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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 5, March 2005

The PR in primary

by Lori Robinson

Public relations (PR) is the most effective way of dealing with the alarming issues facing primary teachers. It isn’t difficult to become a PR strategist. It happens when you take your passions and knowledge about teaching to the audience outside your classroom.

Your best support when taking on an educational issue comes from the BCTF, the provincial specialist associations (PSAs), your local teachers’ association/union, and, where available, the local specialist associations (LSAs). Primary LSAs operate in 50 locals. Surrey Primary Teachers’ Association has 200 members. Smaller groups maintain a strong voice in their districts and locals. LSAs meet/communicate on a regular or semi-regular basis for professional development and advocacy.

Some of the issues facing Primary LSAs this year:

  • data collection pressure from administration (product, not process).
  • district- or school-mandated report-card templates that do not support the Ministry of Education’s protocol for reporting to parents, curriculum, or goals of the Primary Program.
  • increased demands for evidence of reaching targets in school-growth plans, requiring collecting quantitative data that is not supported by the Primary Program.
  • larger class sizes: 22 in Kindergarten and 24 in Grades 1–3, with no caps or compensatory class compositions based on the number of low-incidence students with special needs.
  • less physical space for computers, toys, and play centres because more bodies are in the classrooms.
  • new programs, sometimes mandated by the district, despite professional autonomy in contract language.
  • new programs, supported by teachers, but requiring extensive work and networking to learn and implement.
  • pushing of curriculum into lower grades—making Kindergarten resemble Grade 1.
  • Ready, Set, Learn—how to make it a good experience for the four-year-olds visiting the school for the first time and setting up an effective liaison with parents and the community.
  • reduced funding and support for materials needed for primary classrooms (toys, equipment, art supplies, manipulatives, library resources).
  • reduced funding for support staff (library, learning assistance, special education, and counselling teachers).
  • support for teachers who are not primary-trained, but have been assigned, or reassigned, to primary teaching because of cutbacks, layoffs, and school closures.
  • the reduction/elimination of primary specialist training programs at universities and colleges, thereby putting the pressure on sponsor teachers working with student teachers who have not necessarily had training in early childhood education theory and practice.

Some steps to building a public relations campaign

1. Stand up. At your next local general meeting, stand up. Two-thirds of the teachers in your district are not primary teachers; they are probably unaware of the battles you are fighting to maintain your classroom and the integrity of the Primary Program. Talk for a few minutes about the issues. I know you will have the support and encouragement of your local president. Ask for a few minutes on the agenda. Your colleagues in the older grades will bear the fallout from the issues that affect student learning in the primary years. They care.

2. Always consult with your local teachers’ association president when corresponding with or lobbying your district administration or school board. This crucial step serves two purposes. It will give you the important support of your local executive and it is part of the protocol of the BCTF that its members will not make outside representation that is contrary to any existing Federation positions/plans of action. The local presidents are in contact with the BCTF daily to confirm information, research issues, and develop responses. What starts in one local may be of concern to others. This is how issues grow from small to large, with the support to match.

3. Contact your LSA. The LSA presidents routinely contact the PSA presidents on issues relevant to the PSA. PSA presidents (there are 33 provincial specialist associations) work as a PSA Council with the BCTF. Most locals have chapters for many of the PSAs—special education, intermediate, music educators, learning assistance—and more. Ask your local president for names of contacts or of teachers who may share your concerns. The PSAs can help you research your issue.

4. Once you have the go-ahead from your local president, be very specific and certain about whom you are representing. If you are writing/presenting as an individual, you should not sign your school name or your association name. It implies that you are speaking for the group. If you are writing on behalf of a group, it is essential that the group/school/ association has been part of the process of writing and knows the content of your letter or presentation, at both the local and the provincial level. Always ask your local teachers’ association president to approve your correspondence. She or he may need BCTF approval and will handle this for you.

5. Start small. Lobby your principal first. She or he is an important ally in trying to change the system. Many principals who are very well-informed about the best practices in primary and are willing to help maintain those practices in our classrooms. Be sure of your facts.

