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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 18, Number 4, January/February 2006

Why not just talk to teachers?

by Ken Novakowski

The agenda for public education in this province has always been a matter of public policy. The elected representatives of the citizens of BC, both provincially and locally, have determined the framework for the provision of a public education to the province’s children. This is the only way a true public education system can function effectively in a democratic society. The system must be established by representatives of the public and those representatives must be accountable to the public for the system they create, the programs they implement, and the services they provide.

But, there have always been other factors and principles to be considered in the construction of a positive learning and teaching situation in our public schools. One of those is free collective bargaining and with it the right of employees who work in the public school system, to have a direct say in determining the conditions under which they will work and in providing the educational services for which they are employed. In education, a teacher’s working conditions are a student’s learning conditions. If you improve one, you improve the other. It is that simple. To teachers this is more than common sense—it is their classroom reality.

Historically, teachers have been clear about what they believe belongs in public policy and what should be a matter of collective bargaining. Issues like class size, class composition, hours of work, and staffing ratios all have a direct effect on teacher workload. Naturally teachers want to have a direct say in exercizing some control over these issues. The most effective way to do this has been through negotiating provisions into an enforceable collective agreement. As teachers, we will continue to advocate for that right and to work toward its achievement.

On other public policy matters like curriculum development, implementation, and assessment, teachers have consistently advanced the view that active consultation of government and school boards with teachers and others involved in education is the appropriate process for decision making. The teaching profession in BC has been well represented provincially by the BCTF in putting forward ideas and directions for building a strong and stable public education system. We have had some influence in shaping educational directions with governments in the past. Perhaps the most notable example was the development of the primary program in BC, which emerged from the Royal Commission on Education in 1988 and became the cornerstone of the Year 2000 initiative. The relative success of the primary program is due in large part to the influence of classroom teacher representatives through the BCTF in structuring the program.

Politicians too often look for the "neat and nifty" things to do when they get into office and they are often more influenced by fads and trends being advocated by those with political/ideological agendas than by serious dialogue with the teaching profession. Art Charbonneau (1993–96) and Christy Clark (2001–04) were education ministers for two very different governments but they both implemented educational changes that the teaching profession strongly advised against. Those politicians are no longer around but the teachers and the education system must live with the unfortunate legacy of their initiatives. Politicians seem to want to make their mark by changing things in the education system. It will be a smart politician who comes along and realizes that the best advice they can get on what to do in education is from the people who have dedicated their working lives to it. Does this sound like a fairy tale? It shouldn’t. In fact, the citizens of BC consistently rate classroom teachers as the people they consider the most credible on education issues. Again, it only makes sense.

The absurdity of the current government "achievement" agenda was driven home recently when government allocated additional one-time resources to schools and to school districts as a result of monies saved during the teacher job action in October 2005. These additional funds were to be expended between January 3 and March 31, 2006, and districts and schools were required, in a short time frame, to develop spending plans that must, "Demonstrate how the funds will contribute to improved student achievement in their (district, school) and describe the measures used to monitor the improvement." It is a good move by government to allocate these resources to the classroom, but the requirement of measuring improvement in achievement as a result, points to an agenda obsession that is counterproductive. Can anyone doubt that the learning situation will improve in a classroom that now has textbooks? Teachers want to spend more time teaching and less time measuring. The achievement agenda has us buying into a lot of unproven assumptions about what learning is all about. It is time we insisted that learning be the agenda for public schools in BC and that governments take their lead from teachers about what is best for the students they teach.

Only when government accepts that the BCTF does indeed represent teachers, and sits down with BCTF representatives to work together on improving education in this province, will BC students enjoy the best education we are capable of providing.

Ken Novakowski is executive director of the BC Teachers’ Federation.

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