The mountain and the mole hill

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.

Orlando: $380.00.

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.

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26 Comments

Filed under Education Policy, Professional Development, Public education, Teacher certification, Teacher strike, Teacher Training, Teacher Unions

26 responses to “The mountain and the mole hill

  1. Amanda Marchand

    And very interesting how the Minister was available for comment during Conciliation…I’ll leave it at that…

  2. Wanda L.Atwell

    hear, hear. I found the timing of the story to be in bad taste. However, my taste buds were even more soured by the Minister feeling a need to make comment during negotiations. She has done nothing to help move discussions forward.

  3. mark sherlock

    I back the Teachers!
    Teachers attending ‘Any’ Conference etc at this point in time is 100% Wrong!
    You have the legal/negotiated right, but no matter how you defend it, it is Still Wrong!
    If the kids/student must suffer and be restricted, teachers should too!
    Lead by example!
    It Was Wrong!

    • Respectfully disagree, Mark, but thanks for weighing in.

    • Daniel LeBlanc

      At what time, in the history if education, did the teachers and students become peers? Many students feel entitled to all that their teachers are entitled to. Should parents go to bed the same time as their children do? As a child, I never felt slighted by my parents or teachers
      because their authority granted them certain privileges. Those privileges and other set of rules were not perceived as a “double-standard” but as a right in lieu of their much appreciated care and devotion to my education as an evolving human being.

  4. sharon riley

    well said, as a parent I still back the teachers and i understand fully what you have just explained in language I can understand… Shame on the minister, she surely will never be missed…..

  5. Chuck

    You mention that for example, as of today, you can book a return flight on Air Canada from Halifax to Regina for $716.00. Orlando: $380.00. You failed to mention the substantial exchange rates that would have been paid on accommodations, meals, & other additional travel expenses that would result in an additional 35% over and above the Canadian $. Also, I am sure these training excursions (vacations?) to exotic places are most certainly offered in Canadian locals. I don’t really care that the travel took place during your work to rule job action. The point should be that these exotic trips should be stopped and development trips should be restricted to within Canadian borders. You state that 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. Well, since we are in a negotiation situation, the Nova Scotia Government should be using this as a bargaining chip. I would suggest by restricting where these development excursions are allowed to take place and the amount of funding available, it would certainly free more money up to give the wage increase you supposedly say is not the reason for your job action (It’s for the children? Yeah right!). Nova Scotia taxpayers need to wake up and realize that this kind of squandering of tax payers dollars results in little to no benefit in the class room. Let me tell you I have talked to teachers who have gone on these trips and the time spent in development exercises versus entertainment is sinful.

    • Hi Chuck, thanks for the comment.
      The funding, as I mention, is limited, and travel costs change depending on location, of course. My point was rather that travelling in Canada is sometimes actually more expensive, and access to quality professional development opportunities limited. So travelling to a destination like Orlando might actually be less expensive than Canadian options.
      Thanks again for the comment.

      • gerald

        Hi Frostededucation, you said money was not taxpayer money because they made an agreement years ago that they get this instead of wages. Well we taxpayers pay the teachers wages so yeah we the taxpayers are paying for this trip.

      • Hi Gerald, thanks for the comment,

        Yes, that is true. All education funding does come from tax payers.

    • Monisa Boudreau

      Chuck I would like to add to your point. Would it not be much more economical to bring in a person to NS to head a conference within our Provincial borders rather than send 11 teachers out to Hawaii?

  6. Albert Johnson

    Thank you for the ” Mountain and the mole hill ” you expressed my feelings exactly . Education Minister Casey , as she did back in early December over the safety issue for students , showed total disregard for the teachers of Nova Scotia that she supposedly oversees as well as for confidentiality during negotiations .

    • Monisa Boudreau

      I’d like to comment on your post Albert if I may. If Minister Casey has shown total disrespect for the teachers then you must concede that the NSTU has shown total disrespect for the students for it is the Union who has denied the students class trips, documents for post secondary education, sports and therefore the related sport scholarships, help for the struggling student etc… My second point is to the subject of confidentiality. While it may be in the best interest of the NSTU, we, the taxpayers, are the ones who will responsible for any increase in finances that may be required to meet your demands. As such, it is my opinion that total disclosure should not only be necessary but legally required. Show me any other employer who sits back, unaware of how and where his money is being spent. You are Public Employees, as in employees of the public, se are the ones who are responsible for your paychecks. And before you rebut that point I will point out that I am a retired RN. My whole career I was required to be a union member and yes, I still feel this way. I should have been, just as you should be accountable and justifiable to those who are responsible for our income.

      • Hi Monisa, thanks for you multiple comments.
        I find your comment about the students interesting, if a tad skewed. The point of WTR is that we are working within the confines of our contract. Some of the items you mention are simply not contractual obligations. It is also of some note that the only other option is full blown walkout, which would be even harder on the students.
        The confidentiality referred to here is around bargaining. This is standard labour practice and may even be labour law that negotiations happen “in camera”. I am not sure what you mean by “total disclosure” but things like school board budgets are a matter of public record, and easily obtained online.
        Thanks again.

