Monthly Archives: March 2012


I’m no statistician, but I can read a bar graph. These economic indicators show a net decrease in funding of education, certainly in BC. Interestingly, there have been significant “bumps” to funding at the beginnings of contract terms, but not enough to stave off the overall decline. Is it any wonder, that Bill 22, which unquestionably means a “bump down” in funding to the system, has teachers in BC infuriated?

Telling information from Stats Canada about education funding

What I have learned as a teacher

I have to admit, I’m glad to be back at work after a two week spring break. I have been so upset about the egregious action of the government regarding our contract, that I have wasted much of my life fretting. I’m not looking for pity. It’s just a fact. Since it was voted into power, the BC Liberal government has been systematically dismantling public education. Over the break, I couldn’t get to sleep over my anger, and I would wake up each morning with job action on my mind. I have become very cynical about the ability of the public to recognize the importance of public education. And if we can’t win hearts and minds, the government, which certainly doesn’t see the value of public education, has no reason to change course.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that few people see what I see – what teachers see. My own experience with K-12 education as a kid did not lead me to form wonderful relationships with teachers. I mean, I liked them, but I saw what they did as being rather easy. I didn’t understand the prep that was involved, and more than that, I didn’t understand what teachers went through to support students who were not me. As a kid, I didn’t have any awareness of the poverty of some of the students. I didn’t know that the kid who scared me was a kid who, but for school, would likely be out on the street committing crime. I didn’t know that the teachers were bending over backward to show that kid a better way. I didn’t know the amount of work that a teacher had to put in to preparing lessons that were able to flow at a reasonable pace, while at the same time keeping a large group of adolescents in a holding pattern of adaptive social behaviour. I didn’t know about the endless hours you can put into teaching, without ever feeling like you’ve done a good enough job. I know it now, but I didn’t know it then.

Had I not become a teacher, I would likely have had the same attitude about teaching that is evident in policy makers. The system worked for me, and would have worked had their been 60 kids in each of my classes. I knew how to get the help I needed, and the support structure created by my upper-middle class family provided me with the skill to advocate for myself. I didn’t need teachers to care for me. And in my youthful egocentricity, I assumed that all the other kids were the same. I was wrong.

It was kids like me that rose through ranks of society. We were the winners. We got to go to University because our upbringing led us to value achievement in education, and the importance of post secondary schooling which would allow us to live affluent lives. And of course, we could afford university. Many people simply can’t. Kids like me… kids who didn’t need teachers to care for us: we are the minority and we are in charge.

I started by saying I am back to work. In an ongoing protest of Bill 22, teachers have withdrawn extracurricular activities. I thought that this would be an easy way to protest, but I have found that it is the hardest of all protests for teachers. You see, I missed the kids over the break. I had them write about their spring break in journals and I found myself pouring over the journals – delighting in their tales of trips here or there. I made comments that hopefully encouraged them to write more. I guess with all the political strife around contract negotiations, I had forgotten how I felt about the kids, and I confess, I’ve been happier this week than I was for the two that I spent on break. And the more I think about withdrawing extra-curricular work, the more I hate the idea. I work in a school populated by many non-traditional learners. There are lots of kids who need me. And I know they appreciate what I do for them. I never expected this. They know I’m rooting for them. For them, school is a safe place – quite often a safer, more sane place than their homes. It’s a place where they are given boundaries. I didn’t used to understand why the kids would cross these boundaries – why they’d bite the hand that fed them (so to speak). I now know that they are testing the boundaries, because they are desperate to know that those boundaries are really, consistently there. It took me a long time to understand this.

But as I said, had I not become a teacher, I would not have known these things. I would likely have supported a more “efficient” model of education, knowing that such a model would have worked for me just fine. And I would have believed that if it could work for me, it could work for anyone. But in the real world, I would have been wrong.

The case for full scale walkout

Bill 22 has mandated the end to teacher job action in BC. Teachers have decried this bill as being unconstitutional. But for some reason, despite that assertion, teachers are not challenging the bill. Their work-to-contract campaign protests, but does not challenge. The only way to test whether a law is supported by the constitution is to violate it. This is the heart of civiil disobedience. In the case of Bill 22, disobedience means full scale walkout.

