Teaching public school is kind of a funny thing. Perhaps one day I will understand the sub-current of not-so-hidden disdain for teachers–you know, the one that starts with “Those who can, do, those who can’t teach….” I can’t believe you haven’t seen this bit of spoken word by Taylor Mali, gentle reader, but if not, or if you need a refresher, please take a look at “What Teachers Make“. For some reason, some where in our collective evolution as a society, it became not only common, but almost expected, that to admit to being a Teacher, especially a public school teacher, was to invite digs, jabs, and exasperated “fake support” in the form of “I don’t know how you do it, it was so easier back in the day when teachers were allowed to give students the strap to keep them in line.” You might be wondering why I call that last bit “fake support”. It’s because it suggests that our “modern” methods of instruction and discipline are not meeting the mark, and our current iteration of the education system is found wanting. This piggy-backs on the arguments of “There were 40 kids in my grade 4 class and I turned out fine (of course the teachers were allowed to beat the children)”, and “Of course, disabled kids weren’t allowed in regular classrooms, and you could leave school in grade 10 and get a decent paying job.”
Some how, along the way, these sort of comments started to generate a kind of self-loathing amongst teachers, and we started to be almost apologetic in our approach both to our jobs, and to our labour negotiations.
I’ve also heard it said that the “militant” union that represents all the public school teachers in BC, the BCTF, is to blame for the completely poisonous atmosphere between government and teachers. Well, I have certainly expressed my opinions before about my union, and I’m not going to shy away from it today. Buckle up, dear reader.
First, a little history lesson. Let’s go back to the 1950′s, or so. Back then, teaching was beginning to change from the traditional one-room schoolmarm model to an organization of educational specialists. Where earlier one year of Normal School and a sturdy pair of shoes were all that was needed, by the latter part of the 20th century, teachers had 3 and 4 year certificates, then 4 to 6 year Bachelor degrees. Nowadays, many teachers have Masters degrees as well. In my case, I have 7 years of post-secondary schooling, and numerous short courses, diplomas and upgrades. More on this in another post.
Things rolled along for awhile, as society became less agrarian, and more industrialized. By the 1970′s, getting a high school diploma was the norm, not the exception, and many students went on to Uni or college. Teachers were more highly specialized, and the curriculum became more diverse and broad.
And in BC, a Social Credit government took a look around and thought that teachers needed to be organized into some sort of a trade union or professional association. This forced Principals and Vice Principals into a separate association and the Teachers as Unionists movement was born.
When I look back, now, from where I am sitting, I am thankful we have a union. I don’t always agree with it– in fact I am (in)famous for standing up in a union meeting a few years back with then-Vice President Jim Iker asking us for a Yes-Strike vote, and saying I wanted to write “De-certify” on my ballot. You can imagine I was pretty frustrated with my union at that moment, and I was embarrassed by some of the things being demanded in negotiations, and I didn’t feel represented. And, I fancy, there may be times in the future when I don’t agree with one or another executive decision– that’s life in a democracy, after all. But here is the thing a lot of people still don’t understand about teachers. We are one of the only labour organizations who are actually demanding improvements for OUR EMPLOYER. “What!?” you may be thinking, “Have you lost the plot, Lisa?!” you might be asking….but think about it….. who is our employer? Who is the first one to cry in outrage at the “greedy teachers with their hands out”? You, gentle, tax-paying, reader. You are my employer, and by proxy, your progeny who sit in front of me (or possibly stand– there were a few classes around the province last year that didn’t, actually, have enough seats if all the kids showed up). Did I ask for a salary increase? Yes I did. Is it possible that some improvements could be made to my health plan? Yep, it’s true, that was on the table. But far and away the BIGGEST demand– and the one that is the sticking point for the government is that of class size and composition. That’s the one where we are demanding NOT something better, but something that, 12 years ago, was considered the minimum of what was acceptable. Not for US, you understand…. but for CHILDREN. We are demanding better learning conditions for our students. Classes of a reasonable size (30 in Intermediate classes), where learners with special needs (no more than 3 per class) can get the help they need and DESERVE– after all, this is a CIVILIZED society, is it not?
Dear reader, thank you for honking and waving as you pass me on the picket line. Thank you for stopping me in the grocery store and asking me for clarification, thank you for arguing with me on Facebook and reminding me WHO THIS IS FOR. We have, it would appear, been pushed to the extreme. Yes, I know that by losing 2 weeks wages (plus a few weeks of 10% rollback), “I” and my fellow teachers have paid for any increase we might see. We get it. And we understand that we take a risk when we strike of alienating the public, and harming our public image. Let me take an odd sort of example and try to illuminate my point. Let’s say a unionized supermarket local decides to strike. Are they striking for better lighting, non-screwy-wheels on carts, fresher produce, milk with longer sell-by dates and items on the shelf easier to reach for disabled patrons? Or are they striking for better treatment for themselves, and perhaps a pay rise? My example may seem silly… but trust me…. this is not for our quality of life alone. It is for everyone’s quality of Public Education.
I will not apologize, be embarrassed, or make excuses for my union. I am terrified to think what kind of state education would be in today for our children if not for the BCTF, my peers and colleagues, and Me.
I am not on strike for a better wage so that I can afford to send my kids to Private School. Not by a long way….
Please see the comment section for some good articles on the current situation. And thank you.