Tuesday, March 6, 2012

What is this strike about? A moving letter from a Saanich teacher

I would like to thank you, Mr. Abbott.

My wife and I have just had an excellent discussion with our daughters about power, and about the importance of checks and balances in a society.

Sophie and Rachel are 12 and 10. They wer
e very confused about why the government was allowed to make rules such as fining teachers $475 a day or $2500 a day for going on strike.

We explained that our government is elected to make decisions on our behalf, and that we trust that they will make good and considered decisions.

But what if we don’t agree with their decisions, they wondered.

We explained that there is time to debate these decisions before they are made, and that everybody is allowed to write letters, or protest if they disagree. We explained that the media is meant to also provide some balance, by asking difficult and challenging questions.

But they are saying that if you protest their decision, they will fine you, they replied.

We had no answer.

Why do they hate teachers, one of them asked.

I still had no answer.


I could have been a lawyer. I scored in the 98th percentile of the LSAT and was accepted to Queen’s Law School, offered a scholarship to a Law School in the northeastern US. I chose instead to defer my decision, and be a tutor/coach/residence don/in-house TOC at my old high school for a couple of years. This was a private boarding school in Ontario. I loved it.

I loved being able to explain concepts in math to kids, and to see the “light go on”. I loved sharing my passion for math, for soccer, for hockey, for philosophy, for poetry, and for musical theater with kids. I never considered going back to law after those two years.

After completing my teacher training at UVic, I did my practicum in Saanich. I hadn’t realized until then what a sheltered teaching existence I had at the boarding school, with well-to-do kids brought up with every advantage (the type of kids to whom Mr. Abbott recently referred as “the smart kids”, I believe). In the public school system in Saanich, I learned humility. I learned how to be a better teacher, how to teach the whole child, and not just the mind.

I taught classes that not only had some of Mr. Abbott’s advantaged “smart kids”, but other kids who were often equally smart and capable if not more, but who faced challenges the others didn’t: broken homes, poverty issues, learning disabilities, to name only a few.

These classes were challenging because the kids’ needs were so varied. Some kids could be turned on by ideas alone; others needed to be convinced of the value of learning, to place education in context; some just needed breakfast. And yet, at the time I started teaching in Saanich, I considered myself fortunate because we had a locally arranged agreement about how many kids could be in a secondary English class. (I taught English at the time).

The number was 27 – unless you had a student who had an acknowledged special need, such as dyslexia, or visual impairment, for example, that would require a significant amount of adjustment to practice or extra preparation. For each of these students, the number would drop by one. If there were 6 “special needs” students in your English 11, the maximum number of kids would be 21. Trust me, this would still be a challenging class in terms of composition, but the system worked. It was so important to teachers, my older colleagues told me, that teachers took less in salary improvements at the time in order to secure these contract provisions.

Silly me for thinking that contracts were something sacrosanct in Canadian law.

When I started my first continuing contract at Claremont Secondary in 2000, we had an enrolment not very different from our enrolment today.

When I started at Claremont, it was not unusual for the more challenging classes, such as Essentials of Math 10 or Communications 11 to have 12-15 students, because that’s what those kids needed to be successful.

When I started at Claremont, there were two librarians – one for every 550 kids.

When I started at Claremont there was a staff of 85-90, with plenty of teachers in the building to comfortably take on all the extra-curriculars that make schools, as the Saanich motto goes, “great places to learn, safe places to be”

Today at Claremont, a class with less than 23-24 students does not run. This legislation before you will only make that number increase, I assure you, and it is not what kids need.

Today at Claremont there is 3/4 of a librarian – which translates to one for every 1475 kids.

Today at Claremont there is a staff of 65-70. This group which now numbers 20 fewer than when I started 12 years ago, has been attempting to keep up all the things that make our school great – outstanding academics, including extra-curricular offerings such as the dozens of math contests I sponsor and organize every year, an incredible sports program, an enviable fine arts program, numerous volunteer organizations that enrich our school community and the community at large. So far, we have managed, but we have each had to take up the slack now for too long. We are at the breaking point, and I promise you – this legislation already threatens to push us over the edge.

Surely this government is not deaf to the teachers from around the province who are saying enough…

Enough: we have devoted our lives to a profession that we knew all along would not make us rich, but we did it because we believed that if it would help just one disadvantaged kid, it was worth it.

Enough: we believed in it so much, that we traded even the most meager of raises, time and time again, in order to gain better classroom conditions for our students.

Enough: we tried our absolute best to play within the rules, when government after government stripped away those conditions that we bought with our own salaries, even when the Supreme Court ruled that those government actions were illegal.

