I’m a teacher. I never saw this coming.

Before I started teaching in my own classroom in the fall of 1987, I would sneak into the quiet, empty school daily, starting in early August just to get a feel for the place: to set up my bulletin boards and arrange desks; to familiarize myself with some of the resources and to develop unit plans and a year overview. Actually, the planning had begun in June, but by August, I was revising and fine tuning.

I was terrified. Making it work was going to be very difficult, as I had learned through many a late night during my practicum.

Ah yes, the practicum – the rite of initiation that made or broke you as a starting teacher. It was in the practicum that we learned the harsh reality that no matter how much work we did as a teachers, we could always do more – that no matter how long we worked, the work would never ever be finished.

Haunting every new teacher is an awareness that we can never achieve the ideal of teaching. We can never be on top of every child’s every individual learning need in every subject all the time. The world of the classroom teacher is not such a world. That world is reserved for the extremely wealthy: princes and the like, who have private tutors in each subject area. Education in the real world would never be ideal.

And as we got to know our students, we were haunted by other facts: that some of our students suffered abuse; that some suffered from mental illness or neglect; that some came to school simply unready to learn for myriad reasons, poverty being the one unifying factor for most cases.

So we learned to work as much as we could, keeping in mind that we had to stop, to eat and to sleep, and that once in a while our lovers or friends might want to have us around, or we’d have to attend a staff meeting. The teaching practicum was about imbalance. It became the centre of our lives. We spent pretty much every waking hour doing education.

After a few months and years on the job, we became more efficient. We learned to fight the easily winnable battles first, and balance out our lives a bit. Very few teachers live in situations in which they can devote their whole lives to teaching. And more power to those that can.

And the wages? Well, when I started, I understood the salary grid. I understood that the career would never make me rich, but that if I kept at it, I’d buy myself a decent pension to retire on, and if I combined my income with my wife’s I would be able to live in my own house. It felt like an agreement. Teachers would always earn just so much. No more, no less – a comfortable wage. That was the deal.

What I didn’t foresee, though, is that over time, this deal would be reneged on. My income would erode; teachers would make less and less real dollars throughout the course of my career.

I also didn’t foresee the negative attitude toward teachers that seems to have grown. Sure we complained about teachers when we were kids, but we also secretly loved them. We trusted them, and we were impressed by their vast knowledge of the world. As a new teacher, I knew that this would be part of my pay – the great dignity ascribed to teaching – being part of a centuries old tradition – I thought of Socrates.  To be a teacher was to live in a positive world of people, and to be able to do work for the betterment of individuals and society.

But now, the things have changed. Some of it is still the same; the kids are still the same, bless their hearts. But the outside world has changed. In BC teachers are making 15% less in real (inflation adjusted) dollars than they did 10 years ago. And the public narrative, led by our own government is that we’re irrelevant – that we’re somehow in need of special supervision lest we are lazy and incompetent.

Our efficacy is being taken away through cuts to the system. Class sizes are bigger and more needy kids are getting less specialist attention. Librarians are being cut; counselors are being cut. We’re asking parents to pay more and more in user fees – fees that some kids just can’t afford – those kids who mysteriously take sick on field trip days, so their parents won’t have to admit they don’t have the money to put their child on the bus. Our college was disbanded through government legislation. People are clamoring for more accountability. Citizens now call themselves “taxpayers”, and begrudge every nickel that goes into the system.

Our government won’t listen to what we say about what the system needs. Instead they ignore our expertise and simply legislate what they think is best. They have violated the Charter and international law in their dealings with us, and have engaged in nasty campaigns of ridicule and goading against us. All of this has been well documented in Supreme Court rulings. And the topper? Our own premier called us “greedy”. Then we express our outrage and we’re called whiners. Lawyers, doctors, nurses, truckers, lab scientists: I’ve never heard any of them called whiners, but I hear it all the time about teachers.

