Well, isn’t this one dilly of a pickle.
On Tuesday, December 1st, the approximately 9000 or so teachers in this Province will go to the polls to decide whether to accept or reject the current contract offer from the McNeil government. I say “offer’ a bit cautiously, of course. Many teachers and observers alike seem of the mind that the current contract that is on the table is more of a “take it or we will make your lives miserable” ultimatum from the Liberals. And debate is raging in staff rooms and chat rooms up and down our fair Province, with passionate arguments coming from both sides.
Such division makes good copy, and the opinions expressed in The Chronicle Herald over the past few days have been boisterous, if nothing else. A letter by former NSTU presidential candidate Eric Boutilier that appeared on Tuesday was certainly noisy ; he referred to the current deal as “the worst tentative deal in recent history” and called on the NSTU to “show some backbone”. There were also at least two pieces in Thursday’s paper, one reporting on how the NSTU lead negotiator, Ron Pink, was encouraging the membership to vote “yes”, and a letter to the editor by NSTU member Alexander Clark urging teachers to vote “no”.
In the midst of all this was the CBC’s interview on Monday of consummate commentator Paul Bennett for his take on the contract. Now, if you want to drive up hits on a website, having Bennett offer his poor-excuse-for-an-armchair-quarterback opinion on education is a surefire way to do so. Bennett often skews the facts, and has been known to get them completely wrong from time-to-time, but his comments about how teachers in Nova Scotia do not care about children must have had the CBC’s hit counters (and their bean counters) dancing.
Adding fuel to the fire are the mixed messages coming from the government. Yes, some of the more contentious issues contained in the nefarious Action Plan have been taken off the table, but the threat of legislation has opened legislation as a possibility. Under this cloud, Premier McNeil’s assurance that none is forthcoming rings a bit hollow for some, particularly when his own Education Minister has stated quite clearly that, for the teachers of this Province, co-operating with the government on those contentious issues would be in our “best interest”.
Welcome to hard ball.
And I think it is that hard ball approach that has awakened the giant, so to speak. Teachers, honestly, tend to be a fairly passive lot. But, there is a different feel to this one. Teachers are angry. Not all of them, mind you. But enough that it is noticeable. And the most bizarre thing about it is that they don’t seem particularly angry about the deal itself. The majority don’t seem concerned about the pittance of a raise, (Pretty smart folks, teachers. We get the basic economics of Nova Scotia) and to be honest, several of the teachers I have spoken to didn’t even know that they got a service award, let alone expected it to be around when they retired.
Many teachers also seem to realize that if we do vote “No” we may actually end up with a worse deal than is currently on the table. So, in the end, it seems, it is not about what the government has taken away.
It is about how it was done.
You see, this is a generation of teachers who has seen their workload increase almost exponentially since they began in the profession. They have witnessed everything from the advent of the cellphone to the rise of standardized test scores as a measure of a teacher’s effectiveness. They have found themselves working longer hours to meet ever-increasing student needs, all the while facing accountability standards imposed by systems which make them feel disposable. They have suffered an almost continuous attack on everything from upgrades to snow days, in every possible media forum, and an increasing dialogue that seems hell-bent on convincing everyone that they are not doing a good enough job. And there is no escape. Driving home listening to the radio, reading the morning newspaper, watching the evening news, even comments from the Minister of Education herself. Schools are failing, kids aren’t learning, teachers are to blame.
Then the government apparently says “Take this offer or we will make your life worse”?
Some teachers are asking themselves “How?”
As much as the profession has been maligned in the last few years, we are essentially a profession of martyrs. Many, many teachers give of their time and energy to help the kids in their classrooms succeed. And, please don’t mistake that as an attempt to garner sympathy for us; we legitimately do it because that is how most of us are wired. We truly do like your kids, and usually don’t stop very often to add up all those extra hours. Yet, many of the teachers I have spoken to in the last few days know what is at stake. They realize that voting “no” on this contract will probably mean a worse offer in the end. They also know that, if the government legislates, their reality will get much, much harder.
And some of them are saying that they are willing to take that chance to stand up to a bully.
Teachers are angry, and they are feeling abused. The pent up frustration of the last few years of hearing nothing but “schools are failing” is taking its toll. In a nut shell, all those mild-mannered lovely teachers are, finally, looking to punch someone in the mouth. And many feel this is their opportunity to do so.
And as sure as I am that many teachers are ready to take whatever comes, I have to wonder if the same is true for the Liberal Government. Or the average Nova Scotian, for that matter. The ramifications of a “No” vote on this deal, and the ensuing fallout, does not bode well for any one. I don’t mean to sound ominous, but there is a lot of school year left. This is only December, and it is a long, long way to June.
On Friday, a coalition of 6 past NSTU presidents released a statement urging a return to the table. Commenting in the Herald, spokesperson for the group, Brian Forbes suggested that the vote should be suspended so that the NSTU could have an opportunity to express its concerns to the McNeil government and so that the process could be played out in a more traditional manner. And, for my money, that is undoubtedly the best suggestion I have heard all week.
Let’s have both sides agree that they have heard the concerns of teachers and are willing to come back to the table. Everyone saves face, teachers feel like their voices have been heard, and McNeil may very well still get the zeros he so obviously wants.
If not, well then, it very well may be “game on”. And folks like me will have a great deal more to write about this winter than snow days.