Three years ago, I put my name forward as a candidate in the 2011 municipal elections.  I ran for the position of Trustee on the West Vancouver Board of Education and was honoured when voters in this community elected me to serve in that capacity.

My foray into electioneering also marked my social media debut outside the comfort zone of Facebook.

I dove into Twitter, a platform with which I’ve become very comfortable and which is now a part of how I absorb, consume, and contribute to media on a daily basis.  It has also allowed me to create an invaluable network of connections.

After a long time of saying, “I would like to start a blog,” the election also spurred me to start one which I called The Comfort of Why.  The best explanation for this title can be found in the speech I made at the first all-candidates’ meeting in 2011 where I said:

I take great comfort in the question why.  As long as I’m asking why, I’m thinking, I’m reflecting, I’m challenging.  I am looking for answers rather than assuming I have all the answers.  I’m seeking information rather than dictating the way that things ought to be perceived.

To me, this questioning is not about undermining a system and disregarding the work that’s been done.  It’s about validating what you believe, being responsive and  strategic — making changes when they’re needed, when they’re necessary, and making them at the right time. 

My first blog entry was posted on October 19, 2011, and it was comprised almost entirely of questions including this one:

Consider, too, that the BC Ministry of Education is pushing the concept of “personalized learning in the 21st century”.  Why?  What does it mean?  

My position at the time, in regard to this particular question, was as follows:

Well, I want to be at the table to make sure that if there’s an overhaul of the system it’s done well and it’s done right.  That it’s implemented in a way which benefits all students.

After three years of being at the table, I still feel this is a valid question and one that is not being addressed at a provincial level.

English Bay Sunset

I still want to have this conversation.  In fact, I feel we must have this conversation if we are to continue to offer our children the best opportunities to learn, to grow, and to find their way in the world.

While I recognize the valuable work that our Board has done in the past three years, in collaboration with the District Leadership Team, our education partners, our educators, and all our employees, I will not be seeking reelection in 2014.

Why?

There are a number of factors, but let me focus on three key points.

First, West Vancouver is a community with such depth of talent and with many actively engaged residents who are passionate about education.  The deadline for nominations is tomorrow and already seven candidates have filed their papers which means we will have a dynamic and substantive campaign featuring a diverse range of opinions from individuals who all have much to offer.

Second, the most recent job action was very instructive and there are many lessons to be learned in how it played out.  One of the most significant learning outcomes for me was to recognize that in order to move the provincial government into action on education, we need much greater direct engagement from the public.  That citizens’ voice has to be galvanized if we want to ensure that education is a prominent, if not THE, election issue in 2017.

Finally, education in British Columbia has become such a polarized — and polarizing issue — that what we don’t talk about is education.  This discussion — the conversation I’ve always said I wanted to see happen — has been drowned out by criticisms and accusations, by duelling press conferences and media soundbites, by job actions and political posturing.

It’s time that we, as citizens and voters, speak up and get what we want for our children, our society, and our future.

I have some ideas on how we might do just that.

Watch for Part 2.

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.

 

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.

Stepping into a profession, we can expect to be bombarded by acronyms and terms specific to that field.  The BC public education system, for example, is rife with them:  MoE, BCSTA, BCPSEA, BCSSA, BCASBO, BCTF, CUPE, BCCPAC, HR, F&F, AFG, AbEd, IB, PYP, MYP, IEP, FSAs, standardized testing, needs assessment, self-regulation, special needs, 21st century learning, etc.

Amongst the list of terms is one used to describe the model in which Boards of Education and the provincial government function: co-governance.

But what does co-governance mean?

I decided to look it up and started with the word governance.  Here’s what I found:

 governance:  

      1. government; exercise of authority; control.
      2. a method or system of government or management.

And “co-”? It’s apparently a variation of “com-” which is defined as follows:

a prefix meaning “with,” together,” “in association,” and (with intensive force) “completely,” occurring in loan words from Latin (commit): used in the formation of compound words…

Pic for Co-Governance

Putting the two together, I can say co-governance is a shared exercise of authority, control exerted in association with one another, or a partnership system of government or management.

