Some Tough Words for BC’s Principals and Trustees

Which side are you on?

What drives me around the bend about the Principals and Vice Principals Association as well as the BC School Trustees Association is that the best they can do is to plead for both sides to sit down and come to a negotiated settlement. Well duh! This is not a position at all. Of course everyone wants the issues to be settled!

To play the role of disappointed parent and say, “You two sit down and figure this thing out,” is patronizing and unhelpful. These statements are attempts to satisfy the organizations’ requirement to weigh in, without actually taking a position. They’re really quite insulting to teachers, who are committed enough to the issues to go without pay. The issues are very real, and very important. This is not a childish game.

Do these organizations support the teachers’ position on class composition or the government’s? What is their position on non-enrolling teachers such as counsellors and librarians? Can they illuminate the compensation issues? What model would they like to see for professional development or teacher prep time. How about scheduling of classes?

By their silence, shall I perceive that they are happy with the government’s illegal contract stripping legislation? Or are they just trying to avoid the label of “militant” or “greedy” that has been applied to the union? They want to be the nice guys in all of this rather than try to improve the system. This is not leadership.

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Examining the Tsilhqot’in ruling: We have it backwards.

When you think of aboriginal land title, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind? The September 26 ruling of the Supreme Court of Canada regarding land title of the Tsilhqot’in nation in BC has certainly set precedent. What does this mean for the First Nation? What does it mean for Colonial Canada?

It seems that the answers on most people’s mind have to do with business. On CBC’s “The National”, Peter Mansbridge announces how the decision “could have huge implications right across Canada.” He then goes on to report how those implications will “touch government, industry, and any future economic or resource development on First Nations land, including the newly approved Northern Gateway Pipeline.”

The crafting of this report is problematic in two ways. First, the report mentions “The Northern Gateway Pipeline” as if it is a fait accompli. It is not. There is no pipeline. Northern Gateway is a proposed name to be given to a proposed pipeline that an oil company would like to build. It’s only an idea on paper. To talk about it in this way reinforces in everyone’s mind that it is an inevitability. Once it’s named, it’s real. At best, we should be saying, “a pipeline that Enbridge Corporation would like to build.”

The second, and larger problem with the report is that it ignores the people that the ruling most affects –the Tsilhqot’in themselves. What is the implication of the ruling for them? Who knows? Who cares? The report bypasses them completely, and jumps right into talk about the possible effects on business. And the more in-depth coverage of the issue by CBC’s Chris Brown is no better, focusing pretty much exclusively on a pipeline debate. Need I remind everyone that there currently IS NO proposal for an oil pipeline to go through Tsilhqot’in territory. Is there no other meaning to the Supreme Court’s decision than the thwarting of a multinational business interest?

It’s not just CBC that is reporting this way. The Huffington Post reports much the same way, as does The Globe and Mail, which contains “Northern Gateway Pipeline” in its headline.

This is a concerning mindset in Canada. We have it backwards. We look at legal precedent, and government in terms of how they will affect business. We seem to measure everything in terms of “the economy”, forgetting that “economy” is a means to an end, and forgetting that in the current economy there are winners, but also many, many losers, including future generations who will have to suffer the effects of accelerated climate change and pollution. Really, we should be asking, “How will this business affect the future living conditions of all First Nations people, and all Canadians in general?” We should measure business in terms of its effects on our endeavour, and not endeavour in terms of its effects on business.

The Supreme Court’s ruling on Tsilhqcot’in land title is the culmination of generations of struggle of a people. To limit its significance to the building of an oil pipeline not even near the land in question, is an insult to all those who struggled. What is their story? Their lawsuit was not crafted as an attempt to stop an oil company. Why so much focus on that?

 

When you really think about it, the BC Liberals are a mean-spirited bunch.

Lets review the way the government negotiates with teachers.

Before the provincial election of 2013, negotiations with the teachers were going well. There was a positive bargaining relationship at the table. Christy Clark campaigned on a promise of labour peace with the BCTF, suggesting a 10 year contract.

