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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 18, Number 2, October 2005

Teachers will not be silenced

by Jinny Sims

We are at a critical juncture for the future of public schools in this province. We want to work with parents, trustees, and government to improve the services we can offer our students and ensure that we can meet their needs. The unity and determination expressed by our 88.4% strike vote undermines the government claim that the BCTF is somehow different or separate from teachers.

Together we have faced a consistent and concerted effort by this government to undermine our students’ learning conditions, our working conditions, and to isolate and silence teachers. Our determined and resolute effort to minimize the damage to our schools and students has attracted support from parents, trustees, the courts, and the general public. The government itself has been forced to focus on the issue of class size and composition, the loss of specialist teachers, and the need for support for students with special needs.

Parents and members of the public are aware of our efforts and have been very supportive. In June 2004, and again in June of 2005, 88% of British Columbians said they thought it important for teachers to speak out on public education issues like funding cuts, larger classes, and reduced support for children with special needs. In all of the polling we do, teachers are always viewed as the most dependable source of information about public schools. The public understands both the need for improvements for students’ learning conditions and the need for a salary increase.

It was only three years ago that the government stripped the protections for students’ services from our collective agreement. As a result, students have experienced larger classes, fewer services from specialist teachers, and less support for students with special needs. We have seen more than 120 neighbourhood schools closed.

In bargaining, the government through its bargaining agent, has taken the position that teachers can not discuss students’ learning conditions and that there is no money for any improvements for students or teachers.

This government treats the teaching profession with contempt. It ignores teachers when making education-related decisions. We find out about changes to programs through the media. Teachers, who are parents, are not allowed to sit on the school planning council of their child’s school. The government fired the elected college councillors and seized control of the BC College of Teachers. It took a year and a half of united action to have our college returned to democratic self-governance.

After the government stripped learning conditions like class size from the collective agreement and passed legislation with limits for K–3 and averages for Grades 4–12, the employer took the position that teachers could not grieve any breech of those legislated limits. The Supreme Court of Canada upheld our right to grieve these violations.

When the government stripped our collective agreement and designated education an essential service, we appealed to the International Labour Organization, a United Nations body made up of representatives of government, business, and labour. The ILO ruled that education is not an essential service, the government should repeal that legislation, open talks with the BCTF, and refrain from legislating contracts. Premier Campbell said he felt no pressure whatsoever to bring B.C. into compliance with the ILO. It is an odd position for a government to adopt as it calls on the U.S. government to follow the rules on softwood lumber sales.

Some teachers were told by their employer that they were not allowed to discuss class size and learning conditions with parents during parent-teacher interviews. We grieved and won that fight as well. The employer went to court to have the arbitrator’s decision overturned. They lost and we were awarded costs. The employer has now announced that it is going to the Supreme Court in another attempt to silence teachers.

Gordon Campbell stated on CKNW Radio on September 27, 2005, that any problems with class size and composition are the responsibility of school boards.

On September 28, 2005, Shirley Bond, minister of education, announced that the ministry would begin collecting class-size data from school boards for the first time. Bond went on to say that school planning councils, made up of an administrator, parents, and a teacher representative, were the proper body to decide on issues of class size and composition.

Ironically, this was the same day the employer announced that it was going to the Supreme Court of Canada to silence teachers.

This government downloads costs on school boards, doesn’t provide adequate funding, suggests that any problems are the fault of school boards or SPCs, and attempts to silence the voice of teachers.

We need a different approach—one that respects students, parents, and teachers. Teachers believe that these problems can only be solved through respectful dialogue.

Teachers can be proud of the stand we have taken on behalf of our students learning conditions and our profession.

Jinny Sims is president of the the B.C. Teachers’ Federation.

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