Ah, reporters…ya’ gotta love ’em.
This week, CBC reporter Jean Laroche broke a story about the behaviour of some teachers during the current Work to Rule campaign. At issue was the discovery that 11 teachers had elected to travel to an international education conference in Hawaii, even while the teachers of the province were withdrawing services from students. According to the story, “Taxpayers dollars helped send teachers to Hawaii during work-to-rule”, the decision by the NSTU to allow teachers to attend professional development sessions was setting a double standard.
Well, actually, no it wasn’t. But I will get to that.
Now, I do respect Laroche as a reporter, and often read his work. However, when this story broke, there were a number of concerns expressed by teacher supporters about the timing of the piece. Laroche was able to get ample comment from the Minister of Education on the story, who was happy to use the moment to try to sway public opinion against the teachers. Giving Laroche such gems as “I don’t know how the union can defend that,” and “How can you defend supporting and promoting and protecting activities for teachers and not for students?” the Minister was quick to throw her own workforce under the proverbial school bus.
Laroche was unable, however, to get a comment from the NSTU, which was locked in talks with the government and, to its credit, wanted to honor the collective bargaining process by remaining under a media blackout. That meant that in order for Laroche to get a comment from them, he would need to wait until Friday.
He chose not to, and the story ran on Thursday.
Now, before I get lambasted for treating Laroche unfairly, let me say again, I admire his work. He has shown a penchant for being unbiased which is rather refreshing, and which is certainly a trait to which I can lay no claim. However, this story, somewhat uncharacteristically, rather rang of one-sidedness.
To begin with, let’s clarify that this money is not taxpayer’s money any more than my salary is. At the heart of it, as a public servant, all my money comes from the taxpayers, (and a fair chunk of it, just like every other Nova Scotian, goes back). However, when it comes to this particular issue, this was something achieved ages ago through the collective bargaining process. At some point in our history, instead of offering salary compensation, the government offered to put money aside so that teachers could get training.
Now, the dispensation of this money is done through a committee made up equally of NSTU members and representatives from the various school boards. However, it is the employer who sets the priorities for the fund. These priorities are determined by the needs of the employer, with preference being given, for example, to such areas as leadership, French immersion, and culturally relevant teaching practices.
This means that, in some instances, if I apply for money that has been provided to me in lieu of salary, I may not be able to access it if my path of professional development does not line up with the priorities of the board.
To put it another way, the employer has a pretty big voice in determining where I spend my own money.
Then, of course, there is the issue of location. Many an eyebrow was raised when it was revealed that these teachers had travelled to Hawaii, and Laroche made a point of listing other destinations, including Finland, Toronto and Florida. What is missing from the piece, however, is that although these destinations seem exotic, the fact is that very few international educational conference organizers see fit to hold events in, for example, Regina. Outside of “The Big Smoke”, if teachers wish to train at high quality events, and exchange ideas with teachers from across the globe, they must often travel to major international centers.
Now, in the name of full disclosure, if I had to decide between a February conference in Florida and one in Regina, I am pretty sure I am heading South, no offence. However, it is also of some note that, regardless of where they travel, the money teachers receive for professional development is finite, and it is in the form of a reimbursement, not a grant. It may very well be that travelling to Florida in February is not only preferable to Regina, it may, indeed, be cheaper. For example, as of today, I can book a return flight on Air Canada from Halifax to Regina for $716.00.
That brings us to the double standard issue.
Although I could certainly go on for quite some time about the Minister’s decision to speak to the media during negotiations, I will temper my response on that. Suffice it to say that this latest disparaging commentary on the very workforce she is supposed to be leading has done nothing for her credibility. Certainly, few teachers will be sad to see her go. But I feel that there needs to be some accounting for her view that somehow, teachers pursuing professional development during a work to rule job action is, indeed, a double standard.
The general thrust of her argument, and of a follow-up story by the CBC was that the decision of the NSTU to allow teachers to attend professional development sessions while asking them to step back from extracurricular events was hypocritical. The minister was quite pointed in her criticism, stating in the Laroche interview that “Teachers have a right to professional development, but if you’re saying after a certain cut-off date no more activities for kids because of the work-to-rule, but they are allowing their own profession to participate in activities after Dec. 5, that would be considered voluntary. So to me, there’s two sets of rules here.”
With as much respect as I can muster for the minister, I feel I must correct her. There are most certainly not “two sets of rules here”. There is one set of rules. Teachers prefer to refer to them as articles in our collective agreement.
You see, the thing about teaching is that getting better in our craft is one of the foundational pillars on which the profession stands. Indeed, professional development is considered so fundamental to the nature of teaching that it is embedded directly into our professional code of ethics. So these “activities” as she refers to them, are actually an ethical obligation of the profession, ensconced in our contract.
Unfortunately for some students and their parents, offering activities such as extracurricular events and trips to Spain, is not.
And, regardless of what you call it or how it is perceived, the teachers in this province are not being mean. The teachers in this province are on strike.
Laroche faced a barrage of criticism on social media for this story, both for the timing and its one sidedness, so I will leave it at that. I admittedly know nothing of the pressures of being a news reporter, and as much as I may have agreed with some of his critics, it is my understanding that other outlets were pursuing this story as well. This was, most probably, a simple matter of Laroche being first past the post.
However, the teachers in question attended an international conference for which they had been pre-approved, on their own time, using monies they have been granted in lieu of salary, (yet to be paid out, I might add), in order to enhance their teaching, fulfilling the ethical expectations of the profession.
In short, they did nothing wrong.
I will be gracious enough to apply the same judgement, although perhaps somewhat begrudgingly, to Mr. Laroche.
However, as to the minister, that, my friends, is another story altogether.