Disclaimer: I am not a teacher and I am not married to a teacher. I do not have children currently and have absolutely no stake in the outcome of this labour dispute, financial or otherwise. Though I was a member of a CUPE union for several years, I am no longer in a unionized position. I am, however, the daughter of teachers (in Saskatchewan) and am incredibly passionate about this issue.
Like many people in BC, I am sick and tired of the teachers’ strike. I’m sick of the anxiety underlying every news story, especially as the first day of school has come and gone and public schools in BC remain closed. I am sick of parents needing to worry about how to pay for childcare/time taken off from work. I am sick of the idea that kids are missing out on their right to education. I am sick of the mudslinging, and the politicking, and the animosity, and the general bad pissy vibes hovering in the air, dividing friend groups and workplaces and social media and turning usually cordial conversations into rants.
But you know what I’m also really sick and tired of? Ignorant people blaming the province’s teachers. Whether or not you agree with everything the BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) has asked for at the bargaining table, blaming teachers for labour disputes deliberately provoked by the BC government is completely misguided (note that when chief government negotiator Paul Straszak was asked in court whether the BC government’s objective prior to disputes in 2011 was to “increase the pressure on teachers to have them go out on a full-scale strike”, Straszak answered “Yes. I’ll say that’s correct.”, and no contradictory government testimony was offered in court).
I know a lot of people are anti-union by default, and I know from experience that it is difficult, if not impossible, to convince people who are anti-union to shift their position (though I personally think that’s nuts–if you enjoyed your Labour Day weekend, or even the fact that you get weekends at all, you have the labour movement to thank for it). I also acknowledge that it must be difficult and frustrating to miss work or have to pay for childcare or watch your child’s potential squandered because a union and the government can’t get it together.
But before you believe the government spin, or jump to anti-union rhetoric, or bad-mouth teachers in general because of that time you had a bad teacher in high school, there are some things you need to know about this dispute:
- The BC Liberals broke the law. Twice. In 2002, Bill 28 removed teachers’ right to negotiate class size and composition as part of the collective bargaining process. This legislation was not part of a negotiated new settlement with the BCTF. This was the government essentially ripping up a contract and deciding they would not honour parts of it anymore. After a lengthy court battle, the B.C. Supreme Court agreed that the BC government had acted in bad faith, and had violated teachers’ constitutional rights. Bill 28 was therefore unlawful and the BC government was given a year to rectify the situation. Their response was Bill 22, an essentially identical piece of legislation which was again struck down by the B.C Supreme Court. Instead of saying sorry, what the BC government is now asking the BCTF to do is simply ignore that this has happened, and sign a contract based on the other stuff (wages, benefits, etc.) while they launch an appeal. Let me put it to you this way: if YOU signed a contract that stipulated the conditions under which you’d work, and then one day your boss said, “Nah, I don’t wanna give you that stuff anymore”, would you want to keep working for them without a clear and binding commitment that the conditions and compensations you fought for would be honoured? Probably not.
- Teachers are highly-trained professionals with an incredibly precious resource in their care (the province’s children) and they should be paid that way. I am so bloody sick and tired of people saying, “If the teachers don’t like it, they can just quit!”. Would you really want that? If all of the teachers quit and went to work for, say, private schools, who would teach your kids? You? Do you have at least five years of post-secondary training, including training specific to education? Do you attend conventions and professional development sessions several times a year to keep up to date with advances in educational techniques and philosophies? Do you enjoy the idea of having everyone in the province know about it when you are having a dispute with your employer, or having to do without pay for weeks or months to defend the rights of other people’s children? No? Then button it. Quit your own job if you think it’s so easy to do.
- That said, it’s not all about the money. Yes, teachers should be paid fairly (it’s worth noting that their demands regarding wages basically keep up with inflation, and besides, the BCTF and government negotiators aren’t really that far apart on this issue), but class size and composition are a vital linchpin of this dispute and the government currently refuses to allow this issue to be a binding part of a new collective agreement. Class size and composition is all about the students. When classrooms contain 30+ students and unmanageable ratios of students with special learning or language needs, as they have since 2002, teachers simply can’t pay enough attention to all of their students. Struggling students fall through the cracks. Good students miss out on opportunities to be great students. And average students are unable to maximize their potential and discover where they truly shine. Teachers work with their students day in, day out, and have for years. Teachers know how many students of various needs they can reasonably teach. Any piece of legislation that thinks it knows better robs your children of their right to their teacher’s time and attention, and robs them of their potential for a better future.
