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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 20, Number 2, October 2007

Victoria teachers fight for professional development days

By Thierry Ponchet

Are you taking professional development for granted in your local? PD days are under attack throughout the province. Victoria teachers have had an ongoing dispute with Greater Victoria School District regarding ownership of professional development days. The local’s position has always been that five of the non-instructional days belonged to teachers and that the board kept control of the ministry day. The board took the position that with the exception of the October Provincial PD day and the district-wide PD day in February, the remaining days belonged to the district.

The union initiated a series of PD grievances that focussed on teacher professional autonomy with regard to PD days. Perhaps the grievance that had the most impact on PD in Victoria occurred in September 2005. This grievance involved a teacher who on a professional day advised her principal that she would not be attending the day’s literacy activities, but would instead be exercising her professional judgment to determine the appropriate professional development activity for her. The principal said that she expected the teacher to attend the literacy activity. The teacher asked the principal to clarify if she was ordering her to attend the school-based PD. Although the request was repeated several times, the principal never ordered the teacher to attend. The teacher spent the day doing professional development in her classroom. The teacher was subsequently disciplined by the district for insubordination.

Many Greater Victoria teachers were outraged by the actions of the district. The union formulated a PD action plan that called for a concerted union action to apply pressure on the board. As a result of teachers’ taking a stand for professional development, the board agreed to strike a bi-partisan committee to resolve this issue. A one-year Letter of Agreement was signed that gave teachers control over four of the six non-instructional days and the right to determine the professional development activities at the school for all six NIDs.

After a year of labour peace, the board inexplicably declined to renew the Letter of Agreement. District management took a hard line and cited the Kamloops PD arbitration decision as a disincentive for renegotiating an agreement. The district’s position was that teachers now owned only two of the six PD days. The remaining four would be under the control of the board.

Again Victoria teachers supported their local executive who proposed a second PD action plan that called for teachers to attend an alternate GVTA PD event on the first PD day of the year. The executive proposed a detailed action plan that was endorsed by the local’s staff rep assembly. BCTF President Irene Lanzinger gave the keynote address, and other workshop facilitators were booked. We kept Victoria informed through several union alerts out to the schools. The union developed a pledge sheet entitled "I’ll be there" asking teachers to show their commitment to the action plan. We sent information packages to staff reps for dissemination to teachers in their schools.

When the information packages reached the schools, it wasn’t long before the school district became more conciliatory. The possibility of disciplining several hundred teachers because of their stand on professional autonomy regarding professional development was worthy of a second thought.

On Thursday, September 13, 2007, the Greater Victoria School District and the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association signed a Letter of Agreement that gives Victoria teachers the right to determine what PD is best for them on four of the six NIDs. For the remaining two days, teachers need to get the authorization of the principal for participation at PD events outside the school. Again, the PD school-based committees are responsible for planning and organizing all PD activities. Finally, the Letter of Agreement has no sunset clause unless both parties agree to review the agreement.

What have teachers learned from this experience?

Teachers have learned that political action can be a very powerful force in dealing with a recalcitrant school district. When a significant number of teachers are determined on a course of action, when these professionals move forward as one, united in a common goal and vision, then they become practically unstoppable. The district did not want to be placed in the embarrassing position of ordering teachers to attend school-based PD activities. Although for teachers in other locals, our PD victory may seem small, for many Victoria teachers it has given them an increased sense of purpose and pride as professionals.

Thierry Ponchet is president, Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association.

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