With the ongoing teachers strike, the commencement of this year’s KCSE and KCPE looks uncertain. And the agenda this time, as has been the case since 1997, is pay. The bone of contention is a new 50-60 per cent pay rise sanctioned by the Supreme Court and which would have commenced on August 1. But as the teachers’ unions’ war drums reverberate across the country, loud silence has especially come from the civil society that goes pigs and rats (pun intended) as it reigns in our MPs’ and MCAs’ perceived greed.
That teachers’ welfare can be in limbo since the unions hinted of a strike in January this year, with nobody losing his or her sleep isn’t strange. Seemingly, many Kenyans who can sway public opinion are always on the lookout for every opportunity to put teachers to their socially designated lowly position. Witness the communal catharsis in the social media and in radio phone-in programmes with callers lambasting teachers by airing innuendos, stereotypes, falsehoods and old and unrelated cases.
Apparently, Kenyans have conspired to ridicule teachers at every opportunity since the days of the Kanu rule when former President Moi and his senior government officials would make no pretenses of their dim views about teachers by the roadsides. When a district commissioner publicly ordered a teacher to shave his goatee without water, teacher bashing became indistinguishable from government policy. Retired President Mwai Kibaki rode to State House in 2002 on the falsehood that his government would only require 100 days to settle, once and for all, the contentious 1997 teachers’ salary award. Under Uhuru Kenyatta’s watch, some retired teachers continue dying as the government dithers with the full implementation of this 1997 pay package and which the court of appeal ruled in their favour in 2010. It’s instructive that Attorney General Githu Muigai, who famously reminded us that “court orders must be obeyed”, is apparently blind and deaf to the practicing and retired teachers’ woes.
Could teachers’ steadfast characters and “blessed” achievements have earned them this mockery by pricking society’s conscience in this age of graft and permissiveness? Teachers stand out as moral vanguards, reminding everybody of taking pride in doing an honest job.
Certainly, this does not please many people especially the well heeled who have everything except honesty. The ability to connect with the rural kin and explain complex issues to them is often a teachers’ preserve. So, regardless of one’s illustrious credentials and public profile, chances are that it is the village primary school teacher who will officiate at all functions including the big men’s funerals! For such teachers know their turf well and talk in the mwananchi language, something that many other professionals may never master. Needless to say, when such upstaged captains of industry and big finance find their way to the corridors of power, they are not in a hurry to listen to teachers’ welfare issues.
Like the “hungry philosopher,” that I have been called on occasions, many teachers often carry a social tag of underachievers on account of the long hours they put in daily and their meager salaries. But ironically, many are not intimidated by their former students who were never spectacular academically or morally but are now socially voluble and visible.
It is not only salaries but other less visible issues dog teachers’ welfare. It’s only in teaching where an employee gets a bachelor, masters or PhD degree at their own cost and earns a paltry three salary annual increments for this effort. This comes to about Sh6,000 with the KRA taking half of it in taxes for an investment that costs teachers between Sh400,000 and Sh600,000.
In the rest of the civil service, employees go back to school to fill clearly defined promotion slots and often under the government’s bursary. There would be a public outrage in Kenya if, for example, police and military officers took personal loans to fund their further education locally and overseas and came back to await for vacancies for senior positions in the forces to be advertised — as teachers do as a matter of policy.
The 280,000 teachers in public schools must be given their due salaries as the Supreme Court ordered so that they can weather the vagaries of inflation and continue leveraging the standards of virtue. Kenya has everything to gain when a measure of social respectability returns to teachers’ lives, courtesy of an improved pay packet. Otherwise many teachers may sink into the abysmal depths of dishonesty and the naked pursuit of material wealth, lowering the national moral barometer with them.
Kariuki teaches at Nyandarua high school, Ol Kalou.