The New Normal

Well folks, September is upon us, and amidst the scurry for school supplies, electro-gadgets, and fidget spinners sits a rather significantly large elephant.

September always comes with the promise of a fresh start; a new beginning as it were. Students walk into recently painted schools and are met by rejuvenated teachers. The buildings are fairly bursting with optimism.

However, this September comes with a bit more baggage than most. After last year’s maelstrom of interactions with the government that could only loosely be referred to as bargaining, many teachers are asking themselves one fairly important question.

“What will be my new normal”?

As I sit down to type this piece, wrapped snugly in the warm promise of a beautiful late August morning, it seems a lifetime ago that teachers were locked in what felt like a life or death struggle with the McNeil Liberals. The image of thousands of teachers marching in frozen February streets, chanting “Negotiate, Don’t Dictate!” may be etched into the collective psyche, but in the heat of summer, that fateful Tuesday morning when Bill 75 was passed seems like a long time ago indeed.

However, this week, school parking lots have gotten inevitably more and more crowded with teachers heading back to work early, preparing for the upcoming school year. For many, sacrificing the last few days of summer vacation is a necessity; a way of ensuring that the year goes smoothly. Oddly enough, no teacher who has ever done this, myself included, has ever seen this activity as “working for free”.

That is, until now.

And therein lies the elephant. The last round of negotiations, tainted with the threat and, ultimately, the enactment of legislation, caused teachers to look at their profession as they never had before. The extra hours and the ice-cream socials and the seemingly endless meetings were all simply part of the job; a job where, in many instances, teachers were measured by how much they sacrificed. Arriving early and staying late became such common practice that only the absence of such commitment would be noted. Teachers who showed up on time and who left at the end of the day were almost pariahs.

I believe that is because of how we have come to frame our own narratives. Teachers have never thought of themselves as working for the province; they have always thought of themselves as working for the kids. Within that framework, almost nothing was too much to ask. Yet, as September approaches, and as teachers begin to return to school, many cheeks will still be stinging from the slap in the face received this past winter when McNeil reminded them they were all simply employees. Although both Bill 75 and now Bill 148 will be challenged in the courts, their impact will be felt long after any verdict is rendered.

The job action of last year gave teachers an opportunity to realize exactly how much they were doing that was outside of their contractual obligations. Many now talk in terms of what they “got back” during work to rule. Time for their families, time for their students, time for themselves, all suddenly available in unprecedented quantities. For my money, it will be that realization that will define this school year.

Critics will accuse me of over-romanticizing, and perhaps there is some truth in that. But this September, many teachers will be viewing their jobs through a very different lens.

It will be interesting to see if what was gained by the Premier in imposing a contract on teachers will ultimately be worth what has been lost.

Originally published in The Chronicle Herald on August 30th, 2017.

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