In support of teachers

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.

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6 thoughts on “In support of teachers

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I appreciated the clear way you expressed yourself and our collective struggle for respect. I particularly liked the comment that governments with conservative fiscal values aught to approve of our taking responsibility for finance.

  2. Very well stated. It is true that new teachers wanting to buy houses are working second jobs. In the affluent community of my school, I am looked at as not so well off and I don’t think that is fair, given my level of education. Working in a city of government employees, many have a version of earned days off and I would hedge a bet that their time off is very close to ours.

  3. I basically agree, but I have a different take on point #2. We homeschool, and there’s tons of data that shows even parents with zero training who didn’t finish high school have better academic outcomes for their homeschooled kids than the public school system. I get your point, but there’s a lot more going on re: student outcomes than the training a teacher has or doesn’t have. I know many teachers and in my opinion it’s a lot more about the natural ability of a person to relate and communicate, and less about what they learn in university. It’s mostly procedural knowledge, and that is something pretty much anyone can learn. Becoming a lawyer or doctor isn’t much different, I went to university with people who are now lawyers and doctors. They weren’t any smarter than the rest of us, they were just driven to gain the procedural knowledge necessary. To sum up, I do think an untrained person with a natural ability to communicate and relate information can beat a trained teacher who lacks that ability. And it has a lot more to do with the system in which the knowledge is being delivered, see my earlier point about homeschooling.

    1. Interesting point about homeschooling, but I (anecdotally, I’ve got no research to back up my hunch) believe that parent’s who choose to homeschool do so because they are very invested in their child’s education. They spend time researching quality teaching and networking with other parents who homeschool. You don’t homeschool if your plan is to have your kid sit at the kitchen table with a workbook 6 hours a day everyday.

      While natural ability and intuition does go quite aways in teaching,it is not enough if you want to be a great teacher. There is far more than procedural knowledge to master. Specifically as classes become more and more diverse, and simply being a great lecturer is no longer an acceptable way to teach. Our current government has placed unprecedented demands on teachers in the last 3 years – it’s almost impossible to be a great teacher in these conditions without forfeiting the rest of your life, and it’s another 3 years until (hopefully) the load will be a little lighter.

      It would be great to see systemic changes that would really allow things to be different. Change is slow and costs money, something there isn’t a lot of.

  4. As a homeschooler, who also knows many other homeschoolers, I can tell you the driving force is more the avoidance of the many negative aspects of the school system and the peer group. Certainly the education of our kids is important to us, but it’s not the primary reason I homeschool.

    There’s a faction within our community that practices unschooling, which is no curriculum, it’s more about bonding with siblings and parents instead of the peer group. Even these unschooled kids tend to excel later in life (university level and beyond).

    Here’s an interesting thought exercise to demonstrate how irrelevant what you learn in school is. Take an average 30 year old person and have them take their Grade 12 exams tomorrow, with no preparation. That person would fail miserably. So how much did you learn in school? It’s far more important to develop cognitive abilities, and to experience a much more sophisticated model of socialization (siblings and parents) as opposed to the peer group (30 kids all the same age learning how to be human from each other many hours each day).

    You’re on the right track though when you talk about the need for systemic change, the system is broken, and has been for a long, long time. But we have an education minister who is talking about standardized tests, talk about missing the point completely. Here’s another thought exercise: Why is it that getting an answer from a book, the Web, or another student is considered cheating in school, while in the real world that same behaviour is called research and collaboration?

    You’re also right that we don’t have our kids sit at a desk six hours a day with a workbook and ingesting useless data they won’t remember in a few years. That’s an incredibly dumb way to educate a human being. Who would do that? 🙂

    1. There are all kinds of fallacies going on in your posts here, Space Gorilla, but I’ll just point out the obvious counter-argument: are you willing to take in another 25 or so kids and homeschool them all simultaneously? With, I don’t know, maybe one extra parent helping for an hour or so if you have a special-needs student?

      Oh, and make sure you’re not resorting to giving kids workbooks!

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