Then, in what really seemed like a miracle, she got elected. Suddenly she turned on the BCTF like the evil queen realizing Snow White is still alive. The bargaining agent that had previously worked a deal with the teachers was fired.

After months of fruitless talks the BCTF started a mild job action, one that did not affect students in any way. The only thing they would not do is meet with administrators or supervise the playground at recess. They still ran extracurricular events and field trips. They still met with parents, answered their emails, did all their prep and marking, ran clubs etc.

The government decided to turn up the heat and tried to cut health benefits to the teachers.

Then, without any explanation of why, they abandoned this tack. I suspect that their lawyers advised them that they would not be able to cut health benefits. Whose idea this was, I don’t know, but it was as mean-spirited as it was stupid. I’ve never heard of an employer pulling a stunt like that.

They needed to find another way to punish teachers, so they decided to “lock out” teachers, effectively turning them into babysitters as they were unable to do any of the things teachers need to do to run programs and evaluate properly, while docking their pay 10%.

Teachers would now no longer be able to participate in Grad ceremonies that they had fundraised for, nor would they be able to run field trips they had planned.

Then, not having anticipated the consequences of this lockout, they reached into their pockets where they keep the Labour Relations Board (LRB), and found a way to make letter grades for grade 12s essential, even though the two biggest universities in the province, UBC and SFU do not need final marks (their acceptance letters had already been sent out).

Next, they had the LRB deem provincial exams to be essential.

Then they found that grading said exams would be too onerous a task, so they took those “essential exams” and waived the essay sections of the Social Studies and English exams.

Then they deemed Grade 10 and 11 letter grades to be essential and gave teachers a day to try to craft some kind of mark for them, even after the lockout denied struggling students any opportunity to improve their marks, and denied teachers the ability to mark any significant work.

Teachers have done what unions do, withdrawing services in a strike, but far from trying for labour peace, the government has done everything it could to kill any good will that teachers might ever have, and have completely disrupted the lives of BC’s students.

And through all this, they want to deny the teachers what other unions have been given. (Their “pattern of settlement” neglects to mention that the teachers are on their third year of 0% increase, unlike other unions.).

But what’s worse, is they have tried to convince the public that the teachers don’t know what they’re talking about when they say they need smaller classes. Education Minister Fassbender, who has never been in a classroom, cites some nebulous research that focuses only on outcomes, and that has been roundly refuted in most modern research, while denying what is said by people who work in classrooms every day. The arrogance!

Teachers are doing a fine job maintaining a system that is collapsing from lack of funding. We’re like sailors running around trying to patch holes and bail water after our ship has been hit. So far we’ve kept it afloat, but it’s taking on water badly, and it’s not moving forward.

I don’t know how this labour dispute ends. I’m going to continue to fight until the government is either tossed out or the whole the system collapses. I don’t care any more. The government wants to get something for nothing out of education, using a failed U.S. model. They want to allow their corporate cronies to enjoy the lowest tax rate in Canada, while they leave the good people of the province with less and less.

The message is clear from this government. They have no respect for the public school system or the teachers who run it. There’s a difference between hard bargaining and humiliation. No other industry would do this to the union. No other industry has the endless supply of revenue that a government has. And there are consequences for other industries having employees who are bitter and resentful.

But this is our government. They will insult and offend a sector of 40,000 people. They don’t give a tinker’s damn about labour rights or labour peace, so long as they get to have fancy lunches with their corporate sponsors.

The Appeal Court will uphold the two ignored BC Supreme Court’s decisions against the government for ripping up teachers contracts, as will (eventually) the Supreme Court of Canada. But this government will continue to defy the law, challenging the electorate to stop them. Ethics-be damned. They’ll do it if they can get away with it. What can the courts do, really?

A government that doesn’t care about its people.

Education. It’s personal

Yesterday, on the picket line, I sat for a few minutes next to a colleague who, after having protested at a Liberal fundraiser, and having been able to confront Education Minister Fassbender directly in conversation, was particularly despondent.

