Within and without the union: prejudices about the BCTF

I guess that I belong to the most despised union in the province. I’m not whimpering. It’s just a fact. The BC Teachers Federation gets a lot of nasty press. And I try to understand why that might be. To do so, I have to cast my memory back to my pre-union days.

I taught in a Catholic independent school for 11 years. And there was no union. As you can probably guess, a couple of decades ago, some of the BCTF proclivities didn’t play well with Catholics. For one thing, there was the issue of support for LGBTQ realities that the Church would have preferred to deny, but there was more. The Church was terrified of unions.

The Church did not want to give up its power to a union. The year I began teaching, there was a high school on Holmes Street in Burnaby owned by the Vancouver Archdiocese. It was called Marion High. At that time, Catholic teachers were covering the identical curriculum that was taught in the public schools, but they were being paid about 40% less than public school teachers, with no benefits at all. This arose out of a past in which the schools were populated mainly by nuns and poorly trained lay people – often volunteers, and typically women, who didn’t rely on teaching as a primary source of income.

The teachers at Marion High began a union movement. One of the issues on the bargaining table was that they wanted a fired teacher reinstated. She had been fired for violating the “Catholicity Clause” in her contract. She had been divorced, and was now remarrying outside the Church. The Church viewed such behaviour as sinful conduct, which could not be sanctioned in someone who was in a position of trust with children.

Long story short, the Archdiocese shut the whole school down permanently and sold the property so as to put a stop to the union movement. This effectively squelched any unionization dreams in the Catholic teachers to this very day.

In those days, I was prejudiced against the BCTF, seeing it as a political body more interested in political correctness and “socialistic” causes like poverty and LGBTQ issues than education. In retrospect, it wasn’t only because of my Catholic School background that I harbored this prejudice; it was because my dad was a vice president of a multinational mining corporation, so I had been indoctrinated into an ideology of “free enterprise.” I liked to believe that there were many good teachers who, through no choice of their own, had to give up union dues in order to fund such far-fetched activism against their will (I know, I know, I’ve learned a lot since then).

Eventually though, mainly out of fear that the governing NDP was gunning to have funding for religious schools cut (leaving me out in the cold), I left the Catholic schools and found work in the public schools. Here I was obligated to join the union. My first impression was the opposite of what I expected. Because the union was so much involved in the formation of its own contract, it had a vested interest in fulfilling its obligations, and in a professional “ethic” of inclusiveness and professional development. In fact, something that I didn’t realize is that the union had asked the school districts for a longer calendar year (without increase in pay) so that it could insert its own professional development days.

Where I thought I’d see slackers going home at 3:00, I found teachers spending as many or more after-school hours preparing classes. Where I thought I’d see an “us and them” dichotomy between administrators and teachers, I found a much more collaborative relationship between the two than I had in the Catholic school. And where I thought I’d see decisions made on the basis of contractual or political ideology, I saw decisions that were generated out of best practice ideals for education. This was probably the biggest difference.

In the Catholic schools, priests were the ultimate authorities, and as they received their license from God himself, their word was law. To be fair, some of them tried to remain at arms length, but there were many initiatives in the Catholic schools that had much to do with religion and very little to do with education. (I still remember having to move hot dog day to Thursday from Friday so as to not violate the “no meat on Fridays” tradition.) Reflecting on those days, I’m glad that policy was directed by God rather than say, Microsoft or Nike, but I digress.

So back to my union, and why people don’t like us.

I think that one reason has to do with relationships. There are two sets of people in anyone’s life who call him out for his shenanigans. One is his parents, and the other is his teachers. Given this “in loco parentis” role, we have earned a reputation as mealy, rule-bound, stuck up sticks-in-the-mud. Why? Well because we don’t let kids do whatever they want, and we insist that they “be nice”. We get into their business, and sometimes they resent it, just like we all resented it when we had to do household chores, or when our exasperated parents scolded us. And It doesn’t help our cause that virtually every teacher presented on popular television is a reinforcement of the stereotypical teacher-as-offbeat-bookish-sociopath.

