This item, written by my eldest son, was first published in June 2014. He refers to a labour dispute and its central issues may be in the news again later in 2016. The Supreme Court of Canada is considering a definitive case regarding teachers’ rights to collectively bargain with the Province of BC.
Regardless, monetary issues remain front and centre in public schools. In the last two fiscal years, while funding to elite private schools rose 17.5%, it fell 5% at the province’s 17 largest school districts. (Source: Consolidated Revenue Fund Detailed Schedules of Payments, 2014 and 2015)
High school teacher and parent
“What do you do for a living?”
A question. A common question. One people ask to start a conversation. One that comes up when meeting new people. One I’d bet most of you have heard, probably many times. One I hesitate to answer. Not because I don’t have an answer. I have a job, a career even. Not the best job, not the worst. A job that isn’t as rewarding, fulfilling or enjoyable as it used to be. A job that will only get less so if things continue as they have.
“I am a teacher.”
It is an answer. Not the best answer, not the worst. It is however, an increasingly unpopular answer. More than ever, acknowledging I am a teacher leads people to judge me and my motivations for doing what I do. The reactions I get from people are less positive year by year. Fortunately, I’ve met many people capable of moving beyond their biases, who come to know me the person, not me the profession.
So where to start?
As in most debates, people find themselves on both sides of the issues. Some people actually know the issues; fewer understand the meanings. Agree with their positions or not, at least give them credit for being informed. Many have no idea at all what the issues are, but feel very strongly about their positions regardless, be they rational or not. As for myself, predictably I am upset and frustrated with the government’s position on education, though I am not unquestioningly pro-union as that might imply.
Not totally pro-union?
Contrary to what many people think, I, as a teacher, do not believe the BCTF walks on water. They’ve done plenty wrong over time. Most people understand that in a negotiation you ask for more than you want, the other side offers less than you deserve and you eventually settle somewhere in the middle. The BCTF though has loaded the bullets for the other side by routinely asking for ludicrously large increases, most publicly to wages. It is the most obvious, but not the only, evidence to suggest my union doesn’t know how to fight a PR battle, let alone win one. Shooting off your feet is a decidedly poor way to get anywhere. They know where they want to go but unfortunately don’t always know the best way to get there.
What’s wrong with a teacher wanting to make more money?
This is a question that baffles me. Everybody on the planet wants to make more money, why can’t I? Speaking for myself I want a wage increase that accounts for an ever more expensive cost of living, plus a bit extra to allow me to make up some of the monies I’ve lost after a number of years of static wages. I’m sure most people make more money than they used to, or than people who did the same job in the past. Christy Clark and her deputies make more money than previous senior political officers did. Yet this week in Premier Clark’s busy schedule, packed full of policy making and other tasks of governance, she found time to publicly label my colleagues and I greedy and in it for the money. Am I really so different from everyone else because I want better pay?
Why shouldn’t teachers get a wage increase?
Historically in negotiations, teachers have given up wage increases to secure other concessions, most notably changes in class size and class composition. Government has stripped those negotiated articles from our contract, so why shouldn’t we get the wages we gave up to get the particular gains we’ve now lost? Besides, though I don’t often find myself agreeing with Vaughn Palmer, maybe he put it best. I recently heard him on CKNW address the talking point of “teachers should take a deal in line with other public-sector unions.” His adroit and succinct response was teachers took less last time, so why shouldn’t they get more this time?
Why do class size and class composition matter so much?
I’m a little stunned that anybody accepts the argument class size doesn’t affect student learning. At my school, classes are 80 minutes long. I teach a Science 8 class in English to 27 students. I also teach a Science 8 class in French to 20 students. Seems obvious to me that 80 minutes for 27 students versus 80 minutes for 20 students means the students in the class of 27 get less of my time. Everything I do in that larger class takes 10-15% more time, meaning I do less with my larger class.
