Lost in the mounting death toll in Marawi City, the bitter recriminations about the lack of military intelligence that precipitated the crisis, and the heartbreaking stories of civilians still trapped in the conflict areas is the poignant report that more than 700 teachers remain unaccounted for since May 23.
As of June 10, the Department of Education had yet to receive word on the whereabouts of more than half of the city’s 1,424 public school teachers, according to Zenaida Unte, assistant schools division superintendent in Marawi. “We are hoping they are OK, and that they will report for work when classes resume,” she said, adding that the school opening in Marawi had been delayed because public schools had either been shut down or destroyed since fighting broke out between government forces and the terrorist Maute Group.
As of Saturday, only 675 teachers assigned in different schools in the city had informed DepEd officials about their locations and confirmed that they were safe, Unte said. The rest were still being traced in evacuation centers in Iligan City and other places where civilians had fled in panic and disarray. Maybe they lost their mobile phones in the rush and had been unable to touch base, DepEd officials said.
That little national attention appears to be trained on the missing teachers underscores once more the relatively low status accorded them. Underpaid, overworked and treated like conscripted labor during elections, public schoolteachers get scant recognition from the government for their unsung role in molding the hope of the motherland.
In conflict areas, teachers—along with the religious—are among the usual hostages held by bandits and terrorist groups, schools and churches being soft targets where unarmed civilians are largely incapable of offering resistance.
In fact, the continuing conflict in certain areas in Mindanao is studded with instances of bandit groups kidnapping—and sometimes torturing and killing—teachers and priests. One of the most heart-rending involves teacher-principal Gabriel Canizares, 37, who was kidnapped, tortured and beheaded by his captors in 2009 despite his family paying ransom in exchange for his release. Yes, on top of their low pay, teachers are often targeted by kidnap-for-ransom gangs because they are easy prey—visible, unprotected, unarmed.
It is such risks that discourage most teachers from serving in remote villages and conflict areas—a situation that ironically perpetuates the poverty and social ills in the hinterlands. In impoverished conditions, with no teachers to teach and guide them, children grow up illiterate and unable to make something of themselves—a condition that leads them to nurse resentment and eventually to take up arms against official authority.
The crisis in Marawi also draws attention to how little regard the government gives teachers, how recklessly they are left to fend for themselves in areas where armed groups zero in on educators precisely because of their catalyst role in society. Aside from providing the young with the skills, knowledge and values they need to negotiate an increasingly divisive world and become productive citizens, good teachers also train children to engage in critical thinking, to raise questions that both tyrants and terrorists find discomfiting.
Opening up new worlds to children—through books and teaching aids that stir the imagination—and showing them the possibilities of a good life beyond banditry and violence, is anathema to despots and bandits who lose potential recruits in the process.
Teachers and the education they help provide make up the bridge between possibilities and the realization of youthful dreams. By kidnapping teachers, bandits and malcontents blow up that bridge and cut off a means of escape from the stagnation and poverty in remote areas.
After losing so many soldiers and civilians to the Marawi crisis, the government might be less inclined to confront the issue of the missing 700 teachers, and even the other teachers in vulnerable areas who need protection from bandits and extremists. That would be a colossal mistake.
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