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A dress for teachers? Best take on Education Ministry’s proposed sartorial intervention

As a minister of education, Tim Gopeesingh can’t touch Anthony Garcia with a ten-foot pole. As a conscientious educator with over three decades of dedicated service in the formal education system, I confidently so affirm.

Photo: Former Minister of Education Dr Tim Gopeesingh

Photo: Former Minister of Education Dr Tim Gopeesingh

And I go further. If you gave every former People’s Partnership parliamentarian a ten-foot pole and got them all—for a fee, of course!—to give theirs to Gopeesingh, who then stuck them all end-on-end, even with that big, long pole, not-so-tiny Tim would still be unable, in my considered view, to touch Garcia.

But his reforming zeal, ample energy and vast experience in education notwithstanding, I feel Garcia is barking up the wrong tree with this business of what the Express headline on Sunday announced as a “Dress Code For Teachers.” Why?

Well, the old Latin adage reminds us that cuculus monachum non facit—or The cowl does not the monk make. And Shakespeare has long told us that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Taken together, those two tell us that we can’t judge the teacher book by the clothes cover.

Even if they could be persuaded to conform to whatever new dress rules the Ministry may come up with—and I’m not about to concede the point that the Minister will find a way to make them do so—will teachers alter their all-important behaviour in the classroom where it matters most?

Photo: Somehow, I just don't get the feeling the suit is all that's missing. Courtesy: Michael Shaheen on flickr
Photo: Somehow, I just don’t get the feeling the suit is all that’s missing.
Courtesy: Michael Shaheen on Flickr

Forgive my skepticism but will they become better teachers merely because the females are required to don business suits and the males jackets and ties?

More to the point, perhaps, do you really want someone who needs to be told what constitutes appropriate wear for school teaching your child?

What does it say that, full 54 years after Independence, we feel the need to intervene to tell them—tell our teachers, mind you—that wearing proper attire is among “some of the subtle signals we can send to society to make the transformation?”

Already publicly endorsed “110%” by the NPTA—and opposed, predictably, by the SDMS’s Sat “Panty Lines” Maharaj—the idea for the dress code comes from the indefatigable Minister of Education.

However, the speaker quoted above is Minister of Rural Development Franklin Khan, wearing a different cap.

As current PNM chairman Khan is probably well placed to pontificate on subtle messages conveyed by attire. After all, he was already chairing the party, remember, when the current prime minister, then mere political leader, no sooner settled into the leader’s role, decreed that the balisier tie was no longer de rigueur in Parliament.

Photo: Education Minister Anthony Garcia.
Photo: Education Minister Anthony Garcia.

What dividends has that paid, Minister Khan might tell us, in terms of good behaviour and loyalty to the new PNM/PM?

“The lack of discipline in this country is rooted in many issues,” Khan declared on Saturday.

Identifying one, “The dress code of teachers has significantly deteriorated,” he lamented and called for “something (…) to be done to address this issue.”

“Matters that we may feel are simple, (the punctuation is the Express’, not Khan’s or mine) go a long way in people’s psychology… So things that we may feel are trivial, they may have a lasting impact on children’s minds, in terms of their behaviour pattern and the potential for criminality.”

I couldn’t help noticing the proximity, in a sentence containing a reference to criminality, of the same initial letter in “people’s psychology” and again in “pattern (…) potential.” Subtle message? Pure politics perchance or purely unpremeditated? You decide.

But much more important to me is, in that context, the subliminal message that well-dressed people are not criminals. I hope and pray that neither the Attorney General nor the Minister of National Security was present or within earshot.

And that the Minister of Education will quickly dispel the massive misapprehension under which his party chairman may appear to be labouring.

Photo: PNM chairman and Minister of Rural Development and Local Government Franklin Khan (right) and Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi. (Copyright Power 102FM)
Photo: PNM chairman and Minister of Rural Development and Local Government Franklin Khan (right) and Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi. Suitable occasion? Maybe not. 
(Copyright Power 102FM)

And there are a few other matters at which I am also hoping Mr Garcia will take a look. The first is the business of school uniforms, which may or may not be a mere relic of our colonial past.

