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?

1 comment:

  1. Hi Shelley,
    Ah...a voice of reason.