From Job Action To Job Action To … ?

When I chose to run as a candidate in the 2011 municipal elections, the K-12 public education system in British Columbia was embroiled in job action.

Almost three years later, the public education system in British Columbia is once again contending with a job action which many are calling the worst ever for the sheer rancour of the debate, the barbed rhetoric which abounds, and the crumbling relationships.

In other words, my entire term as a Trustee on the West Vancouver Board of Education has been characterized by the lurch from one job action to another.

While bargaining has chewed away at my time as a Trustee, it’s insatiable appetite has also served as an obstacle to discussions and innovations on a number of educational topics.

Why?

Rainbow on a rainy day - ReemaFaris.com

Because if you’re consistently caught up in trying to clean up the mess your guests have made with the appetizers, you’ll never have the chance to sit down with your company to enjoy the main course.

If our focus is concentrated on bargaining issues, what are we not talking about?  Here’s a short-list of “big picture” items which I feel are overshadowed by the labour situation whether at a local level or provincially (in alphabetical order):

Accountability 

  • which Ministry reports are essential and which ones aren’t?
  • is there a way to simplify school district financial reporting to ensure better utilization of staff time and resources without sacrificing the integrity and thoroughness of the information required?
  • aside from the issue of underfunding, is it time to review the current funding formula?

Assessment (I know much has been done in this area and some school districts have already begun experimenting with different approaches, but I’m afraid that work has been disrupted and the information won’t be available for sharing as best practices with others.)

  • what should report cards look like at each level in the K-12 system?
  • how do we continue to move forward on implementing models of formative assessment?
  • is there a different way to organize credits at the high school level to enable a more flexible route to graduation rather than one based strictly on work in school or on a progression through grade levels?

Age Groupings

  • is grouping students according to their age still the desired approach to education?
  • how do we balance the advantages of early learning with the fact that for some students a later start into a formal school environment may be more desirable?
  • do all students require a full five years of secondary education or should there be a fast-track option for some learners?

Calendar (some districts are already working with different calendars)

  • do we have to start school in September and stop in June with the traditional breaks at the end of each calendar year, for spring break, and so on?
  • are balanced calendar models more successful for students and their families?
  • what are the logistical barriers to changing the calendar within a district?  That is, does it work well to have one or more schools on a different calendar or does it work better to change all at once?

Community Links

  • how do we break through the walls between our communities and our schools to improve and increase relevancy and connections?
  • what sort of partnerships can we build with our community without compromising the integrity of our public education system?
  • how do we draw on the expertise and skills of our community members to further enhance and support school learning and the work of our educators?

These are some topics I yearn to delve into along with other issues such as the new curriculum, pre-service requirements for future educators, and the structure of practicums for student teachers.

Oh, and what exactly is a teacher’s role and what do we even mean by education in today’s world?

And while I believe that a negotiated settlement is the best foundation from which we may be able to enter into a progressive and enlightening discussion on many of these issues, it makes me very sad to acknowledge that the time needed to repair relationships once a deal is signed means we may not have the time we need to talk about such things substantively let alone implement them before we’re at the bargaining table again!

In the meantime, school districts continue to strive to do the very best for the families of this province but if each electoral mandate continues to be a Ben Hur-like chariot race from one set of failed negotiations to another, we will — all of us — have failed in our duty to build a better world for our children.

It will be a collective failure of imagination.

 

I Don’t Like Lockouts And Strikes

Based on “Spiders and Snakes” by Jim Stafford.

I remember when students said

“We wanna go to school today”

And we said, “Yes, you do.”

They said, “That’s where we learn and grow.

And we’re not the kind that likes to stay at home.

It’s our future.”

We said, “That’s true.”

 

And so they took a stroll.

Wound up beside the school yard fence

And they said, “Now what do we do?”

Cuz they found teachers hanging around

Locked out recess, lunch, from the playground,

Who then ‘splained it to them

Said, “This job action’s for you!”

 

They said, “We don’t like lockouts and strikes

And that ain’t what it takes to teach us.

Negotiate, negotiate.

We don’t like lockouts and strikes

And that ain’t what it takes to teach us

Like we want to be taught by you.”

 

Well, I think about those students all the time

I’d like to call Clark up with this rhyme

And say, “Hello Christy.”

She’d say, “What to do?”

I’d say, “Do you remember when 

And would you like kids at school again?”

She’d say, “Right away buckaroo.”

 

Kids say, “We don’t like lockouts and strikes

And that ain’t what it takes to teach us.

