Friday, 20 June 2014

Now Is The Time

I have avoided sharing my thoughts about the dispute between the British Columbia Teachers Federation and the B.C. provincial government on this blog. After all, this is a blog about my journey to an environmentally conscious life. What does a labour dispute have to do with the environment? Instead, as my Facebook friends will attest, I have been rabidly sharing my thoughts, relevant articles, photos from the picket lines, and news updates on the bargaining process. This issue is near and dear to my heart as a parent, a teacher and a member of society.

So Why Am I Writing About The BCTF Dispute On An Environmental Blog?

Yes, this is a blog about being green, but without leaders to educate and inspire me to become more green, I wouldn't care as much about the environment and work toward making a difference. It is because of teachers, be they our parents or grandparents, community leaders or public school teachers, that we learn and become better people. Without an education that encouraged critical thinking, I wouldn't have the skill set to question what I know, research, and change my thinking. Without teachers I would not be inspired to care about our food system and creating food security by growing a backyard organic garden. Without school I would not have a platform for promoting a green perspective beyond my own children.

On the picket line with my colleagues.
After deliberation, I have decided to use this blog as a vehicle to share my thoughts in more depth than social media platforms allow. With smart phones, Facebook, and Twitter, we are skimming and reading headlines and sound bites about the dispute, which has reduced it, at least in the general public's eyes, to a "he said, she said" back and forth media battle. This dispute, however, requires that people take the time to become informed about what the classroom reality looks like, what's really at stake for the future of education, and really the future of our society.

It is Time To Become Informed Instead of Just Being Opinionated

On the picket line, June, 2014
I could go on and share the history of the current dispute, the 2002 illegal stripping of our contract (after being promised that the government would honour negotiated contracts), the designation of education as an essential service to limit BCTF job actions, the elimination of hundreds of specialist teacher positions, the underfunding of education overall, the court rulings in teachers' favour, and government partial lockout of teachers (with ensuing 10% wage deduction). I could cite numerous articles outlining the numbers involved in the cuts and what it would cost in today's dollars to reinstate that funding. But I know that people tune out when statistics and numbers are thrown at them, and numbers can be used to justify anything, depending on how they are used. Instead I'd like to share a little of my teaching experience to shed some light on the impact of the government decisions and cuts.

Public Schooling Pre 2002 Contract Stripping

For the first ten years of my career I worked largely as a specialist teacher, supporting students who required learning assistance, as well as English language learners (formerly ESL, now ELL). I loved my job because I had the opportunity to develop one on one relationships with the students I supported. Their successes were my successes, and their setbacks filled my heart with sadness. I took post graduate courses (beyond my two bachelor degrees) at university in the summers to deepen my knowledge of current research around learning and strategies to support these students.

One of my responsibilities was to work with late primary students (grades 2 and 3) who were struggling to read. After identification by the classroom teacher, and informal testing, students were referred to an early literacy program in which I worked one on one with students for 40 minutes per day, five days per week for a whole school term. The program was a huge success, and those students who had slight learning delays left the program beaming with pride when they could finally read. It was one of the most rewarding experiences I have had in my 18 years of teaching. Those students could now keep up with their classmates and succeed. Perhaps they would continue to require some support occasionally throughout their schooling, or not, but they all had a new confidence in themselves as learners. Those rare students who were not successful were referred to formal testing to determine if they met the criteria for a ministry category that would bring funding to the school to support them.

At the rally for education, June 19th, 2014

Public Schools In The Post 2002 World

Fast forward to today. I am now an intermediate teacher in an elementary school. In a typical classroom each year I will have 3-5 students who work at least 2 grade levels below their classmates because of learning delays or difficulties. They will have to wait years to receive the appropriate testing that will ensure they can get funding for the support they so desperately need now. Of course I support them in the classroom, but it will be me on my own, with no learning assistance (my classroom receives 2 - 40 minute blocks of learning assistance support per week, that is all. I will have a minimum of 10-15 students with an ELL designation (therefore receiving funding and support), which doesn't include those students who have received their five years funding, but still require support because their language learning masked other learning issues (no funding, no support). I will have a handful of students with behaviour issues, and some severe enough to require an Individual Education Plan (IEP) to document the ways I need to support them, but unless they are a safety concern for themselves or others, they will receive no support. Often there is cross over with other issues, such as the students with behaviour concerns because of an undiagnosed learning difficulty, an emotional issue that comes out in their behaviour, or attention and focusing issues (sometimes ADHD / ADD).

A Typical Classroom Today, By The Numbers

On average, a classroom in my school district will have this profile *

  • 3-5 students below grade level - no funding, minimal to no support
  • 10-15 (conservative estimate) with ELL designation - funding and support for 5 years
  • 3 behaviour issues that disrupt the classroom - no funding, minimal to no support
  • 1-2 students with emotional concerns that affect their learning and well-being - may receive support
  • 3-4 students working above grade level who require additional resources and lessons to be adapted for complexity and depth, minimal to no support
  • 2 special needs student (such as Autism, profound intellectual delays, behaviour/safety concerns) - funding but usually only part time support as it is shifted to those red flag students with safety concerns who must have full time support in the classroom

* Some of my colleagues would argue that I have presented conservative numbers for a typical classroom.

