A couple weeks ago in the Santa Catarina city of Joaçaba, in southern Brazil, a young woman placed a recorder in front of me and asked, "What would you say to the father of a 16-year-old who says he or she has decided to become a teacher?" I replied, "I would say that I felt as though that young person had enlisted in the Army during wartime. The father has every right to feel frightened about the child's future but also has motives to feel proud of his or her patriotism."
The Santa Catarina question is completely justified. Today, parents are rarely happy when their children choose a teaching career.
One month ago in Brasília a public-school teacher told me that her father stopped speaking to her when she informed him of her decision to become a teacher. In Brazil this career choice is an extreme act, like enlisting to go to war.
It is sad to acknowledge, but a teaching career does not offer a very promising future. The young person who chooses that career will probably earn a low salary, will work in schools that are physically degraded, will not be able to count upon modern equipment, will confront unmotivated classes, and will be subject to acts of violence.
These are, however, the professionals who will fight the war of constructing the future of Brazil. They are soldiers of the future. They are patriots.
The obvious reason for this low opinion of teaching lies in the dreadful working conditions, including the salary. But there are more profound reasons behind it. When a young person chooses the career of medical doctor or engineer, his or her parent sees three advantages: a promising future; a good income; and the parental pride of having a child who is helping to construct the country.
His or her child is a well-paid soldier of the future. When the child chooses to join the ranks of schoolteachers, the parent does not have the same sentiment of the construction of the future, of society's respect for the teacher. And the parent knows of the probable low salary.
Even more than the salary, what weighs heavily in the parents' frustration is the lack of recognition, as if teaching were a minor profession. But the lack of recognition stems principally from the low salary. What is created is a vicious circle: It is not a career seen as a success because the salary is low; and there is no recognition. The teacher feels diminished and remains even more so.
The employees of the Central Bank went on strike at the same time as the teachers in several states. On average, the simple raise demanded by the Central Bank strikers was the equivalent to almost two times the monthly salary of the teachers.
Because, in the vision of Brazil, education is of secondary importance. It is not perceived that the economic future of the nation is in knowledge-capital and that the social inequality will be ended only through access to schools with the same quality for everyone.
When the defect in the aerial infrastructure became evident, the government decided to construct new runways, new airports, special trains to carry the passengers. Billions of reais were rapidly promised. Because the airplanes need to take off. But there are no resources to make the country take off by constructing the airports of the future: the schools.
The greatest difficulty in removing Brazil from the impasse its society is experiencing is changing public opinion to see that the school is important and the teachers are the builders of the future.
When this happens, at the moment a child is born, his or her father will take the child into his arms, look at the baby's little face and say, "When you grow up, you're going to be a teacher."
And the father will think, "You will have a beautiful career, a good future, and you will help Brazil win our war against poverty, backwardness, and inequality."
On that day, the question I was asked in Joaçaba will lose all meaning.
Cristovam Buarque has a Ph.D. in economics. He is a PDT senator for the Federal District and was Governor of the Federal District (1995-98) and Minister of Education (2003-04). He is the current president of the Senate Education Commission. Last year he was a presidential candidate. You can visit his homepage – www.cristovam.com.br – and write to him at email@example.com
Translated from the Portuguese by Linda Jerome – LinJerome@cs.com.