In September 1979, the York Region Public School Board locked me out. After reporting for school one morning, my OSSTF Representative Dick Barron stopped me in the Thornlea Secondary School parking lot. Huddled together with the other teachers, I was told that the Board had shut down the schools and we were advised to go home until further notice. As a youngish teacher in my sixth year, all I wanted to do was teach – and the frustration welled-up inside, not really knowing who to blame for the shutdown.
That infamous York Region dispute, following a year of OSSTF “work-to-rule” actions, came back to me last week as hundreds of elementary teachers marched outside the York Region Board offices on Wellington Street in Aurora, Ontario. Back in 1978-79, the York Region teachers succeeded in holding the line, but not much more was really gained. It is also a safe bet that history will repeat itself again.
The raging Ontario teachers’ dispute with the Dalton McGuinty Liberal Government, sparked by Bill 115, has led to bitter denunciations, a breakdown in contract negotiations, the suspension of voluntary secondary school extra-curricular activities, and a rotating round of teacher walkouts. Walkout, lockout, or mini-strike –it’s the worst rupture in labour peace since the Ontario teachers’ war against Mike Harris Conservative Common Sense Revolution in the late 1990s.
The essentials of education are all too often mistaken for the “extras.” Suspending voluntary extra-curricular activities and “walking-out” of school may serve some purpose in defense of teacher rights and current salary levels, but such actions tend to have damaging long-term effects. Students remember being held hostage waiting out the disruption. Provincial governments come away with a blackened public reputation, striking teachers feel persecuted and underappreciated, and school boards are left to put the shattered pieces back together again.
Everyone in the public education sector these days claims to be “putting students first.” That phrase rings mighty hollow in the throes and the later wake of labour disruptions like those in Ontario and in British Columbia over the past year.
Students come first in schools when principals and teachers, supported by school boards, provide those “extras” above and beyond the normal contracted services. It’s only visible when school authorities run the risk of sponsoring student-run conferences, principals support Ottawa or Washington experience field trips, and teacher professionals volunteer to coach the low profile, time-consuming track or tennis teams.
Student engagement is what transforms opportunities into real, deep learning experiences. Filing into class each day, taking classroom notes, and writing tests or examinations rarely stay with you at the end of a school year. “A theatre club can build all those life skills that matter more than knowing how to calculate a math equation,” says Dr. Doug Willms, Director of the Canadian Research Institute on Social Policy (CRISP) at the University of New Brunswick.
Dr. Willms’ ongoing CRISP Student Survey, now in its eighth year and including close to 500,000 students, has demonstrated conclusively that student participation in teams and clubs has a very positive influence on class attendance and overall student success, and, to a slightly lesser extent, on individual academic grades. A 2009 U.S. study involving 8,000 students, cited recently in The Globe and Mail, showed that active, engaged high school students, a decade after graduation, were earning more money than their less involved contemporaries.
Teacher labour disputes, just like band program cuts, can adversely affect critical relationships in schools. Toronto educator, Stephen Hurley, founder of VoicEd.ca, perhaps put it best: “Look what people do when they leave school,” he recently told The Globe and Mail. “Everything is grounded in relationships.”
Ontario Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty invested heavily in public education, increasing spending by 45 per cent between 2003 and 2011, not even counting the massive amounts for full-day junior kindergarten. Most of that money went to salary increases to the very teachers now cheering his downfall.
McGuinty’s prized Ontario educational legacy now lies in tatters and not even a strategic climb-down can salvage the broken relationship with the teachers’ unions. Regular elementary classroom teachers, fired up by the EFTO’s Sam Hammond, are sure to remain embittered for months or years to come. Militant secondary school teachers may, once again, harbour resentment and continue to punish kids by refusing to initiate or supervise voluntary extra-curricular activities. Pity those new teachers entering the profession amidst the poisoned labour-management environment in schools.
Who is responsible for the current breakdown in negotiations and teacher walkouts in Ontario and earlier labour disruptions in British Columbia? After pouring millions of dollars into public education, how can reversing field be justified, let alone explained? Who gains from such bitter labour disputes — and what are the long-term consequences for students, for student-teacher relationships, and for public support of our provincial systems?