The only people I can talk to these days are my colleagues. We’re all like dogs that have been beaten too much. We’re skittish and reactive around the public. We don’t trust the motives of the parents of the students we teach, lest they believe the narrative that our own government has created about us. We are afraid to put a bad mark on a paper, or discipline a child lest we be called to the carpet. We have been violated, and demoralized. And we seem to be alone.

I never saw this coming.


35 thoughts on “I’m a teacher. I never saw this coming.

  1. Thanks so much for writing this. Every year, it seems it is harder *not* to be more discouraged and demoralised about being a public school teacher. While there are those who support teachers, the opponents are louder. It is sad to see education taken for granted and commodified. There are places elsewhere in the world where education is only for the priviledged. We are so fortunate to have a public system that allows every child the same start to life, and yet, here, it isn’t appreciated, and rarely defended by anyone else, other than teachers.

  2. I have been an educational assistant for 21 years. While I’m not a teacher, I can relate to much of what you’ve said. We learn constantly too; new ways to adapt curriculum, breakthroughs in disabilities, technology, and more. At first our wages were pretty good; you could live on them okay, and even though our hours were often capped at 25/week it was still enough.

    Now, we are having more and more special needs kids piled in classes to the point where we can’t even reach them all, our hours are cut, our wages have barely risen with the cost of living, and we are struggling too. We’re with you; we know exactly what you’re going through.

    As a parent, while I’ll admit that I was less than happy with my son’s public school experience, I don’t think it was ever the teachers’ fault. It was the entire system. Let’s just say I’m thrilled that he graduated this year and we never have to do it again.

    1. Education Assistants are ragged these days. The EAs in my school are the most hard-working, dedicated people ever, but as you describe, they’re totally frustrated by the sheer numbers of students.

      What’s worse is that they agreed to a very modest pay increase which the Ministry didn’t fund, so the District responded by cutting their hours, making them worse off financially and more frustrated in their work.

  3. I’m a teacher and I absolutely adore learning and teaching. Supporting children to move towards their academic potential every day is my responsibility and I serve to the best of my ability.

    I received much of my formal education in British Columbia and even served as a public school teacher for 7 years in Vancouver. I worked hard, often heading in on the weekend or after hours to my portable outside the main building at one particular school.

    In Vancouver public schools, I had some students whose needs were absolutely beyond my scope of experience or expertise at divergent ends of the spectrum (from gifted grade 7 students who went to UBC for certain classes and then came back to me for the rest of their studies to students with intellectual challenges). Fortunately for me, I could rely on my parents for their support and expertise on many occasions as they both had professional expertise in various related areas that could help me cope. My father was a UBC professor and my mother worked for many years to support the families of children with developmental disabilities.

    Sadly after 7 hard (and sometimes heartbreaking) years of teaching in Vancouver, I left BC to teach elsewhere – in Hong Kong and Japanese public and private schools. I’m currently teaching at a private Swiss international school. Teaching is my vocation. I had to find a way to meet my personal career satisfaction needs as well as my students educational needs. So far, it has been a good decision for me.

    My personal experience in some educational systems outside of Canada has made me think more about the importance of having high quality teachers within ANY educational system, about having a culture of mutual respect between the public, educators and governments as well as the importance of having class sizes that allow a teacher to work effectively with the unique students in their classes.

    I now enjoy a smaller class size and very good in-class support for differentiation in instruction. These are indeed conditions that I wish for my former teaching colleagues in Canada. I have memories of a brilliant education in BC back in the 80’s at U.Hill Elementary and U.Hill Secondary. I only realized many years later how special and positive having a school community feel, small class sizes and more individual attention all served me well at those particular schools.

    Every child deserves a high quality education. I will continue to follow the news and blog posts about the situation in BC from abroad and hope for the best outcome for the interests of the children, the families and the teachers.