I know her. I have known her a while. I have collaborated with her closely. I have shared ideas, and worked away long hours with her. I am used to her moods. She can best be described as passionate. She takes everything… everything personally, because her work as a drama teacher is so intensely personal.

A drama teacher. Even as I write the words, I think how trite that sounds –“drama teacher”. Because what use is a drama class in the great scheme of things? What job depends on you having had drama experience?

You’d be surprised.

My colleague’s drama classes are filled with young boys and young girls: young boys, who are confused by their rapidly changing adolescent world, by the remarkable changes in bodies and behaviour of the girls their age, and by the power and sexuality awakening in their own bodies; girls, who are confused by their own development – their fierce need for social attachment, their powerful emotions and changes in their bodies and minds. Drama class takes these children, and gives them a voice. It moves them safely through awkwardness into articulateness, from segregation to inclusion, from fear to confidence.

My words can’t do justice to what my colleague does. All of our new grade 8s take drama. She takes children and shows them a world of excitement and potential. She looks out for the stray, and she makes the underdog aspire. She guides them safely on a journey through adolescence into young adulthood.

I say that my colleague takes things personally. This is in no way meant as an insult to her. She is very, emotional.

When she’s on a creative tear, she’s unstoppable. She’s up, she’s cheerful and she’s optimistic, and when she encounters resistance, she becomes passionately angry or passionately sad. Tears are close to the surface always.

And having worked closely with her, I’ve seen her run the gamut of emotions. Hell, you don’t even have to work closely with her to see the gamut of emotions. They’re right there on her sleeve all the time. She can be exasperating! She is going to do this or that, and it’s going to require a buy-in from her colleagues, because her efforts will require that students take their focus away from their other classes, or even that we ourselves may have to help her out a bit. Exasperating. Yes, and probably more so because we know we will cooperate, because we know deep down that she is doing a huge service to the kids. You just can’t stand in her way of doing that. Her intensity won’t allow it.

But I’ve never seen her despondent.

Nobody knows what this woman does, no one other than the kids, and us, her colleagues. Even the kids’ parents  (most of them) don’t see it. They scratch their heads at their kids’ new-found passion for the stage. They don’t see the importance of it – the importance of the wonderful experience; the importance of being able to do something with one’s voice and body – just the experience of that – not for acquiring a competency for the workplace (although drama skills absolutely are competencies for any workplace), but for the joy of doing it.

Joy! That elusive emotion, so complex and wondrous, and so real in our increasingly virtual world. Is joy not important in school any more?

“You’ll never guess what happened at school today, Dad!” says a beaming speed-talking adolescent girl.

“Well that’s great,” I answer. “Do you have homework?”

We stand at the picket line with a growing awareness that despite the noble symbolism of our fight; and despite our pluck, no one understands the true importance of what we do, and no one wants to pay for it. Our government will not hear us, and it continues to underfund to the point where our efficacy is trounced.

And we know what government stands for. It is the will of the people (or perhaps more accurately, the lack of will). We stand against a rising tide of apathy about education — a belief that education is something to get rather than to experience, that the most important outcome is a letter grade or a score on a test.

We walk the picket line feeling the growing immensity of our failure. Our failure is the failure of our society. Though we struggle to articulate it, we feel it. And we become despondent.

At the protest, the Education Minister had tried to reassure the passionate teachers there that it’s not personal. That is probably the worst thing he could have said.

Is Christy Clark sabotaging attempts for a mediated settlement?

While Christy Clark was in Dawson Creek this week, she was asked to comment on the possibility of a mediated settlement with the BCTF. Her answer sent a message to any would-be mediator, that the government won’t agree to a mediated settlement the way things are now.

It looks like this strike may go on for a long time yet, as the government is still spinning its fallacious arguments about a “settlement zone”. A mediator’s findings would almost certainly put pressure on both parties to settle. The fact that mediation was requested by the union suggests that they feel that they have the upper hand in terms of reasonableness.

