Friday, June 27, 2014

Finding another way to resolve the teachers' dispute

The easiest thing in the world to do is agree. It’s a way to be invisible. No one really notices the people who nod and go along. Disagreeing makes you stand out. Some people, of course, love to be noticed. They disagree, as the saying goes, just to be disagreeable. You notice them.

I hate being noticed.

I had hoped, in fact, to be largely silent on the ongoing strike. I am deeply opposed. That puts me in disagreement with the majority of my colleagues. Disagreeing is difficult enough; disagreeing with people you admire and respect, especially disagreeing with them on a topic of strong, even impassioned conviction is painful.

However, my silence implies that I agree with what is happening or that I am indifferent. Neither is true. Although I can soothe my conscience by the thought that my opinion is insignificant, that one dissenting voice in a sea of consent is irrelevant, Martin Luther King’s words ring in my mind: “Our lives begin to end when we are silent about things that matter.” This matters.

I am opposed to the strike.  This is why.

The moment you decide on a strike or lockout (and both are in place right now) you go to war. You divide into two camps, setting up an enemy, demonizing the other, and destroying the possibility, even into the future, of co-designing peaceful options. The longer the war goes on, the more firmly entrenched each side becomes, sitting on their side of the line day after day, whipped up by the propaganda of their leaders, not to think deeply about alternate options or better ideas, but to dig in deeper, to chant derisively about the other as though we are not, ultimately, on the same team.

All that is left is a possibility of “bargaining in good faith” as though that is a good dearly to be wished for. The important issues are left behind. We can only compromise and focus on numbers: wage packages, class size limits, composition requirements. The best we can hope for is the possibility of a “settlement," neither side satisfied and the third way – not my way or your way but our way – obliterated.

Once you wage war, it is almost impossible to turn back. Once you have suffered losses for your cause, once you have marched and chanted and carried signs, once you have slung accusations across the divide, once you have built the camaraderie of shared struggles against a common foe, it takes extraordinary courage to say – perhaps we were wrong. You have to believe that your actions counted, that your losses led to victory.

We lost, the minute we decided to go on strike, the opportunity to re-imagine our work. It isn't as though I don’t think the working conditions for teachers are increasingly untenable. It isn't as though I don’t think teachers need a wage increase or reduced class size or adjustments for class composition. But adjusting the numbers won’t transform education. These issues are not the problem; they are the result of years of losing our way in changing times.

Here’s the one simple change we must make: we can no longer put teachers in isolation in a classroom with many children, not if our purpose is to educate each child beautifully. Reducing the number of students by one or two or five will help but it won’t transform the classroom. Finding a formula for class composition, even if it were possible (children notoriously defy categories) may help some of the time, but it won’t make the difference we need. Adding educational assistants and specialist teachers will help, but it isn't enough. Paying more money to teachers simply acknowledges their contribution. It will help, but it won’t change practice. Truly, you cannot pay teachers what they are worth. The longer we haggle over wages, the more likely it is that teachers will work less. Who gifts their time and more important, their commitment, when they are under-appreciated and, even, during this war, despised and scorned?

Now what? A “fair deal” in the “affordability zone” may get us back to classrooms, but it isn't enough.

We need to start again differently. We need to stop advocating and start listening. We need to remember our shared purpose, to reflect on what matters to all of us. We need to ask some common questions to jump-start conversations that re-imagine education. We need to roll up our sleeves to work, think, dream, create together and find a path beyond numbers and deals and zones to where the children are.

If educators cannot find peaceful, imaginative, transformative solutions to complex problems, who can? And if we don’t, what hope can we offer for the future, which we hold in our hands with the hearts and minds of our children?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

To Kathie McGregor: A Great Teacher

Perhaps I didn't say this to Kathie when I could. I hope I did. I hope she knew how much I admired her, how grateful I was for her energy, passion, commitment, willingness to learn, lead, share, pitch in. Kathie embodied the learning teacher: she always questioned, wondered, explored, applied new ideas, struggled to understand, engaged in hard conversations; she was always willing to join in, to jump into a study group, to lead learning sessions, to try new things. Her work using literacy strategies in socials studies, her experimentation in peer editing and assessment, inquiry, historical thinking and technology infused teaching have played a significant role in transforming practice in our community. She was a passionate advocate for public education.