    Finally, I wrote a bit about my positive education experience in Canada once-upon-a-time here: http://globalwiseparenting.com/2014/05/the-road-trip-that-led-to-a-global-lifestyle/

  4. I am a teacher. I have just tendered my resignation to work for Alcan. I will be getting better pay/ better benefits/ and a much better pension package. My 7 years of University DO deserve a better payback than the teaching profession’s paltry return for all of those years of university ay my own expense ( and lost wages as I wasn’t in the workforce, as well as reduced CPP due to lost 7 years of university). Teachers need a minimum of 5 years of University, so they, of course, would feel the same. SO; now I’ll be paid what I’ve worked for. GOOD LUCK TO ALL OF YOU TEACHERS. SORRY TO BE JUMPING SHIP, BUT THIS IS NO PROVINCE TO COMMIT TO A TEACHING CAREER. The misinformation of a lot of the public is appalling by the way. Lots of people spewing opinions but without actually getting themselves informed of real facts.

  5. I support the teachers completely. How can a teacher adequately provide a satisfactory education to the average student when she/he has to deal with several special needs pupils in a class of 30 or more, and with little or no assistance. It just makes sense that the special needs students get more attention at the expense of everyone else. It’s time for the government to admit that education is important, rather than trying to water it down. As for teachers’ salaries, I retired from the university system and in the last eight years my pension has increased approximately 25%. I doubt that teachers have received any more than 5% in that time.

  6. To Leslie, the Parent. You seem like the parent I would like to have had for my students. My experience of Parent/Teacher night was that parents who were doing well turned up, while the parents of those who were failing, and who I desperately wanted to speak to, often did not attend.

    I notice that your middle child is 14. That was the age level I chose to teach (when given the choice) because, despite the craziness that went on for them in puperty, and the difficulty with discipline, they were still so vulnerable and ready to try, given attention and praise. I spent many hours before classes, during lunch hour (which I never took), and after school with these students, and was rewarded during class time when I had earned their trust. I consider myself an ordinary teacher, not as bad as the worst and not as good as the best.

    There will always be a teacher we would all like to see fired but the majority are good, well qualified and caring, and should have our support and appreciation. It is a VERY difficult job. I am now 71 and well into retirement, having moved on to a different, less stressful career when I was in my 40s. My salary dropped substantially at that time, and I had no benefits, but ALL my stress-related illnesses disappeared.

    Looking over my own experiences as a student, although I went to a private school and graduated in a class of five (!), I had a Biology teacher who did not even finish the curriculum, causing 4 of the 5 students to fail the subject in the graduating class. This record stayed with us in transcript form throughout life, even though the teacher was fired that summer. My other teachers were fantastic, and I was accepted into McGill University when I applied in 1962. At McGill I had one or two absolutely dreadful professors, but also some very good ones. I am saying to you, dear Parent, that this is the reality of life. Your children will have duds in their work lives, as well as good colleagues.

    When I resigned from teaching, it was the class sizes and the class compositions that finally broke me down. Please support the teachers’ efforts to bring about better conditions. They are worth it, and so are you and especially your children.

  7. I must say being a teacher in BC is not what it used to be:( I have always encouraged anyone who thought they might like to be a teacher, to join the profession, it is a very rewarding job! However, this year I can honestly say I have told many want-to-be teachers not to pursue it if they were staying in BC. I LOVE the job but BC is NOT the place to be a teacher:(

  8. I agree with you completely except for one thing, nurses, doctors and care aid workers are in a tough spot as well. Their wages while they may be slightly higher than yours, are being put into a tough spot by being given more patients than can be considered safe. On the island, it is now 10 patients to 1 nurse in hospitals. 10 to 1. They’re trying to implement the same system here but the health care authorities are fighting back. Plus the amount of nurses hired/working are significantly less than before. A lot of the nurses on the island are having to leave the profession due to mental breakdown’s over the 10 to 1 ratio, and the government still considers them whiners. Often nurses are spending extra time at work after their shift ends to finish up caring for a patient, to make sure charting is done, to make sure that everything is okay before they can leave to go home with a good conscience. Doctors, are also in a difficult spot, a good number of them want to be able to help their patients but there is a lack of funding, wait times for an urgent MRI is 6 months to a year, wait times for surgeries are horrendous and the doctor’s hands are tied. They want to be able to help their patients sooner but with the lack of funding and the horrible wait times it frustrates patients and has them thinking it’s the doctor’s fault/nurses fault etc. They are frustrated with the lack of funding to the health care system, with the restrictions that are set for their surgery times, for how many patients they are allowed to see per day but they can’t do anything about it either.