The government’s reluctance? Well, that’s a little harder to figure out. One would think a government would want a reasonable settlement.

I suggest that the government does not want mediation because it would like to see the labour dispute last long enough to hurt the BCTF. And why not? Time is on the government’s side. They don’t believe they need to worry about public opinion, as they have three years  before an election. And the public has a very short memory.

The BC Court of Appeal won’t review BC Supreme Court’s ruling in favour of the BCTF until October. The actual ruling of the court will likely not come out for months after that. The government can simply wait it out, but the teachers have families to look after. Meanwhile, the government saves hundreds of millions of dollars if the teachers don’t work.

It seems that this government is quite happy to see that its public sector loses ground to inflation, that its public schools limp along on the good will of teachers, and that teachers feel disrespected and undervalued. Certainly that is the situation now.

I pay your wage through my taxes

Private sector work and public sector work are both work, and they both produce wealth.

It is completely reasonable to imagine a world in which food is distributed by the public sector. In such a world, you would go to the government run grocery store and purchase food at a checkout manned by a public sector worker, much in the way public liquor stores have operated.

I bring this up because as a public school teacher, I hear often the short-sighted missive, “I pay your salary through my tax dollars.” This is the favourite argument presented by people who would like to ensure that my wage falls further and further behind the cost of living. It’s as if the fact that I’m paid by the government somehow entitles the taxpayer to view my work simply as a tax burden that adds no value to his life. The same person would never think to say to a banker, “I pay your salary through my banking fees” or to a grocery clerk, “I pay your salary through my purchase of rice.”

Nor do I write this to disparage the hard work of people in the private sector or the flack they put up with. I completely understand that the world is rife with thoughtless self-centred jerks who feel entitled to belittle anyone who provides service to them. These are likely the same jerks who rip into a restaurant server when their water glass is empty for two minutes.

My point is  that public sector workers deserve the same wages and benefits as anyone. They work just as hard as anyone, and their work is just as valuable to society as the work of anyone in the private sector. The problem is that their work can not be quantified in the same way we can quantify a loaf of bread or a mortgage. The value of teachers in particular, is hidden.

The wealth generated by education has to be measured in such things as the overall success of a well-educated society, the daycare savings of people who can work while their kids are in school, the police savings when the school system ensures that kids are off the streets, the physical and mental health savings gained by schools’  provision of healthy lifestyle activities and lessons, and the value of the educational experience itself, enjoyed by the child.

When people devalue the work of teachers, they forget about these benefits.

My school had a lockdown.

Just a week ago, as classes resumed after lunch, the head secretary’s urgent voice came over the p.a., “All staff and students: Go into lockdown immediately! This is NOT a drill! Go into lockdown IMMEDIATELY!”

We hold lockdown drills a few times a year so that if there were ever a real emergency teachers and students would know what to do: where to sit, how to secure the room, what protocols to follow.

It’s surprising how well a class of Grade 8s behaves during a lockdown drill. You might think that students at that age would be inclined to misbehave, but they don’t. There’s an unspoken thought in everyone’s mind. The lockdown is one drill the kids take quite seriously.

Lockdown drills are eerie. We sit silently in the dark waiting for the police. They peek in at us through the windows to see if our presence is noticeable through the blinds. We hear their heavy footsteps advancing down the halls as they rattle the classroom door handles one-at-a-time to ensure each door is locked. For some children, who are struggling with trauma in their lives, or perhaps with autism or intellectual disability, the scene is quite terrifying; for all of us, it’s unnerving.

One time, an unannounced drill had caught a teacher in the middle of an exam. Seeing the students still in their desks, a police constable, wanting to emphasize the seriousness of the matter, had opened the door and announced in a loud voice, “You’re all dead!!” We have had conversations with the police since then, letting them know that this is unnecessary, and explaining the importance of knowing about drills in advance. There have been many exhausting discussions about how to end lockdowns safely and confidently. You can’t prepare for everything, but you can lessen the risk.

