When Iran's education sector marks Teacher's Day on May 1, it will stir many memories on a date that is resonant with history. This year, the date comes amid growing resentment among teachers at their low pay, but their ability to function as an organized pressure group remains constrained.
The date officially commemorates the assassination in 1979 of Ayatollah Morteza Motahhari, one of the leading ideologues of the Islamic Revolution, who was assassinated by a member of a religious extremist group. Motahhari was a prolific writer on social and political issues from an Islamic standpoint, and was also conversant with contemporary political and philosophical thinking.
His assassination, only three months after the Revolution, shook Iranian society. In response, the new regime instituted Teachers' Day in his honor.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Revolution, likened the work of teachers to that of prophets. In a theocracy, that is the highest praise it is possible to accord to any category of people.
The conscious linkage between Teachers' Day and Motahhari reflected concern in the new administration that their opponents still dominated the education sector. In the early years of the Revolution, the main area where opposition groups were active and influential was the universities and schools.
However, May 1 also harks back to an older anniversary with a quite different context - the struggle for better pay and conditions.
On that day in 1961, teachers assembled on Baharestan Square outside the Iranian parliament in Tehran to protest about low wages. When police moved in and broke up the demonstration, a young teacher called Abolhasan Khanali was shot dead.
The killing provoked demonstrations and marches which finally saw the government of the day brought down and both houses of parliament dissolved.
This ushered in an era of political and economic reforms under Prime Minister Ali Amini.
During the disturbances, Mohammad Derakhshesh, head of the Mehregan Club, the only body representing teachers at the time, was imprisoned on charges of having led the protests. On May 9, however, Derakhshesh was released amid tremendous jubilation among teachers, and was promptly appointed minister of education in Amini's new cabinet.
The previous day, a large gathering outside the Mehregan Club announced that henceforth, May 1 would be marked as Teacher's Day in memory of their late colleague Khanali, and that commemorations would be held in the schools every year.
Thus, Teachers' Day commemorates not one but two violent deaths, albeit under different circumstances - that of an ordinary teacher, and that of a revolutionary ideologue exactly 18 years later.
The optimism of 1961 soon faded. Amini was ousted as prime minister just over a year later, and as retired teacher Abbas Marefat still vividly recalls, the progress made by the teachers' movement was reversed.
"After the fall of Amini, the teachers union was dissolved and SAVAK, the Shah's political police, even banned teachers from celebrating Teachers' Day," he said.
By the late Seventies, there were still no teaching unions, so that during the demonstrations against the Shah in 1977-78, teachers were subsumed into the general political discourse without seeking to carve out a distinct separate identity for their profession.
This situation continued through the 1979 revolution and the first three years of the new regime. Teachers subordinated their particular interests to political activity in support of other social groups.
In 1979 and 1980, the propaganda material posted up by students on school walls was divided between that of various political groups on the one hand, and Islamists on the other.
Schools became a forum for passionate debate among supporters of the various political currents. Marxists and the leftist Mujahedin-e Khalq, in particular, strove for ascendancy in this political space.
Meanwhile, the pro-revolution forces which had gravitated around religious leaders set about cleansing the schools of the vestiges of the Shah's regime and other "counter-revolutionary forces".
"At that time, all the various political trends were interested in the schools from a political and ideological point of view," recalled Amin Ughani, who teaches at a school on the outskirts of Tehran. "It occurred to no one that schools should be kept immune from the day-to-day strife of politics. Fundamentally, all the political parties viewed students and teachers merely as instruments."
As the revolutionaries worked to strengthen their hold, they tried to make educational institutions into an arm of the state's political ideology.
Designating the anniversary of Motahhari's death as Teachers' Day was one way of achieving this. Another was the recruitment, in the first year of the revolution, of 30,000 passionate young revolutionaries with an Islamic world view as instructors in the schools. This tipped the balance in favor of the regime and its supporters.
Once opposition-minded teachers and students had been purged, Teachers' Day became an institutional event at which government officials and managers of various ranks would attend formal gatherings to deliver ceremonial - if somewhat abstract - speeches about the high esteem in which society held the profession.
One thing that these officials fail to pin down is who exactly they are talking about.
"In speeches by these officials, the term 'teacher' has a generalized meaning which embraces schoolteachers, university lecturers, religious teachers, and even parents," explained teacher Amin Fouladvand.
"Meanwhile, my colleagues and I interpret Teachers' Day as being the date when we honor schoolteachers quite specifically - even university lecturers don't fit into this category," he said.