    However, back to the teaching issue, Teachers need a livable wage, Better support, smaller class sizes and more time to be able to help students that need it. My fiance is a teacher, he’s hoping to get into the public teaching system, but there’s a lack of jobs. I really do hope the teachers win with this bargaining and get what they need. Good luck to you guys, I’m behind you!

    1. I didn’t for a moment wish to invalidate the hard work, sacrifice and difficult conditions under which our health care workers operate. Thank you for this clarification.

  9. Comparing BC teacher salaries to those in other provinces is like comparing apples and oranges. You’ll find that their benefits sorely lack compared to the 100% employer paid coverage BC teachers enjoy. Class size is a red herring. A 12:1 ration would be required to make any real difference in educational outcomes, so when you’re looking at the decreases that are being asked for now, they are essentially meaningless in educational outcome. The difference would only be seen in teacher workload. Composition – well the BC government is actually proposing a plan that addresses that issue in a more holistic, meaningful way than the BCTF is requesting. I’d like to see our CUPE staff receive a decent wage increase. We need more of them and for what they do they certainly deserve better compensation.

    1. The big bulk of research suggests that class size and composition are very important in education. But the point I want to absurdly dispel is your suggestion that our benefits are 100% covered. That’s simply untrue. We split the cost of benefits with our employer.

    2. Um..100%? I get 80% coverage for dental. I WISH it was 100%! We fought for every benefit we received in our collective agreement- it is a testament to the will of teachers who came before us that we have good benefits.

    3. As for benefits: my husband (also a teacher) needed new hearing aids which cost $4000. We had to pay $3000 of that ourselves and were only reimbursed for $1000 — so 25% coverage on a medically necessary item. Similarly, our eyeglasses are only covered at a fraction (sorry, can’t remember the precise amount). I am extremely myopic and cannot afford to replace my glasses due to the 10% pay cut, the lack of keeping up with inflation, and the cost of the hearing aids. I will have to save up for awhile for new glasses and maybe take on some paid side work.

      As for class size and composition, the problem with most of the studies that say that larger classes are perfectly functional do this with classes where students are well-motivated, more or less middle class, and have few special needs. They need to keep their sample groups consistent to reduce the variables in their data. That’s not the real world of BC classrooms. For BC teachers, class size and composition go together like peanut butter and honey — try to pull one of those sandwiches apart and have the two sides separate perfectly.

      I agree that CUPE needs to well-paid. Well, for the few that get left after budget cuts and and all of the hours juggled around. With EAs in particular, it seems rather silly to have a slight raise only to see your hours cut. i don’t understand why a student may be deemed worthy of receiving an EA’s assistance only to send that EA home partway through the school day. A student does not suddenly become un-handicapped because it is now 1:30. Also, EAs are now being pressed to take responsibility for more and more kids or to only assist kids for small amounts of time for each day. So, in a way, EAs are seeing their own class sizes increase. Special Education Teachers are also receiving only part-time jobs but with full-time caseloads and they are spending more and more of their time with paperwork to justify that the children actually are special needs. That is time that could better be spent actually teaching skills to these children in small groups or assisting integration in the classroom.

      I have seen little in the government’s plans to address special needs students which is not pretty words and window dressing. I would like to see from them firm commitments on actual resources and unchangeable guarantees of services according to specific individual needs. Right now there everyone is expected to spend time and money competing for resources and if you have more kids with needs than expected or the needs are more severe than expected they just get less. Also, because of the time spent competing for the resources (loads of documentation needed, for example), there is often a significant time lag for those resources to arrive.

  10. Let me share with you my experiences as a parent of three children in the public school system. My oldest is in high school, his younger brother is in middle school, and their younger sister is in elementary school. I’ve had the opportunity over the past eleven years to see teachers both good and bad. The good ones have been outstanding; interested in the kids, committed to doing their best, and eager to work as a team with the parents to make sure their kids get the best possible education. The bad ones have been appalling; self-absorbed, preferential to one group of kids over another, unwilling to listen to input from parents who they refer to as “hostile”.

