official site of the presidency, Marcelo essentially holds out for the teaching profession that has been seemingly banging its head against a rock for the entirety of the 2022/ 2023 school year. Now, teachers have an ally.

In his first of eight points, the country’s head of State recalls that “in addition to several fair complaints from teachers (…) there was and is one that was and is central to the recognition of their leading role in Portuguese society – that of recovering suspended time in service, sacrificed to the economic crises experienced over many years and many governments”.

This salient conclusion leads into point two: that recovery of suspended time in service is being made, “in a phased and gradual way” in the autonomous regions of Azores and Madeira. A situation “that creates a clear inequality of treatment between teachers in the State sector on the mainland and in the autonomous regions”.

There is also the fact that the government’s diploma itself does not treat all teachers the same – “which creates new inequalities”, in a profession which Marcelo outlines “cannot be considered in the short-term” as it has very long-term consequences in the kind of citizens a country creates.

“To govern is to choose priorities. And health and education are and should be priorities if we want to go much further as a developed and just society”.

Marcelo’s reasoning has been put in the most diplomatic language possible. His eight point explanation refers to clear efforts made by this government to move closer to satisfying teachers’ demands, but as diplomatically as he can, he suggests more is possible.

The PM has effectively closed the door on full recovery of time ‘frozen’, saying the country simply cannot afford it.

Marcelo’s hope is that the matter “is not definitively closed”; that the government “thinks of the future – and the role that teachers play in Portugal.

It is one thing that it is not feasible, in a given context, to go further, it is another thing to give the wrong signal in such a sensitive area, such as the motivation to become a teacher in the future”.

Thus the challenge that the next legislature can see a fresh approach.

In the context that teachers have already said strikes and industrial action will not stop until the government listens, Marcelo’s decision comes as a kind of gentle lift on the valve of a steaming pressure cooker.

We have to wait and see what happens when parliament resumes in September.

Meantime, for readers who have no real knowledge of the trials and tribulations of teachers in the crisis years in Portugal, this is the text of an interview in 2012, somehow putting flesh on the bones of all those posters screaming for ‘respect’:

For almost a year, we have been trying to find a teacher to talk to us about the huge changes austerity and the ongoing financial crisis have wrought on education. Even last summer when scores of teachers suddenly found themselves without jobs, due to the closure of village schools and merging of small classes into much bigger groups, we couldn’t find anyone to go on record over what was happening. “You don’t understand,” we were told. “If we talk to journalists, we could suffer reprisals…We might find it even more difficult to get jobs in the future”.

This is Portugal’s democracy “disfarçada” (democracy-that-isn’t, in other words). We are nearly 40 years down the line from dictatorship yet people are still afraid to speak out.

This week, however, we find a primary school teacher willing to go on record – albeit anonymously. Prof. Luísa (we’ll call her) concedes that if we printed her name, she’d  “be made to suffer, that’s without doubt”.

So how does this professional feel, midway through her teaching career? The little village school she has been successfully running for a number of years will close for good next month – not because there aren’t enough children to fill it, but because, on paper, the town council will save money by shutting it down and absorbing the children into a much larger establishment.

It’s the same story up and down the Algarve and throughout the rest of the country.

“How do i feel? A huge overwhelming sadness,” Prof Luísa tells us. “It is all about politics. Quantity over quality – and in the mix, the role of the teacher has been reduced to practically zero.

“We are nothing. We are numbers. We are fodder to fill spaces. There has been a systematic policy of demeaning/ devaluing teachers to the point that society is in rapid decline.

“Today it is the teacher who is worth nothing. Tomorrow it could be the policeman, even the judge…

“Politicians are not looking at the implication of their actions. They are simply looking at money.

“We used to be a country with a lot of illiteracy. The politicians created schemes, like “Novas Oportunidades”, to get away from illiteracy – but the children are not really leaving these schemes with any real competencies. 

“If things go on this way, we’ll end up a country with no competent people at all…”

Will the decimation of village schools exacerbate this problem? “Of course it will. No one will tell you children learn better in large classes within large schools. They don’t. It’s as simple as that. The decision to do away with village schools is yet another political move to cut costs – with no thought to social consequences. The heart and soul of communities is being ripped out. It’s a tragedy.

“But it also shows that the government has no concern for the real work that’s done in primary schools. You see, we’re not just teaching the children to read and write, to embark on their educational careers enjoying the ability to learn – we’re teaching them to be good human beings.

“A teacher has to be a friend to the children, a doctor, a nurse, a figure of authority, even a parent sometimes. Our job has many roles – all of them designed to guide children into being better people.

“But by refusing to acknowledge these roles, by treating us as numbers, politicians are basically attacking education – leaving it always the poorer”.

If she could go back in time, would she choose to be a teacher today? “I have asked myself that many times. I came into this profession because I wanted to make a difference for the children. I wanted to be better than the teacher I got when I was young (who used to hit us everyday with a ruler!). So, yes, for the children, I would choose to be a teacher again. This is not something one chooses to do for the money!

“But things have to change in education. Teachers have to be treated with more respect. If politicians cannot work this out, well, the future will be very ugly – which makes me tremendously sad. There will be no winners from the policies of today…”

We cannot be sure – as this interview was done over a decade ago – but it is highly likely that Professora Luísa was among the crowds of men and women in her profession that have been waving placards and embarrassing politicians with unflattering posters all through the year. They have simply had enough.

[email protected]