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.

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