The current B.C. public school dispute is only the latest example, though admittedly the worst, of decades of the undervaluing and underfunding of B.C. public schools and teachers.
Those who aren’t in schools can’t be expected to grasp the level of carnage in our schools over the past twenty years. But instead of listening to hysterical pundits on C.K.N.W. or the Fraser institute, take it from someone who worked in, organized and operated schools for 35 years.
B.C.’s public schools are skeletons of their former selves and we are passing the crisis point.
Were our kids going to school, they would be going to schools that are generally deteriorating, under staffed, under supplied and continuously under siege.
The grass isn’t cut, the weeds aren’t pulled, and summer painting is rare. Renovations, upgrades, and new equipment have long been put on hold, cafeterias are cut back or cut out, textbooks are unaffordable, photocopying is rationed, and teacher’s are falling further behind with each salary cut.
Teaching staffs have shrunk. Counselling, Librarian, and learning centre staffs are too lean to serve kids.
There is a profound lack of supplies, impossible staffing levels, paltry maintenance budgets, skeletal student services, no district curriculum coordinators, few psycho ed testers , no technology geeks. There are fewer Vice Principals, almost none in elementary schools, from where most were cut long ago.
Money from the government’s “Learning Imrovement Fund” (L.I.F.) is touted as an answer to class size and composition woes but money that trickles through the centralized process to local districts goes straight into hiring back one or two of the staff laid off after the previous year’s cuts.
And now, education funding is frozen for 2013 –2015. This funding freeze will result in 300 million more in cuts for each of the next three school years.
Schools are already cut to the bone and Principals, teachers, support staff and students have been profoundly affected.
As the load gets heavier, teachers begin to teach defensively, concerned with just making it through the week. When they teach this way, they feel guilty and angry at having to do so.
The more kids and special needs students they have, the more formulaic, the less interactive learning has to become.
Teachers are forced to focus on activities that keep kids busy and compliant. They don’t have the time, resources or class size to offer the kind of engaging learning activities they would prefer to offer. More seat work, worksheets, and tests – multiple choice (easy to mark) Less project learning, group work, individualized instruction, and cooperative learning.
Teachers hate going there, but they are increasingly forced to make adjustments to their teaching and are too often forced to replace engaging and fun with busy and quiet.
Extra curricular activities are leaner, intramurals more rare. There are fewer bands and spring musicals and field trips. The things that make schools meaningful for kids are difficult to sponsor as teaching loads burgeon and disrespect for the profession increases relentlessly.
But the biggest difficulty in public education is that many of us, including our government, no longer consider teaching a profession. Rather they think of it as a job, like working in an office but with better holidays and benefits.
In fact, teaching is a profession, not a job. It requires significant training and regular re-training, sophisticated skills and strategies, and hard work. A good teacher is an incalculably valuable professional. Those who think teaching is cushy – “ six hours a day, eight months a year, great salary… “, are monumentally mistaken.
Those who think a journeyman cabinetmaker could teach woodwork more effectively than a teacher or that a professional trumpet player could teach band better than can a teacher, are mistaken. Teaching is so much more than having knowledge to impart. As a matter of fact, subject knowledge is one of the least important requirements of being a good teacher. When interviewing for a teaching position, the most important boxes to tick are people skills, not subject proficiency.
Those who attack teaching and teachers by comparing their employment situations to other jobs, invariably ignore the most difficult things teachers deal with in their professional life – that their profession is their life, not a job.
Teachers face thousands of personal interactions and stimuli every day, each crucial to the student, parent, or colleague. They must be “on” at all times, in school, the supermarket, and in the community. Teachers never leave work at work; it’s always on their mind, a constant stream of consciousness and rumination about today and tomorrow’s lessons and that kid who is really hurting.
The first few years of teaching are quite a shock to young teachers. Teaching is so much more difficult than they thought or heard described on Twitter – and they really don’t make much money.
But that’s what teachers signed up for, and after six or seven years, most teachers are at the top of their game, immeasurably more effective than when they began – because there is so much to learn about how to be a good teacher than the surface analyses spouted by internet trolls.
