Part 1: The Value of a Teacher
I’ve received hundreds of nice cards and letters from my students over the years, and I’m certainly not alone. Kids complain about their teachers once in a while, especially when the homework piles up, but come the end of the year, the cup of appreciation runneth over. Because the comments are pervasive, they reveal something about the importance and impact of teachers, on kids, in general.
“I loved the projects we did and the discussions we had, and you helped me rediscover my love of reading.”
“Writing is a huge part of my life now, and as soon as I start, the words start flowing. I can see my growth as a person in my writing.”
“Thanks for all the help over the years… You certainly inspired me to be ‘tenacious’ and be the best that I could be.”
“I will fix my mistakes, and like you encouraged, ‘strive for excellence’.”
“You’ve not only been my teacher, but a mentor. I look up to you greatly and always enjoy and look forward to our intellectual conversations in class. You’ve also shown me the path when I couldn’t find it, and pointed me in the right direction when I made a wrong turn. I appreciate everything you have done for me.”
Most of us get notes like these, and we keep them for those tougher days at the office. Kids appreciate their teachers. Then life happens, and people forget. The tenor of recent discussions about teachers and extra-curricular activities calls for some renewed reflection on the value, function, and responsibilities of teachers.
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 formidable talent and sense of humour to accomplish something that he feels really matters. “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.
We understand this, which is why most of us have a strong sense of our worth – some might argue a too-strong sense, as they claim 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. The principle that holds in many other professions – the more value you create, the more you should be valued – should apply in education too. This is not an argument for merit pay or other similarly divisive and problematic ways of differentiating among teachers; it’s a call for better valuing of all teachers. We are valuable, appreciated for changing individual lives, and selected to play an integral role in forming the future, which is exactly why Bill 115 hurt so badly. Employees in both the public and private sectors should do what they can to ensure they get paid what they deserve, as determined through collective bargaining, while governments should avoid using language reminiscent of the Martians in Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks. Don’t run; we are your friends (“Ack ack YAK!”)
Part 2: Teacher-Bashing 101
Teacher-bashing comes in many forms, and there’s a very good argument for not dignifying drivel with a response. But for the sake of developing the argument, consider a few comments in response to my last article about what Bill 115 means for teacher compensation, democracy, and educational outcomes.
“in my experience majority ontario teachers are a scourge… i am so sick of hearing everyone moaning moaning moaning while doing ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to improve things.”
“our kids suffer through too many terrible teachers, who clearly hate them and their jobs but are hanging on for the pay!”
“Most of you wouldn’t survive in the public sector and would end up on welfare milking our province even more. You guys would do well in China, Cuba or North Korea.”
“Summers off, over paid, overly benefited, under worked, impossible to fire, no accountability, Union bigger than most small countries that constantly fights to get more $ for less work etc.”
“It is about the public sector pulling our society down with the weight of their compensation. I suspect that you are a selfish person and if you are a teacher you likely are one of the ones who are in the job for the money.” (From ‘Logiclady’)
“Teachers should be forced to work 40 hours a week.” (a significant reduction for every teacher I’ve met)
And from another article:
“Teachers have poor judgement. A result of being pandered to like spoiled brats…These clowns realy do think they are more special than the rest of us.”
The antipathy isn’t limited to anonymous commenters, of course. Journalist Dave Agar says “It’s time to show our disdain for their refusal to get back to supervising extra-curriculars.” Jerry Agar says “If Ontario teachers, who receive better than average wages, a great retirement and a massive number of weeks off, don’t get everything they want every time they sit at the bargaining table, then democracy fails on the planet. How greedily self-righteous is that?”
I’m curious: what happens, chronologically, between the adulation of the students and the vitriol of the adults? Life is hard. After a few broken hearts, financial pressures, professional challenges, health challenges, and other frustrations, we all wear and tear a little. Everything is the fault of those who have more, are perceived to have more, or are perceived to have more than they deserve. And anyone who has more (or seems to have more) couldn’t possibly deserve what they have because we all work hard. And that’s true: we do. People are tired; they don’t have everything they want; they’re being told that teachers are spoiled and that their obstinate unions are the ones who refused to collectively bargain, when in fact, unions were pleading to negotiate the imposed provincial framework; and the mainstream media are only too happy to stoke the fires and validate the angst. After all, people come back for more when they feel supported and understood, even if what they’re being told isn’t true.
Part 3: What is Teaching?
Another explanation for teacher-bashing is an inadequate understanding of what teaching entails. 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 counselors, 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 the ‘extras’. It’s also a reason why – though I clearly sympathize with anyone who’s struggling to make it – comparisons to taxi drivers and manufacturing sector employees are uncalled for. How some have used faulty economic arguments to suggest 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 beyond me.
Part 4: Addressing Inappropriate Economic Comparisons and Assumptions
Though many private sector jobs for those with equivalent levels of education offer superior salaries, more flexibility, and more autonomy, they seldom measure up to teaching in terms of professional satisfaction. If they did, teacher-bashing couldn’t exist.
