Update Monday, October 10, 2011: Here is the latest news on this subject. The Globe and Mail article is about the B.C. Teachers’union seeking clarification on a B.C. Supreme court ruling. In other words, given the B.C. provincial government is not giving in to union demands, there is an impasse. It is my hope that the justices involved in the original decision read this post because I try to explain how a “teacher’s working conditions” cannot be guaranteed in law other than those related to health, safety and disability accommodations. (H/T Jack’s Newswatch afternoon update item # 2)
A Teacher’s Working Conditions:
From what I can remember, Canada’s teacher’s unions started using the motto — a teacher’s working conditions are a student’s learning conditions — back in 1997 after the Ontario teachers unions used it during their illegal strike. As a former teacher and teacher educator, I found it offensive then and I find it offensive now. Why? Because it is, at its core, completely untrue.
For example, you could have a parent or a guest speaker at the front of a classroom and it would be the same space — the learning environment — as that occupied by a licensed teacher. Sure, the teacher provides routines and classroom management strategies, but that is their job. That is part of instruction and has nothing to do with “working conditions” — those guarantees that schools and classroom are fully compliant to health, accessibility and safety legislation.
The motto is also extremely self-serving because when teachers’ unions ask for more funding to improve their working conditions, they are not talking about those legislated issues. Rather, they are talking about more money for salaries and benefits and more money to reduce class size.
Now, on the face of it, a lower pupil-teacher ratio sounds like an approach that is better for students, better for their learning conditions. But, analyze the issue carefully and you will see that it is not really about the students at all. It is about school boards and districts having to hire more teachers which gives the unions more members.
Doubts? Well, look at the title of this Daily News article by Derek DeGear, President of the Nanaimo District Teachers’ Association. “Teachers are Committed to Best Learning Conditions!” Cynical? Self-serving? Entitled to their entitlements? You bet! Moreover, the claim is fundamentally untrue.
A student’s learning conditions:
So, what exactly are a student’s learning conditions? Well, there is usually a teacher’s desk, desks or tables for students, shelves for textbooks and notebooks, chalkboards, bulletin boards and for the younger students, activity centres. As well, there is usually some type of cloak room and storage units for coats and boots and phys ed equipment. (At the secondary level, lockers are usually in the hallway.) In my last home room, I also had a back counter, storage space and a sink because I taught art on rotary (meaning the students came to my class).
In other words, all these aspects of the students’ learning conditions are funded and provided by school districts and have no direct connection to teachers or their unions. Or, at least they shouldn’t have.
Another condition is of course the teacher and what that teacher does to establish routines and a positive atmosphere that is conducive to learning (e.g., being a motivating presence). However, let’s make something very clear. Creating that kind of environment is NOT a teacher’s working condition. That is what teachers do. That is what teachers have been trained to do. In other words, none of what should be considered good instruction and classroom management should have anything to do with a collective agreement other than accountability and a teacher’s competence.
B.C. Supreme Court:
So, think about it. From a slogan used during an illegal strike in Ontario in 1997 to the Nanaimo’s Teachers’ Association in 2011, we have a self-serving communications strategy that has worked to such a degree that those “conditions that no one can really define besides being good teaching” has become “a right and entitlement.” As DeGear writes:
“The Supreme Court of British Columbia ruled that the legislation [to remove the phrase ”teachers’ working conditions’] violated teachers’ rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”
Well, in my opinion, the Government of B.C. did not violate anyone’s rights because the only teachers’ working conditions the B.C. Supreme Court should have considered “a teacher’s right” are those related to health, accessibility and safety. Because beyond that, anything a teacher does to improves students’ learning conditions is simply about “good teaching” and what they were trained to do.