Teachers' contract talks raise questions of education reform

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I must admit, it did look a little bit surreal -- that teachers and the bulk of civil servants would quietly accept a long-term contract with hardly any increases in pay, even if it was duly negotiated by their unions.

The teachers have thrown the whole thing into a cocked hat by massively turning down the agreement. Civil servants are due to vote in January on theirs.

The teachers, however, added a twist: they said it wasn't about the money but about the worsening conditions in which they have to do their jobs.

It's a startling development, but it's indeed a conversation we ought to have, because it, in fact, goes to the core of the matter.

There are two questions here: what do we talk about, and how do we talk about it?

You can find out what to talk about by Googling "teacher dissatisfaction." There, you'll find endless studies and discussion from throughout the Western world and beyond that can keep you reading for weeks.

In other words, we are not alone. Nor are these just teacher issues. The schools, where reside the young minds of the next generation, are the first place where society's problems show up, and they've been showing up with increasing frequency in recent decades. Teachers find themselves dealing with more non-education issues, with the growing feeling that they're getting less and less support from either the administration or parents in an increasingly impersonal system.

"These days, I can't expect a student who disrupts class, bullies other students (or teachers) and vandalizes property to be disciplined properly by school administrators," says a Toronto-area teacher whose comments I found on the Internet, in a universal lament. "I cannot set enforceable deadlines, deduct marks for poor spelling and grammar or set tests for a growing cohort of 'identified' students, as this might harm their morale." He noted that the Saskatchewan teachers' drug plan reported that its payouts were increasingly for medications for depression and high blood pressure. (And here?)

Then there have been the cutbacks, here as elsewhere. In the U.S., there's been an air of crisis since the recession of 2008, which was followed not only by cutbacks to education, but more kids showing up without breakfast and more family stress that inevitably makes its way to school. In the latest big studies, teachers satisfied with their jobs have plunged below 40 per cent with nearly half prepared to quit as soon as they can.

It's not that extreme elsewhere. The Paris-based OECD did a 17-country survey a couple of years ago (although Canada was represented in it only by Alberta). Although two-thirds of teachers surveyed felt their profession was not valued by the public, most said they were OK with their lot -- although "satisfied" and "dissatisfied" are iffy things to define. The study highlighted the notable factors across the international spectrum that make teachers happy and unhappy.

"Challenging classrooms" -- meaning one with lots of special needs kids, or disruptive ones -- was the worst. Another was "ineffective appraisal systems" -- that is, appraisals of teachers and students that are merely administrative -- that they don't agree with and don't trust.

"Parents who don't care" are also a big downer.

What made them happiest was "involvement in decision-making" at their schools, collaboration and mutual support among teachers at their schools and (obviously) "positive teacher-student relationships." Students doing well, especially in math, was also linked to higher teacher satisfaction. So, higher teacher satisfaction equals better education.

How can we talk about this? The union wants to talk about it before endorsing the contract. The government will talk about it, but not as part of the contract.

The issue is indeed bigger than contract talks. It requires some structural changes. For one thing, let the teachers take back their union and use it to give full voice to the ground-level problems that dog them and the education system generally.

Through some 30 years of dysfunctional government in Nova Scotia, the Nova Scotia Teachers Union became a sort of substitute department of education by default, its alumni spread throughout the real department and the school boards. Many perks accumulated for teachers, but there was little to address classroom conditions, as the union appeared dominated by principals and other administrators, and was resistant to change.

Placing administrators in another union, as recommended by last year's Freeman report on education, would return the union focus to the classroom. I find it remarkable that it took a near-revolt by teachers -- against both their own union and the government -- to get this issue even noticed.

Meanwhile, government could start shaving down those dysfunctional school boards and giving teachers, and local trustees, more say in their schools' affairs. It seems to work in some more progressive jurisdictions.

As for the contract, muddle through for a while and sign it. Then let both sides get down to the real business of reforming education.

Ralph Surette is a freelance journalist in Yarmouth County. This column was first published in the Chronicle Herald.

Photo: Mukund Lakshman/flickr

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