Negotiate, negotiate.

We don’t like lockouts and strikes

And that ain’t what it takes to teach us

Like we want to be taught by you.”

 

Ratios, Ranges, and Caps in Education

Peter Cameron, BCPSEA’s Chief Negotiator, seemed to call for a cone of silence today for Trustees when it comes to bargaining issues in the public education sector.

While I can appreciate his frustration with diverging viewpoints (solidarity matters to both parties at the bargaining table), there are many issues not being discussed in a larger context which may, in part, explain why negotiations are so acrimonious.

Which brings me to the topics I’d like to explore here:  ratios for non-enrolling staff and specialist teachers, class size, and class composition.

Why?

Because if we talked about these issues in a meaningful way, apart from contract negotiations, perhaps we wouldn’t be in the same spin cycle of labour unrest every few years.

This is not an empirical study, nor an exhaustive analysis of the subject, nor does it represent the views of the West Vancouver Board of Education.  These are merely personal reflections intended to stimulate debate.

WVSS Band

Ratios for Non-Enrolling Staff and Specialists

To frame this discussion, I think we need to consider the minimally acceptable service levels for positions such as teacher-librarian, counsellor, special education teacher and so on.

Having said that, I realize that we must first agree on which of these roles is integral to providing a quality education for students. We can then determine the appropriate ratios.  However, these ratios would have to reflect the needs and the realities of each local community.  What may be needed in Vancouver, for example, may not work in Williams Lake, and what may be sufficient in Fort Nelson may not work on the Sunshine Coast.

Now that I think about it, perhaps this piece of the puzzle is not so easy after all!

Class Size

The key question here is can we find a balance between the needs of the employer, the working conditions for a teacher, and the students’ learning conditions?  For example, if a cap of 24 students is set for Grade 3 and a school has two fully subscribed classes of 24, what happens when someone moves into the neighbourhood and wants to place their child at the local school?   Does a class of 25 present a significant deterioration in the working and learning conditions of the teacher and the students?  Well, it may and it may not — it depends.  An even more basic question is how do we even determine the optimum number of students in a classroom?

Rather than a singular number, I wonder if a range could work within the context of a collective agreement.  For example, would it be possible to have a provision whereby a Grade 3 class can be anywhere from 15 to 28?  Or 18 to 26?  Whatever the range, provisions would also have to be considered regarding the process by which one were to go over or under – a process which balances the rights of the District with the working conditions of the teacher with the learning environment of the student.

There are also a myriad of exceptions to consider from classes that may have a defined capacity (such as foods and shop) to ones which may comfortably extend beyond a specified range (such as choir and band).

Given the many different factors to consider, you can see how difficult it becomes to distill class size down to a singular number which would apply in all situations in all regions of the province.

Class Composition

Of the three components I identified at the start, I find this one the most difficult to assess. The key question seems to be how do we set up a system which does not discriminate against our most vulnerable students and yet takes into account acceptable working conditions for a teacher?  But I do know that by not addressing class composition issues, we are potentially compromising the education of all the students in a particular classroom.

I believe the answer lies in ensuring adequate support services and resources in the classroom.  By that I mean if we are going to removing a limit on the number of special needs students in a classroom, we need to make sure the teacher in that classroom has additional help, whether in the form of special education assistants or education assistants (SEA or EA) or other specialist support, to meet the needs of all the students.

So, rather than saying there may only be three students with individual educations plans (IEPs) in one class, perhaps we have to say for every three IEPs in a classroom, there is one SEA or EA assigned to that classroom.  But then we face the challenge of determining the demand associated with any particular IEP because the nature of the adjustments or assistance required can vary substantively.  In addition, not every student who needs additional support has an IEP and it is often these students whose needs remain unmet not because of the teacher, but because of inadequate resourcing.

And yes, whichever remedies we put in place with regard to non-enrolling staff ratios, class size, and class composition will take money, a lot of money.  But we are talking about 558,985 children in BC and we are talking about the future of our democratic society and no I’m not exaggerating.

And as much as our provincial government may be focused on shrinking public education to help reduce the amount it spends, the price of not doing education well is too high to pay, for all of us.

A Man For All Seasons

Author’s Note:  I’m sad to report that FUB passed away on May 27, 2014.  The world is a dimmer, duller place without him. There is a man I know. His name is Robert. Bob. Or as we like to call him FUB – Funny Uncle Bob. Funny because he is witty and bright.  Even inContinue Reading