Monday, October 29, 2012

From All-About-Me to We: Musings on Kids, Parents, Teachers and Bill 115

I wasn't going to write about it. "It" being Bill 115 (subtitled "Putting Students First"), passed by the recently-prorogued Ontario legislature, a bill that imposes an austerity contract on a majority of the province's 115, 000 teachers, cutting their sick days in half and removing (for the duration of the contract) their right to strike. I wasn't going to write about it, not only because it's an incendiary topic for parents and teachers alike, one that is best approached with the kind of care and nuance I wasn't sure I could muster, but also because, as my reader(s) may have noticed, I've taken a break from blogging to work on other projects.

But, then, the other day a tweet came through my stream that read something like this: "10-yr-old DD has started a petition to protest against lack of extra-curriculars. I'm so proud of her!"

This tweet (a paraphrase) epitomizes the position that has dominated the discussion of the Bill among parents since union leaders invited teachers to protest against the province's imposition of a contract by declining to supervise extra-curricular activities. Despite the fact that, by the terms of teacher contracts, participation in extra-curriculars is voluntary, parents and kids have been vocal in their denunciation of this action. Many have made the point that kids should not be used as pawns in the conflict between the province and teachers. Columnists and pundits have jumped on the bandwagon, bemoaning the lack of extra-curriculars and, more recently, condemning the suggestion from unions that teachers further express their displeasure with the imposed contract by restricting their comments on the November progress reports to one sentence. What one hears most often in the discussions about the current impasse between the government and the teachers is the sage-sounding admonishment to everyone involved to take a deep breath and remember: it's all about the children.

But -- and this is why I've decided to end my silence, because someone has to say it -- IT'S NOT ALL ABOUT THE CHILDREN. In a democracy, an education system is "about" everyone. It concerns and affects young and old, parents and non-parents, teachers and kids. It seems simple enough, but it bears emphasizing: the stakeholders of a society's education system are all of us. Without an educated population, we not only have no workers to pay taxes and support the young and old but, more importantly, we lack an informed citizenry to protect and expand our democratic institutions and ideals. Without a well-paid, well-respected teaching body, the education system simply does not -- cannot -- exist. So instead of patting our kids on the back when they decide to protest the lack of their favourite extra-curricular (which, we might remind them, is called "extra" for a reason), or stepping in to run the activities ourselves, we should be taking the opportunity to shift the focus from "me to we," and teach kids something about the role of education in a democracy.

One way to approach such a lesson might be to talk about the context in which this labour dispute is occurring. I believe that it's incumbent upon parents -- regardless of where they stand on the political spectrum -- to supply this context, for the simple reason that teachers are unable to broach the topic lest they be accused of partisanship. We could begin by talking about how the current labour situation in Ontario fits into the larger picture of recent educational trends in North America: namely, the "reform movement," with its emphasis on boosting "achievement" through increased standardized testing and "accountability." We could talk about how within such a picture, teachers are often painted as part of the problem -- as scapegoats (a term worth discussing) for the socio-political problems of poverty and the chronic underfunding of education --  rather than as a crucial part of the solution. We could then back up and broaden the focus to help kids situate Bill 115 within the context of labour history. We could talk about how ordinary people, working in disparate sectors of the Canadian economy have fought hard for the freedom to strike and the right to engage in collective bargaining with their employers. We could talk about how the federal government has infringed on these rights in recent years by imposing back-to-work legislation in such sectors as transportation and the civil service (e.g., postal workers). We could then bring the discussion back to the current situation in Ontario, specifically to Bill 115, taking care to point out that, as an Act that imposes a contract upon a majority of teachers in the province, it has removed a right -- the right of unions to negotiate the terms of employment -- that most people, regardless of their political persuasion, regard as a cornerstone of modern democratic economies. In addition, we should stress that since the Act proscribes striking or working-to-rule, minor actions such as declining to supervise sports teams and clubs, are among the few avenues for protest left open to teachers.

One could go into a lot more detail and make the discussion far more interesting by bringing up salient events in Canadian history, such as the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 or the Windsor Strike of 1945, the latter of which led to greater acceptance of unions and collective bargaining (see Rand Formula). But the exact content of the context-supplying conversation we have with our kids is not as important as is the simple fact of having it.  If, afterwards, they decide that they still want to protest against missing extracurriculars or report card comments, then so be it and more power to them. At least they will be acting from a position of knowledge, which is all we can expect of kids -- or citizens of any age -- in a democracy.