    Fortunately for my daughter there have been none of the latter group in her educational career so far. Her brothers have been less fortunate. My 14 year old has spent a year with a group of teachers who refuse to listen to any input from parents (and there’s been lots), pursue projects which interest them, consume huge amounts of class time but offer little or no learning to the kids, ignore the learning outcomes prescribed by the curriculum, and refer to the parents as “hostile”.

    A large number of the kids in this grade are pursuing outside math instruction because they and their parents are aware that math is not being adequately taught by this group of teachers. We have tutors, online courses, and curriculum workbooks being followed by the parents, all to ensure that these kids aren’t completely lost next year. I’ve never heard of 14 year olds asking their parents for tutors because they know that their friends at other schools are doing more math than they are and that they’ll be in trouble next year. Until now.

    As a parent I expected to have to participate in my child’s education. I anticipated helping with homework and projects, assisting in the classroom and on field trips, and being part of the school community. I had no idea of the time commitment that would be required to deal with teachers who send home projects with little or no explanation, short timelines, and generally unrealistic demands based on the age and ability of the kid. I was equally unprepared to be treated like the enemy when I asked what I thought were legitimate questions. Things like, “Why has my child not read a novel all year?” (This was in late May),or “Why has my child’s project been returned without corrections made to spelling and grammatical errors?”. These questions were considered confrontational by the teachers and the principal. I was told that “Sometimes novel study can be a bad thing”,and “We don’t make corrections on papers these days. It’s demoralising for the students”. I find comments like this astonishing and, judging from what I hear from other parents, I’m not alone.

    So what I do as a parent is try to pick up the slack. The summer following the year of no reading my son spent working from a workbook on reading and long-form writing. He did fine in school the next year, but many of his class-mates struggled. He also refers to that summer as “the worst summer of my life”. It was no treat for his father and me either. This year it will be more math for him along with the reading and writing which has been sacrificed to twelve hour bus trips and time-consuming projects with little or no learning. He’ll hate it and probably us too by the end of it. I can only hope it will be enough to make next year a better one for all of us.

    This is the other side of the coin. It’s not how all teachers operate but, unfortunately, it’s how some of them do. There’s no recourse for parents who see things going off the rails. Even those with older kids who have seen what comes along in later grades and know that what’s happening is not adequate preparation for that. There are teachers out there who just don’t listen, who don’t want the input, who would rather do things their way than the right way. This is what makes parents like me cautious every year when we meet the new teacher. Are we defensive? Do we ask a lot of questions? Do we seem edgy and hostile? Yes to all of those. Experience has taught us that, until proven otherwise, we should be prepared to fight for our kids even in the classroom. It’s a long way from what I expected when my oldest started school, and it would never be my choice. Sadly, it seems that many years with many teachers it is the only way.

    And I never saw it coming.

  11. Forward looking countries place a much higher emphasis on education than here in BC whose Government just does not seem to care.

