In many countries around the world education has been in the headlines for many reasons, but the one main thread that runs through these stories is this: If we want to see the world as a just and fair place where everyone is given equal opportunities, a quality education is what is required.
I work at the American International School of Johannesburg as an international teacher and every year during the week of Classroom Without Walls we take the 8th grade students to visit Bongimfundo primary school, a farm school in rural South Africa, to promote cultural exchanges. On my first visit to the school, I could not help but notice the vast difference in resources between the school that I worked at and the primary school that I visited. Unlike my school where there is state of the art facilities (two fully resourced libraries, several basketball courts, tennis courts, a theater, two gyms, fully equipped classrooms with smart boards, flat screen televisions, campus-wide wireless internet and a one-to-one laptop program), Bongimfundo primary school has deteriorating infrastructure and the resources are limited. It also lacks proper toilet facilities. One of the buildings that houses kindergarten and grade one students has a large hole in the roof created by a downed tree from a storm. The school has old chalkboards and desks that look like they are from the 19th century. There is little money for school supplies such as pens, pencils, and paper, let alone computers and current library books. In some cases, children come to school because the food program will provide them with the only meal that they will receive for that day!
However, the memory of my visit that remains with me the most is the children having lunch. I saw the vibrancy of a community that was alive and in motion with children eating, sharing food, dancing and playing games. What I experienced through the cultural interactions was a community that had vast cultural wealth – members of a school community with talents, strengths, and valuable life experiences I witnessed a school community that thrived because they were empowered to believe that their talents, strengths, and experiences would lead them to realize that their hopes and dreams could become a reality despite the barriers they may experience.
In my home country, I have been following the news of the teacher strikes. Teachers in Oklahoma, Kentucky and West Virginia were striking because they are frustrated by deep spending cuts to education which have led to deteriorating classrooms that have leaky roofs, drafty windows and poor heating. In many cases, there is a short supply of textbooks, curriculum materials and classroom resources. In some communities, schools were open for four week days rather than five due to a lack of money to pay for the electricity to keep the lights on. Teachers are walking out in Arizona and Colorado in part because school budget cuts have reduced funding to classrooms.
So while I read about communities in the United States, who not unlike communities in my host country also experience barriers to equal access to a quality education, it is also evident to me, as I read about these stories, that these communities in the United States also have significant ‘cultural capital’.
In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights listed free quality primary education as a right. The 1960 UNESCO Convention Against Discrimination in Education reinforced the right to a quality primary education. The Convention on the Rights of the Child states that all children should have equal access to a quality education. The Convention stipulates that children should receive an education that allows them to be the best they can be so they can reach their full potential. The United Nations Millennium Development Goals reinforces free universal primary education as a right.
And yet, despite these watershed moments in the history of education, there are still children around the world who do not receive a free primary education. Yes, there are still schools that are not adequately resourced. Yes, there are still schools where children are learning in makeshift structures or buildings that are deteriorating. Yes, there are still children with disabilities or of the “wrong” gender that are being excluded from school. Yes, there are still classrooms that don’t have a teacher or an untrained teacher. Yes, some refugee children do not have access to an education and yes there are still children not able to go to school because of geographical barriers.
Recognizing these challenges is essential. Along with that, it’s important to acknowledge that both human and financial resources are needed to address many of these challenges. If equal access to a quality education is valued as a human right, it is important to build grassroots movements to help create equal access to a quality education. Students from all backgrounds must have the opportunity to develop their ideas and realize their abilities as active citizens in changing the world around them. I believe that each and every one of us has the capacity, in one way or another, to make equal access to a quality education a reality. As an international teacher, I can build relationships with members in the local communities in which I live and work in order to create partnerships where I can use my interests, talents and life experiences to make this happen!