A lockdown can be triggered for a variety of reasons: an angry, violent student or parent, a police incident outside the building; but the one reason that lurks in the back of everyone’s mind is one that we don’t like to talk about.  As teachers, we try to reassure ourselves with statistics. Such incidents are exceedingly rare in Canada, but still…

A few years ago, a teenaged child in my school had written some terrifying threats on a bathroom mirror – threats that contained specifics: date and time. It was the day before Christmas break. The teachers stayed in the school to manage the safe evacuation of some 900 students while the police surrounded and combed the school and its periphery. After the all-clear had been given, we held a debriefing meeting. Everyone went home for Christmas break that year slightly rattled.

So in this most recent lockdown, we knew what to do. I navigated my way through the overcrowded classroom, slowly and deliberately. It would not do to stumble against a desk on my way to the door (The modern classroom has only one door in order to maximize space.). Checking the lock, I surveyed the hallway. Empty. But then suddenly from around the corner came a girl I recognized, speeding desperately in her wheelchair to get to her home room before she was locked out. I beckoned her to come into my room, but just as I did her own teacher, another 10 metres down the hall, popped out of his room and called her name. “Hurry,” he half-whispered. “Come in.”

I turned back to my classroom, and took in the scene with a quick glance. I didn’t have to say a word to the students. They were already under desks, frightened and still. (This wasn’t right. They were supposed to be against the far wall, but too late now. It was more important that they be still.) The skylight blinds had been shut a couple days before. Thank goodness for that, because shutting them would require me to climb up onto desktops to reach the chains. The back-wall window blinds were closed already. I pushed shut a couple of laptop computers that had been left open on student desks. Time to take my position.

It’s funny how calm you can become when you are helpless. I spoke to the students in a quiet voice, hoping to stave off any panic. I reminded them to NOT use their cellphones as the light from the screens would make us visible, and the police would need all cellular lines clear.

I am embarrassed to admit it, because it seems overly dramatic, but throughout the ordeal, I was trying to think of ways to protect the students. What would I do if someone tried to get into the room? Was there anything I could do if someone just started shooting into the windows? Really, there was no way to put myself between a gunman and the kids. I felt vaguely disappointed that I couldn’t protect them. I tried to dismiss these silly thoughts. “There is no gunman,” I thought. “Don’t be absurd.”

After a few minutes (maybe two or three) the principal’s voice shattered the silence over the p.a system. He explained that there had been a police incident outside and we had been asked to lock the building down to keep a fugitive from gaining access to the school. He assured us that all exterior doors had been locked. As a precaution we should stay in classrooms and keep all exterior shutters and blinds closed until an all-clear was announced. Classes could resume.

One girl, unready to concede that the threat was completely over, stayed under her desk. And of course, I just let her.

Not a week goes by that I don’t think of dreadful things. All of us teachers share an uneasiness we try to ignore: we know so very many students, many who have reason to hate us. To some of them we have had to give bad news – lessons about consequences: what happens if you fail to meet a deadline or to follow directions. We have taken stands against their abusive speech to us or to one another, or just to their general misbehaviour or rudeness. We have intervened in bullying situations in ways that bullies and their parents have seen as unfair. We have chastised students for engaging in misogynistic, homophobic or racist language. We are often faced with angry parents or students. We don’t ignore them when they want to be ignored. We have made ourselves targets.

What if one of these kids or their parents snap?

 

Can we now agree that the BCTF represents its members?

British Columbia’s teachers have made one thing clear: they are in solidarity with their union. Can we now, finally put to rest this notion that the BCTF does not represent its membership?

In the midst of an exhausting contract negotiation which has shown that the BC Liberal Government is more interested in destroying BC’s biggest union and privatizing schools than supporting public education, 86% of the teachers who voted have supported the union’s mandate for a full scale walkout in one of the biggest voter turnouts in the union’s history.

The more the government has tried to humiliate and harm teachers (Yes, “harm”: Docking pay by 10% is harm.), the more teachers have become galvanized in purpose. They know what they stand for. It’s time for respect.

