The gate to the school yard is covered with ugly graffiti, but the murals in the courtyard depict lovely flowers, colourful tropical scenes, and a map of the island of Martinique, an overseas department of France in the eastern Caribbean. We are at the secondary school of Le Vauclin, where Arnaud Michel teaches physical education and serves as a representative of his union, SE-UNSA, member of UNSA Education, an EI affiliate.
He describes his school, which has 420 students and 34 teachers, as being “family-sized, off the beaten track and resembling a secondary school in rural France.” Although they are 7,000 kilometres away, he explains that the concerns of the teachers in Martinique are the same as those of their colleagues on the French mainland. They face the same problems relating to working conditions, especially because of large class sizes and overcrowded classrooms. In the commune of Sainte-Anne, for instance, the union gained support from parents who were also opposed to allowing up to 30 students per classroom. In Martinique, more teachers face the extra challenge of having their jobs split between two schools, he added. Teacher trade unionists overseas are well informed of developments in Paris and act in solidarity with colleagues on the mainland. Last October, for example, they went out in support of the strike launched jointly by unions across the education sector, Michel explained. “SE-UNSA mounted a caravan travelling around the island to get signatures on a petition demanding that more teachers be hired or, at least that more publicly-funded contracts be maintained and not cut. We need to retain pedagogical assistants to help out with school activities and maintain the premises,” he said. The parents’ groups are also very involved, and participated actively in the caravan. SE-UNSA is able to operate autonomously from the union headquarters on the continent. For example, it go to court without having to get permission from the national level. “We can take decisions without having to ask the headquarters for authorisation,” says Michel. Reacting to commentary in a local newspaper criticizing teachers’ absenteeism in the neighbouring island of Guadeloupe, he insists that teachers in Martinique are not absent any more frequently than colleagues on the mainland. Absences can be due to attending union training or elections, meetings with the local education authorities, or professional development opportunities. Unlike on the mainland, students in Martinique wear uniforms. Michel says the uniforms are seen as “security measures which reassure parents.” On the regional level, his union is affiliated to the Caribbean Union of Teachers (CUT). Every year fruitful exchanges, including sport competitions, are organised among secondary schools and students from all the Caribbean islands. What was the motivation for Michel to become a teacher? “Simply to pass on knowledge.” By Claude Carroué