Why we’re fighting for the dignity of our Palestinian teachers

The Palestinian Authority has been doing all it can to put down a two-month long teachers strike in the West Bank. But this crisis won’t end until we realize that respect for our teachers is part and parcel of our liberation.

By Rula Salameh

Thousands of Palestinian teachers march to the Palestinian Authority's government offices to demonstrate against low salaries, Ramallah, West Bank, March 7, 2016. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)
Thousands of Palestinian teachers march to the Palestinian Authority’s government offices to demonstrate against low salaries, Ramallah, West Bank, March 7, 2016. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Several days ago, a teacher called me and described the great difficulties he is facing due to budget cuts in the Palestinian educational system. He has been teaching for 14 years, and it has been quite some time since he has experienced such neglect from the authorities. He says that he sits for hours and thinks about the future, and that he began seriously considering leaving the profession and moving to a different job that will protect his honor. He says he has children in school, and that he has been keeping them at home for the past few days, where they watch television and play with the neighbors.

He adds that his friend, who is also a teacher, thought to start working as a bus driver after reaching a dead end. Will we see the day when teachers leave the profession, and our future state will be one that brings in foreign workers as teachers?

“The teacher is a near-prophet
Is there anything more noble and splendid
Than what builds the soul and the mind?”

This is how we were raised since we were young: to show love, appreciation, respect, and gratitude toward each and every teacher. Thus, as we grew older, our love and respect for them grew as well. Our teachers taught us that teachers are our fathers and big brothers, that we must follow in their footsteps, and that we will grow wise from their knowledge, that we will take whatever they impart to us, and that we stay away from that which is forbidden to us. We disagreed with them about many things, but we hid our reservations, since we knew that he was right and we were still finding our way. We were sure that he was speaking in our name and would help us build our future.

We started our lives taking in what was taught to us, learning the ABC’s of life at school from our teachers. We saw and still see in them a positive example, and we follow our life paths with their guidance. We took our first steps knowing that they won’t keep any bit of knowledge from us. Our teachers drew the map of our lives, encouraging us to know and learn.

Our teachers always told us: the only weapon and source of power and heroism is knowledge. When knowledge grows, we only become stronger. With knowledge we will build future generations and the homeland. With knowledge we will fight ignorance, we will establish our future and strengthen the next generations. With knowledge we will struggle and be liberated.

When we walked down the street we would glance right and left, hoping that we do not catch our teacher walking beside us, sneaking glances to make sure he or she isn’t among the passersby. We worried that should we see our teacher, our own embarrassment would cause us to lose our way. Our reverence and love were the source of our worries and embarrassment.

Palestinian teachers march in Ramallah against low salaries, March 7, 2016. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)
Palestinian teachers march in Ramallah against low salaries, March 7, 2016. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Years went by, and in the meantime I saw just how the status of our teachers changed. I do not know why but I think the entire generation underwent a change, and with it the outlook, standards, priorities, and possibilities. But for many of us, the love and respect for the role of the teacher in building future generations.

The truth is, how can we put any responsibility on the students for their disrespectful behavior toward their teachers without looking at how we’ve ignored those who taught us and took part in our education? Whether it was intentional or not, we were part of the deterioration and neglect and humiliation. How can we still hold our heads high when or not showing respect for those who taught us? And how can we talk about human rights and workers rights and women’s rights, when we’ve trampled the rights of all those whose demands we’ve ignored, whose path we stood in the way of, whose dignity we harmed and whom we’ve given up on?

I found that quote, which I think is appropriate for the oppression of teachers that we’re seeing and experiencing right now: “A nation that disparages its intellectuals, authors, and philosophers is one that walks one leg and sees with one eye, and thus will never obtain its freedom and independence, despite the great sacrifices it makes.”

In my opinion, the teachers’ crisis will end only through negotiations and when a solution is found that preserves their dignity, pride, and respect. We cannot live if those who teach us die, and we won’t have dignity if we assail the dignity of our teachers, and we won’t have have the hope to liberate and build our institutions and preserve our culture and identity if we don’t protect the rights of our teachers. Let’s do right to those whom we’ve harmed and apologize to all whom we’ve injured and forget about the days that we shut down roads, put up checkpoints, and humiliated our teachers.

Together, let’s think logically about more than half a million Palestinian students in the West Bank. Let’s think about the futures of generations to come, heal our wounds, ponder over our actions, bring these students back into the classroom, compensate them for what they have lost, and ensure their future.

Rula Salameh is a Palestinian journalist from East Jerusalem and a television presenter at Ma’an Satellite Channel in Bethlehem. She also works as Education and Outreach Manager for Just Vision in Palestine. This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.