Why I will vote ‘yes’ for escalating job action

On Monday, February 27, 2014, twelve years after BC Education Minister Christy Clark stood up in the BC Legislature and smugly proclaimed her pride in a new legislation which stripped hundreds of contract provisions from teachers, something amazing happened.

Wearing the biggest grin I’d ever seen, Mike L, the senior teacher on my staff, literally danced into my classroom and handed me a memo.

What you should know about Mike is that in 1998, he was on the local bargaining committee that chose to improve classroom conditions rather than take a salary increase. Mike is a helluva teacher and a helluva guy. But I digress.

The memo that Mike handed me announced that the BC Supreme Court had finally ruled on Bill 22, the BC Liberals’ most recent reiteration of the original contract stripping legislation from 2002. The court had recognized the government’s bad faith bargaining with teachers, and its violation of the Charter. The government was ordered to pay the teachers’ union $2 million in damages, and to set class size and composition levels in BC’s schools back to the levels identified in contract language in 2001 – the very language that Christy Clark had stripped all those years ago. Furthermore, the government was to make amends retroactively for all 12 years, and cover all the teachers’ legal bills. The wording of the ruling was very damning of the government’s behaviour.

For 12 years teachers had witnessed egregious cuts to education, suffered nasty labour disputes and goading from the Ministry, and endured apathy from the public, who didn’t seem to understand what the government was up to.

At last, we had been vindicated. We had won in court! It truly felt like surfacing after being lost in a dark underground maze. We stood there blinking in the light, dazzled by new hope. We all wore huge smiles. We high-fived. We hugged. We wept.

Of course the joy was short lived. The government announced almost immediately that it would appeal the decision, and we’d be back in court for who-knows-how long.

Fast forward five months, and we’re once again stalled in contract talks with a government who has been targeting public education for years.

But this time it’s different. Through social media, teachers have been able to dispel public apathy. We’ve been able to refute government talking points with a barrage of non-partisan statistics and historic facts, most of which can be pulled directly from the Supreme Court ruling. This time, we’ve finally got a chance to make things better instead of watching them get worse.

But the government is lashing out like never before. In the most mean-spirited act I’ve ever seen by an employer in my lifetime the government has imposed an unprecedented “partial lockout” in order to justify docking teacher paycheques by 10%. Nasty. If any private sector corporation did this to its employees, it would be in trouble. Companies know that in labour disputes, there are lines you must not cross lest you do irreparable harm to the employer/employee relationship. But this government is a nasty group of ideologues. Far from their stated desire to mend the bargaining relationship with BC Teachers, their actions prove they want to crush the teachers’ union – to shame them. They are adamant. And they’re desperate.

They know their chance of overturning the Supreme Court ruling on appeal is very slim. Their appeal is just an attempt to buy time. It’s now June, and the October sitting of the BC Court of Appeal is short months away. A loss in this fight will cost the government hundreds of millions of dollars, and will almost certainly sink them politically.

And now, the teachers have called a strike vote.

The timing is tough. Teachers are weary by June. We are uncomfortable leaving the students with a bad feeling before summer break, and we’re tired of fighting –of losing pay to strike days, of having 10% cut from our salaries. Many teachers would rather not further anger parents.

On the other hand, a strong ‘yes’ vote will show a cynical government that it can never defeat us. It will show the government that no matter what it does to us, we will stand up in solidarity.

In this last, desperate battle before the judiciary lowers the boom, the government will throw all of its grenades, and things are likely to get ugly. Already rumours abound of a lockout for September, whether we strike or not. They want to punish us.

But for me there is no more fear. I don’t care what the government does to me any more. I have fought too long, and endured too much heartache to give up now. We are so close! If we hold rank we can win. We have the Charter and the Court of Law on our side.

And if we lose… well… I’ll be okay. But pity the future. Pity the children of the children I teach today. Pity the teachers who are starting out in the system, and pity Canada, a country that used to see public education as a chance for the downtrodden – a way for everyone to aspire to a fulfilling life.