Teachers: light at the end of the tunnel? What tunnel?

Sean Casey, 16, rallied with his fellow Citadel students on Friday, December 2, to support their teachers.

It’s been a full week since the Liberal caucus revolt Stephen McNeil insists never happened; since Education Minister Karen Casey’s 180-degree, we-must-close-all-the-schools-right-now-to-protect-student-safety/no-we-will-reopen-all-the-schools-tomorrow-to-protect-our-government’s future; since the government called its special session of the House of Assembly to pass legislation to impose a rejected contract on the province’s 9,300 teachers, then sent the MLAs home with nothing more than a per diem for time served and a legislation-what-legislation/what-me-worry public shrug; and since the premier’s own bizarre, who’s-in-charge, where’s-Stephen disappearing act in the midst of that massive Monday meltdown…

It was a week.

Today, Nova Scotia’s education system is back to what passes for its new normal. Teachers are teaching in their classrooms, but otherwise working to the letter of their contracts. They are no longer supervising breakfast programs, orchestrating children’s Christmas concerts, advising political science clubs, organizing International Baccalaureate volunteer credits, chaperoning high school dances, coordinating educational co-ops, coaching school sporting teams, offering one-to-one extra help after class. All those myriad and meaningful duties teachers used to perform, but for which they are not paid, have been cancelled while the government and the Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union attempt to negotiate a new contract.

But the two sides are not negotiating a new contract; they are not, so far as we know, even speaking. So we are no closer to a resolution of the current contract dispute, or even back to what once passed for fair collective bargaining.

Worse, the current dispute is far from the worst of it. We have not yet begun to deal with the larger issues that plague our public school system.

In my role as a university professor, I occasionally visit classrooms to talk with students about journalism, writing, current events, their own career hopes and dreams. Those brief forays into the P-12 school system have given me some modest appreciation for the incredible work the best of our teachers do, and the increasingly difficult circumstances in which they do it.

Our education system has become obsessed with “outcomes,” and with often questionable testing to measure those outcomes and then judge teachers’ competency based on them. Teachers no longer teach a class of students, but a collection of complexities: students with dramatically different abilities and interests, students with special needs, students on individualized learning programs with indicvidual expectations, students who don’t speak English as a first, or second, or any language, students who are occasionally violent… And they do it with little in the way of support.

Teachers must also attempt to respond empathetically to their students’ diverse cultural and economic backgrounds, mental health issues, family dynamics and demands… all while feeding a never-sated data maw that continuously demands from them new and different, often contradictory information, in order to collect whatever it is the powers-that-are require them to measure this year — data that will almost certainly be rendered irrelevant and outdated as soon as the next new shiny data star-point is discovered.

And, oh yes, teachers must keep up with the latest developments in their own specialties as well as trends in pedagogy while continuing to teach the latest, ever-evolving curriculum to their students, and still find time to volunteer for all those extra-curricular activities that make school an enriching  and meaningful experience for their students.

The current dispute between teachers and the province is, of course, in part about pay and benefits. How could it not be?

But it is also clearly about much more than that.

How else to explain the reality teachers — members of the “good” union the government had once depended on to docilely set the tone for its even more draconian plans for other, more militant public sector workers — have not only voted overwhelmingly twice to reject tentative agreements their own negotiating team had reluctantly recommended to them, but  have now also voted 96 per cent in favour of job action to demonstrate their frustration in the only way that seems left to them?

These days, there is no light at the end of the tunnel.

Sometimes, there does not even seem to be a tunnel.

halifax-examinerThis column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner. To read the latest column, please subscribe.

  1. Stephen, thank you for speaking and posting with eyes and heart wide open. Teachers are still fighting the very same battles we were fighting when I began teaching in 1970! As you know, I have lived and taught in all four major areas of this awesome country over 35 years. It totally unnerves me that as a progressive country, we are still ignoring the true needs of our education system with appropriate respect and consideration for the teachers who, because of vocation , go above and beyond to meet our Canadian children’s needs and WANTS.

    Canadians, parents of our children and governing officials, our priorities are the issue here. Do we even know what the priorities are?
    NOT! Our financial and budget systems will never help solve the ongoing problems until we open our eyes and really GET just what the issues are in reality, publicly and financially. And the financial deficits will continue to control what is done with and for our children until we get our heads around our selfish attitudes and priorities.

    Thank goodness for the hearts of vocational public servants and workers, OUR TEACHERS, who dedicatingly see what the real job and tasks are and do and give as much as they can without
    regret and often compromising their own income. During my years as a teacher, I bought most of my classroom teaching aids out of pocket and any other embellishments which just made the days more pleasant and facilitated the children’s enjoyment and serenity. When I developed program for conduct disordered students, who could not function in a regular classroom, I took the students to lunch for their birthdays, on my own time and at my own expense. And I was a single parent with two young children. No one noticed or even commended my dedication and perseverance.
    I compromised not only my finances but my time and energy as well for my family.

    Canadian Government and taxpayers and grandparents and parents, we are taking our teachers for granted and also TAKING ADVANTAGE of their dedication to their vocation.

    Another thing. Teachers have a tantamount task and enormous responsibility to facilitate the growth of the mind and brain of your child. THAT IS HUGE!!!

    No, we deliberately and happily pay gigantic remuneration to our sports players. HOCKEY, FOOTBALL, BASKETBALL!! And more! That’s just the beginning of where we need to look to reset our priorities.

    Do we even try to get our heads around the ‘job’
    we ask of a teacher? And what is appropriate consideration and remuneration for such a task? Think of just the task of getting and facilitating the needs and wants of a child dear to you for one year, never mind over 30 of them!

    Yes, we have to start all over again as to who we pay huge remuneration. Do we NEED those big sports franchises? I love Sidney Crosby! But I won’t pay big bucks to see him! I object to the remuneration paid to him at the expense of a good teacher for my grandchild.


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