Violation of Bill 22 is particularly risky as the bill mandates huge fines for striking, but ironically, these fines are the very provisions that may make the bill unconstitutional. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the right to free assembly. Until recently, the meaning of that right as it applies to labour disputes has been somewhat vague, and in recent years (largely due to labour challenges to government in BC) the meaning of the Charter right is being clarified. A precedent established in one such case is the stipulation that no government may put into place any statute that limits the right to free assembly which is for the purpose of strengthening a position in collective bargaining. Bill 22’s fines, which are inordinately large and which are aimed at individual teachers, do exactly that. They discourage, under threat of significant financial hardship, the right to gather in protest (i.e. strike). The only way to challenge these fines is to actually invoke them.

If teachers really want to protest what they perceive to be a violation of the Charter right to free assembly they MUST stage a full scale walkout. So what stops them? After all, there is unquestionably a large contingent of teachers who are in favour of a strike. I can think of three possible reasons the BCTF has not mandated a strike. One is that the executive is afraid of the financial consequences of being wrong. At $20 million dollars a day, bankruptcy would happen quickly. The second is that the one-year deadline for the government to address the repercussions of its unconstitutional legislation of a teacher contract in 2002, is April 13, 2012, and the BCTF is hoping for some kind of salvation from the court. The third, and what I think is most likely, is that part of Bill 22 calls for a government appointed mediator and the TF must try in good faith to work with the mediator before it is able to claim that Bill 22 is a violation of constitutional rights.

The stakes are high, not just for teachers, but for labour unions all across Canada. And all eyes are on BC. The next few weeks will be very interesting. History will be made one way or another.

A context for understanding the teacher job action

When the BC Teachers Federation challenged the constitutionality of the BC Liberal government’s imposing of a contract through legislation, they won in a sense. And the win was very important, because the ruling was a precedent-setting interpretation of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I say that the teachers won “in a sense” because the win didn’t make much difference in the way teachers actually do their work. The government still got away with significant reduction in funding of the public school system, and the job of teaching still got more challenging.

Really, the court decision was not so much a win for teachers, as a it was win for unions in general. The decision ensured that the right to free assembly for the purposes of strength in collective bargaining was protected. It did not, however (despite the beliefs of what seems to be a majority of teachers) take away the government’s right to refuse to meet any of teachers’ contract demands.

Against the background of these legal precedents, the teachers and their employer began negotiating again. This time, however, the strategies of both the BCTF and the Government have been more cagey. The BCTF knows that the government has the right to intervene in a labour dispute if the dispute causes prolonged or particularly serious harm to the public good, so in protest of the failure of the employer to meet its demands, the teachers adopted a “teach only” strike. This was a fairly mild job action whose purpose was to inconvenience administration, while still providing education to students. Among others, two significant teacher services were struck: the production of report cards, and supervision. And the government? Well it knows that it must show that it has made an effort at real negotiations with the teachers.

In negotiations, the employer and the teachers remained far apart, and there was virtually no progress. The employer was hampered by the government’s policy of “net-zero”, which made any negotiation impossible. Two things played in the teachers’ favour. One, the popularity of the current government is at an all time low, and it looks like their demise is imminent. Two, the job action allowed teachers to receive full pay, thereby allowing teachers to sustain their slow burn tactic pretty much indefinitely – at least until the more labour-friendly NDP government was elected.

Suddenly, things changed. The government announced that enough was enough and it was going to legislate a “cooling off” period. But there was far more to the “cooling off” legislation than just cooling off.  The bill called for a mediator, but restricted the mediator to the government’s “net zero” mandate, and further, it stripped provisions of the existing contract, effectively making the “cooling off” bill another legislated contract – one that teachers find very objectionable for a few reasons, as it takes the control of virtually every aspect of schooling out of the hands of teachers. This, teachers feel, is an insult to their profession. Teachers feel that as professionals, they are the best suited to determine how to deliver education, and are frustrated at the increasing difficulty they are having meeting students learning needs – especially children who have identified learning challenges.

On the other hand, the Liberal government, which is actually fiscally very conservative, is trying to find efficiencies in education. Their new legislation makes it easier to fire teachers, now that one negative evaluation is grounds for dismissal, easier to hire teachers now that seniority can be ignored, and easier to create more efficient classes by removing any limits on class size and composition. The legislation also co-opts the professional development days that were added to the school year by teachers. This allows them to “train” teachers in the initiatives that they feel are important.

