The recent labour unrest in the education sector of Ontario has caused me to reflect upon why this now seems to be the rule rather than the exception. Many pundits lay blame on the Conservative government of the mid-1990s led by Mike Harris. You might legitimately ask: Why does government policy twenty years ago have anything to do with today’s current reality?
The seeds of teacher unrest have spread exponentially over the years. Pick any one of these factors:
- an overcrowded and largely irrelevant provincial curriculum that focuses more on rote learning than problem solving, leaving little room for teacher choice/student interest;
- an undue emphasis on standardized testing that doesn’t really measure student learning, nor take into account differences in children or their learning styles;
- reducing the powers of duly-elected school board trustees, which limited local initiatives;
- the amalgamation of small boards into super large ones that was supposed to increase efficiency but mostly created chaos and duplication of services;
- the ‘slash and burn’ approach to additional supports, such as special education classes and teacher assistants, have made the job of classroom teachers more difficult; and
- the continuous public whipping of teachers by Mike Harris and Ministers of Education, such as John Snobelen, to destroy morale and humiliate teachers.
Another major factor that few have acknowledged was the government policy to take school administrators out of the teachers’ union. This too has had a divisive affect on the interpersonal relationships among school staff. From a viewpoint of ‘we’, a team with the best interests of children at heart, the focus turned to ‘us’ (teachers) against ‘them’ (principals as management representatives). Much of the collegial spirit that once existed had been eroded.
School principals are no longer seen as being on the same team and decisions made by school administrators have become more closely scrutinized and motives are questioned. All of a sudden, teaching has become a ‘job’ and not a profession to many. The cohesiveness of a school staff have become even more strained as some teachers refuse to do anything extra beyond classroom teaching (i.e., extra-curricular) while others still want to provide additional experiences for children before and after school.
The unions lost a great deal of experience and wisdom when administrators were banned from being a part of the bargaining unit. Many school principals held leadership positions within the union. Principals by and large had a wider perspective, having served on many school board committees or holding other leadership positions, such as consultants. Having a broader perspective often assisted in making better sense of what was in the best interests of children and implementing policies that affected them. Current school union leaders typically have only had the experience of being a classroom teacher and often do not bring that broad perspective to the table.
The vast majority of teachers are caring, dedicated professionals who truly care about the children they teach. It is unfortunate that their union leadership makes them act differently during times of labour unrest.
It has been difficult for current teachers who have lived through the past twenty years of upheaval. Hopefully, labour peace can be achieved and the job actions that detract from the educational experiences of children can come to an end. Next time there is job action, perhaps some teachers will show the courage to stand up for students and defy their union bosses. If not, one can only hope that a new generation of teachers will be able to get back to a focus on students and provide meaningful experiences in the classroom and beyond.
Retired Teacher, Consultant, Principal, and Superintendent of Schools