Last weekend, approximately 300 teachers, guests, and NSTU staff descended upon the Westin hotel in downtown Halifax for a once a year event known as Annual Council. This tradition spans over one hundred years now, and the meeting, which brings NSTU teacher representatives in from all corners of the province, is the largest single gathering of its kind all year. Although the NSTU October Conference day has professional development sessions that are comparable as far as numbers are concerned, this event exists solely for the purpose of conducting NSTU business. It is here that budgets are determined, elections are held, and where the overall priorities of the Union are set for the upcoming year.
This particular weekend, it also saw the almost-historic attendance by the Honorable Tim Houston, Premier of Nova Scotia.
According to union lore, Houston is exactly the third Premier of the province to grace the gathering with their presence. The last to visit was apparently Rodney MacDonald, which perhaps was not surprising considering he was a teacher. Prior to that, one has to go all the way back to Robert Stanfield to note a moment when the leader of the Province took the time to speak directly to the NSTU in what is, ostensibly, its own house.
Houston was accompanied by Minister of Education Becky Druhan, and although Minister Druhan spoke well, Houston stole the show. He spoke off the cuff, seemingly at ease in front of the crowd, and showed a surprising amount of poise considering the strained relationship his government has inherited. Indeed, the last time I saw a government official standing in front of teachers, it was then Liberal Education Minister Zach Churchill. He was; rather infamously, met with a chorus of boos and jeers from a less than appreciative teacher crowd. Houston not only elicited a laugh or two out of the audience, but even managed to garner himself a few rounds of applause from the room.
Houston hit a number of right notes during his time on stage. He spoke of how the past two years of pandemic education showed the value of what teachers do. He expressed his gratitude for teachers’ ability to pivot from in-person to online learning so quickly, and of how he recognized the challenges that presented. He also made special note of how teachers have worked so diligently to give children some semblance of normalcy in what was an otherwise up-side-down world. He finished by emphasizing that his government was listening to teachers, and that it would continue to do so. Afterall, it is much easier to move forward if we are all pulling in the same direction.
Truth be told, that is pretty much exactly what the crowd was hoping to hear. The biggest beef that teachers had with the previous government (and there were a boat load of them) was ultimately that they simply would not listen to teacher concerns in any meaningful fashion. During his comments, NSTU President Paul Wozney spoke appreciatively about how under the new regime, he was able to contact Minister Druhan directly and discuss issues of mutual interest and concern.
There is some question in union circles as to whether the previous government would even answer the phone.
I wouldn’t imagine that there are many readers out there who have not recognized by now that I am a pretty staunch unionist. I also, however, like to remain realistic, when I can. I don’t suppose for a second that this visit by the Premier into our hallowed halls will lead to us all holding hands and singing Kumbaya around the next bargaining table. Nor, I must admit, do I believe it should. I am a school teacher, yes, but also a taxpayer. A certain distance between union and government is not necessarily a bad thing.
As well, we have seen this show before, at least parts of it. Although the Premier may have been the first in many moons to pay teachers this homage, it has often been the habit of Education ministers to come to Annual Council to address the room, particularly in the first year of their mandate. If my memory serves, the last person in that particular role to do so was none other than Karen Casey, who also came with promises of a government that would listen to teachers and of free and fair collective bargaining.
I think most of us remember how that turned out.
This is why I can’t quite bring myself to declare that the Premier’s visit has instilled me with some sort of cliché “cautious optimism” when it comes to the future of public education in the province. The abject abuse that was heaped on our profession by the previous government followed by two years of pandemic education has left deep and troubling scars. As well, policy decisions that have their origins in the contentious Glaze report continue to be the engines that drive educational decision making right across this province. As teacher shortages mount, none of these factors are doing much to improve the situation.
I respect what the Premier did this weekend. It takes a great deal of nerve to stand up in a quasi-hostile environment and tell people that you will listen to their concerns.
Listening, however, is very, very different from hearing. For the sake of public education in this province, this teacher hopes that Tim Houston understands that particular nuance better than his predecessor.