6. Share information and research. Talk to your school colleagues and parents about what you are interested in and concerned about. Put articles up on the wall behind the photocopier (captive audience). Put them on the staffroom table. Circulate articles at a staff meeting, and offer to make copies for those who are interested.

7. Engage district administration in conversations when they visit your school. Capture them and captivate them. Send them copies of important articles with a personal note attached (and highlight a few of the most important parts). Invite them to discuss issues with you over coffee. If they are the people making the big decisions, it is essential that they understand the research and the best practices for those students. People with titles are obligated to have more knowledge, not less.

8. Join your local primary teachers’ association. If you don’t have a local chapter, start one. Your first meeting can be of two people, then four, and so on. Some local teachers’ associations may offer financial support for starting up.

9. Join the BCPTA. Our newsletters and web site give our members up-to-date information. Our association often has representation on Ministry of Education committees for curriculum development. The BCPTA takes concerns and issues from members to the PSA Council, the Professional and Social Issues Division of the Federation, the Executive Committee, and the AGM. The strength of the Federation’s united front is an awesome and powerful thing. We are fortunate to have so many leaders within the BCTF who understand what is important to primary teachers. Many local associations will fund PSA memberships with Pro-D money.

10. As always, together we are better. Lobby colleagues, parents, principals, and district administration on pedagogical practices. Use research, position statements, and well-respected provincial, national, and international organizations and authors. Use what you know about the science of teaching. Keep emotions and personalities out of the argument. Build your response using quotes and positions from today’s leading educators. Check the BCPTA web site, for links to articles, research, and organizations for supporting statements. Read articles, books, and web pages. Consult the Primary Program, full of research and reason, to remind your colleagues and administrators about the best practice in primary.

This is essential: Any representations to outside agencies must have prior authorization by the local president and the BCTF president. This isn’t a scary or time-consuming task, but it ensures that any lobbying done is consistent with BCTF and local association policies. It also gives you a network of supports, contacts, and knowledge.

Don’t hide your intelligence and knowledge about teaching practices; share them. You could be the spark that lights the flame of empowerment, change, and excellence within your school, district, and province.

Lori Robinson teaches at Nicola-Canford Elementary School, Lower Nicola and is president of the B.C. Primary Teachers’ Association.

Primary Program resources and links

• Bodrova, E. & Leong, D. (2003). "Chopsticks and Counting Chips." Beyond the Journal Young Children on the Web at www.naeyc.org/resources/journal.

• Dockett, S. (2002). "Teachers Don’t Play: Children’s Views At School." Play and Folklore (42) at www.museum.vic.gov.au/playfolklore/

• Ministry of Education. (2000). The Primary Program: A Framework for Teaching. Victoria, B.C. www.bced.gov.bc.ca/primary_program/toc.htm

• Oliver, S., & Klugman, E. (2004). "Speaking Out For Play Based Learning." Child Care Information Exchange, January/ February 2004.

• Routman, Regie. 2000. Conversations: Strategies for Teaching, Learning, and Evaluating. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

• Canadian Association for Young Children has a strong position statement on play, and offers conferences, workshops, and resources. www.cayc.ca/index2.html

• B. C. Primary Teachers’ Association regularly posts new links to web sites that support teachers and practices in keeping with the Primary Program. bctf.ca/psas/BCPTA/

• UBC is pioneering an interdisciplinary research partnership that involves both government ministries and educators at all levels. Directed by Dr. Clyde Hertzman, HELP (Human Early Learning Partnership) is working with schools and communities to research early learning. One major project that has been in most districts is the EDI (Early Development Instrument)—collecting data on what supports are in place and future directions for community development. www.earlylearning.ubc.ca/

• The National Association for the Education of Young Children maintains an extensive website with journal articles, links, and research-supported positions statements. www.naeyc.org/

• The NAEYC has come out strongly opposed to some of the accountability and assessment practices being forced upon primary students and teachers. Position statements can be downloaded in pdf format. www.naeyc.org/ece/critical/readiness.asp

• The International Reading Association, which publishes Reading Today and The Reading Teacher, provides short, concise position statements, which you can print and use to start discussions or support your position statements. www.reading.org/resources/issues/positions_multiple_methods.html

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