The rhetoric in praise of the teaching profession is offered as a kind of compensation for the low pay and hardship suffered by staff. In recent years, however, this method has begun to pall.
As Seyyed Mohammad Hosseini, a teacher now nearing retirement, put it, "On Teachers' Day, the authorities speak in praise of the profession and the high esteem in which teachers are held, as if we were angels. We'd actually prefer to be seen as earthly human beings, so that our real needs might be appreciated."
In reality, said Hosseini, teachers are used as mere "pawns" in the official celebrations.
Explaining how this worked, he said, "They set up some official structure and pick teachers randomly from various parts of the country, according to non-transparent criteria. These teachers then get taken to meet government figures and are awarded prizes such as the cost of a pilgrimage to Mecca or Syria."
At school level, parents are asked to contribute gifts and money, he added.
The election of Seyyed Mohammad Khatami as Iranian president in May 1997 led to a relative easing of the political atmosphere, and at this point teachers gradually became conscious of themselves as a distinct professional group.
A minority of teachers continues to believe - like their forebears in the revolution - that they should remain part of wider social and political trends, and place their services at the disposal of the struggle for democracy.
But most activists in the profession, and indeed the bulk of teachers in general, now draw a clear line between professional interests and political activity.
One factor that tends to underline this distinction is a fear of engaging in party politics, a concern that Iranians have historically had whenever the political climate looks uncertain.
"Participating in party politics is playing with fire," explained mathematics teacher Mohammad Bay. "The political sky in Iran is like the springtime - one day the sun shines, the next day there are lowering dark clouds and we have storms, lightning and flooding."
It is, he concluded, "safer for activists fighting for better pay to stay away from politics. When politics and parties come in, teachers instinctively keep their distance".
Teachers are certainly becoming more strident in articulating their non-political demands, which centre on concerns about pay.
Last year, for the first time since the revolution, both May 1, and Teachers' Week which follows it, were dominated by protests.
From February to April 2007, dozens of activists were arrested for taking part in demonstrations and sit-ins, and were sentenced by the courts to suspended sentences ranging from several months to five years.
At least 200 more were reported to industrial tribunals and penalized with reduced pay, early retirement, or exile to distant towns and villages.
In April 2007, Mahmoud Farshidi, the then education minister, received a vote of no confidence from members of parliament who blamed him for mismanaging the schools.
As Teachers' Day approaches this year, it is in a situation where teachers have not received some of their wages and benefits for over six months.
To correct this, the government is to make a special credit line of 530 billion toman - about 570 million US dollars - available to pay some of the arrears. But since the back-pay has mounted up to some 1,200 billion toman, it is unlikely the full amount will ever be paid.
Meanwhile, teachers have been awarded a pay rise of no more than six per cent this year, at a time when the Central Bank says inflation is running at about 20 per cent. Alongside other public servants, teachers are getting poorer and poorer every year.
As May 1 approaches, there are reports of localized strikes over unpaid wages at secondary schools in towns in Tehran province such as Eslamshahr, Shar Qods, Karaj and Rabat Karim.
On May 1 itself, teaching unions have invited supporters to assemble at the graves of both the martyrs commemorated on this day - that of Khanali in the Ibn-Babouyeh cemetery in Shahr-e Ray, south Tehran, and Motahhari's tomb in the city of Qom.
However, the two main teaching associations - Qanun-e Senfi-ye Moalleman and Sazeman-e Moalleman - have been running up against various legal and administrative obstacles as they try to mobilize.
These problems appear to be a response to last year's protests.
In some cities, municipal authorities have ordered the local branches of the national teaching associations to be dissolved. Some have buckled under this political pressure and halted their activities.
Those activists who are still under suspended sentence are generally being very cautious. And teachers in general, however unhappy they are with the situation, have little energy or drive to make a fight of it.
A one activist put it, "The cost of engaging in union activity has gone up. Some headmasters have threatened to report strikers' names to the security police, and disciplinary tribunals have been very pro-active."
He concluded, "Activists can see the penalties hanging over their heads like the sword of Damocles. Under such circumstances, the reaction from teachers has been silence, albeit a silence that is full of foreboding."
Shirzad Abdollahi is a journalist and education expert in Tehran.
This article is an abridged and translated version of the full original text published on the Farsi pages of Mianeh, with editorial adjustments agreed with the writer made to provide clarity for English-language readers.
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