Defining the term is easy, but applying it to BC’s public education system, as currently structured and operating, may be a misnomer.

Why?

Because the inherent nature of the relationship is one of imbalance.  Public education is financed by public revenues which are allocated by the province. 

And if one party in a relationship is the ultimate arbiter of funds, then it may be a challenge to ensure that other critical issues are addressed on the basis of a co-governance model. In the past few weeks alone, we’ve seen the release of a 10-year framework for bargaining as well as the debut of a new website, mostly with little or no direct consultation with Trustees.

I’ll admit it’s not easy when one has a firm grasp of the purse strings to share control, but the current structure is paternalistic and does not lend itself easily to a co-governance model.

And while my call for a Royal Commission on Education is likely to continue falling on deaf ears, here are two things I’d like to see.

First, I would like all eligible voters in BC to vote in the May 14 provincial election no matter what their political persuasion.

Second, I would like the new government, whether Liberal, NDP, Green, Conservative, or other to convene a meeting with Board of Education Trustees.  Maybe two from each district. That’s a group of 120 people. 

And talk. 

Have a real discussion. 

A substantive discussion.  

One where Trustees do most of the speaking and elected officials and Ministry representatives do the listening.  

And then do the same with each significant group in the education sector.

Compile the results of these discussions, distribute the report, and then put everyone in a room together to see if we can work together to ensure that our children will continue to benefit from a vibrant and thriving public education system.  

One that is not characterized, if I may borrow from the philosopher Hannah Arendt, by questions of “what are we fighting against”, but “what are we fighting for?”.

And let’s see, if through dialogue, we can put the “co-” back into “co-governance”.

A year ago, I was elected as a Trustee to the West Vancouver Board of Education and it’s been an honour to work on behalf of this community. I’ve lived most of my life here, I’m a graduate of the school district in which I now play a role, and I’m fortunate I’m able to raise my child here.

 As a public education community, we’re very lucky in West Vancouver. We have a great administrative team, we have inspiring leadership from our Superintendent, we have incredible staff, we have a caring Board, and we have a cadre of educators who are diligent, dedicated, and determined to deliver the highest quality teaching and learning.

We’re also favoured in that our community highly values education and families here generally have the means to ensure the best for their children.  And yet, even with all these advantages, I see any number of troubling issues which appear to characterize the public education system in British Columbia.

And so, when I’m asked about my experience as a Trustee, my inclination is to say that the system is more complex and complicated than I realized despite having been an active parent-volunteer for five years before choosing to run for office.

Reema Faris - West Vancouver School Board Trustee with campaign sign

Why?

In part, I think, because there are many different interpretations of the generally agreed upon underlying principle which I see as “the best interest of the child”.  

Is the core purpose of education the success of the individual child or is it the betterment of society?  Do parents know what’s best for their child or do teachers?  Is an educator an autonomous professional or an expert member of a team?  

I’m sure any one of us could generate an endless list of questions on the big picture of education, but then there are the practicalities.  How is the provincial government able to show that funding per pupil is at an all time high while school districts have to nip, tuck, or cut programs and services in order to balance budgets? Given that 80% of a school district’s budget is consumed by salaries and benefits, how can innovative projects be implemented when resources are so constrained? How can infrastructure be maintained and new capital projects be contemplated with no additional funding?  

Despite the seemingly intractable challenges, there’s no doubt in my mind that we have to do everything we can to foster dialogue on this issue. That education needs to be made the highest priority in this province, that we have to find a way to work collaboratively to make our strong system better.

The reason is simple. Education is the path to a more just and more equitable world.

And while it may be difficult to hold on to this truth given the evidence of the harm humans continue to do to the earth and to each other, it is why I remain committed to doing the best I can, for public education, in the remaining two years of my term.