Teachers are 'single greatest obstacle' to populism

Teachers must take a lead in challenging the rise of xenophobic politics, says leader of international federation

Henry Hepburn

Teachers are 'single greatest obstacle' to populism

Teachers are better placed than anyone else to challenge the rise of xenophobic right-wing politicians, according to the leader of an international federation of 32 million teachers in 173 countries.

David Edwards, general secretary of Education International, said today that teachers cannot afford to get bogged down in local issues and “take their eyes off the bigger picture” of global political trends.

“We have this independence that we have to use, and we have to be braver than we’ve ever been,” said Mr Edwards today at Challenging Xenophobia and the Rise of the Right, a fringe event at the AGM of Scotland’s biggest teaching union, the EIS.

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“There’s nothing less than the future of the planet on the line,” Mr Edwards told delegates in Perth. “I’m saying that not to sound dramatic in any way, but I have looked out there – there is nobody else.

“There is no other movement that has the ability, the self-funding, to be in all places in the world, to influence students, to speak truth to power…to actually create another narrative, to really get engaged politically."

In dealing with issues such as salary levels in the profession, he said, teachers must not “take their eyes off the bigger picture”, such as the “dismantling” of public education systems in many countries.

They should also be aware that authoritarian and populist leaders and politicians – here, he named Viktor Orbán, Boris Johnson, Rodrigo Duterte and Jair Bolsonaro – attempt to “control the narrative” by stoking nostalgia for a past that never existed, “where everything was perfect”.

Populists also use a “violence of words”, said Mr Edwards, that often puts teachers “in the cross-hairs”. He cited US president Donald Trump’s son Donald Jr, who at a recent rally called called teachers “losers” and praised young people for attending as it showed that they had not been “brainwashed” by teachers.

Mr Edwards said that, because of their values, their work with young people and the fact that they are “in every community”, teachers are targeted by authoritarian and populist leaders as they are seen as “the single greatest obstacle in many ways to what they’re trying to do”.

He praised the resistance in Brazil of teachers and pupils to the country’s authoritarian president, Jair Bolsonaro, whose education minister wrote to warn all schools that, if they wanted funding, students had stand up and be videoed reciting Bolsonaro’s campaign pledge.

Mr Edwards added that, around the world, “one of the things that we’re very excited about is to see the number of teachers that are actually running for office and becoming politicians".

Teachers, he said, must be “actively working and building the only thing that we can…which is the future, because no one else is going to do it”.

Mr Edwards, a former associate director of the National Education Association in the US, tweeted to praise the willingness of the EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan and his union to protest against President Trump’s policies.

He made his comments on the same day that President Trump was pictured with pupils from an Irish primary school during his visit to Ireland.


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Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn is the news editor for Tes Scotland

Find me on Twitter @Henry_Hepburn

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