It may be time for cooler heads to prevail

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.




Filed under Education Policy, Educational Change, Educational commentary, Public education

9 responses to “It may be time for cooler heads to prevail

  1. Shannon

    Thank you Grant for putting into words what many of us have been thinking.

  2. Terry

    Grant, great article. As I have worked in management before I was a teacher, I have seen this game before. They play hard ball with civil servants and then spend the savings to curry favour with their donors, led by the AIMS group. This has been going on in North America for many years and is funded by billionaires all around the world. They are trying to get their greedy hands on ever more public funds. Education and health care is the pot at the end of the rainbow for them. We do need to fight against these very well funded elite that have no interest in public education. John Risley sent his kids to the Halifax Grammar School and Paul Bennett was headmaster there. He was, however let go 2 years into a 5 year contract. Their interest is in getting there hands on public funds, not in better, well rounded students coming out of our schools.

    Keep up your good work!

    • Hi Terry, thanks for reading. Yes, Bennett is funded by AIMS, I believe, and there is quite a net of intrigue there for those so inclined to put the pieces together. It is also of note that the president of St. Mary’s sits on the board of Governors at AIMS, if I am not mistaken. Seems a nice tight little circle, doesn’t it? Anyhow, thanks again, and I appreciate your comments.

  3. Marc lavoie

    Well said and explained. One just has to take the time and read this article and ask the right questions. Teachers are not the ennemy, they care for the wellbeing of the students and care for their success.

    • Thanks Marc. Bennett wrote in the newspaper on Saturday that anyone who actually cares about education in this province should be concerned about the Auditor General’s report. Even the casual observer should be asking themselves what his angle is, since he does not now, nor ever has, worked in the public education system. It doesn’t take much digging to see that he aligned with AIMS, an institution bent on getting private hands on public funds.
      Thanks for reading and the comments.

  4. Steve B Watson.

    Another consideration that needs to be taken into account (and a little credit to CBC) were the comments of Acadia prof. Michael Corbett, who pointed out that NS education system is, in fact, one of the better ones on the planet. I’m paraphrasing, bit he said that Nova Scotia’ education system out performs those of Switzerland, Australia & the UK. Over 90% of Nova Scotians graduate from High School, the highest rate in Canada.

    The “crisis in education” has been pretty much manufactured, and the DoE’s own literature even agrees. Despite painting it as a doomsday scenario, the DoE’s “Disrupting the Status Quo clearly states “The academic performance of students in Nova Scotia has remained fairly consistent over time, based on national and international assessments of mathematics, science, and reading.” (p.9). All of this despite decreases in funding, chop and change curriculum and increased workloads on teachers.

    We’re actually doing a good job, and could do a better one of the DoE got out of the way. The Union should make sure a copy of Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine” is in every teacher mailbox so they can read and understand what game the Province is playing.

    20,000 respondents to the surveys, all done in the attempt to contribute to bettering education, were used. The subsequent Action Plan the province published has been exposed as nothing more than a very expensive pawn in the attempt to claw money out of the teaching profession , both in salary and service awards. the document itself is loaded with neo-liberal buzzwords but offered no substance whatsoever.

    However, a read of the document reveals another hard truth – this document is not about students at all. It’s about placing THE SYSTEM on a pedestal to which all others must conform. The various NS DoE documents confirm the realization of a more diverse learner that ever before, but the solution to all of these great diversities is… standardized tests, which have confirmed the need for standardized tests. And the dog continues to chase its tail.

    In the end you have a system that philosophically promotes “one size fits all” that is far from updating “old education models” and never truly fits anybody.

    • Thanks for the comment, Steve!
      I agree with you that we are in the midst of a fairly well backed neo-liberal swing here in Nova Scotia. In fact, prior to this post I had been working on an article on that exact topic, and have presented on the subject of how GERM has truly infected NS education. My hope is that by writing about this, the public will start to question the wave of private sector interference into education, and start demanding more trust of teachers and less interference by our politicians. Thanks again for your comments.

  5. Cliff McKay

    Grant, you’ve provided a really thoughtful analysis of the choice facing teachers tomorrow. But I wonder if getting those zeros is all McNeil wants. If he does win this one, will his anti-public sector and anti-Union tendencies be satisfied, or will it encourage him to transfer even more resources from the public sector to private contracts? With such public figures as Graham Steele and Ralph Surette leaping aboard, one has to wonder where McNeil’s neo-liberal train is headed.
    Also, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed your earlier comments on Paul Bennett; they’ve helped me to read Bennett’s articles on education the way one might read the text of a speech by Donald Trump.

    • Hi Cliff, thanks for reading.
      Yes, I worry about McNeil’s plan as well. It rather seems to me that we don’t actually have a left in this provine anymore, and no matter how the vote goes, I am sure the next few years will be tough on teachers.
      It is interesting that you use the term “neo-liberal” when referring to McNeil. That is actually the focus of my next piece. As to Bennett, the piece that was making the rounds was actually my first blog, and was written in 2012. Seems not much has changed on that front.
      Anyhow, thanks again for you comments.

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