As for composition, next to that Science 8 class of 27, I teach a Chemistry 11 class of 29. Granted, grade 11 students tend to be more mature and responsible than grade 8s. In the Chemistry 11 class of 29, every student has chosen to be there, as it’s an elective course, and I have one student identified as having special needs. In the Science 8 class, I have two students identified by the Ministry of Education as special needs and an additional eight informally identified who require extra consideration and who attend learning support blocks, but who don’t have a Ministry designation. That’s roughly a third of the class, on top of any English as a Second Language students or students who don’t want to take that course, but who have to, as it is a requirement. See how long it took to describe one class versus the other? Can you guess in which class I’m better able to teach and students better able to learn? Class size and composition do matter.
How can the government claim class size and composition don’t affect student performance?
The government defends its actions of removing class size and class composition language from our contract because it’s too expensive to accommodate and isn’t a factor to student success anyway. They support this latter conclusion by referring to studies that suggest student performance has not suffered since their removal of class size and class composition considerations. The explanation for these conclusions in my opinion is simple – government has the ability to lower the bar of success and redefine student achievement. Student assessment models and performance standards are established by the government. They are different today than they were when I started teaching. So to be clear, government claims to make funding decisions based on student performance. Neatly, they also set policy on how students are assessed and their performance determined. Anybody else see a conflict in that?
Does the union have the students’ best interest in mind?
They believe they do and much of the time I think actually do. That is, however, not their mandate nor their reason for existing. The BCTF was created for and is funded by its members. I pay union dues so that they can protect my interests, advocate for my working conditions and negotiate on my behalf, not to look after students. The two concepts of working conditions and learning conditions often conflate, even overlap, but they are not the same. The sad truth is though, if the union doesn’t take some stance to fight for students’ learning conditions, who will? At some level, smaller classes and more specialist teachers mean higher staffing levels, a coup for any union. That fact does not negate their educational value to students. Are not student needs what the stewards of education look after, even fight for? If not all the stewards, at least some of them?
Which affects students more, Stage 1 of the strike or the partial lockout?
Teachers went on strike first – Stage 1 – albeit a limited strike. That word “limited” is one the government and media seem unable to remember or use. During that action, I stopped meeting with Administration and receiving written correspondence from them. I could still talk to Admin and they could still talk to me. You know, old-school face-to-face conversations. It could be an informal discussion, just not a formal meeting. Anything that was an emergency or that had to do with student safety or discipline was exempt and could be communicated in writing. I continued teaching, assessing, helping outside of class time, communicating with students and parents, in short all the things I do that affect student learning.
In response to that limited strike, the government introduced a partial lockout. A lockout so effectively communicated they required two additional clarification letters and some back peddling to ensure it said and meant what they intended. Part of the terms of the lockout are that I cannot do paid work during lunch. Given I’m paid to teach and work with students, by government lockout, I am not able to help students or administer make-up exams at lunch. So which action affects the students? Which action, the limited strike or the partial lockout, has restricted the time I can spend with my students? Granted I can still work with them 45 minutes before and 45 minutes after school, but often that isn’t the best time for them or for me. It is for certain though, the only time outside of class I am allowed to work with them. By government lockout.
Doesn’t the Stage 2 rotating strike action affect students?
Absolutely. Affects teachers too. Beyond the day’s pay I will lose, I’ll lose an instructional day, probably more than one. I will have to determine the best way to reschedule the remainder of my year’s plan into fewer days. I will be relying on my training, experience and adaptability to minimize the effect on students’ learning. If Stage 2 continues to the end of the school year at one day per week, up to four days will be lost in high school, up to five in elementary. Not inconsequential, but consider this. I have a significant number of students who miss more days than that through extended vacations, being pulled out on Friday by parents for a weekend in Whistler, dance and sports competitions, music festivals . . . the list goes on.
Does the government’s partial lockout prevent me from doing volunteer, extracurricular activities?
