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A Conversation Between B.C. Parents During Teachers' Strike

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CONVERSATION
MACIEJ NOSKOWSKI via Getty Images

While sitting at the park, I overhear several parents talking about the ongoing teacher's strike and whether they think school would start on time in September. I try to invite myself into the conversation but can't get my mouth to work.

"I'm considering private school," one mother says.

That's certainly one option, I want to reply. Then again, I'm not sure private schools would want her. Private schools run for a specific mandate; they are not just for people who view public school with a "take it or leave it" attitude.

And why would private schools admit people who might not be there six months or a year later, when the grass on the public side of the fence looks greener?

Another mother speaks up. "I'm tired of my kids getting in the middle of this argument between the government and the B.C. Teachers Federation. The government is trying to break that union."

I attempt to stand and clear my throat. "But I am the BCTF!" I want to say. I'm a teacher represented by teachers. We don't hire PR people to makeover our spokespeople... they're just teachers advocating for conditions in which other teachers and students can all succeed. Why does the government want to break me?

"The timing of this stinks," someone else chimes in. "Why is the government making plans for negotiations to fail by offering $40 a day in child care money? Wouldn't it be impractical and highly expensive to set up a website and then hire temporary accountants to run this payout?"

I'm nodding now, in full agreement. The timing is suspicious with the Court of Appeals expected to rule in October. To recap, teachers made wage concessions in the 90s to secure class size limits on the composition of their classes.

For example, when I first started teaching, the limit for primary classes was 22 students. If it was a split class, my limit would decrease to 20. If I had two students with special needs in my classroom, my limit would go down to 19.

For every child with special needs after the initial two, I could subtract an additional student off my limit for each one. But for more than three students with special needs in my room, I could also grieve the composition with the board and receive the help of an extra teacher and more preparation time, etc. All this language was written in a collectively bargained "contract" to protect both teachers and students from impossible learning conditions.

When this contract was ripped up in 2002, the teachers (I mean, BCTF) went to two courts, most recently the Supreme Court, both of whom have clearly ordered: restore the contracts to protect classrooms. But still the government has pressed for another appeal, hence the looming date in October.

The first mother puts her hands on her hips. "If they're so close on wage issues, why don't the teachers just settle the issues with composition later, after the Court of Appeals comes back?"

I'm standing up on the bench now, waving my arms wildly. "I can't do my job and serve the children in my classroom without addressing class composition now!" For example, my son's Grade 6/7 class has 30 students with 11 children with Individualized Education Plans for their varying special needs. There's just one school support worker to help the teacher.

According to our illegally ripped up contract in 2002, the composition limit for this room would be 17 kids. Which classroom would you prefer your child was in? Seventeen kids with one teacher... that's even better than what most private schools can offer.

Can you imagine trying to do a good job without any limits set by your boss? The only protection for class size in B.C. classrooms is how many desks you can fit in the room or what the board deems as a district average.

Support for students keeps eroding in terms of resource support and access to school specialists. Can parents and teachers trust our government to negotiate fairly with us after they refuse to listen to the ruling of a Supreme Court to restore our contract language protecting composition (limits) in the classroom?

"I say we just gather parents to teach students in the schools this September, until an agreement can be reached!" says one of the dads.

I kick off my sandals and light my hair on fire.

"That's a crazy idea!" I start to say. First you're going to have to get a group of parents to be the volunteer engineers, cooks, support workers, and supervision aides, because CUPE isn't going to cross the line. Also, all the parents you gather will need criminal record checks and that will take at least a week or so.

Then, once you're in the building, you'll have to wing it, because the vital information about the children is in the office and classroom files so you won't know where to target your volunteer tutoring support. Oh, and you really shouldn't touch any of the materials in each classroom because 90 per cent of the supplies you see belong to the teacher, which she purchased from her own wages, since we're not allowed to write off any of that as a tax expense.

Sounds like you'll be pulling ideas off Pinterest. Then again, are you sure this busy work and enormous effort on your part is actually helping further the education of kids in your neighborhood?

Wouldn't it just be easier to speak up for public schools now? A five-minute email or phone call to your MLA would be a much better use of your time.

Teachers want to go back to work. This is the time of year when we set up our classrooms to make them a welcoming and interesting learning environment. We just need to be able to do our job well and to give good service to your child.

We're tired of pretending that the system isn't broken. Your well-behaved, hard-working, polite child deserves just as much of my attention as any other student but I'm so busy putting out "fires" around the room, I can't get to them. That's not OK with me.

Our students are very, very important to us and we don't understand why B.C. in 2002 could afford a system of classroom limits while B.C. in 2014 says it's too expensive and impossible to re-implement. Where did the money go? Why are we resigned to believe that we just can't afford the kind of public education we used to be able to give kids? Can't we talk about this without blaming teachers for making waves and inconveniencing the public?

Please, please don't give up on your local public school and the democracy it epitomizes in a fair, high quality -- but not free -- education for all. With so many stakeholders, change comes slowly, but we are very close in being able to bring back the class size protection that has been lost for 12 years.

Teachers and parents have sacrificed so much to make your local classrooms better. Won't you please stand and fight with us for just a few more weeks?

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