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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 19, Number 1, September 2006

Working together for public education

by Jinny Sims

What a difference a year makes! In some ways it seems like only yesterday that we were preparing to take a strike vote as schools opened last September. In others, it seems like another lifetime. We had two strike votes, the beginning of limited job action, the imposition of a contract and a two-week provincial shut down, all within the first six weeks of school opening. That courageous stand was overwhelmingly supported by parents, by labour, both organized and unorganized, and the business community. We received support from around the world. During that time we learned that when we talk to each other, when we spend time with each other, and when we learn what is happening in each other’s classrooms, we gain strength.

This fall we are reaping the benefits of taking a stand. Together, we changed the political landscape of our province. The government learned that it could no longer impose conditions of employment and changed its approach to public-sector bargaining.

We made gains last fall and again in June when we negotiated a fair increase for teachers over the next five years. You can read about the specific improvements in Irene Lanzinger’s article on page 3. However, now that our collective agreement has been resolved for the next five years, we have an opportunity and a challenge—to work with the provincial government and our other education partners to build, support, and improve the excellent public education system we have in this province.

Our first collective challenge will be to ensure the proper implementation of the class size and composition improvements introduced in Bill 33 last spring. Bill 33 didn’t just appear out of thin air. It came from the Learning Round Table and the round table came from our stand to protect students’ learning conditions. Everyone now knows about class size and class composition. However, we still need to advocate for and achieve full funding for Bill 33 so that all programs and services in schools are maintained and improved. The Learning Round Table gives us a vehicle to address this issue and ongoing issues related to improvements in the classroom conditions in BC schools.

At our Annual General Meeting in March, delegates decided it was time to challenge the accountability agenda that government has been advancing over the past number of years. The focus on standardized testing and student achievement has replaced an emphasis on teaching and learning in our schools. Our AGM said it is time to reverse that and to work toward an education system that recognizes that testing and evaluation have a role to play in the learning process but that our current obsession with testing is wrong. Teachers and the BCTF have been cut out of any influence in the direction education has been taking in this province over the past five years. It’s time that changed. A public education system needs to have the full benefit of our professional experience if it is to serve the interests of the broader society that includes all students and communities.

The emphasis on testing in our public schools is but one more aspect of the move to privatize public education. The commercialization of our schools as evidenced by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation survey of all Canadian schools last spring has to be reversed. And the increased reliance of schools on school fees has to end. We need to rededicate our profession and our union to work toward a public school system that is truly free to all students and is free of the commercial intrusions into the lives of our students while they attend school.

Our schools also reflect the social problems that we experience in our communities and in broader society—problems like poverty and racism. We need to develop programs through our union that help us collectively address those issues in our schools and to develop and implement teaching strategies that build understanding and inclusivity at every level of social interaction.

As in other initiatives, we have to seek the help of government and other education partners to take on these challenges.

The issues and concerns I have mentioned are not unique to BC or even to Canada. Teachers in other provinces and other countries are facing many of the same circumstances with respect to government-driven accountability agendas, the threat of commercialism and privatization and the social problems that students and teachers face every day. Our challenge is to build a strong and healthy public education system in this province, which means taking on many of these issues. It means finding allies to work with us in our communities and provincially. When we work together we can make improvements for our students, for our profession, and for public education. Together we will tackle our challenges and opportunities so that we work with others to build a just and civil society.

Jinny Sims is the BCTF president.

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