So teachers eagerly accept the challenges of the profession, in exchange for making a difference, for job security and public respect.
But over the past twenty years, teachers and public schools have seen their profession slowly but inexorably strangled, underfunded and disrespected.
Teachers and public education have had to repeatedly pay the freight for government austerity and budget balancing.
Teachers have lost about 20% of salary to inflation since provincial bargaining was legislated by the Harcourt government in 1994.That NDP government ended the strategy of “whipsawing”; holding up the contracts of other teacher’s groups as immutable settlement templates.
Ironically, whipsawing is the main bargaining strategy now used against teachers, Still, in 1994 ,the government proclaimed whipsawing an unfair labour practice and legislated province wide teacher bargaining. That’s when the enmity between provincial governments and teachers really began.
Provincial governments have many more and different priorities than did local school boards who respected and supported their local teachers. Local governments still respect their firefighters and police and there are few labour disputes with civic workers. Firefighters and police have thrived in bargaining with appreciative local governments.
Conversely, teachers have not done well bargaining provincially, having to compete for funding with other provincial priorities. There are few votes to be gained by putting money into public education and it’s never enough anyway.
Unfortunately there are votes (and campaign money), in increasing funding for private schools.
Private school attendance was at 12% in 2013, up from 4% scant years ago, and government funding for private schools has increased 45% compared with 16% for public schools.
And public schools, principals and teachers have been so repeatedly creative in doing more with fewer resources year after year, that successive provincial governments felt fine about continuing to draw money from the education well to fund other priorities, like tax cuts, infrastructure, and stadia roofs.
In 1973, a beginning teacher made about $5,000 more than a beginning firefighter, policeman, or nurse. Now, firefighters, policemen, and nurses make ten to twenty thousand more than teachers –ten thousand or so more to start, twenty thousand or so more at maximum after a shorter increment scale and less education/training (nurses after 4 yrs. experience- $ 91 thousand, teachers after 11 yrs. and a Masters degree, $78 thousand.)
Disclaimer; firefighters, police, and nurses deserve every penny they make – they perform valuable public services. But firefighters and police still have the luxury of negotiating contracts with appreciative and respectful local governments, rather than with provincial governments who need to skim money from public services to pay for tax cuts.
And let’s face it, It’s difficult for provincial Education Ministers to feel too warm and fuzzy about teachers because they don’t see them through a local lens – they’re a line item expense not an investment.
Teachers used to be in the middle class. Now they’re in the working class. Yet surprisingly, teachers are so easily bullied they don’t even seem to mind the relegation. But they do mind not having the resources to do their jobs well. That’s why teachers are feeling angry and beaten up.
Teachers choose the profession out of passion. They willingly trade any chance of getting rich for a worthwhile, secure profession, a chance to contribute something meaningful to people and the community.
But now, few chemistry whizzes, computer aces, or shrewd mathematicians are going into education anymore –why would they?
Teacher surpluses have been institutionalized by relentless education cuts and a continuing University cash grab, and many prospective teachers have shoulder shrugged into what is fast becoming a job not a profession..
Public education is a complex activity – too complex to be dismissed with inapt comparisons with what other workers do, earn, or deserve.This is not to say that other occupations are not complex, there are just too many variables and priorities to compare.
Tenure and benefits haven’t been taken away yet, but teachers and public schools have been the silent whipping boys of austerity minded governments in every other way for many years.
The current education dispute is about the chronic underfunding of public education over the past twenty years. It’s about salary too, but more than that it’s about respectful treatment, something public schools and educators have not felt from provincial governments for too long.
Public education is the most successful collective initiative of western democracies. Canadian public schools are the melting pot of our multicultural mosaic.
Our public schools are hurting, and we’re not only not defending them, many of us are throwing gas on the fire.
If the B.C. public isn’t willing to take a macro look at whether we want a properly funded, vibrant public education system, we’ll keep degrading public schools and teachers as we march down the American road toward destroying a world class public school system.