As hard as it is to believe, September has come and gone, and all around the Province, teachers and students are settling into some semblance of a routine.
This year has already presented some very unique challenges, as has consistently been the case since Stephen McNeil’s Liberals were first handed the keys to Province house some five years ago. Some of these challenges have been publicly aired, such as the busing boondoggle and, more recently, the appointment of members to the mysteriously empowered (and even more mysteriously selected) Public Advisory Council on Education (PACE). Other challenges have been of a more “behind the scenes” ilk, including navigating the new relationship between administrators and teachers, and to whom, precisely, educational concerns should be addressed now that elected school boards are gone. Of course, all of this is going on as the Liberal government is trumpeting its hiring of 190 new educational workers as evidence of their commitment to the inclusion report, while simultaneously seeming to ignore the same report’s recommendation to establish an official Institute for Inclusive Education.
It looks like it is going to be another one of those years.
One development of note that has gone almost unrecognized by anyone outside of the profession, and which I find particularly indicative of this government’s approach to such things, involves marking and preparation time. Contractually, teachers are entitled to 30 minutes, on average, of marking and prep time per day. There had, traditionally, been some discrepancy across the Province in how marking and prep time were handled, with some rural boards getting less and other boards, notably HRCE, getting more. However, it now appears that every teacher in the Province has, officially, had their preparation and marking time reduced to meet the lowest allowable contractual threshold.
Now, to be fair, when it comes to marking and preparation time, how much is actually enough is anyone’s guess. There is no research that I have come across to suggest that there is a particular amount that will serve all needs. Nationally, it seems that Nova Scotia is near the bottom of the proverbial barrel on this one, although it should be recognized that since each jurisdiction across Canada has a unique way of doing things, it is hard to compare and contrast the various systems. However, a quick look at data provided by the Canadian Teachers Federation from 2013 would seem to indicate that when it comes to teacher preparation time, we are rather riding the Canadian caboose.
It is of some note, however, that during the various labour conflicts of the past few years, one of the key concerns raised by teachers was that they felt overwhelmed by not having enough time in their workday to handle the ever increasing expectations of the job. This was one of the many issues encapsulated by the term “working conditions” which became a rallying cry for the movement. During that time, certain issues, like class size, seemed to resonate quite well, and indeed, the NSTU was able to make some gains in that area, presumably because it was an issue to which parents could relate. Prep time, however, is a bit tougher for the general public to get behind. As a parent, I may understand why having 35 kids in a class may be bad for my child, but I may have a harder time understanding how embedding release time in a teacher’s day will benefit my little Johnny, or little Jenny, as the case may be.
As a union leader, it would undoubtedly be expected that I would be out pounding the drums looking to increase benefits for my members, and that is a fair criticism. And even I recognize that the contract states quite clearly that teachers are, indeed, only entitled to about 30 minutes per day of prep time. That some may have enjoyed more than that in the past was more of a perk of geography than anything else.
However, remembering that only a few short months ago many teachers were poised to walk off the job for better working conditions, I have to wonder what sort of impact this continued erosion is having on them. If the teachers in HRCE, for example (which make up almost half the teachers in the province, by the way) were feeling overwhelmed when they may have had extra prep time, what impact is the reduction of that time having on them as a workforce? Considering the difficulties we are currently experiencing in finding substitute teachers, this seems a rather odd time to be putting more pressure on an already struggling system.
Last year I wrote about some concerns I had around the impact this sub shortage was having on teachers, focusing specifically on a somewhat new development in worker safety. A few years back, (2013 to be precise) the Canadian Mental Health Commission launched The National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace; a voluntary set of rules and practices that could be adopted by an employer to look after their employees’ overall mental wellness. The standard is promoted as a relatively inexpensive way to help employers in everything from worker productivity to recruitment and retention. The body of research that accompanies this initiative is as vast as it is convincing. It would be hard to argue that adopting this standard and implementing the accompanying recommendations would be anything but a positive step for any employer.
This idea has taken hold so firmly, in fact, that just a few days ago, a brand new Office of Workplace Mental Health opened its doors in order to “create a positive culture of mental health and wellness” in many Nova Scotian public sector workplaces. Listed as that organization’s very first priority for 2018/19 is following the aforementioned standard. Somewhat sadly, teachers were not among the public sectors employees included in the list of those to be serviced.
As this school year begins to unfold, it is already being marred by uncertainty and, once again, an increase in expectations for many in the classroom. Despite all the protests, despite the impassioned pleas, it seems that asking educators to “do more with less” remains the status quo.
It is beyond time for the government to consider the impact this attitude toward their educational workforce is having on your child’s teacher.
Originally published in The Chronicle Herald, Monday, October 15th.