A Newcomerstown teacher was recently among 1500 international educators taking part in Education International’s 8th World Congress in Bangkok, Thailand, and delegates were said to pull together around one message: Educators must lead the world back towards democracy.
Angela Stewart, an elementary school teacher for the Newcomerstown Exempted Village School District, has long been active in educational activism on the local, state and national levels and took advantage of this opportunity to explore that on the international level.
"Every country wants what's best for its children in terms of education, health, and safety. That being said, there were many similarities between the struggles the United States' education system endures and other countries," Stewart said.
Education International is an organization of more than 400 education unions from 172 countries worldwide with a membership of over 32 million. The World Congress takes place every four years and brings together about 1,500 voting delegates over five days to debate and vote on proposals to improve education. The National Education Association sent 50 delegates and 43 observers to the 8th World Congress.
In a statement, Education International’s general secretary David Edwards said, "It’s a complex moment, and it’s a dark moment, but it is a moment where there is a leadership vacuum." He encouraged educators to fill that void by teaching the next generation about what democracy means and why it must triumph over authoritarianism. "The time for nativists and demagogues must be brought to a close," Edwards said. "We are much more than knowledge workers. We are organized wisdom workers. We defend the truth, and we seek a collectively bargained better path for society."
Stewart said, "Most countries are still struggling with a way to provide a high quality education to its students through funding, tools and resources, services, buildings, and educators. Immigrants and refugees are often the first and most profoundly impacted."
"Many countries support democracy despite having an adversarial relationship between education unions and their government. Educators and their unions are joining with communities to take the lead. The #RedForEd movement is slowly spreading.
"Discrimination is prevalent in most countries. Women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community are still lacking in leadership positions, as well as these marginalized children being left unprotected.
"A majority of educators stand in solidarity and advocate against racism and those leaders who perpetuate those beliefs and policies that further promote hatred and violence against marginalized groups."
Stewart said that most educators support those people who speak up and speak out, whether they are fellow educators, authors, companies, or the free press. Many of these education and social justice warriors find a controversial end in false arrests, imprisonments, and even death. Stewart quoted Gloria Steinem, "Whenever one person stands up and says, 'Wait a minute, this is wrong,' it helps other people to do the same."
Stewart said Thailand is a land of contradictions and extremes.
"On one hand, Thailand and the people are very fast-paced," she noted. "They drive fast when there isn't bumper to bumper traffic, and especially on motorcycles and scooters. They walk fast and speak fast. They make decisions quickly so be prepared when purchasing at the 7-11 or they will pass by you! But on the other hand, Thai people take several breaks during their day for prayer and meditation."
Stewart said Thailand is a land of rich beauty "as evidenced by the flowers, food, clothing, architecture, temples, and ruins. Sadly, it is also a state of destitute poverty. A brand new house is built right next to shanty. An ornate temple on the canal has trash floating in the water around it. A visit to the serene beach involves needy people begging for coins.
"Thailand is a land of aromatic cuisine and flowers, coupled with inadequate infrastructures for sewage and garbage, results in not-so-sweet smells. They also have many open markets where you can buy flowers, fruits, delicious curry, as well as raw seafood, dried fish, and worst of all, durian fruit. The durian fruit's overpowering, disturbing odor has led to its banishment in taxis and hotels! I was not brave enough to taste it!"
She said the people of Thailand have many opportunities for shopping as many high-end designers have stores in all the many malls or airports. "But we learned on a tour outside the city of Bangkok many families shun the instant gratification and make their children wait until the rice crops or fish harvests are sold. The fact that many Thai dwellings do not have kitchens forces many people to buy street food. The irony of seeing a crowd of people with designer clothes and bags buying food from street carts manned by people in worn out clothes and shoes was not lost on us."
Stewart traveled to Thailand with two friends, Tim Parker, president of the National Educational Association in Alaska, and Tara Jeane, California director for the NEA.
"Government was front and center everywhere you looked and quite revered," Stewart said. There was always a police presence, along with signs stating ‘Long Live The King!’ in Thai and English, and their National Anthem played twice daily. Extravagant shrines to the king and his wife were built outside both businesses and homes and along streets. Ironically, anyone talking about the government or the king, could be arrested and jailed. This proved a difficult concept for those of us politically active and curious about the inner workings. We gained new appreciation for the freedoms afforded us by our country and our constitution.
"Despite the poverty that is so prevalent, the Thai people were never short on smiles and a warm greeting. Although language may have been a barrier to full comprehension of each other, friendship and hospitality blossomed everywhere we visited. My appreciation for the the Thai culture and its diversity has deepened tremendously. The trip began outside my comfort zone, but I embraced the opportunities and it ended with my life forever changed."