2017 marked the end of my 23rd year in this business, and I don’t know if I have ever been happier to see one fading away in my rear view mirror.
The year started with the Nova Scotia Teachers Union and the provincial Liberals still locked in the nasty labour dispute which had dominated the latter part of 2016. The Liberals were holding tough to their rather short-sighted austerity measures, and the NSTU was trying to navigate its very first strike action in 100 years, in the form of a work-to-rule campaign. It was under this shadow that the year began in a more than somewhat foreboding fashion.
It was under this same shadow that CBC reporter Jean LaRoche dealt a fairly heavy body blow to the teachers’ cause by releasing a story on a group of teachers who had chosen to attend a conference in Hawaii in the midst of the work-to-rule campaign, which had halted all extra-curricular involvement by teachers. Although professional development and extra-curricular activities are very different entities, Education Minister Karen Casey was quick to use this somewhat fortuitously timed piece against her own employees, stating that this showed there were two sets of rules, one for the students, and one for teachers.
By the end of 2017’s inaugural month, yet another contract had been hammered out between the NSTU and the Liberal government, but teachers remained unimpressed. The way in which the bargaining process had been handled had caused many teachers to develop a healthy level of mistrust for the governing Liberals. The Premier’s late January statements around the use of two “development days” from the new deal, which conflicted with what teacher’s had come to understand, seemed to be the final nail in the proverbial coffin. The February vote saw almost 80% of teachers reject this third offer from the government.
Facing a workforce that seemed as determined as he seemed obstinate, the Premier announced that he would be enacting legislation to force a contract on teachers. This resulted in the province’s first ever full-blown teachers’ strike, and by Tuesday, February 21st, after an all-night sitting of the legislature, the Liberal government used their majority government to enact Bill 75, and the strike, for all intents and purposes, was over.
March and April would prove to be rather quiet, educationally at least. However, still stinging from what many saw as a betrayal, teachers began to become politically active. Soon, Facebook groups were popping up, calling on the general membership to join together to oust the Liberals. In March, CBC reported that the McNeil Liberals were falling behind in the public opinion polls, and with the coming of spring, an election was called, accompanied, perhaps not surprisingly, by a myriad of spending announcements, including the twinning of highways and the construction of new hospitals.
The election was set for May 30th, and on that fateful day, something amazing happened.
No one showed up.
Despite all the controversy and all the protests, Nova Scotians stayed home in droves. By final count, less than 54% of eligible voters bothered to go to the polls, possibly the lowest voter turn-out in our Province’s history, and McNeil was able to maintain a slim majority in the house.
With his new mandate, McNeil shuffled his cabinet, and Karen Casey was replaced. The new Minister of Education, Zach Churchill wasted no time putting his stamp on things, and in July announced, rather unceremoniously, that any school reviews currently underway would be halted, pending what he was calling “…a complete review of the administrative structure of the education system.” This included, to the surprise of many, the review of the Cole Harbour and Auburn family of schools in metro, which had all but been completed.
By mid-summer, the minister was again making the news, announcing that the province would be rolling out a new Early Childhood Education (ECE) program for pre-school aged children. The program was widely criticized on many fronts, with concerns being raised about everything from staffing to the impact on special needs children. However, the government forged ahead, and the new ECE centers began opening in September.
As teachers returned to the classrooms, it quickly became quite clear that this was going to be a very challenging year for front line educators. Teachers had always viewed themselves as a somewhat special group, working tirelessly for the students (rather than working, unappreciated to a large extent, for the province). Caring for and about children is a fundamental trait of the profession, and is unlikely to change any time soon, under any conditions. However, September found many teachers doing some fairly serious soul-searching about how they were being valued as employees, and what that meant for them individually.
It was also in September that Nova Scotia came face-to-face with a fairly uncomfortable modern-day reality. Teachers are simply not in supply like they once were. As late as the end of September, boards were looking to fill jobs, with one school resorting to placing robo-calls to parents to assist in recruitment efforts. September also saw a new attendance policy rolled out, the first major policy enacted by the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions, a problem solving body created as a result of the job action. The policy did smack somewhat of repetition, but it is too early to say whether it will have the desired impact of reducing both absenteeism and teacher workload.
By October, it became clear that it was full steam ahead for the Liberals, as they hired Dr. Avis Glaze, and international education consultant to review the administrative structure of the province’s education system. Glaze was given until the end of 2017 to finish her review and although she recognized this as a short timeline, she indicated in a number of interviews that she felt the deadline could be met.
As the year wrapped up, the shortage of teachers began to take its toll, as replacement teachers, many of whom had been hired to fulfil class cap commitments, became scarce. This shortage began to create chaos in some schools, with the practice of teachers covering off for absent colleagues becoming the daily norm. This has also seen schools taking such drastic steps as putting children into other classrooms for the day when there are simply not enough staff to go around.
And that, my friends, was 2017 in a nutshell.
It is perhaps somewhat indicative, of the year that was, that this summary is not exhaustive. I didn’t even mention the inclusion commission, nor the NSTU’s rather historic alignment with the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour, nor the Department’s continuing efforts to develop a set of provincial teaching standards, nor the multi-Union legal challenge to Bill 148, nor the necessity for the province’s largest board to hire non-qualified teachers to fill the staffing gaps. I believe that if I were to give this year its due, I would be writing all day.
Suffice it to say that it has been a year of educationally epic proportions.
I don’t really know what to expect in 2018. Dr. Glaze has not likely come all this way to not enact significant change to the system. As well, with both teaching standards due to be introduced and the inclusion commission due to release its recommendations, we are undoubtedly in for another year of flux and change in our system. However, it is not the change itself that has me so concerned when I look forward to 2018.
It is the state of the teachers themselves that has me truly rattled.
If 2017 taught us anything, it should have taught us that teachers are struggling. In 2018, I have no doubt that we will continue to suffer from a shortage of teachers, and, should we hit a nasty ‘flu season, we could see situations of schools having to shut down for the day due to a lack of staff. But even this rather drastic development pales in comparison to my trepidation about the system as a whole.
Teaching, like every other profession these days, must compete for new blood. The workforce is changing, and if we wish to continue to have a world class education system, we must look for ways to make teaching an attractive profession for our young people, and create the conditions by which the ones we have, stay. In many ways, 2017 was a warning that, to my mind, has gone largely unheeded.
I am not sure I want to think about what the system will look like if this continues through 2018.
Let’s all hope for a much happier New Year.