As the 2017-18 school year moves progressively onward, and as Nova Scotian students, teachers and parents alike all settle into familiar routines, there is one burning question that seems to be occupying a fair amount of educational air time these days.
What, exactly, is “The New Normal”?
That phrase was coined last year when the long and contentious labour dispute with teachers was brought to a rather unceremonious halt by the Liberal government’s imposition of Bill 75. The term was used to describe the way forward for teachers after what was, for all sides, an epic and emotionally charged fight. The general sense was that things would not, contrary to the government’s claims, go back to normal in Nova Scotia’s schools.
The challenge was, of course, that no one stepped up to create this new reality for teachers. The Liberal government had the capacity to do so, but seemed content to have placed all its eggs in the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions’ yet-to-be-proven basket. The individual school boards had, and still have, some capacity to improve the lot of teachers, but seem to be either unaware of how to do so, or are unwilling to go down that particular road. Finally, the provincial NSTU, the entity that has the greatest interest in improving the lives of teachers, had its hands bound by the collective agreement. Advising teachers in any collective capacity as to how, (or more specifically, how not) to do the job could easily be interpreted as “job action”.
So, after all rallies, after all the speeches, and after all the promises that things would be better, teachers returned this fall to a system that felt, to a fairly large extent, pretty much the same as it always had.
This is troubling for any number of reasons. It must be recognized that the outcry of passion and anger of last year was not a sudden spontaneous outburst. It was rather a slow build-up of frustration over years of increased demands and insufficient supports. And when teachers returned to work this fall, many found themselves asking what, in any practical terms at least, had changed.
Even in instances where the concerns raised during the strike were addressed, the solutions were often not what had been hoped for. Class caps are a welcome relief for some teachers, but for others it has led to unforeseen results, such as an increase in combined classes. Combined classes are not necessarily a bad thing in and of themselves, but if a teacher is not comfortable teaching “splits”, then stress levels rise.
Another example of this surrounds prep time. Under the new contract, if a teacher has to fill in during marking and prep time for a colleague, that teacher should get their prep time “back” within ten days. The contract says nothing, however, about what happens when a teacher gets pulled off hallway duty. Thus, this year, some teachers have seen excess marking and prep time reduced, replaced by duties which require no reciprocity on the employer’s part.
Add to this a shortage of supply teachers, and you have a system within which many are still struggling to find firm footing.
Just a few days ago, I spoke to CTV news on this issue, and the piece featured a comment from a local parent who expressed some concern that things had, indeed, changed. She mentioned that many parents were experiencing an imbalance among what extras were being offered at different schools. This should not come as a surprise. After all, these “extras” are one of the few areas where teachers can determine their own priorities. They can be required to give up outside-of-the-workday hours for any number of job embedded tasks, but whether they spend those hours on the ice-cream social or organizing prom is still within the realm of their control.
Now, teachers are always going to do stuff for kids. Indeed, for some, it is that “stuff” which fuels them. This dichotomy will undoubtedly continue to cause an imbalance among schools this year. Some buildings may have an abundance of teachers who find they are empowered by the high school musical. Others may be staffed by those who have discovered, probably only recently, that they are rejuvenated by time spent at home.
This year is a pivotal one for us, not just as a profession, but as a province. Regardless of where one sits on the political spectrum, it must be recognized that, although teachers might have been driven over the edge by Stephen MacNeil and Karen Casey, the process of driving them to the edge predated the current government. We must realize, when it comes to figuring out their new normal, teachers are going to need both patience and, more importantly, support from all those who value public education.
In the absence of either, I fear that before long, extra-curriculars and ice cream socials will be the very least of our worries.
Originally published in in edited form in The Chronicle Herald, October 20th, 2017.