I have a new colleague. He's in his early thirties and recently left a position in the private sector -- a position with vastly superior compensation, flexibility, and benefits -- for the classroom, a place where he can use his unique and formidable talent and sense of humour to do something he enjoys, and to accomplish something important to him. "After all," he recently said to me, "when you sign into online banking, you never see a security question asking who your favourite accountant was," or other important vocations, for that matter -- your favourite columnist, doctor, sales representative, lawyer, CEO, taxi driver, or Premier, for instance.
Teachers understand this, which is why most of us have a strong sense of our worth. Some might argue that sense is too strong, and they assert that because most of us love our work, we should be paid less. But intangible benefits like 'meaning' and 'importance' should not be seen as substitutes for other kinds of compensation.
Recently teacher compensation has been subject to intensified scrutiny because of the labour action in response to Bill 115. Families want to know why their children's extra-curricular activities have been withheld this year and, fuelled by a zeitgeist of hostility toward public-sector workers, many jump to the conclusion that teachers are spoiled and too parsimonious to accept their new contract and continue coaching little Johnny's basketball team.
Private sector workers have every right to be frustrated with inadequate wages and other alarming trends in their industries, but that frustration should not be directed at public sector workers. The predilection of some to 'bash' teachers only illuminates the inadequate understanding of what teaching entails. Before assessing whether the extra-curricular boycott is justified, it's important to know what our curricular responsibilities actually are, and why things have changed since the imposed contract.
First, let's talk about the basics of the profession. The belief that a teacher is a glorified babysitter, photocopier, or DVD player, would lead one to a belief that teachers are overpaid. However, our job entails so much more than standing in front of a class from 8:30 to 3:30.
Countless hours are spent studying curriculum, planning lessons and assessments, writing evaluations, marking those evaluations, calling home, doing paperwork, collaborating, attending meetings, organizing resources, working on relationships, and so forth. Seven hours at work is far more than seven hours of work. Further, the time spent actually teaching large groups of impressionable, distractible, dependent young children, or occasionally acerbic teenagers, is pressure-packed and takes a lot of skill and specialized training. Teaching, though rewarding, has never been easy or limited to the classroom.
Beyond all of that, teaching has changed; different times bring different challenges. Due to increased emphasis on "efficiency" and a glorification of everything quantifiable and standardizable, expectations and scrutiny have never been higher. Academic ability, curricular fluency, and pedagogical wizardry are no longer enough. We must differentiate instruction, assessment, and evaluation for the unique learners in our classrooms; we must demonstrate the ways in which we are confronting barriers to achievement; we must prepare and discuss appropriate success criteria to help every student succeed; we uphold a much more clearly defined code of ethics and our governing body's Standards of Practice; we have larger classes, fewer resources, and more administrative constraints; we are responsible for a growing list of mental, physical, and social needs that used to be the domain of counsellors, nurses, parents and communities; we help kids cope with the stress they feel, which is brought on not only by too much homework (strict limits on which are now legislated) or inflexible deadlines (which no longer exist), but by anxiety about the future.
Apparently, an austerity-obsessed world of precarious employment, in which technology replaces people and manufacturing takes place offshore; a disappearing middle class; the prospect of significant student debt just to enter the workforce; and the bombardment, vapid narcissism, and cyber-bullying of the online world make kids anxious. Who knew?
That's a lot of responsibility for teachers, and it's really just the beginning of the requirements, let alone 'extras'. To see such poor understanding of what teachers do predicate arguments that teachers somehow owe it to students and parents to volunteer their time -- work longer days, for free -- when the most basic aspects of the profession (done well) are more than enough to handle, and no one else works for free, is perplexing.
In the rants written about extra-curriculars, I haven't read any acknowledgements of what running clubs, supervising events, and coaching sports actually entails. There's an overemphasis on what families are losing. Teachers also have families, and when the family income is decimated in the short- and long-term by a new law, the desire to escort a basketball team on a bus in the winter or spend an entire Saturday judging a debating tournament, and to do all the associated paperwork, goes down.
Another thing that's missing from the discussion of extra-curricular activities is an acknowledgement of teachers' rights to set, in the only place possible, what they deem to be reasonable limits. Never mind volunteering for a moment. Are you willing to do the same amount of work for 10 per cent less pay? If so, are you willing to do it for 15 per cent less? How about 20 per cent less, 25 per cent less, 35, 50? When would your dignity and self-respect kick in and make you say "just hang on a minute. I'm a trained professional, and I don't work for free."
Bill 115 has already required teachers to do at least the same amount of work for significantly less and denied our democratic right to collectively bargain, so many of us feel that the only way we have left to show our displeasure is to withhold the work that we normally do for free. This is not an easy choice for most teachers. Teachers sympathize with students over the loss of teams and clubs, and students know it.
The split among individual teachers as to whether or not to resume extra-curricular activities is well-documented, and the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario and the Ontario Secondary Schools Teachers Federation are approaching the matter slightly differently, but most ETFO and OSSTF teachers are looking for something more tangible. Though Premier Wynne and Minister Sandals are undoubtedly preferable to Premier McGuinty and Minister Broten, a group hug, an admission that the government was wrong to circumvent collective bargaining, and a vague promise for a better tomorrow may not get the job done with respect to bringing individual teachers back to extra-curricular activities. When it comes to matters of professional involvement this important, accepting an apology is a pretty low standard, and it also assumes political promises are trustworthy, which everyone, regardless of ideology, must admit is a preposterous assertion.
People only work for free when they're being respected. I hope extra-curricular activities return very, very soon for every single student in Ontario. But I find it completely understandable why some people, because they are upset that nothing substantive was gained in discussions with the new Minister of Education before extra-curricular activities were deemed officially 'on' again, would choose to continue to withhold volunteering.
Irrespective of which side of that individual decision they're on, all teachers are continuing to do what they're paid to do: put students first and teach them well. Premier McGuinty was right about one thing: Ontario's teachers are the best at what they do.
Next week's Installment: Teacher-Bashing and the New Economy
A full version of this article appears on educateforgood.com, where you can sign up for e-mail notifications of new posts by Misha Abarbanel.