Origins of BUT reveal a richness of spirit
I love history, in particular the nuance that different perspectives lend to its narrative and accounts.
I remember years ago reading about the beginnings of the Bermuda Union of Teachers and the cause of its inception. At the time, my interest was to uncover the role of the born Bermudian teachers during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I was fortunate to have the privilege to talk with many old teachers who told me of some of our Black professionals such as Kenneth Robinson PhD, Dame Marjorie Bean and also D.J. Williams, who helped to sponsor summer-school classes to assist teachers.
In addition, hearing that by the beginning of the 20th century there was a very high literacy rate in Bermuda spoke of some fashion — albeit a non-institutional method — by which the population was able to learn to read and write. I therefore helped in co-authoring the literature of the beginnings of the BUT and the sorrowful story when one of the few valuable teachers on St John’s Road died, which exacerbated the realisation of how much there existed the need for teachers and how at that graveyard they agreed to call a meeting.
My purpose in helping to clarify the need for its intervention as a union was also to show it was not a protest movement but an affirmative step to benefit and strengthen teaching and the advancement of education at that time for the beleaguered Black children of the island.
When you hear of the lives of its trailblazers, whether they be Adele Tucker, the Crawford sisters — Edith and Matilda — or Charles Snaith, and there were many more, the one thing that rings clear is that they all put the education of the children first; they sacrificed for the good of others. Teaching was not a profession that made them rich, except for in spirit.
The union, which also made history by being the first registered union in Bermuda — and perhaps among all the islands to be registered in the Commonwealth — succeeded and is now 100 years old. Along the road, its societal impact has altered from being just a voice at the edge of society trying to gain attention over the concerns of teaching and educating children, to becoming a powerful voice within the system — a voice so huge that demonstrated back in the 1981 island-wide strike that it was too big to be ignored.
The focus has not changed, but given the requirements of being a teacher and all the paraphernalia associated with teaching today, the task has evolved from the simple blackboards and chalk of yesterday. The demand for tools and teaching supplies is high on the list of teachers' grievances. That there are now teachers’ pay scales paired with educational degrees and accreditation has taken compensation outside the ambit of things such as loyalty and dedication.
There is also the perception that the struggle today is more about teachers' rights than children’s education. That may be an unfair characterisation, but where once we had a ratio of possibly 100 pupils per teacher — who were not armed with degrees back in the 1920s and 1930s but somehow managed to get a successful society — today we have a teacher-pupil ratio of 1:9 and the system is failing.
The argument before the public today is not about children or teachers; rather, it is actually about the head of the BUT not being eligible to be a BUT member at all and whether or not an unemployed, discharged teacher from the public school system can remain the head of the teachers union, which at the moment is unconstitutional.
The secondary argument of the BUT put to the public recently, about the relationship and request for teachers' assistance within schools, has been an ongoing argument for at least 30 to 40 years with hardly any change. The more relevant and present agitation between the BUT and the Minister of Education was the sacking of Nishanthi Bailey after her one-year secondment to the role of president of the BUT and her not returning to the classroom in the second year at her own discretion.
It created a double whammy for her because as a person outside of the public educational employ with the Department of Education, she was constitutionally not able to be a member let alone president of the BUT, and no automatic rollover of a second-year tenure as president.
The pandemic has not helped because the teachers numbering close to 1,000 as a total membership have not been able to conduct a full, in-person membership meeting because of Covid regulations. The teachers union, up until a few years ago by the design of its constitution, was a bottom-up leadership construct where the executive was led by the membership body. Since the pandemic, by expediency it had become top-down with the executive having been left with leading from the executive position.
It had its obvious calamities with Leonard Santucci opening up to the public that the executive is acting untoward and corrupting the process. He did that because there was no means to address the entire body. In doing so, he broke perhaps an unwritten ethical rule because the BUT preferred the internal grievance process to be tabled to the membership.
That, too, is a casualty of the pandemic, when now you cannot appeal to the floor because of Covid constraints, so you must appeal to the people you are appealing against — you know, it's becomes like appealing to Caesar about Caesar.
When one digs deep down into the present saga, it is also a typical generational story where the BUT and its former concept and format are now being reversed from how it was, as a body led by the floor were every member is say is considered as an equal voice, to that of an executive driven order that speaks as top-down management where the body is instead led by the executive. It's understandable how the messaging became confused because the pandemic caused a chasm in the way the BUT formerly operated.
The protest is being led by the executive who at the moment lacks constitutional legitimacy to lead because her constitutional status as a member requires her to be employed as a teacher and she isn't. To be clear, the body has the right to change its constitution, but it is not clear whether or not it can do so properly given the Covid realities. At the moment, the BUT can meet only remotely and that process does not necessarily gain a quorum, and is logistically difficult to determine whose voice is heard or muted. As important, it isn't clear whether the full membership is aware of the constitution's voice on the matters at hand.
The BUT’s formation and purpose are dear to me, given my aunties attended that school where the teacher that died taught and my father attended Crawford’s on Tills Hill. Its history and legacy are worth defending.