Wednesday, March 23, 2011

BCTF AGM roundup - Bargaining, Sir Ken, and Minister Abbott

Wow. There is so much to report from this year's BCTF Annual General Meeting. It has been an exhilerating four days! Here is a roundup, and I'll try to post some commentary as well (but maybe not all today).

Teachers hear lessons from Wisconsin

The biggest highlight of the meeting was a speech from Betsy Kippers, a member of the Wisconsin teachers union, about the struggles and amazing mobilization of the past few weeks.

Here are some quotes:

"There is a place for unions.
Teachers will not be silenced.
We need to take pride in being a union.
Bargaining improves student learning.
It protects the rights of students.
This is a fight for the working class and midle class.
And we will not back down."

Betsy received an enthusiastic standing ovation and many teacher stood to thank her and her colleagues for standing up for public education and inspiring a new generation of teacher and union activists to remain steadfast in our long standing fight to protect and defend a quality public education system.

Teachers discuss bargaining

The second day was set aside for discussions about bargaining. I can't really report much as most of this debate was "in committee". However, it is clear that teachers again stand united and resolved to come to the bargaining table to ensure improvements in salaries, working conditions, benefits, prep time, and local issues at local tables.

At a press conference on Monday, all 60 local teacher association presidents stood with Susan Lambert, BCTF President, to provide a visual display of what our 60 locals and 1 provincial table represent. While the media seemed most interested in pressing for "a number" with respect to salary, Susan explained that our objective is not yet specified but that teachers expect to be paid in line with our colleagues across Canada. We have, in the last five years, dropped from third in the country to eighth (by provincial average). Susan gave a number of examples showing how BC teachers living less than an hours drive from their Alberta counterparts are earning roughly $10,000 less. I was myself asked about "a number" but can confirm (as a member of the provincial bargaining team!) that we have not in fact arrived at "a number". But what is clear is that to maintain excellence in our system we need to ensure we attract teachers into the profession. It is difficult to do that when housing is in many of BC's cities the most expensive in the country, while salaries are sorely lagging.

Teachers engage in debate over future of education with Sir Ken Robinson

The keynote speaker for this year's AGM was no other than the much talked about Sir Ken Robinson. While Sir Ken provided a very funny and entertaining speech, I personally found it lacking in substance.

Perhaps the best part of Sir Ken's message is his humanitarian respect for the right of every individual to attain their fullest potential and he clearly sees this is as the primary objective of any education system. This, I believe, is what so many find so inspiring in his words. But he has almost nothing to say about how to get there. In fact, I was disappointed that while he made the point that the teacher/student relationship is the most critical piece in learning, he placed practically no accountability at the hands of those who support and design and fund the system - administrators, school boards, governments. He made vague references to politicians making decisions that didn't work out, but really did not make any analysis of why they make those decisions or how those decisions adversely impact how teachers are able to meet student's needs.

Minister Abbott addresses teachers

Certainly the most surprising and unexpected moments of this year's AGM came on the last day when the new Education Minister, George Abbott, addressed the convention.

This was the first time in ten year's that a Minister has come to speak to teachers and his mere presence motivated some in the audience to stand and applaude at his arrival.

His speech seemed designed at first to offer an olive branch. He discussed his own background in teaching. He talked about his own and his children's experiences in the BC public system and how successful they had been (noticeably in contrast to the last Minister of Education who spoke to teachers - the NDP's Moe Sihota - whose daughter attended a private school in Victoria). He thanked teachers for our work.

He addressed three policy issues - teacher job satisfaction, technology, and personalized learning. The first was a welcome surprise. This is the first time I have heard any Liberal politician acknowledge that the stresses on the profession are causing problems with job satisfaction and it is borne out statistically in the BCTF's recent survey of BC teachers on this subject. I was pleased to hear him acknowledge that job satisfaction impacts learning and that this is a fundamental piece of a quality public system.

His remarks about technology were not particularly interesting. He mentioned facebook and twitter (who doesn't?) and said he doesn't particularly know what all this should look like but it is important.

Similarly, his remarks regarding personalized learning were without much in the way of detail or substance. However I appreciate there is no rush to judgement and it is no doubt a good thing that a new Minister comes admiting he needs to learn. This is a far cry from the attitude of Christy Clark, who entered the Education Ministry with a plan for complete overhaul having never talked to teachers.

Perhaps the most interesting message, and the one that leads me to question his sincerity, was that he was there to listen and dialogue. He made a point of saying this several times. He will talk to Susan. He will talk to the BCTF Executive. He will talk to teachers. We took him at his word.

After his speech (which went significantly over time), he had time remaining to listen to only two teachers from the floor (from the dozens lined up at the microphone). These first two speakers were young teachers who described the learning conditions in their classrooms. They were eloquent and spoke from the heart. They called on him to listen and they called on him to act. Teachers rose in support. He responded to the first, but then after the second the chairperson advised he was at the end of his scheduled time and Susan gave some closing remarks inviting him to do some "homework" reading the BCTF's vision for our future: Better Schools for BC.

He then proceeded to chat with the media outside the room for an additional twenty minutes, and go off to the Bill Good show for an interview. So I guess we know he will "listen" but perhaps only if his media engagements don't get in the way.

And what was his message to the media? There might be a teachers strike because the two sides are too far apart, and if so, the government might have to legislate teachers back to work.

What a way to start a "new" relationship.

1 comment:

  1. Celestina: Teacher (TOC) Victoria, BCMarch 23, 2011 at 6:35 PM

    As a fellow delegate, what an exhilarating, brilliant, powerful, yet totally exhausting experience!(Happy exhaustion) :o) I have never felt prouder of being a Teacher/TTOC, of being part of a profession that promotes and upholds the rights of teachers/students, that sees the intrinsic importance and value of education, that respects social interest, from a local to international level... And with genuine hearts and minds strives to make learning a better experience for all, whilst also doing its best to carve out a better future for each and everyone of us right across the board! :o)
    HOWEVER, with regards to our meeting with the Minister of Education, Mr. George Abbott, I can avouch your sentiment. I was in the room when the Minister spoke...I was impressed by the content of his speech, his own personal experiences in teaching, his great understanding of the needs of teachers, and how not responding to these needs directly impacts the personlised learning of our students...This all struck me as the substance of a man we need and can be working in partnership with. Therefore, accidentally stumbling upon the press conference on my way to the washroom, I was quite taken aback by the "revised" media-directed speech. Had I, in the two minutes from the meeting room to the lobby, taken some mysterious time-warp trip? Was this the same man, who had said one thing to encourage the teachers and executive to have faith in him, and was now saying quite the opposite only seconds later? I can readily understand how some teachers may feel this could not be...Unfortunately we have the media film footage from both parties: the BCTF and the Press to prove otherwise...I suppose the Minister's lack of knowledge of how technology could be helpful in education was his shortcoming, because in this instance, it provided his own unravelling. But in the spirit of teaching, and never giving up on our students, let's hope this was just a little first-day-of-school nerves, and the Minister will find a little more courage to truly address the concerns of teachers today, rather than run away from them!