The rally for education, June 19th, 2014
The days of special programs in the public school such as the one in which I participated for early literacy intervention no longer exist. Those young students who struggle to read will always struggle to read, unless their parents can afford private tutoring for them. As they get older, the learning gap increases as the content demands increase. In the upper grades they are required to read information books, websites and articles and use complex skills such as scanning for specific details, summarising the main idea, and understanding text features, just to name a few. Their knowledge gap widens as well, because they cannot understand the content. By the time they get to high school they are unhappy because school is hard and they are not successful. These students are at risk for depression, dangerous behaviours such as substance abuse, and dropping out of school. Often, but not always, these students come from economically disadvantaged families who cannot seek the support their children need. Never mind the students who just don't reach their full potential because they didn't get the help they needed at a crucial stage in their learning.

The government's Learning Improvement Fund (LIF), their answer to the pre 2002 education funding,  clearly isn't working. They quote how much the BCTF proposal would cost in today's dollars and say that this money doesn't exist, and they do not want to have any teacher input on how funds are used in the schools because they want to be "flexible" in how support is provided. The court system has told them that they have acted illegally, and that they have not negotiated in good faith. Yet they continually tell the public that they put families first, that they want a deal with teachers and they are willing to be reasonable.

What Future Do You Want For Our Province?

Students in the public school system are being short-changed and if parents are able to, they are filling in the gaps and subsidising an education they have already supported with their tax dollars. As a teacher I have been subsidising the public school system, that I happily support as a tax payer, by using my salary to buy resources for the classroom (easily hundreds of dollars per year), as well as the numerous pay deductions since 2002 for job actions (and now partial lockout and 10% pay reduction) to raise the public's awareness of what is being done to public education. Teachers have been at the forefront of spreading the word about what we see as a gross injustice to our children, for which we have been branded militants, making our grave concerns easy to dismiss. But why is there no money for education? The provincial government has reduced corporate taxes under the guise of creating jobs. They are off-loading education onto individuals and I believe this is the gradual privatisation of education and corporate sponsorship that we can see happening south of the border.

It Is Time To Stand Up

At the BCTF rally at Canada Place, June 19th, 2014
It is time for everyone in society, parents, grandparents, as well as people with no family members in the public school system, to take up the torch and lead with teachers. Every time someone states, "I understand what the issues are, but what about how our kids are missing out at the end of the year," or "Yes, what the government did was wrong but there's no money," they are cutting down our cause. This is what the government wants you to do. They want to divide us to justify their cuts and imposed legislation. This is not a militant union seeking political power, as the government would have you believe. This is about teachers, who are living the reality day in, day out, trying to shout from the mountain tops that this is an injustice for our children, and therefore for society.

Please do not let them create a two-tiered system where the wealthy can put their children in private schools (which are also supported by tax payers) or pay for private tutoring, and the rest of us have to accept a sub par education because "there just isn't money".

Tell the government that our children, and the future of our society, is more important than a new stadium roof, increased pay for MLAs or redecorated legislature offices.

I'm doing more than my part, now it is time for you, too.


  1. Thank you so much for explaining the issues from your perspective, so clearly. I'm writing my MLA right now, which is something I have been meaning to do but so far haven't.

    1. Thanks for your support Amber! And thanks for the reminder, I have yet to write to my MLA (too busy protesting outside his office, lol). Will do that this weekend.

  2. I was not a huge fan of the unions when I taught in LA b/c they seemed mostly bent on protecting the status quo (choosing classes by seniority, tenure and making it next to impossible to fire bad teachers, etc.). It seems like your union is up to a lot more good! You have laid out an excellent case here for what decreased funding looks like in your district. In general, funding for education is a matter of public will. Students are not yet voting age and not all adults are parents of school-aged children, so children's interests often are not represented well in the political system. It's stupid, b/c we will pay for it economically down the road, but it's hard for politicians to be far-sighted, and that seems to be getting only worse. At least you seem to have the courts on your side! Honestly, it's just incredible to think what the average classroom teacher is asked to deal with these days with little to no support.

    1. I agree Betsy. I also agree with you that there can be the inherent problems of seniority and teacher evaluation. I like to think that my union is fighting for the common good of all at the moment.

  3. You do a great job connecting education with concern for the environment - and frankly, for any social issue. Educated kids grow into informed citizens.

    More personally, though, as a parent, this just kills me. Our public school system in California is so barebones and the educators are required to do so very much with so very little. Please keep up the fight for the next generation! You are a true superhero!