In a word – No. It took them a few tries to get the wording clear and to suit their intention, but I am allowed to be in my school as late after class as I want to be. I can only do paid work during the first 45 minutes, but I can stay and do as much unpaid work as I want. So I’m not prevented by lockout from coaching or doing other volunteer work. But why on Earth would I? The government has restricted the time during which I can work, is paying me less to do the same teaching and assessing, but is hopeful I’ll continue volunteering my own time outside their restrictions? How would you respond to receiving direction to do the same work you do for customers, in less time, for less money, and then were asked to volunteer later in the day? Your response might be as colourful as mine.
What about students caught in the middle?
My answer is simply, what about them? Those students have parents. Parents who can also volunteer to coach their child’s team or to hand out certificates as students walk across the stage. Someone volunteering to organize and run extracurricular activities is in the students’ best interests. That someone being a teacher is in the best interest of the government and of parents. Government, because it means an employee working for free and parents because it means a commitment they don’t have to make. To say extracurricular events cannot take place and even to cancel them because teachers are not volunteering is a cop out. The fact that teachers volunteer at all means others don’t have to. If teachers do not volunteer, parents are welcome to fill the void.
How can government increase funding to public schools when there is no money, be it for teacher salaries or other expenses?
An excellent question, if it were true there is no money.
“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” This quote comes from the 1995 film The Usual Suspects. It could just as easily read “The greatest trick government ever pulled was convincing the electorate they’d run out of money.”
Governments exist to collect revenue, make policy and set priorities, then spend our money and tell us it’s governance. And, spend it they do, in large amounts. How can government increase education funding? Simple – choose to do it. Reducing some of its own bloat and corruption would find some. Diverting funds from spending they deemed a lower priority would find more. There is almost no end to the money government can find, for the projects they want to fund.
Over the last decade, education has represented a diminishing piece of the government’s budgetary pie. In recent budgets, funding to private schools – they prefer to be called independent schools because that evokes a different perception – has increased while public funding has not. Seems to me these actions speak to government’s desire to fund public education, not its ability. To find more money, all they need do is want to fund education more than they want to fund something else.
All of the above reflects what I think as a teacher to the issues and questions I hear most frequently. The most important hat I wear however is the one of parent. What hits home for me, more than everything else, is concern for the experiences of my six-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son as they move through the public education system. As their classes become larger, populated by a more challenging diversity of students and managed by teachers with fewer resources, how can their education be as good as it can be? Or as it should be? Shouldn’t our expectation and aspiration be that our children receive a better education than we did? Do any of you as parents think our schools serve your kids better now or even as well as they did when you were their age?
I sat down to write this piece, unsure who my audience was but knowing I hold a lot of anger about a range of topics towards a variety of people responsible for the climate of the school I call my workplace. In determining to whom I address this essay, I’ve come to realize the loudest voice who could affect the most change and who is the least heard from, is you, the parents. It’s your kids who experience the effects of larger classes, filled with diverse, under-supported kids. It’s you who have to shell out from your pocket as school districts download funding shortfalls through school fees, particularly at the high school level. Why do they do it? Because we as parents and more importantly as voters let them.
If our education system in BC is not broken already, it is breaking. The Liberals may not have started the decline, but it has been their job for more than a decade to fix it. The job they’ve done fixing it has twice resulted in the courts telling them to change their approach and to respect the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
As they say, third time lucky, so to the surprise of no one, in an effort to avoid spending tax dollars they claim not to have, the provincial government will spend tax dollars they don’t need for other things appealing again the court’s decision. I refer to my previous thoughts on budgetary priorities.
I do wonder when the Ministry of Education will update the BC Social Studies Curriculum to reflect the suggestive nature of the Charter. It has apparently become a collection of guidelines, open to inconsistent application, depending on whether it supports or inhibits your desired actions. That is, if you’re a provincial government. For individuals like us, probably not so much. Something tells me the ability to cherry pick the laws we like and will follow does not exist.
As I said previously, I also take issue with some of my union’s decisions. The vast majority of teachers though are good people, who teach for the right reasons and who work much harder and longer than many realize. Teachers play a vital role in shaping our next generation, or, at least, they try to. Granted, just as every bushel has its bad apples, not every teacher should be in the profession. Not everyone is well-suited to it. But, that’s true of every workforce, including politicians.
