Vici Thomson is angry. British Columbia’s public high school and elementary teachers walked off the job this week, so she is on the picket line outside her school in fast-growing Surrey, east of Vancouver. But Ms. Thomson, who has been an educator for more than two decades, was upset long before the bargaining impasse got this far.
The former classroom teacher and vice-principal is now a counsellor who deals with children one-on-one most of the time – even during lunch hour. For kids who are being bullied or plagued by trouble at home, “playground is hell,” she explains, “so they come to my room.”
(Read up on the issues and history of B.C.’s education labour dispute with our explainer Q&A.)
At least they did until the B.C. government – in retaliation for teachers’ job action that began in April – imposed a partial lockout that cut pay by 10 per cent (for work not being completed because of the slowdown) and ordered teachers not to work during recess or lunch (or more than 45 minutes before or after class).
This not only cost her students their refuge, Ms. Thomson says, but demonstrated yet again that her profession’s reputation is in decline – in the eyes of government and, in many cases, the parents of those they teach.
She isn’t alone. Teachers across the country seem to be mad as hell and not willing to take it any more.
Some of the battles are very public. In fact, in the next year, a great many students across the country could be caught in disputes between teachers and governments.
As well as the B.C. conflict, teachers in Saskatchewan have rejected a second proposed deal, those in Alberta are resisting a proposal that they have to requalify every five years, while their counterparts in Prince Edward Island are protesting against job cuts, Newfoundland has appointed a conciliation board because contract talks broke down, and cash-strapped Ontario risks labour disruptions this fall despite last week’s vote of confidence in a premier who entered public life as an education activist.
But the malaise goes even deeper. With summer approaching, many parents – now required to juggle child care, holidays and work – look at all the friction and scratch their heads. Some can only dream of the security, wages and benefits that a teaching job provides. What more could a person ask?
Talk to teachers across the country, however, and what emerges is something far more complicated than a quest for cash.
They claim to be struggling to cope with ever-greater pressure from parents, administrators and governments to perform at the same time that society no longer seems to value that performance the way it once did.
Are these concerns justified? And what can be done to resolve the conflict and keep it out of the classroom?
‘Bad for education … bad for kids’
Canada ranks fifth among 36 countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development when it comes to teacher salaries, yet young teachers speak of the uncertainty that comes with years of short-term contract work, while veterans cite hours of unpaid volunteer work that extends well beyond school hours in defence of their summer breaks.
But the most impassioned complaint is that teachers’ jobs are changing and governments don’t seem to notice or care.
Decades ago, nobody expected every student would graduate from high school, says Dianne Woloschuk, president of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation.
Some left after Grade 10 or 11 for well-paying jobs in mills, mines or factories. Today, there is more emphasis on completing Grade 12 (in the past decade, the dropout rate has been cut almost in half in Ontario), forcing teachers to bring along students who often have multiple needs, from a learning disability or poverty to mental illness.
Yet sometimes they feel they are viewed as little more than babysitters.
“Something that really troubles teachers,” Ms. Woloschuk says, “is when they hear … people in government say things about the profession and about the work of teachers that they believe is inaccurate, or else not very respectful.”
For example, last month B.C. Premier Christy Clark said on a radio show that “it’s all about money – it’s never about the quality of education, we’re never talking about the kids ... It’s bad for education, it’s bad for kids.”
Such comments enrage teachers, who argue that it is about kids – that expecting results even as other demands of the job have intensified and budgets have been squeezed is unreasonable.
Administrative workload was a big issue in Alberta’s last round of bargaining, with educators arguing that programs to integrate technology in the classroom and increased marking meant they were working 50 or more hours a week. This spring, they were fuming again when a provincial task force recommended that they have to be continually recertified.