      • Monisa Boudreau

        ” the items you mention are simply not contractual obligations” This makes me very sad. I should not think that you should have to be contractually obligated to help a struggling child. It should just be your job. You are an educator, that is your responsibility. I also don’t think that it should be a contractual obligation to provide letters that are necessary, not just helpful but necessary, for a graduating child to pursue their post secondary education. We all have responsibilities outside of the basic description of our jobs. Do you think making tea or toast for a patient who was not well enough to eat at meal time was my contractual obligation as an RN. Absolutely not, but the safety, security and wellbeing of my patients, both physical and mental, was my ethical responsibility. Where do your ethics lie when you can turn away from a child that needs you help to move forward with their education?

      • Hello again.
        Monisa, let me ask you a question. When you were an RN, did you ever run into a situation where you were simply being asked to see too many patients during your shift? Did you ever get to a point where the needs of the patients in your care were beyond your resources? Did you ever hit a point where so much was being asked of you as far as forms and paperwork were concerned that you felt like that was taking away from your ability to make that tea and toast?
        That is what this is all about. Of course we want to give the best care to our students. However, the profession has reached a point where on a daily basis, we can’t. Teachers have been stretched to breaking by demands placed on them that have nothing to do with the kids.
        WTR is awful. But we have been placed in this situation by a government that has refused to bargain in good faith, and has refused to meaningfully address the learning conditions in our school.
        This is not about not helping kids. This is about being better able to help them on the other side of this.
        Thanks again for your views.

  7. Chris

    You say in your article that the money used to sponsor teachers attending conferences is “not taxpayers money anymore then my salary is…”and then say that “…as a public servant all my money comes from the taxpayers”

    Is there a typo in here? It’s contradictory and confusing.

    • Hi Chris,

      As Gerald points out, public servants, (teachers, nurses etc) are paid for by tax dollars. My point in the article is that at one point in our history, teachers negotiated to have some of that budget set aside for professional development.

  8. RC

    I don’t see how Jean Laroche can take any heat whatsoever. If you feel it seems “one-sided”, that’s because it literally is, the union offered no comment. That’s not his error or bad judgement, it’s the union’s. And yes, he mentions the destinations, why wouldn’t he? Detailing the reasons for these locations is the job of the union. The Education Minister violated your media black-out, not Jean Laroche.

    I can honestly say I haven’t heard of any backlash against Jean Laroche, but that may be the difference in the circles in which we we travel . I can also say that I am not rooting for one side or another in this dispute, the only reason I am even commenting on this post is because of the ever growing tendency to scream media bias every time they see a story they don’t like.

  9. Cale

    The teachers are not on strike…. If they were they wouldnt be getting paid…. Also your argument saying tax payers dollars didnt pay for their trips makes no sense. By that logic tax payers dollars dont pay for anything

    • Hi Cale, thanks for the comment.
      It is my understanding that any organized job action taken while in a legal strike position is considered a strike.(I may be wrong on that. If I am I will change the wording.)
      My point on taxpayers dollars is that, as a public servant, all my money, for whatever purposes, is supplied by taxpayers. The same goes for nurses, water workers etc.

      • Miles

        Hi…..I have some issues on both sides….some empathy for both sides. But to clarify some points…..1) ” 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” What is the union and the school board doing in this venue??? No other professional organization that I am aware of functions like this. Professional development should be managed by your professional association…your licensing body …. “elected” teachers , lay people appointed by government/ teachers….they determine what development is appropriate, and they manage what is the best bag for the buck…that would have solved the Drake issue I’m sure…(a catastrophe) 2) I would expect that expenses are tax deductable…which brings up opportunity costs that no one seems to analyse….even the government.
        So my argument is give the professional development to a professional body…give them the budget, and let them organize the best way to get the best for the greatest number of teachers….I would think that some could not afford to go to Hawaii… I couldn’t always go the the national events , or international courses ( I’m not a teacher) and I know many that couldn’t …so that is my argument re professional development…

      • Hi Miles. Thanks for the comment. The expenses are not tax deductible, but the money can be considered as a taxable benefit, so teachers pay tax on it in many instances.The idea of the board and the NSTU handling the fund is that both sides recognise the importance of professional development for teachers, but making decisions on funding can be politically charged. (As you can see). By having both sides at the table, both the employer and the NSTU must see the value in the training before it gets approved. I do like your idea of a professional association handlng the fund, but I doubt the govt would have much interest.
        Thanks again.

  10. Lamar eason

    Hi Grant,
    I agree on many points, but the one I thought no that folks are missing is that we actually were not doing the true definition of work to rule. In fact we did withdrawal contractual services. I agree with you about the trips being part of our negotiated right. My issue with the trips is that if we are saying that we are able to withdrawal services that have been negotiated in our contract which can also be professional development, such as local PD with an RCH Coordinator, program planning PD, literacy PD, etc, all things that can improve professional practice, why not allow that. My issue with the trips is that we allowed those for professional development but turned around and said other local PD that teachers may have wanted was not allowed.

    But then again, that is just my take.

  11. After reading this article it does answer a lot of questions that I had about this situation with the teachers I’m sorry but I don’t agree that these teachers should have been allowed to go, if our children can’t do any of their after school activities because of work to rule then teachers should not be allowed to attend any out of school activity as well. We had sports tournaments cancelled and teams not allowed to attend out of province tournaments because of work to rule and if the kids did get together as a team and even practiced the whole team would have been penalized, I think that those same rules should apply here, it was wrong for those teachers to go, we had to cancel our plans they should have cancelled theirs!

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