Wednesday, July 2, 2014

If I were in charge: another way to resolve the teachers' dispute

The way is not in the sky.  The way is in the heart.  

After reading my last blog post about why I am opposed to the teachers’ strike, my daughter Katie said it was good – with that particular inflection that lets you know there is a ‘but’ coming – but when you disagree with people about their action, it’s just annoying unless you at least outline a concrete alternative. What would you do right now, she said, if you were in charge?  
If I were in charge, Katie, I’d start by seeing this as an opportunity instead of a problem. There is no doubt that teachers are dissatisfied. They are repeatedly saying that they cannot do the job they love adequately anymore. They are demanding change. This dovetails perfectly with the Ministry of Education’s expressed desire for change. The current system, the introduction to the new BC Education Plan argues, is good (you can almost hear that inflection), but built on skills, practices and models of a previous century. To become great, “we need a more nimble and flexible one that can adapt more quickly to better meet the needs of 21st century learners.”

If were in charge, I would begin by seeking nimble, flexible and innovative ways to approach the current dispute, rather than inflexibly repeating refrains about affordability zones and fiscal plans. I’d begin by finding a way to orchestrate an agreement with teachers that not only fits a plan for the future, but lifts it from words to action. 

In the BC Education Plan, five key elements are identified to move our education system from good to great. One is quality teaching and learning: “A great teacher has always been the key to creating outstanding educational experiences.” Yet teachers today are saying that, given the working and learning conditions they face, they can no longer do great work. It's hardly surprising since, for years, teachers have met 21st century expectations in a 20th century model. If the government really plans to change the education system, then now is a perfect opportunity to take a real step forward.  Indeed, it may be the only opportunity: if the strife and acrimony continues, meaningful change will be thwarted by broken trust. How can we work together toward change in the future, when we can’t work together at this important crossroad today?

So if I were in charge, I’d begin by setting aside the endless back-and-forth about numbers, scarcity, limits, deadlines and deficiencies. I’d say, let’s think about possibility instead, about what needs to change in changing times so that together we can transform education, the stated purpose of the Education Plan, and embed those changes into a new agreement for working together. 

How? I’d start with dialogue. Yes, we have already been “talking” at the “table” but a dialogue is something else. Indeed, dialogue is distinguished from debate in one of the Education Plan documents: “a debate assumes there is one right answer (and you have it) and attempts to prove the other side wrong” while in a dialogue “you assume that others have pieces of the answer and you attempt to find common ground.” A dialogue is surely exactly what we need right now. Our debates have gotten us nowhere.

Who will engage in this dialogue? Anyone who wants to participate. That might seem unwieldy but so far a handful of men and women at the bargaining table have not been the answer. We live in an age where mass participation is possible; if teachers are dissatisfied, even anxious, about teaching and learning conditions, there is nothing more important than hearing them and using that information to revise the system. Who knows better than they, after all, what is necessary to move us from good to great?

The process for dialogue the Ministry used recently to engage people to review the Plan – World Café – would work for our purposes. Café conversations, as the co-originator Juanita Brown says, “are designed on the assumption that people already have within them the wisdom and creativity to confront even the most difficult challenges.” Can you ask for a more magnificent assumption? In the café process, a facilitator gathers a group of people for conversations around questions. The ideas are recorded.  That’s it. It’s that simple. 

Cafés could be held in every local, co-hosted by representatives for the government and BCTF members. In addition, people unable to participate in face-to-face sessions could join a digital session. The information could then be organized for a final “harvest” of all the ideas from across the province. To what end?  Margaret Wheatley writes, “We need many eyes and ears and hearts engaged in sharing perspectives. How can we create an accurate picture of the whole if we don’t honour the fact that we each see something different because of who we are and where we sit in the system? Only when we have many different perspectives do we have enough information to make good decisions.” I’m convinced that from the harvest key trends and alternate ideas would emerge to illuminate the path to an agreement that is a win for both sides, for the many other sides who have been losing in this strike, and for the future that is always created by our actions today.

The only thing left to do is to consider which questions to ask. Peter Block says, “Getting the question right may be the most important thing we can do. We define the dialogue and, in a sense, our future through the questions we choose to ask.”

We could start, I think, with ones already designed by Ministry staff to help them think about how to effectively implement the Education Plan.
  • What do teachers need to feel supported and valued?
  • What support and opportunities might be provided to teachers to improve their practice and ultimately the learning experiences of their students?
  • How do our schools and school districts need to change to support more flexibility and choice in student learning?
We could consider others:
  • What’s possible now that we've agreed to try this together?
  • What issues do people keep returning to? 
  • What can we do to reduce suffering? 
  • What are we doing right?
  • What’s my contribution to the difficulty I’m experiencing?
  • How else can we create the resilient, nimble and flexible organization that we require? 
If I were in charge, Katie, I would get us off the treadmill of winning and losing and begin again with dialogue. Certainly it would be difficult. Certainly the media mud-slinging, the broken agreements, the bad-faith bargaining and many years of strife stand between us. But what other options do we have that allow us to move from continued hostility to a hopeful future? If I were in charge, I would begin by listening to the passionate educators who are yearning to be heard. I have enormous faith in my colleagues; I know that, as they talk and listen, as they share their convictions, and hear those of others, they will seek a peaceful conclusion to the teachers’ strike that will, more importantly, stand as the beginning of a new way, which is, after all, already here in our hearts, of working together beautifully for our children.

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