Every job (public or private) can be compared to another one using a variety of criteria, but the hostility exemplified above, with which many compare teaching to other professions, needs to be checked. People who are frustrated with their employment status should not allege that teachers’ compensation and benefits are incommensurate, since to do so, they would have to be de facto misinformed about what teachers do.
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. And if the cognitive dissonance involved in reconciling angst over circumstances in the private sector with a firm belief in the Invisible Hand is too much to take, why not consider public sector work? Changes in trade, globalization, and technology are changing the economy, mostly making life more strenuous for all but the extremely wealthy. This new economy is not the fault of teachers or other public sector workers.
The Dow Jones just hit its highest mark in history. Canada’s banks reported quarterly profits that, when added together, amount to half the entire Provincial deficit of $12 Billion. That’s twice the deficit in one year, for those keeping score – and that’s just profit. The economy is not suffering; it’s poorly designed.
Many private sector employees are losing their jobs and getting paid less, as are teachers. The fact of the former doesn’t justify the latter. The Toronto District School Board alone is cutting over 500 allegedly tenured jobs in the next three years – this after approximately 200 per year for the last two years. When teachers lose jobs, there are also consequences for kids: less diversity and representation, less supervision and safety.
It seems pretty clear that in many ways, everyone in the public and private sectors is getting squeezed. Racing to the bottom by eroding the middle class is not only unethical, but economically suicidal. A reasonable standard of living for everyone is essential for economic prosperity. Cutting public and private sector wages and jobs, and eliminating the middle class in the name of capitalism, globalization, and austerity, will be an economic and social blunder beyond description. Disposable income makes economies work, and allowing people to earn living wages will not necessarily lead to inflation. To suggest that would be fear-mongering.
To suggest that unions are to blame for others’ precarious employment is egregious and incendiary. Unions protect people – in this case, those on whom our children rely – from precarious employment. Arguing against less is not the same as arguing for more, and austerity measures make a lot more sense if one turns a blind eye to externalized outcomes.
Bill 115 and the imposed contract contained therein represented a substantial hit to our compensation package. With all of this, plus the loss of inflation protection and cost-of-living allowance in our pension, more contribution, less payout, less security, and an eventual increase in the 85-factor, we’re earning much less now and in the future, working for longer, and working more precariously than most seem to think. The job security that does exist is not a cushy frill; it improves the quality of education. Stability allows teachers to develop their practice over time, plant roots in a school or community, and accrue institutional knowledge and memory. And we don’t actually have summers off: we’re unemployed for two months a year and ineligible for Employment Insurance because our 10-month salaries are prorated over 12 months. If our “summers off” are such an aggravating issue, think about the many ways in which it would be awful for kids to be in school year-round, without any relief from the aforementioned anxiety and pressure on students and teachers alike.
The bottom line is this: different jobs pay different amounts. The economic philosophy that everyone should earn the same amount, irrespective of what they do, is called Communism – an interesting angle from those ostensibly arguing the merit of the private sector. Who, exactly, belongs in Cuba again? Teachers have different compensation packages because they have different jobs. Different jobs, different compensation.
Part 5: On Dignity and Extra-Curricular Activities
I hope extra-curricular activities return very, very soon for every single student in Ontario. But I find it completely understandable why some people would choose to continue to withhold volunteering because they are upset that nothing tangible was gained before extra-curricular activities were deemed officially ‘on’ again.
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. People only work for free when they’re being respected. The lesson here is to respect your workforce if you want them to do something supererogatory. Teachers sympathize with students over the loss of teams and clubs, and students know it.
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% less pay? If so, are you willing to do it for 15% less? 20% less? 25% 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.”
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. They feel that they will only consider working for free again if Bill 115 is truly repealed, and a substantive commitment is made to value teachers appropriately in the future.
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 disregard our democratic right to 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, and in the face of the aforementioned cuts in the system, 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.
Teachers: when you go to work, ask yourself, as you almost always do, and always should, the following questions: how can I make today’s lesson as engaging and valuable as possible? How can I best support the development of everyone around me? But don’t forget to ask yourself this question as well: am I standing up for myself, and for the publically-educated students of the future? How can I assert my self-worth and the worth of my students by standing up for my own dignity? If I allow myself to be taken advantage of, what messages am I sending to my students, to myself, and to my family?
We teachers know what we have. The overwhelming majority of us love our work and are very good at it. But due to some of the economic ideologies I mentioned, and not because of teacher compensation, high-quality public education is on a slippery slope. Who cares, though, if our system ends up resembling the Americans’? At least lazy, greedy, spoiled teachers won’t be earning more than anyone else. Neither Bill 115, nor any other austerity measure, will cancel the provincial deficit. Real change is needed to support a society that doesn’t bludgeon everyone except senior managers and CEOs.
If kids are to come out of their schooling the way we want them to, we need to set them up for success by valuing education appropriately. Spend liberally and wisely on programs, facilities, and teachers – not for teachers, but for collective advancement. Public education is the pillar of public good.
When we think about those who provide that good, let’s remember: different job, different compensation. And irrespective of which side of the extra-curricular decision they’re on, all teachers are continuing to do, with dignity intact, what they’re paid to do: put students first and teach them well.
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