This is the second time I’ve tried to write a post about my thoughts about teachers’ current situation in Saskatchewan. I was totally unprepared for what an emotional toll the past few weeks would have on me. I am sure it doesn’t even compare to what my colleagues who are working are going through. For those of you not from around here, for the first time in history Saskatchewan teachers took job action that so far has resulted in 3 days of a full removal of professional services and a removal of all voluntary services until further notice. As removed as I am from the school, I have still had the “opportunity” to hear some very ignorant things being said about teachers and their “selfish” decision that “hurts students.” There has been a lot of talk about “bad teachers” and how they don’t deserve a raise.
Teaching is an interesting profession. EVERYONE has an opinion about education. I guess it’s fairly hard not to, since the majority of the population spent at very minimum 12 years in school. Everyone seems to have a story about their favorite teacher, their favorite coach/supervisor, and a handful of stories about the worst teacher ever. The subject matter addressed from K-12, for the most part, is accessible to the general public as well. These years of experience plus a seemingly accessible level of content makes everyone an expert. Experts, as it would seem, love to judge. More on this later.
Saskatchewan teacher have been trying to negotiate with our government since May 2010. We have been without a contract since August of 2010. There has been much focus in the media about how this dispute is strictly over money. The media has neglected to mention one of the very important reasons for this – Saskatchewan teachers have a bi-leveled bargaining system. We bargain at both the provincial and the local level. It is at the provincial level where we bargain for money, our benefits package, and our working conditions. At the local level we bargain for our preparation time, leaves (maternity, parental, educational, sabbatical), how we get paid, and other general support issues. I think this is important to mention because the “only” thing we’re bargaining for is money. If the election that was just held is any indication, our conservative province (and country) should support our teachers in saying we’d like the money please, we will deal with additional health expenses on our own if they arise. We can’t bargain for other things related to our profession that we value at this time, as they are out of the control of the province and in the control of our local associations.
From my personal experiences, I think there are two huge reasons teachers have been and are being devalued by our government.
1) Teachers are really nice people. Have you met us? In general, we all really like our jobs. So much so that we continue to do it long after the school day is over. Historically, the cost of living in Saskatchewan has been quite low. While we were in a provincial state of financial distress, I would hazard a guess that the majority of teachers didn’t want to seem greedy. We accepted lame duck contract after lame duck contract, happy to have jobs we love. However, during these same times we watched other government employees bargain for huge raises. Fiscal distress for the province seemed to translate mostly into “no money for teachers” instead of “no money for anyone.” With the housing boom in Saskatoon, Regina and many other smaller centers, new teacher families can no longer afford to purchase a house on their salaries unless they get a second job. Our government has done nothing but brag about how well our province is doing financially. These people, creating this fantastic economy? They are our students. They are the products of our education system. In this time of strong economy, we would like to be acknowledged for our hard work at helping create it, for our patience in recognizing that we understand that the government needs to be financially responsible. We also would to maintain our profession and we can’t do this when becoming a teacher simply isn’t financially viable or appealing for young people.
2) Back to that whole everyone is an expert thing. After the birth of my son we had the experience of needing to stay in the pediatric unit of our hospital for 5 days. It became very obvious, very quickly that there were a handful of not so good nurses mixed in with all the excellent nurses. However, the general public does not feel that tomorrow they could leave their jobs and just be a nurse. I don’t think this is the same for teaching. Those 12 years spent as a student give the public the impression that the could step into a classroom tomorrow and be a teacher. Sure, many will say they would never want to do this, but they could. Folks, the majority of you could not, without being that horrible teacher you love to reminisce about so much. If you would like proof of this, please look at our neighbours to the south (Hi America! I have some seriously fantastic American teacher friends, but your system is a bit of a train wreck right now, I still love you!) and the top achieving countries in the world (Finland, Singapore and Japan are great examples). The differences between these educational landscapes are largely because of their teacher training, and following that, the recognition and compensation teachers are given. I’m sure you all went to school with education students who at some time were “making a collage” while you were busy writing an essay but you can trust me when I say getting a B.Ed is not 4 years of making collages. I understand that you all have a story about a bad teacher, or your kid’s bad teacher. This, paired with the impression that anyone could do our job, somehow equates into teachers being lazy schmucks who get summers off. Perception is a funny thing. That one bad experience tends to trump all the good ones combined. (Also, for the millionth time, WE DON’T GET PAID DURING THE SUMMER!)
In the last week I have watched my government take out attack ads on my profession. I have watched my tax dollars hurt myself, my colleagues and our reputation as teachers. I have watched the government use scare tactic after scare tactic to turn the public against me. Me, who is currently pursuing a master’s in mathematics education on my own dime, so I can be a better teacher. Me, who regularly spends my own money to attend professional development since our current government continues to cut educational funding. Me, who for large portions of the year spends more time with other people’s kids than I do with my own family. Me and all the teachers in Saskatchewan who tell their own stories of teaching that will look remarkably similar to mine .
I am ashamed for our government. While I understand that negotiations are difficult things, I cannot believe the very same premier who claims in his online political bio that it was a teacher who inspired him to become a politician, would stoop so low. The government is not simply skewing the facts for their own benefit, they are flat-out lying and hurting the teaching profession in the process. Yet, I have never been prouder to be a teacher in Saskatchewan. The solidarity shown by my colleagues in these hard times has been phenomenal. We do not always agree on teaching practices, on emphasis of curriculum content, on schedules, but more often than not we are better off because of our differences and the professional dialogue we have because of them. In this, we can all agree – we are the professionals in this messy situation, and we have acted as such. Our value to this province is far greater than the salary increase we are asking for, and we need not feel greedy for asking to remunerated fairly.