“It’s that feeling that we’ve been dismissed as professionals,” says Mark Ramsankar, president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association.
“We feel attacked and slighted.”
‘Paying teachers generously seems to work’
Andrew Campbell, an elementary school teacher in Brantford, Ont., draws a distinction between how people feel about teachers as individuals and how they feel about the unions.
“I feel valued by parents, I feel valued by students,” he says. “I think there’s a bigger discussion out there about the importance of teachers and what they do.”
Despite the strife, Canada remains one of the top-performing countries in all subjects, including mathematics, trailing three OECD countries and six other countries.
Canadian students in all provinces except Prince Edward Island ranked at or above the OECD average in reading and science.
More remarkably, Canada has maintained its scores by making sure that its educational system compensates for societal inequalities.
Except for First Nations children, underprivileged students are as likely to meet international standards as their richer counterparts. It’s an accomplishment that teachers say should earn them more recognition.
But the most recent results from the Program for International Student Assessment also came with a warning: The “significant decline in the skill levels of youth” is “perhaps a strong signal for ministries and departments of education, as well as for education partners, to work together” as well as allocate “resources to ensure that they continue meeting the needs of our society.”
Ironically, this week, a report from the C.D. Howe Institute, a national think tank based in Toronto, found that good salaries are a good indicator of high international test scores. Good pay for teachers is one reason that Canadian students perform so much better in math than those in the U.S., the report said.
Report author John Richards of the school of public policy at Simon Fraser University says Canadian salaries are about 50-per-cent higher than in the U.S. – and “paying teachers generously seems to work.”
Does the public grasp this connection?
Last month only 15 per cent of respondents to an Ipsos Reid survey in B.C. felt that teachers are overpaid, while 39 per cent said they are being fair and reasonable in the current dispute, compared with 28 per cent who said the same of the government.
Even so, B.C. families look ahead and wonder if classrooms will be back to normal by September – which is when teachers in Ontario will confront the new majority government of Kathleen Wynne.
While the loss of the Conservatives ensured that, at least for now, educators will not be facing layoffs, the Wynne government has promised that it will make deals only if they are fiscally prudent.
Yet as the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation said on election night, teachers expect to see some money on the table in this round of bargaining and no cutbacks – a $12.5-billion deficit aside. If not, the province could be looking at a repeat of two years ago when teachers held large-scale walk-outs and withdrew extracurriculars in protest against controversial legislation that infringed on their collective bargaining rights, restricted their ability to strike and imposed pay cuts through unpaid days
For teachers, governments and parents, the worry is that their conflict will seep into classrooms and educational performance. In B.C., private-school enrolment has climbed over the past decade, a trend some have linked to chronic underfunding and instability in the public system.
Robert Ford worries about the long-term impact.
The chair of the parent council at Henry Hudson Elementary School in Vancouver has a son in kindergarten and a daughter in Grade 7, and is angry and frustrated. He feels caught between wanting to support the teachers he knows and respects and his concern about the cost and potential impact of their dispute.
“This is the second job action I have been through – and other parents I know have been through three – and the level of being fed-up is high. People are saying, ‘Can you guys just figure this the bleep out?’”
In general, he says, parents are more sympathetic toward teachers, but that sympathy is tempered when he looks down the road.
“I am quite concerned with my daughter – I am worried about how prepared she is going to be for high school,” he says.
‘Hunkered down and ready to go the distance’
On the picket line, Vici Thomson shares his concern, and she agrees that, in many ways, the problem is money – but not in the way that Premier Clark seems to feel.
She says teachers spend hundreds of their own dollars every year on everything from books to school supplies and even furniture for their classrooms because they feel they must.
“We’ve done too many [contracts] where we accepted something in lieu of addressing classroom issues,” she says. “You can’t keep doing that – I think people are hunkered down and ready to go the distance this time.”