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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 18, Number 2, October 2005

Education leaders claim to see the light

by Pat Clarke

What do you suppose precipitated the "road to Damascus"-like realization of the Liberal government, the B.C. School Trustees Association, the B.C. Principals’ and Vice Principals’ Association, the B.C. Parent Advisory Council, and Canwest Global that everything is not honky-dory in special needs education? Do you think it might have been an outcome of "data-based decision making"? How about "rich and meaningful conversations" with teachers?

None of that new-age management mumbo jumbo applies here. What actually happened was these groups that have so studiously ignored the voices of teachers for so long have realized the carefully constructed public-relations enterprise that now drives education policymaking was about to hit a major pothole. They can thank teachers for providing the road warning.

It has been teachers, individually and collectively, through locals and the BCTF, who have consistently raised the issue of inadequate resources for special needs integration. At some point in the minds of our education leaders, special needs crossed the line from being a classroom matter that teachers can just deal with to becoming a gathering storm that threatens to blow apart the whole accountability contraption.

The special-needs crisis, and it has become that, is very likely the most important single factor affecting those carefully constructed school and district goals. All of those good intentions quickly go into the trash file when too many teachers are trying to cope with the uncertainties brought on by a class composition that makes every day a voyage into uncharted waters.

We now have a crisis, mainly because all of the mechanisms that formerly assured some level of support for teachers working with special needs integration are now a matter of administrative discretion. Isn’t it interesting and sort of morbidly fascinating that the 2002 "flexibility" mantra that the education leaders insisted was the key to a more "effective" public school system has turned around and bitten them in a sensitive spot?

The provincial government and their acolytes in education leadership have just recently decided that, indeed, there is a resource issue pertaining to special needs support. Good stuff is on the way. Too bad it took three years of lost opportunities by too many students and immeasurable frustration on the part of their teachers to come to this epiphany. Too bad also that almost none of this would have happened if the resource assurances that were in the collective agreement before 2002 had been maintained. And too bad that the obvious conclusion, that contractual agreements on teaching-resource and learning-conditions issues have merit is still too tricky for the education leaders to get.

The recent admission by the minister of education that special education needs more support is certainly welcome. However, the government’s insistence, along with the cheerleading they receive from education leaders, that the system is just perking along with "flexible local decision making" is making it increasingly difficult for teachers to hold back the gag reflex. Teachers have seen too many decisions that are arbitrary and ill-informed and seriously affect their teaching but are permitted by management flexibility.

There is a growing crisis of confidence happening in B.C. schools. It is a crisis defined by teachers’ disenchantment with policymakers and administrators who patronize them with words of hollow praise but consistently undervalue and disregard their experience, professional insights, and views as well as their rights as workers. If there were any doubt about this crisis, it should have been waylaid by a strike vote that effectively demonstrated that nine out of ten teachers in the province were prepared to walkout.

A primary reason for that vote was that teachers are fed up with the arbitrariness and uncertainty that goes along with " flexibility." The special education flip-flop is a case in point. For government and education leaders this is a good "be careful what you wish for" lesson. You got the flexibility, now you have another problem, probably worse than the one you were trying to solve. You have a fairly important group of employees who have emphatically told you that they are not with you. Good luck with the goal setting.

Reconciliation is by no means impossible. Employers and administrators could restore some of the confidence teachers have lost by acknowledging that negotiated agreements actually are an effective way of addressing teachers’ professional concerns and acknowledging the legitimacy of our positions. Contracts show commitment and that is what is needed. Lip service and promises of consultation won’t work and won’t resolve the issues simply because there can be no assurances, and at this stage we clearly need those.

Pat Clarke is director of the BCTF’s Professional and Social Issues Division.

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