Worlds of Education

#EI25: “Standing together: the power of teachers in the fight for democracy”, by Steffen Handal

published 24 January 2019 updated 28 June 2019
written by:

The Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai has said that "One child, one teacher, one book, and one pen can change the world." She is right. Education changes lives, communities and the world. It is both a key to changes in society and individual freedom projects. I therefore stand shoulder to shoulder with all those who take part in the fight for education for all. I am proud that the Union of Education Norway is a member of Education International. We have for years been fighting for the right to quality education for all. Education can be vital to building strong democracies around the world. But is education always “good”?

Education is an enabling right. Education opens doors to participation in society, to understanding the world around us, to understanding and respecting people and human rights. Teachers know that education is an important prerequisite for advancement and prosperity. We embrace the words of another Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nelson Mandela - “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”.

Mandela knew the power of such change better than anybody. His life is a symbol of what change can be. But he also experienced the cost of change, the resistance to change and the fact that education can be used as weapons of change – not just for good but for bad. The less known last part of his famous quote is therefore essential – “Education is the key to eliminating gender inequality, to reducing poverty, to creating a sustainable planet, to preventing needless deaths and illness, and to fostering peace.” Mandela knew that weapons are dangerous in the hands of those who want to enrich themselves by oppressing others. We have seen this throughout history, and we see it now. We see dictators and regimes turning schools, curriculum and teachers into useful tools to make change for the worse.

As teachers across the world we are aware of this reality. We know that we can be weapons of change. And that authoritarian regimes want to use us as weapons in a fight for their own interests. I know this all too well. During World War II, my grandfather was a teacher in Bergen, Norway. Like elsewhere in occupied countries, in Norway, Quisling and his Nazi backers wanted to gain control of the population, not only by military means, but through propaganda and persuasion. Their plan was to transform the education system for that purpose. Part of gaining control was the creation of a puppet teachers’ union to be led by Norwegian Nazis.

All teachers were ordered to join this new Norwegian Teachers’ Union. An underground group in Oslo composed and distributed a short statement for teachers to copy and mail to the authorities, with their names and addresses, saying that they refused to participate.  Between eight and ten thousand of 12,000 teachers signed the statement.

The response of the authorities was quick. All schools were closed for a month. 200,000 parents, who had to deal with a situation where children were at home instead of in school, wrote letters of protest to the occupation government. In addition, teachers defied orders from the authorities and organised teaching privately, outside of the controlled system.

In retaliation for teacher opposition, the Quisling authorities ordered around 1000 male teachers arrested and jailed. Underground organisations paid the salaries of incarcerated teachers.  The Gestapo, with their callous methods, attempted to break the solidarity of the teachers, but were not successful.

In April of 1942, the government sent 499 teachers to a concentration camp near Kirkenes on the Russian border in the arctic. My grandfather was among them. During their stay in the concentration camp, a teacher died, and several others were injured while performing forced labour.

After approximately five months, the occupation government gave up their plan to create a fascist teachers’ organization and the teachers all returned from the concentration camp.

The teachers’ resistance, with public support, made it impossible for the authorities to make schools a part of their Corporate State and to convert them from instruments of education to centres of indoctrination. Despite the hardships and oppression of the Nazi occupation, Norwegian culture and values were successfully defended and disseminated in education.

This story underlines how education can be misused as a weapon. As teachers, we must understand the importance of our ethical commitment to our pupils. No government should use our role as teachers to undermine human rights. We must never allow anybody to turn us into parts in their propaganda machine. We must defend democracy and stand up to those who threaten it. We must always defend those who are targets of oppression or discrimination.

If we want to succeed, we must understand, as did the teachers of Norway during the war, that we must stand together. We cannot win alone. Teachers are great organizers. And throughout history, teacher unions have been a force to be reckoned with. We stand on the shoulders of our predecessors. Through 25 years of struggle, teacher unionists have been able to gather their forces in one of the biggest global union federations of all. Education International represents over 400 unions with more than 32 million members in over 100 countries. EI is an important arena for us to meet, show solidarity, reflect and organize our forces to fight those who want to undermine our human rights. The former general secretary, Fred van Leeuwen should be recognised and honoured for his continuous work to highlight the importance of teacher´s day-to-day work to strengthen and build democracies.

The teachers of the world want to fight for democracy, equity, peace and a sustainable planet. We will fight to eliminate inequality, to reduce poverty, and for the prevention of needless deaths and illness, to use the words of Mandela. Our weapons are knowledge, humanitarianism, human rights and love. Our enemies are lies, propaganda, authoritarian rule, dictators, oppression, discrimination and war. This fight is a never-ending struggle. As I write these lines, human rights are under serious attacks in Poland, Hungary, the Philippines, Brazil and Tanzania to name a few. The President of the United states of America is attacking the free press in a manner that is dangerously undermining democratic values and institutions.

The teachers of Norway showed us during their fight against the Nazis the power of strong teachers, but also the importance of a strong and united teaching profession, an organized teaching profession. Their success is to be found in their unity. To defend and build the profession we need strong teacher unions around the world. A teacher´s work must be protected from those who want to undermine our human rights through propaganda and authoritarian policies. It must be defended in schools, in local communities, on a national level, on a regional level but also on the world stage. EI has an important role to play. We must continue to highlight the importance of education to protect the human rights of all and to build and strengthen democracies. I´m confident that we will continue to be a force to be reckoned with.

Malala is right. “One child, one teacher, one book, and one pen can change the world”. My grandfather and his fellow teachers knew that the change in which they were expected to participate would destroy society. Because they were organized, they were able to create a different change. An important change for Norway. And a hope and lesson for all teachers.

On 26 January 1993, Education International was founded through the merger of the International Federation of Free Teachers’ Unions (IFFTU) and the World Organisation of the Teaching Profession (WCOTP). On the occasion of the 25th anniversary, a special series of blogs #EI25, will be published until EI's 8th World Congress, bringing together voices and thoughts of unionists, education activists, partner organisations and friends, reflecting on past struggles and accomplishments, from which the organisation has drawn strength and inspiration to address current and future challenges facing education and the teaching profession. If you want to contribute to the series, please write to Sonia.grigt@ei-ie.org.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.