To what extent, pray, might external uniformity be a reflection of the degree to which our education system puts no premium on individual development? Are there really, do tell, good educational or other reasons for our persistence with this uniformity?

The second is the business of the way the 13 weeks of school holidays are broken up over the three terms. Why do we need eight weeks in the “summer” although the three-week Michaelmas allotment sometimes sees us going back to school by day when Christmas tree lights are still brightening our homes by night?

Item number three is the informal education constituency, including but not limited to the media. Despite his many years of involvement in formal education at several levels, maybe the Minister does not even perceive the problem.

I raise the possibility based on the—albeit inadequate evidence—of his persistent silence on the birdsong eviction issue. Has he connected the dots?

Photo: The birdsong Academy gets going during the 2015 Junior Panorama competition. (Copyright birdsongtt)
Photo: The birdsong Academy gets going during the 2015 Junior Panorama competition.
(Copyright birdsongtt)

But unlike his predecessor, whose purblindness persists even after he has been put out to pasture, Minister Garcia has already demonstrated a willingness to make necessary adjustments. Perhaps, once alerted, he may feel bound to act.

And the proposal of a dress code intervention, though probably doomed to fail, as conceived, suggests that he is prepared to take action at levels which the Ministry of Education has arguably hitherto almost completely ignored.

One does not have to spend many years somewhere in the four levels of the school system to have noticed how large numbers of people take education to be synonymous with schooling, with formal education.

And fortunately, all we need do to show such people the error of their ways, I submit, is remind them of what George Bernard Shaw famously said all those many years ago.

“The only time my education was interrupted,” he declared, “was when I was in school.”

One of the “subtle signals we can send to society to make the transformation” is doing what we can to raise standards in the media, responsible, it goes without saying, for so much of the hugely important informal education.

And goodness knows that discerning people are now chary about mentioning the local media and education in the same sentence.


Editor’s Note: Click HERE for Part Two of Earl Best’s take on the Education Minister’s proposed dress code.

About Earl Best

Earl Best
Earl Best taught cricket, French, football and Spanish at QRC for many years and has written consistently for the Tapia and the Trinidad and Tobago Review since the 1970's. He is also a former sports editor at the Trinidad Guardian and the Trinidad Express and is now a senior lecturer in Journalism at COSTAATT.

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  1. Dress code? Yes. Please not suit and tie. The code should be guidelines, not specifying what teachers should wear.

    • But why a code at all? And why now? What impact does the Minister expect improved attire to have on the quality of the product being served up in the formal school system? Aren’t the candles likely to cost more than the funeral?

      To expend energy on attempting to impose a dress code at this time – it will have to be IMPOSED – is nothing short of foolish politics. And this announcement, remember, came from the party chairman so the proposal arguably already enjoys the support of party officialdom, including, presumably, the PM.

      Heaven help us.

  2. Guidelines I can understand to a certain degree and tolerate but a uniform as suggested is quite ridiculous this whole teacher’s dress code issue is being blown out of proportion when the real issue is the way we educate our children from primary school to tertiary level we are trained to pass exams. I’ve passed through the education system and 95% of my teachers were female and they never dressed inappropriately. Currently we live in society accepting everything we hear the government say as the most righteous thing there are many people on this page won’t agree because they are politically biased. Some people want to target teachers because they are disappointed in their children’s performances in school and blame the teachers so anything they can use to target teachers they will rise up and attack. Some people just base their opinion on it’s popularity in relation to others. Focus on the real issues like school violence (which they claim to have made a big impact on) but every other day you are seeing on facebook students fighting, focus on the learning ability of everyone not every child has the same learning capacity as the other, focus on educating and not just training students to pass exams, focus on the educational institutions left abandoned but we have 90 million to spend on the Brian Lara stadium. The Government have plaster for every cut.

  3. Such a cosmetic society we have become.
    Constantly addressing the external concerns before the internal ones.