- The BC government currently funds PRIVATE education to the tune of just under $300 million per year. That’s right. The same government that swears up and down that they cannot afford to abide by the Supreme Court’s ruling and reintroduce class size and composition to teachers’ collective agreements gives YOUR tax dollars to private schools so that their well-to-do students don’t have to share a classroom with your non-rich kids. Why on earth do private schools need to receive up to 50% of their operating budget from public funds? I have no idea though many are now saying the BC Liberals admire the U.S. “voucher system” and are hoping to bring the system to BC (which is frankly terrifying–there’s a reason the United States isn’t known for its great public schools). I’m not sure about this voucher system plan (I hope it’s just paranoia), but I do get the strong feeling that if Premier Christy Clark truly believed the public education system could adequately teach kids on the pittance her government wants to give it, she wouldn’t send her own son to a private school. It seems to me that the Premier believes what’s good enough for your kids is not good enough for hers. And is that attitude good enough for you?
[Update on point #4: It has been (likely rightly) suggested to me by readers that the point above may be misleading, especially the statistic that up to 50% of the a private school’s operating budget comes from public funds. This refers to up to 50% of what a public school in the same area would receive for their operating budget, according to government policy on Grants to Independent Schools. This is obviously a much smaller amount than I may seem to have been implying, and yes, I am aware that $300 million is actually not a large percentage of total education funding in the province. Even so, $300 million is still $300 million and I believe that any education funds that come from the public purse belong in public schools where EVERYONE is welcome, not only people who can either pay tuition or are part of a certain religion or speak a certain language. I apologize if the above point was misleading; that was not my intention. ]
In addition to the above points, I am also annoyed by the claim that teachers somehow “have it easy”. After working with educators (primarily public school educators) for most of my post-degree career, I feel there are some things you may not know about teachers that you should:
- Most new BC teachers spend years on Teacher On Call (TOC) lists before landing longer-term or permanent contracts. They don’t leave their teacher education programs and start making some kind of mythical big bucks. They wake up every morning hoping they get a call telling them they have work that day. They won’t know what school or even necessarily what district that work will be in. Most of them have huge student loans to pay off and no steady source of income to pay them off with. In short, despite their education and qualifications, they are no better off than any other young person when they leave university, and are occasionally worse off since a lot of teacher education grads are older and may have young families already.
- Teacher certification costs money. To enter the profession, new teachers must pay $245 to be certified. They must also pay a yearly fee of $80 in order to keep their certification valid (NB: these fees are entirely separate from the dues teachers pay to the BCTF). These fees must be paid whether they actually have a job or not. In the past, these fees went to the BC College of Teachers, but the BC government dissolved the BCCT a few years ago and brought in the Teacher Regulation Branch of the Ministry of Education to regulate and certify members of the profession. This means that these fees go to the government. Which means that these very same teachers who are on strike actually pay a yearly fee to their employer so they can continue to be teachers. Do you pay your employer for the privilege of being able to work for them?
- Most teachers, especially elementary teachers, spend hundreds of dollars of their own money to make their classrooms inviting and engaging places for your children. At the end of June, many teachers decided to remove their personal belongings from their classrooms, including the classroom supplies they had paid for. The impact is startling.
- Teachers aren’t perfect, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve respect. Is every teacher a great one? Nope. But neither is every doctor, and doctors make a lot more money than teachers and have a lot more respect. Almost everyone I know has a tale of being misdiagnosed by a doctor, or of being shunted through the healthcare system like piece of trash, or being prescribed the wrong meds, but people seem to understand that the system is the problem, not the doctors themselves. You don’t see internet commentors virtually shouting about how doctors who point out flaws in the healthcare system should just quit already. Teachers have been working within a flawed system for years (in addition to taking years of net zero wage increases) which means that sometimes they aren’t good at their job, even when they really want to be. Besides, people in government aren’t always good at their jobs, but that didn’t stop Christy Clark from giving her top aides raises of up to 18% (these raises were pulled back one week later after backlash from the province, which just goes to show that well-directed outrage sometimes can make a difference).
- Teachers worry about your children. They do. They are upset when bad things happen to their students, they wrack their brains trying to find ways to reach struggling or disengaged students, they are furious when the system fails a student. They hated having to short-change your kids for the past 12 years. They are trying to make it right and are going without their own wages to do so.
Again, I know I might not convince you, and if you still want to be angry at BC’s teachers it is your right. But I hope you are also angry at the BC government. Because you really, REALLY, should be–this is, after all, a government that was proven TWICE in court to have violated teachers’ constitutional rights. What makes you think they won’t come after yours someday?