December 1997

Teachers in the Vanguard
of the 21st Century

21st Century

Back to the
Front Page ...

In Canada and around the world, the status of the teaching profession is in decline, yet teachers and education are central to global development.

By Michel Agnaïeff

According to UNESCO, the status of the teaching profession is in decline and pay levels are diminishing everywhere. Working conditions are no longer attracting the most gifted to the profession, nor are they encouraging the best teachers to remain.

The general consensus says this status has not improved in the last 30 years – in both industrialized and developing countries.

Yet, society expects more and more of education and of teachers. The job of teaching has become more complex than ever with the social problems brought into the classroom, the advent of new technologies and the penchant of governments to cut first and think of the consequences later.

UNESCO has encouraged its member-states to redress this situation. In a symbolic gesture in 1994, it declared International Teachers’ Day on October 5. In his 1997 Teachers’ Day message, UNESCO’s Director-General Federico Mayor issued an appeal to "recognize the primordial role of teachers in shaping tomorrow’s world and to give them the recognition and practical support they need to accomplish their vital task."

This issue was also addressed in the 1996 report of UNESCO’s International Commission on Education for the 21st Century, chaired by Jacques Delors, former president of the European Union.

In Learning: the Treasure Within, Delors says: "We are asking a great deal of teachers when we expect them to make good the failings of other institutions which also have a responsibility for the education and training of young people. The demands made on teachers are considerable, at the very time when the outside world is increasingly encroaching upon the school."

The role of teachers is central to the over-all thrust of the Delors report – that education is at the heart of personal, community and global development. The mission of education is to enable each of us, without exception and throughout our lives, to develop all our talents to the full.

Learning Throughout Life

The concept of learning throughout life is one of the keys to the 21st century. As the world increasingly comes into the classroom, the classroom must increasingly go into the world. Education, to be relevant and effective, must move into the community and into the workplace. Education must, in short, meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world and changing patterns of life.

Traditional responses that are essentially quantitative and knowledge-based are no longer appropriate. Each person must be equipped to seize learning opportunities throughout life.

Education, says Delors, must be organized around four fundamental types of learning:

  • learning to know, that is acquiring the instruments of understanding
  • learning to do, to be able to act creatively in one’s environment
  • learning to be, to develop one’s personality and be able to act with ever greater autonomy, judgement and personal responsibility
  • learning to live together, to participate and co-operate with others in all human activity in a spirit of interdependence.

The 1996 Recommendation on the Status of Teachers, adopted by UNESCO and the International Labour Organization, states that "the status of teachers should be commensurate with the needs of education as assessed in the light of educational aims and objectives."

One hopes that the growing expectations placed on education systems worldwide will soon force a re-examination of the critical and central role of teachers as we enter the 21st century.

The Canadian Commission for UNESCO advises the government of Canada on its relations with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The commission fosters co-operation between Canadian organizations and UNESCO and carries out activities in Canada in support of UNESCO’s programs and objectives.

The discussion kit on the Delors report is available from the Canadian Commission for UNESCO at 350 Albert Street, Box 1047, Ottawa, Ontario K1P 5V8 or its web site: Michel Agnaïeff is President of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO. He is the former Director-General of the Centrale de l’enseignement du Québec.