Our province is devoid of leadership. G. Elijah Dann, a professor at SFU, put it far more eloquently than I can. The following is an excerpt taken from an open letter he wrote to Christy Clark on the topic of the proposed development of the LNG sector in BC:
As our premier, shouldn’t you instead be pursuing a vision for a future that has everyone excited and wanting to work together? Where British Columbians aren’t set against each other in an entrenched battle, but rather feel a bright optimism for our immediate future, and also for our children and their children to come? We even believe we can make money at it – but in a way that is sustainable. And ethical.
Shouldn’t you, as a provincial leader – like any other leader who has changed the world for good – seek to challenge your fellow citizens to see beyond the simple solutions?
When I read his letter, this part struck me because he could just as easily have been talking about healthcare, or the forest sector, or fisheries, or . . . minus the part about making money, education or the Ministry of Children and Family Development. How many of you are proud to live in the province that leads the country in child poverty and who funds education below the national average? This, with a government who repeatedly states their first priority is the safety and education of children. At least we have Family Day in February . . .
In a May 27th, 2014 article, Camille Bains of the Canadian Press quotes Christy Clark as saying:
The strike is going to end at some point. It always does. But after 30 years, for heaven’s sakes, we need to find a new way to do it.
I’m not sure who the “we” in her statement is. One of the sides in these negotiations is BCPSEA, who negotiates at the government’s behest, following their direction. The premier is frustrated by a process she says doesn’t work, that involves an agent of the government, a government of which she is the leader. So if she as premier can’t direct her own bargaining agent, what good is she as premier? Either she’s as inept and ineffectual as her statement implies, or BCPSEA is doing exactly what she wants done. Neither possibility bodes well for the future of our province’s education system.
What about Christy Clark the parent? Politicians routinely laud our education system as being world-class. Foreign students spend significant money for the privilege of attending our schools. Other jurisdictions come to study our curriculum and often purchase it for their own use. The claim from on high is that our public system is top notch, providing excellent education. It is so good, the premier sends her son to . . . a private school? Maybe it’s just more convenient, closer to where he lives. Maybe it’s because he has a smaller class, more resources and fewer students with special needs in the room. Who can say?
Personally, I think it shows her taking no responsibility for the current situation in our public schools. Granted, her son does not attend one, so she doesn’t have any vested interest in the health of the public system. Well, apart from the fact she is the leader of our province’s governing party. Make no mistake, as a parent, she has every right to do as she sees fit and to select the school she thinks best, as she should, as every parent should. She has the means and believes private school is a better option. As a mother, her responsibility is to do what is right for her child.
But, mother isn’t the only role she plays. As premier, her responsibility is to do what is right for all kids, including mine. I am confident she is not doing so and I question whether she even thinks she has an obligation to. I think it sends a questionable message at best for anyone in charge of a public system to use the private alternative themselves, be it education or any other field. If the public system is broken to the point the Premier won’t use it, as leader of the government responsible for it, she should set about fixing the system, rather than dismantling it to justify her choice to access the private system. If only school kids could vote, maybe then she’d concern herself with their needs.
So what do I do for a living? I am a teacher. I became a teacher in part because it suited my interests and my skill set. The most important reason I did though is that I like working with kids. I truly enjoy seeing that moment when one of my students makes a connection, the light bulb goes off and they understand something they didn’t the moment before. Contrary to the belief of some, I did not become a teacher for the unimaginable wealth, which is fortunate because the last ten years have proven I either don’t know what wealth is or at the least have no idea where to find it. Neither possibility bodes well for my future, financially at least.
Admittedly, my closing may help perpetuate the myth I’m only in it for the money, but the dollars and cents seem to be the only factor in this dispute that gets any coverage. I started with a question; I’ll end with two more.
If I presented you a professional who holds three university degrees, one a masters, a variety of professional development certificates and has 22 years’ experience, what would you say that person should expect to earn in salary? If I told you that professional is a teacher, would your answer change?