When people leave school, and grow up, they don’t usually come back, unless it is as teachers. Our memories of what a teacher is were formed when we were children, when we couldn’t properly understand why a teacher was so insistent on deadlines, or what the big deal was about skateboarding in the hall. As children, we couldn’t possibly understand that what we thought of as “just jumping through the hoops” was actually part of a well-planned, research-based, sequential pedagogy – the fruit of many years of post-secondary training. When a student graduates from school he takes with him his childish understanding of what “school” and “teacher” are. And this memory is cemented right there. Throughout his life, he may never revisit or revise this understanding. He can’t “see” what he’s never known unless he has a reason to re-imagine his past.

A second reason we are not liked is because what we do may not be well understood by people. I recently read a formula that the U.S. government uses to calculate a teacher’s working hours for insurance purposes. The formula is 1 hour teaching equals 2.5 hours work. So a 6 hour teaching day represents 15 hours of work. People have a sense that because they have attended school for a big portion of their lives, they know what teachers do, but such isn’t really the case. It’s the work behind the scenes that you don’t see that is the much bigger part of the job.

A third, and perhaps the most nefarious reason for our bad PR is because people have been convinced that public sector unions are to blame for their high tax burden. And there is truth in this. Here I’m not going to waste words trying to justify how much I get paid. Suffice it to say, teaching is not the most lucrative profession – far from it, but we do fairly well.

The tax argument, however, is spurious. The same level of vitriol is never issued when people buy gasoline or groceries. People don’t curse the multimillionaire bank CEO’s when they get ding’d a-buck-fifty at the ATM just for taking out their own money. (By the way, when bank machines first came out, they were free to use, and still people were reluctant, as we knew that the banks were saving huge money laying off tellers). But for some reason, they don’t want to pay tax dollars for a system of universal education that is run and delivered by professionals. They say that in today’s economy we can’t afford it, which is funny, because our modern economy generates more wealth than ever before in history, yet as a percentage of GDP we funded schools much better in the past.

I’ve come to look at the issue as one that I just have to live with. I have worked a few different jobs in my life, finally coming to teaching, and I can say that teaching is most definitely the hardest job I’ve ever done. It can be very rewarding at times – not lately though, considering how hard the government has been working to discredit us. (It really doesn’t feel good when your boss tries to goad you into a fight). But that ‘s a story for my previous blog post.

Anyway, that’s it. That’s how it is. I guess I’ll just have to quietly pay my union dues and do my thing. If I can leave you with just one thought though, let it be this: Better funded schools are better for teachers, yes, but they’re also much, much better for students.

A small class is far preferable to a big class for anyone. A teacher who has a stable personal life is a far better teacher for a child to have than a teacher who is struggling to put food on the table. And a society with a large middle class, including teachers, is a much healthier society both economically and socially than one with a tiny minority of rich people and a massive population of people barely making it.


6 thoughts on “Within and without the union: prejudices about the BCTF

  1. I’d love to connect with you. We share some similar thinking. I taught in the Catholic school system for 7 years. As an advocate for survivors of sexual abuse by clergy, I have other theories as to why Marion High School was closed down. I’m a strong supporter of the public school system.

  2. Thank you, very interesting and well written. Four years ago I read the famous Cognitive Linguist, George Lakoff’s best seller, “Don’t Think of an Elephant”. His work has reinforced my view of the world in a way I could never have imagined. From his deconstruction of the conservative political movement’s campaign successes and tactics, starting with the Powell Memo of 1970, to his research on how our brains actually work.

    Explaining the conservative movements reasons for wanting to get rid of teacher’s unions, as well as the actual moral differences between Progressive thought and Conservative thought, he has left no doubt in a mind that was once very cynical and distrustful.

    And for good measure: http://thetyee.ca/Opinion/2011/10/06/BC-Education-Feuds/

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