  12. Just thought I’d share this with you. It’s an email I just sent to Christy Clark.
    Ms. Clark,
    I am writing this to you because I feel like I need to get this off my chest. I am a parent of 2 children, one in Grade 2, french Immersion,  and my other will start kindergarten in 2015. Both of my parents were teachers, so I know the time and commitment that teachers put into their jobs. They dont stop work at 3 pm, or 5 pm. They spent countless hours in the evenings and on weekends, marking papers, planning their next day etc. My parents were lucky that they taught back when the government seemed to care about teachers. My daughters teacher is amazing! She genuinely cares about each one of her students. I don’t think she would be able to do that if there are no class size limits. As a citizen of British Columbia, and a taxpayer, I think my child deserves to be in a class where her teacher has time for her. I also used to work a lot with Special Needs students and if teachers have no say in the composition of the classes, these students WILL fall behind. Maybe you feel that because, as education minister, you were instrumental in stripping class size and composition from the contracts, that  it would be admitting that you made a mistake,  but that is ok. You DID make a mistake. We all do. I make lots of them! However, when I realize my mistake, I take ownership of it, and do what I can to  fix it. Please, be the bigger person and abide by the supreme court decision to put that back on the table for discussion! Besides, why do the teachers have to bargain for something that shouldn’t even be up for discussion!  We dont live in a third world country. Our children have a right to be educated in a safe environment. Start adding more and more kids to classes, including unlimited children who need extra help, and many more of our children will fall through the cracks. When it comes to the wage increase the teachers are asking for, this shouldn’t be a big deal. The price of everything has increased so much in the last few years, yet the teachers salaries have barely risen. This is not fair. My parents were able to afford to take my brother and I on family trips to nice places. Most teachers I know now can’t. Maybe if they had received the same 18 percent salary increase that you gave your aides a couple years ago, they would be able to live more comfortably.  At least give them a wage that is on par with other provinces! I hope you take the time to read this. I am by far not the only parent that feels our teachers are not being treated fairly. In fact, every parent I have spoken to feels this way. The ball is in your court, Ms. Clark. Take the opportunity to do what is right. Fight for our children! Families first, right?
    Briana Harris
    A Very concerned parent.

  13. Wow – this article perfectly states the way I feel as teacher. The analogy of the dog being beaten too much really does sum up how we are treated by the public. It’s easy to beat up on teachers. After all, teaching is the hardest profession that everyone thinks they know how to do.

      1. Every word you wrote resonates with me particularly the beaten dog metaphor…that’s exactly how I feel when I hear and read people’s comments regarding teachers and education. Thank you for this!

  14. I am a parent and I support the teachers 100 percent! You guys are helping raise our children! My parents are both retired teachers and they were lucky enough to work when teachers were appreciated. It is sad how the government is behaving. Most of the parents I have spoken to have also got your backs! Keep up the fight for our children please!

    1. The job of a teacher is not to raise children. The job of a teacher is to teach curriculum; to help children learn and access information. It is a parent’s job to raise children. While they most certainly have a vast amount of knowledge to bestow upon children, teachers have very little training in child or adolescent development and they should not be expected to nor should they attempt to take on the task of “raising” anyone’s child. I work in the education system and I support teachers insofar as ensuring they have appropriate class sizes and composition and fair remuneration for their teaching work – NOT for raising children.

  15. I graduated in 1988 from UBC and never, ever did I think this is what it would become. I LOVE being with my students~ I am a Learning support teacher and ELL teacher. They are what keeps me going to school every day.
    Thank you for writing. I do not usually comment but I just felt connected to what you had written.

  16. In response to A.C.’s comment above, I want to know, where were the principals and vice principals at your schools? Where was the oversight?

  17. I do agree that teachers aren’t paid in a way commensurate with the work they do. We’re trusting our kids to people, that should come with an appropriate level of payment.

    But you mention “secretly loving” and “trusting” your teachers as a kid. This isn’t the case for everyone. My personal experience was of teachers who covered up child abuse for the sake of the school’s reputation, who allowed bullying to continue and punished the victims because of their own prejudices, who failed to notice countless kids who just needed *one* adult to look out for them.

    Now my experience is by no means universal. But I’m also far from the only one. I’m reaching an age now where a lot of my friends have school-age children so those are the parents you’re dealing with, and the legislators you’re dealing with: People who were badly betrayed and let down by teachers. They don’t have fond memories.

    That isn’t all of it, of course. But it is a factor that is often overlooked.

    1. Ditto for me. I have been a high school teacher since 1983, I have a year and a half until I can retire and that’s with taking a big hit on my pension, but if I can find a way to make it work, I’d be gone. In fact, if I could go in and hand my retirement notice to my board office, I would quit tomorrow. But I can’t. I am tired of being slammed by government and in the media and by some parents. I am tired of having no support from administrators. Bringing us coffee on the picket line is not support. Getting your association to speak out for us is support. Speaking publicly and truthfully about the state of our schools is support. I am so done.

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