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.
“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.”