The struggle right now between teachers and government is really history in the making. Significant societal issues are at stake. One is the concept of public education. Are we really able to provide equitable education that factors in the myriad needs of different students, including those with various learning difficulties?

Philosophies of education are at odds. Do we subscribe to the notion that the purpose of education is for the growth and development of individuals, or to the notion that the purpose of education is to train individuals to become the labour capital for a successful society through a successful economy? And beyond education, is the struggle between socialist ideals that would have profits distributed among the workers, as opposed to the capitalist ideals of trickle-down economics through survival-of-the-fittest laissez-faire market driven economics.

The resolution of this dispute will be historical. That is why so much passion surrounds it.

Why Marxists are wrong

Please help me. I need to know why Marxists are wrong.

Part of losing innocence is discovering that some of the things we have been taught are wrong, or lies or both. I have always been raised under the belief that communism is godless. Interestingly, it was never the Catholic Church that told me this; it was… who? I don’t know. But “godless communist” has a familiar ring to it. And to be fair, Marx (largely the guy to whom communism is credited), was an atheist. He did call religion “the opiate of the masses”, after all.

I have read “The Communist Manifesto” by Engels and Marx. It wasn’t an easy read, and I could never get my head around “materialism”. I’m still not sure what that means. But reading Marx and Engels, I didn’t find them to be the monsters they have been lumped in with: particularly Josef Stalin. And now I find myself a victim of  – not rampant communism, but rampant capitalism. As a teacher, my standard of living has continually decreased through my whole career. Well… not quite true. For the first ten years of my career, I received scheduled increases on a pay scale tied to years of experience. But since then, my salary has been eroded. Why is this? Doesn’t success in capitalism lead to success for all? Markets certainly have grown since then, as have virtually all economic indicators in this wonderful G20 nation of Canada. Isn’t capitalism supposed to trickle down?  Certainly this is what I have been taught to believe.

And now I read this (link posted below). Yep. It’s Marxist for sure – even quotes Marx. And it scares me. I can not find anything wrong with it. It actually makes more sense than anything I’ve been taught before. Furthermore, I challenge anyone devoted to free enterprise (a nicer term for capitalism) to point out the flaw in it. For the life of me I can’t think of a “yeah, but”. Maybe you can help me.

The Hunger Games (Spoiler alert: some of the story’s premises discussed, but outcomes are not)

I have never been a sci-fi fan. Don’t know why, really. I think it has something to do with the priorities of the writer. It might be that the author’s focus tends to be more  on her sociological premise than on her characterization?? Not sure. Maybe it’s me. Maybe I can’t cope with the situations posed in the stories. I mean, I often feel that I’m living in a science fiction novel now. My grip on reality is that tenuous.

Anyhow, at the insistence of my younger daughter, I read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. And I have to say, as far as sci-fi goes, it’s a winner. I’m hoping that the film version produced by Lions Gate Films does the novel credit.

The story is set in a society that is stratified into twelve districts. District one is the ruling district, in which citizens enjoy comforts that are unimaginable to the lower class districts. In district twelve, the citizens run the coal mines for a pittance of a salary – not enough to safely live on. And yet, it is a crime for them to leave the borders of their district to gather food. They stay alive through a vibrant underground economy, but they are always, always under the strict, punitive command of their totalitarian government.

Every year the government amuses its citizens by televising a live last-person-standing fight to the death. The contestants are selected (“reaped”) by lottery and then given celebrity status in some pre-game events. The poor are more vulnerable, because in order to survive, they sometimes must buy staple goods in exchange for tesserae (lottery credits increasing the odds of being “reaped”) – an interesting allegory for the American draft board. In this pre-game spectacle the author examines how governments use media to frame propaganda. And of course, the first person narrative of the games themselves through the eyes of a contestant, makes for a compelling morality play.

The popularity of this novel gives me great hope. If there’s anything that will encourage young people to examine their morality and the dangers of totalitarian government, it’s compelling literature. And this novel has depth without being too difficult a read. An eleven-year-0ld can enjoy it as well as an adult. My daughter and wife so liked the novel that they bought tickets to attend the opening day screening of the film. And they thoughtfully included me. Without this invitation, it’s unlikely that I would have read the novel, and you, my dear reader, would not be mulling over this brilliant analysis!

