Senior writer Lara Pickford-Gordon speaks with the new president of the teachers’ union.
Antonia Tekah DeFreitas describes herself as a wife, mother, senior teacher at the Tunapuna Girls’ RC. In October she was elected President of the Trinidad & Tobago Unified Teachers’ Association (TTUTA) becoming the first woman to head the 39-year-old organisation. But DeFreitas isn’t basking in this achievement.
“Yes, I made history, but history will forget. What will be remembered is the legacy I leave based on the work I will do and to me that is more significant. I am hopeful the work I will do for the next three years will redound to the benefit of teachers and the education system, that is more meaningful for me.” As the new TTUTA President she wants to show women in the teaching service and country that “we are capable of producing strong leadership”.
A primary school teacher for 32 years, DeFreitas has been involved in TTUTA for 27. At her first post at La Veronica RC she said the senior teachers distributed two forms, one for TTUTA and the other for the Teachers Credit Union.
“Either way you have an investment into your well-being and investment into your future finances, so I just followed suit and for quite some time I was an ordinary member”.
Her move from ordinary member to staff representative happened after some years. She credits the influence of her parents for teaching her to speak up, “even if you are the only one standing up, that is what I needed to do”.
One of the conversations she had with her father, Peter was about how Jesus “stood up regardless of what, so ‘if He could do it you have to do it too’.”
She began advocating not only for herself but for others who sought her help. She took on the role of staff representative at the Tunapuna Girls’ RC. DeFreitas has not allowed fear of victimisation to make her cower.
“I had my fair share of people attempting to do it, but it never fazed me …What you throw at me is inconsequential.”
She has held the position of TTUTA chair of the St George East District, and TTUTA First Vice-president (2013–2016) with then President Devanand Sinanan. She is presently the Chair of the Constitution Committee of the Caribbean Union of Teachers.
As TTUTA President she works in conjunction with the executive to fulfil the organisation’s role of: professional development of teachers; industrial relations terms and conditions of service, health and safety and benefits and welfare.
She said the executive would like to see teachers working in less stressful environments by having the necessary resources and support mechanisms e.g. counselling. “…the stress from the workplace, the system not being supportive as it should be, having students in the class who you want to help but you don’t have the wherewithal to be able to do so adequately,” she explained.
DeFreitas said teachers are expected to function with “limited resources and high expectations”.
Salary negotiations with the Chief Personnel Officer (CPO) for 2014–2017 has to be finalised.
On November 5, four days after being sworn in, DeFreitas led a protest through the streets of San Fernando to highlight their discontent.
Asked if there would be more demonstrations, she responded, “Protest is always one course of action a union will have but before that you will have attempts at discourse and discussion. Definitely we would want to try to meet with the CPO hopefully to chart the way forward; that engagement will chart how we respond.” The General Council of the union will decide what action will be taken.
Health and Safety in the workplace is another priority because many schools have aged infrastructure. Mould in ceilings and pigeon infestation are regular complaints with teachers and pupils falling ill from the effects of exposure.
DeFreitas commented, “The Ministry of Education has to develop a comprehensive maintenance plan to address these in a timely manner.”
She hopes the TTUTA executive can nurture closer relationships with members by regular school visits and to be accessible to the public.
DeFreitas exudes an upbeat energy. It was crystallised at 18 years after her father’s death; she was preparing for exams in Upper VI at St Augustine Girls’ High School. “Being the eldest it was left to me to manage the day-to-day running of the household to support my mother and two younger sisters,” she said.
She drew on the resilience her father, a social worker at the St Michael’s School for Boys’, instilled: see the glass half full, always try to be the better person, “always making sure to show care”.
Her Catholic faith has anchored her life. “You need to have that deeper spirituality; you need to have that relationship with God that will allow you to nurture your relationship with self”.
She added, “As a Catholic it is important for us to nurture that in ourselves and in our children. We may have challenges along the way because of all the attractions of the secular world, but that has helped me to be sure of who I am because I know that is what God wants for me”.