Enough: we have tried to hold our heads high, when we are vilified in the press as lazy and greedy, when nothing – NOTHING -- could be further from the truth.

Enough: we have devoted countless hours to volleyball, to musical theatre, to poetry readings, to charity work, to rugby, to yearbook clubs, to student’s councils, to tutoring before school from 7am, to tutoring after school until 6pm or longer, to tutoring kids by email on the weekends, and, AND! to our own Professional Development, whether that occurs on a Pro-D day or on our own time – Yes, Mr. Abbott, we actually do Pro-D.

In short, we have devoted countless hours to the children and families of this province, and the thanks we get is one more veiled legislated slap in the face?

Now, I’m not so out of touch that I don’t realize that as a teacher at the top of the scale, I’m fairly comfortable. Sure it irks me that all of you folks in the legislature have received pay raises in the last ten years far beyond what I have received over the same period – pay raises which you are allowed to vote for yourselves. Not that I would dare suggest that you don’t deserve it – I don’t envy your jobs in the least. But even despite this glaring double-standard, I would have begrudgingly accepted no raise, if it were that alone.

It is not the extending of the current contract in this legislation that has me upset.

I am insulted.

I am insulted that you have the temerity to suggest that this legislation represents mediation in any true sense of the word. Your use of legislation to enforce mediation, but then dictate the terms of the mediation is nothing short of bullying. How ironic that there was an anti-bullying flashmob on the lawn of the legislature the day this bill was introduced. To my mind, you have brought disrepute onto yourselves and the institution you represent. I was trying to defend the institution of our provincial government to my children tonight, suggesting that it rested on a foundation of elected officials acting in a dispassionate way for the benefit of all. I couldn’t.

I am shocked.

I shouldn’t be, given everything that has happened in the last 10 years, but I’m shocked.

I am shocked – no, enraged – that you would enact legislation that essentially attacks my freedom to associate; legislation that, quite frankly, probably runs counter to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, even though your government’s last Bill of this sort was deemed illegal by the Supreme Court; legislation that does not “put families first” but which threatens families – no, puts a gun to their heads – and says to them: “we will bankrupt you if you have the gall to disagree with us or stand up for your rights”.

Lastly, I am disappointed, and if I’m to be honest, I am defeated and demoralized. And I know I’m not alone.

And that’s what you wanted, wasn’t it? You don’t want an improved public education system. I would love to challenge you, to defy you, sir, to say otherwise, to come to Claremont and convince me in person that this legislation will improve the public education system in BC, that it will improve the lives of children and their families across this province, by demoralizing and insulting teachers like me, by forcing a foregone, supposedly “mediated” conclusion down our throats. Sadly, you tell these lies every day, and so my challenge is useless.

It is a sad day for me, and a sad day for BC. I love my job, I love the kids at Claremont, and I love Victoria, but today I really and truly thought it might be time to find a teaching job back in Ontario. You may say good riddance – we can find someone cheaper than you to do the same job. But I dare you to say that to my students. That is a challenge that perhaps I could make.


My oldest daughter has been reading Animal Farm at school. (Maybe I shouldn’t tell you this – you will think that it is another reason to bring down the public school system…)

After our discussion earlier tonight – and believe me when I say I did my utmost best to withhold the vitriol that must be obvious by now that I hold inside – after our family discussion my oldest daughter paused and, honest to God, said something like: “ Dad, the government are kind of like the pigs on the farm, aren’t they…? Once they get to make the rules, they kind of twist things so that they always go their way”.

So, I want to thank you, Mr. Abbott. You made me so proud of my daughter tonight that I want to cry.

Mark Skanks
Claremont Secondary School


  1. Extremely well put! Please tell me you have send this to Mr. Abbott??? When will the "pigs" listen?

  2. I love this letter. I have shared it with many people, and just sent it to a friend who is the Math Department Head in Chilliwack, and a Claremont grad, too.
    Thanks to Mark for such a well-written letter.

  3. This is fabulous!! Thank you!

  4. Credit should be given to Mark Skanks as author of this letter.

    1. I did not originally include Mark's name because I hadn't asked his permission to do so. Since the cat is out of the bag anyway, I will add it now.

    2. your challenge is not useless, they just want us to think it is... but the very fact that they have to address us and our challenges means they hear us loud and clear.... at the end of the day.. remember you still have your vote.... make it hurt the same way they've hurt us

  5. Thank you for putting into words how I feel about the future of education in this Province. I moved my family here from Quebec to avoid the French controversy and give my children a better chance. I am very proud to say my daughter is an excellent teacher, but she like many of you good ones is thinking of moving on. I guarantee you if they pass Bill 22 I will vote anything but Liberal in 2013. Your daugther, God bless her, is absolutely right.

