After spending some time this weekend at the BC Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils I am find myself puzzling with the question of why so many of the active BCCPAC delegates appear to fear or even dislike teachers. As I say this I understand that of course each of my fellow delegates can name at least one teacher whom they think is wonderful person or even an excellent teacher. Yet, when pressed a good number of the delegates that I spoke with seemed to feel that the real problem is in fact incompetent teachers and especially union teachers (which at times seemed to be understood as synonymous).
One delegate asked the minister of education if there was some way to take away mandatory membership in the BCTF. The underlying assumption apparently being that by disabling the teachers’ union teachers could get back to the business of teaching and our world would be a better place. To give credit where credit is due, the Minster tiptoed around the issue and advised the parent to use her power as an important professional in her own right -professional parent- to stand up to any sort of intimidation. Unionism is not, however the problem, it’s the result of decades of actions by governments who have acted without due care and consideration of the people who we expect to look after and teach our children. Working people have fought long and hard for the right to represent themselves and to protect themselves from such things as arbitrary firing, harassment, and for the semblance of respect and dignity in their work. To ask to remove that right under the guise of a ‘democratic’ reform is to turn our backs upon the basis of real democracy. Another delegate’s comment brought a round of applause when they asked a question about getting rid of ‘incompetent’ teachers. Later, in an otherwise wonderful presentation, Mr. Dean Fink, commented that some teachers have one year of experience 20 times. Applause and laughter followed -yet earlier when he suggested that accountability, testing, and choice were the foundations of a diminished educational system it felt as though a chill had descended upon the room. All this by way of highlighting that many of the delegates appeared to be concerned with the idea that ‘incompetence combined with unions is tearing about our public schools.’ Even in the face of evidence to the contrary this belief appears pervasive among a vocal subset of parents.
But what is happening on the ground? I think that it is fair to say that by and large and for the ‘typical’ student our education system works. Assessments of learning in areas like math and science typically compare well internationally. We are at the leading edge in areas like First Nations curriculum development and delivery (though more could of course be done).
There are areas that we are not doing as well as we could. Special Education, especially those areas related to learning disabilities, still has a long way to go. Gaps in special education services can be seen in the growth of a large private tutoring and educational services sector. Parents who can afford to exit the public system do so. Others who might not be able to afford exiting the public system instead purchase educational services for their children. At one Vancouver High School, for example, an administrator commented that over 50% of the students received some form of tutoring support outside of the public system. This form of privatization very likely has significant impacts upon the structure and capacity of our public education system.
UBC-based research Clyde Hertzman’s research group has noted that for
“Vancouver schools, it appeared that students attending schools located in disadvantaged neighbourhoods did poorly compared to those from resource-rich, high socio-economic status neighbourhoods. Using data from the Census and Early Development Instrument (EDI), we further analyzed the FSA results in relation to school readiness and the socio-economic characteristics of school catchment areas. Findings from this analysis suggest that many schools in disadvantaged neighbourhoods are successful in improving outcomes for their students, relative to their readiness to learn at school entry.”
So schools can try to address this if they have the resources and supports necessary. If they do not the combination of under funding schools and the privatization of educational services will maintain, if not increase, the disparities.
Many front line teachers feel ground down. Despite popular misconceptions about the nature of teacher’s work, most teachers put in long hours in and outside of school. Teachers often arrive in their schools by 7:30 or 8:00 and rarely leave before 4:00 or even 5:00. They will spend their evenings making and preparing for the next day. Perhaps on the way home they will stop at a store to purchase items for use the next day or drop by a library to check out materials that are needed but not available in their own school’s library or resource system. One urban inner-city teacher recently wrote me with the following comment:
I still love teaching, but I’m 42 years old. My 28-year-old teaching partner wonders if the time has come for him to get out. And my fifty-something colleagues are all counting the days till retirement or checking lottery tickets. We are doing less teaching and more parenting and bean-counting. We are seeing now the effects of a generation of cuts as grade eight kids arrive with fewer skills and abilities and more needs that our school cannot meet except through volunteerism.
Our PAC is supportive, and tacitly accepts its role as a private fundraising arm for the school. At a recent Pro-D discussion on school growth, no one wanted to discuss the Fraser Institute ranking of our school, even though the majority of families believe what they read in the newspapers and are trying to move their kids elsewhere as a result.
In spite of such depressing events, our school strives to provide a safe haven for students to acquire skills for their present and future. Our average results give us the strength, or perhaps the illusion of strength, to continue, but we see that public education is still not a priority of society.
Teachers work hard to do a job that is increasingly becoming an impossible job to do. As parents we seem to expect smiling faces and cheery greetings. We want our children to learn -no, not learn, we want them to excel. And if our children aren’t excelling it would seem that we immediately cast out nets of blame over the teachers. Minister Bond, who managed to remind her BCCPAC audience several times that she is a parent first and foremost -“not someone with lots of letters behind her name”- described the ideal teacher: a young women with a large kindergarten class who greeted the minister in a recent visit with a bright smile and a happy outlook. The outstanding teacher was said to have informed the Minister that she loved her job and she loved her kids. Despite all the negative things that some people said this young kindergarten teacher was not simply making do, but creatively engaging her students with what she had. I am sure that many teachers still love teaching. So here we have it, youth, energy, optimism, and innovation. Sound familiar?
The ideal teacher, as presented by the Minister and as reflected in many of the BCCPAC delegates’ comments reminds me of an old halibut skipper’s ideal crewman: he doesn’t eat, sleep, or shit.
The reality is that we are all human and that the time has come to reevaluate just what it is we expect of teachers and our public schools. The old fashion labour management approach -pay them less and make them do more- doesn’t work for education; at least not effective education. As parent activists we need to think very carefully about our expectations for our children and how they are to be met. It is reasonable and understandable to want the best and the most for our children. How do we want that put in place?
If we expect all of our children to be in any class they want, if we expect education to be able to fully develop the educational potential for every child irrespective of their cognitive capacities, if we wish to address the inequities of social class, then we must move beyond thinking about education from the perspective of a parent. As parents we have a deep and important emotional connection to the well being of our children. This is an important, if a transitory, relationship. As citizens, however, we share a collective obligation and responsibility to ensure that education acts in the interests of a democratic society. I fear that the stakeholder/partners approach -the one that claims that “parents are professionals too-” is one that diminishes the democratic capacity of education and reduces the relationship to a technical management process intent only on producing measurable results – not citizens.