I have been looking through my pictures. Her work is woven through the fabric of my professional life. I have dozens of pictures of Kathie - leaning forward, intense concentration, listening hard or deep in conversation, standing in front of kids to connect them to big ideas, sitting beside to them to encourage next step thinking, working with colleagues to assess or share ideas or lead conversations. Or laughing. Learning and laughing, I think, should go together like salt and pepper. They did for Kathie.

I often worry that we only notice the big and noisy things, that the extraordinary work of teachers like Kathie passes almost unseen. I suppose it doesn't matter, really. I see it. Her students and colleagues know. Her friends and family. She worked passionately, individual to individual, changing lives, changing the way we teach, changing our path. Our lives are richer for walking with her; our possibilities for the future are brighter for her committed action. Kathie was a great teacher.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

When am I volunteering and when am I teaching?

The current labour dispute between BCPSEA (acting for the government) and the BCTF (acting for the teachers) has escalated to rotating strikes and a partial lockout. Teachers are locked out of the school at lunch hour, recess and may only be at school 45 minutes before the first bell and after the last one.  Unless we are volunteering. For example, although I can’t help my students with math at lunch, I may coach the football team.

At first, I was confused by priorities. Why are exceptions made for extra-curricular activities? Are they more important than the curriculum? But the priorities are simply political, I realize. Technically, we aren’t paid to volunteer. The reason for the lock-out, from what I gather, is to justify the wage cut that is part of BCPSEA’s efforts to return pressure on BCTF in retaliation for the rotating strikes. I understand that. Tit for tat. It’s the sort of thing I deal with constantly in my grade 7 classroom. Don’t hit. He hit me first. It doesn't solve anything, I say. But no one remembers that lesson, even as adults.

I remain confused, though, by what it means to volunteer in my role as a teacher. Teachers, we are told, are welcome on school property despite the lockout to support student extracurricular programs and other voluntary activities, but not for paid work. To me, this is an imaginary and unhelpful line. As teachers, we contribute our strengths in whatever way we can. The colleagues I know who coach, for example, extend the lessons of their classroom to the field or court, helping students to lead, learn, do their best. They know that if students have success anywhere, they can help them translate that success to math, to writing, to disciplined effort in the classroom. When my colleagues offer after-school drama or lunch-hour chess, they know that rich and diverse experiences help connect students to school, especially those who struggle academically or socially. Once connected in one place, they can begin to weave more connections around the student to support them in the classroom. Teachers who “volunteer” know that they can’t teach students they don’t have a relationship with. They build the relationships in any way they can. Near the end of the basketball season this year, one of my students said, “You've never missed one of our games, have you?” Of course not. More than a dozen of my students played on the team. I’m their number one cheerleader. Is that volunteering? I don’t think so. For me, it’s teaching. That doesn't mean I think watching students play basketball should be required of every teacher. It means that this year with these students it works for me as part of my plan to support them in the best way I can.

I'm even more puzzled by this: when does my work that is directly related to the classroom become volunteering? Here’s an example. For art, as we review the elements and principles of design, we’re applying what we know to the creation of our yearbook. To facilitate this, I've been spending hours at night organizing pictures and then putting them into student folders. Although it’s extra time for me, it means we can spend more class time thinking about design. First, I sorted the pictures that had been taken of them over the years. Now they are taking their own photos that use line in interesting ways, that experiment in perspective, light and shade; they've used an online editing program to play with colour and shape. Each day, I upload and sort these latest photos, so the next day we’re ready for another lesson.  Next we are going to choose photos to insert into the page layout they designed. None of this extra preparation is required.  I could give students a handout on the elements and principles of design. They could copy notes, study them and take a test. Done. I am paid in both cases, but currently I am spending more hours for the same (reduced) pay. Am I volunteering my time?

I worry about a lot of things as this dispute continues. I worry about the disruption and tension for children. I worry about the erosion of public confidence in education. I worry about the disrespectful attitude of the employer and the long-term effects it will have on employee work. I worry about bitterness between teachers as individual values clash with collective goals. But here’s what worries me most. When we begin to count teaching in hours, as if we were widget-makers in a factory, when we outline the tasks that count as teaching as if teaching can be slotted into a fixed set of activities, when we prescribe the methods for teachers as if one-way-fits-all, then I am sure that we might as well shift to online education. The infrastructure to make it happen is ready.

What makes teachers impossible to replace with machines is the “voluntary” part, the part that is a unique teacher using his or her strengths and passions and observations-in-the-moment to meet the right-now needs of children. I hope we won’t forget that.