  6. Mark, I would not be where I am today if you hadn't taken me on as a practicum student. I watched you pour your heart and soul into your students - and me. Please do not leave, the kids at Claremont need you! The government should be the ones who buckle, not us.

    I am teaching 2 classes of 30 for "Essentials Math 10" (AW 10) and I cannot believe how much class sizes have exploded, even in the short time between my own high school years and my teaching career. I logistically cannot give my students the help they need in the time I have, and it is ludicrous to believe such a short time ago they would literally have had twice the amount of time per person, per day (assuming a class size under 15). I had a student drop out of school last week due to lack of attendance due to giving up, which I would like to argue is largely due to being pushed through a broken system for so long. Behind that child I have a long list of kids at risk to do the same... is this the kind of future our government has in store for our kids? Every kid who is withdrawn from my school breaks my heart because I know their educational system (not their teachers) has let them down.

    Sabrina Bailey
    North Peace Secondary

  7. Thank you so much for this eloquent letter, Mark. I've sent it to my MLA because we have the same issues in Chilliwack and the rest of the province.
    Jody Raabe
    Mount Slesse Middle School, SD33

  8. Thank-you for your passionate words... I will be sharing them with my colleagues.

    Eleana P.
    Citadel Middle School, SD43

  9. In sum, the short term gains touted by proponents of Bill 22 will result in even more disenfranchised youth, deeper and longer lasting negativity toward the Liberal Government and Politics in general, and more teachers applying for disability or leaving BC outright. Thanks for speaking so eloquently to these important issues.

  10. I am also a BC teacher - now teaching in Hong Kong. I have floated the idea on facebook a few times but I will say it here.

    The government's tactic of the fines is to essentially stop a teacher walk-out. Strikes are illegal. The way to circumvent this action by the government is to organize teachers to hand in their resignations "en masse" including all TOCs (for which I was one). I'll grant you this is somewhat dangerous high stakes game to play - but it is one that must be played if Bill 22 goes through as that bill is a union busting bill anyway.

    The government can't fine someone who quits their job. We'll call it the "organization" rather than the BCTF and if government wants teachers back they'll have to talk to the BCTF - err "the Organization."

    It takes something along this drastic action to save the teaching union in BC because I can tell you something right now - the government does not care the least bit about these letters - they don't care about marches in Victoria - The Liberals are sitting back and laughing that they just saved three days of salaries and heating bills for all the schools. Their voters (which is the majority) support crushing the Teaching union despite all the chatter we see on facebook and other social media - we may get support from those friends but those ore OUR friends who arguably ore of similar mindedness on issues like this. I suspect the vast majority of Liberal voters want the Union to die.

    So it's time to stop the letter and the appeals to the liberal "heart of gold" and realize that that heart is ice. It's not the time to send in the BCTF Poodle to fight the Liberal T-REX - it's time to play some serious hardball - 40,000 teachers resign - effective the day after Spring Break ends.

    You want the teachers back - you hire them all back under the BCTF union (ie as if there was no resignation).

    1. This is called (or is similar to) 'work-to-rule' (which I believe is what's been done so far...)

      Yes. It is worth this.

  11. Hi, I found this blog once, then lost it. Took me forever to come back and find it. I wanted to see what comments you got. Nice blog by the way.I must take this opportunity to write to you from my heart.I Really enjoyed your blog.I have never read such a wonderful article.

    Resignation Letter

  12. Dear Tara Ehrcke,

    You have stolen the words and ideas from my mouth! I could not have put it any better and I am the first one to sign up for your letter writing campaign. I have thought for a long time that our only recourse is to resign en-masse or all take stress leaves at the same time, either way there is no way that they win!
    Thank you for this...

    Andre Kozak

    1. I guess I should thank Tara for posting this and Mark for the writing and Richard for the ultimate solution!


  13. "You may say good riddance – we can find someone cheaper than you to do the same job. But I dare you to say that to my students. That is a challenge that perhaps I could make."

    I had Mr.Skanks for math last year and he's amazing. So I think if you said those things to us "the students" we'd have a lot of kind words about Mr.Skanks and his teaching abilities/wisdom. And quite the opposite of "kind words" for you putting him and all our other teachers through all this.

  14. Brilliant letter! Well put! Passing it on!

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  16. THANK YOU! Well said - I will be sharing this with colleagues in Burnaby & Surrey.

    Avril Broekhuizen
    Chilliwack Secondary, SD33

  17. I've shared this on twitter. I was a top university student as well and encouraged to go into medicine but chose teaching...I love teaching, but did I make a mistake? I'm so insulted.