Miner 49er

Inspector! Where’s the manual?

Yesterday I drove home from a long journey up country through treacherous roads that, according to weather forecasts, would have been safer today. I hurried home because my wife had to be back to work. She had previously booked today as part of her holiday, but when the it was discovered that today was to be inspection day, my wife’s holiday was cancelled. She had to be in the office to make sure everything was running smoothly for the inspection.

My wife and her coworkers are certainly doing all they can do in the allotted hours. In fact, from what I am told, I believe they are working under huge duress. But sometimes the allotted hours are just not enough, and my wife will put her and her family’s life on hold to work overtime to get the work done. This has often been quite disruptive. She is paid well for her overtime, but life vs. money is often a tough trade-off. And it’s not as though she can leave the work. She works a hospital lab, and work not done can cost lives. LIVES! So she does the overtime. Has to. Must. And after she does, it’s really irking for her to have to face finger-wagging and tongue clucking from above because overtime is generally frowned upon – but I digress.

There is so much work to be done that certain aspects of the job that seem irrelevant in the day-to-day routines, get put to the back burner: the reading of policy manuals; small policy details regarding storage;  paperwork or maintenance. These can be overlooked because there simply is not enough time allotted in a day for them. Then comes the inspector and it’s time to scramble! A list of things to be inspected is posted and panic sets in. Everyone has been so busy that some of the list items have not been addressed.

Now if the boss could afford to be exceedingly brave, he or she would say, “Screw it. The inspectors will have to find out that we simply haven’t had time address all of the list items.” And in a perfect world, that’s exactly what the boss would do. In a perfect world the boss would be confident that the inspectors would presume the workers are competent and ethical. In a perfect world the inspector (who also has bosses) would recommend that more resources be invested in the workplace so that these missing list items could be checked off… in a perfect world.

But of course, the world is not perfect, and there is no presumption of competence or ethics. If things go bad, it’s not the health ministry that’s on the hot seat; it’s the chain of command. Of course compliance is not preached; in all the seminars we are always taught about transformational leadership, collaboration and the moral the ethical responsibility to stand up for what is right. So one might think that the happy result of a failed inspection would be recognition by inspectors of a need for more resources. In fact, the opposite is true.

Inspectors are looking for potential improvements in efficiency. Built into the idea of efficiency is a presumption that more can be done with less. And the corollary presumption is that more than enough resources are already in place to allow the workers to meet all of the expectations on the checklist. Ergo, failure to meet expectations = failure in competence. The boss may not be able to articulate this idea, but intuitively she knows it, and all of the workers know it. So for weeks before the inspection date, everyone scrambles like never before so that a tight ship can be presented. Fear is a good motivator.

The consequence? My vacation is curtailed. But there are more serious consequences. Morale suffers, and worker loyalty suffers. Stress increases. Job satisfaction decreases. Authoritarianism corrupts the spirit of camaraderie. Unfortunately, this problem is rife in all organizations. Human beings have human needs that typically go beyond the organization’s scope. The organization has narrow goals into which the human being doesn’t factor.

This disjunct between the organization and the person is a huge problem in our world. And in order to be happy, healthy societies we need to change it. After all, our work is a big part of our life. It should be where we have our human needs met: the need to be productive, the need to be social. Corporations would like to believe that they have no responsibility other than the bottom line. This is not true. Why can’t the success of their workers be a measure of their success? More’s the disgrace when this business efficiency model is applied detrimentally to government workers. Is it not the role of government to take care of people? I say it is, and furthermore, I say that it should be well within the role of private corporations to take responsibility for the well-being of their employees.

The Coal Mine

A couple of books that I read in my undergrad studies stuck with me. One was Irving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, and another was Emile Zola’s Germinal. The former expounded on Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage” theme, and the latter illustrated the struggle of working class people. With these two themes in mind, The Coal Mine will examine personal motivation in the context of the world of real people.

The blog will be political, ideological and whimsical. It will be the truth and nothing but the truth. Read if you dare. Comment if you like. Just keep it real. And keep to the issues. Questioning and arguing are permitted. Insults are not. If you can’t say it over coffee, don’t say it here.