An open letter to my union.

Dear B.C. Teachers’ Federation,

I am a public school teacher in a middle school in northern British Columbia. You, my union, are a lifeline in many ways.

You help me, and other professionals in my part of the province, stay connected to the profession at large. You provide a means for me, and other professionals, to speak up on behalf on the unique challenges and barriers that our students face.

I teach students who are majority Ts’msyen, Haida, Nisga’a, Gitxsan, or of another coastal or inland First Nation. This means my students bring a wealth of culture and resilience with them. My students are (just like the students of all other teachers) smart, creative, curious, fun, and engaging.

You, my union, provide a voice for these students – all of my students. This voice brings needed resources to meet the needs of our community. This is no different than what you do for countless other teachers and students across the province. You are a lifeline for every school in British Columbia.

I am a teacher because I care deeply about making a difference for the students in my school. Again, this is not unlike most other teachers. We all care about students. We are a passionate group of professionals who teach because we love caring for others. That is why I am so proud to be teacher.

There are many sacrifices that I willingly, joyfully, make – in order to support my students’ education and well-being. I take my class camping at the start of the year. I direct the school play. I help students plan their pride parade in the school’s parking lot. I go in early to work to plan an extra-interesting lesson, go shopping on my own time to pick up school supplies for individual students, and choose to do lots of other things for my students. I do all of this because I love doing this part of my job the most.

I signed up for all of this. The hard parts of teaching. The fun parts. And everything in between. What I did not sign up for was to have my health put at risk so that the government can save money on protections for students and teachers. And I certainly did not, and will never, sign up to help the government avoid its responsibilities to the public it serves – the students themselves, who are the “public” in public education.

Given this, I depend on you, my union, to protect me and to stand up for the high educational standards that protect my students as well, especially now in this pandemic.

There are many things that you, the BCTF, can do, which is why I volunteer on a committee to provide advice to the BCTF’s Executive Committee. Soon, this committee (as with other advisory committees) will once again be in full operation (given that the recent suspension of advisory committees comes to an end soon). Hopefully some of the advice I have to share on professional issues and COVID-19 will eventually reach the Executive Committee in the early summer.

In the meantime, I would like you to know the three most pressing things that I need from you right now:

  • Educate all members on their rights at work during COVID-19.
    • The right to refuse unsafe work and how to exercise this right.
    • The right to be accommodated by the employer for health and safety reasons.
    • The right to a voice in occupational health and safety and the right to participate in WorkSafeBC and OH&S committees.
    • The right to seek union representation and to be supported by a strong union – that’s on our side, not the employer’s side.
    • As professionals, teachers have the right and the duty to practice professional autonomy – which means that we must act in the educational interests of our students as professionals (this includes protecting student health and well-being)
  • Insist that the employer provide teachers with PPE, including face shields and N95 respirators, and provide the training to use it. Do this as part of an overall strategy to protect teachers’ health and well-being.
    • PPE should come only after effective engineering and administrative controls have been put in place already.
    • PPE should also be to protect the teacher (the worker) – not only to protect the public with whom the teacher works. Students and teachers both have a right to protection and we both need you to stand up for them.
    • Standards should be based on the reality of our jobs. The people representing teachers should know what it is that we actually do.
    • Decision makers should know and understand that teachers work in close proximity to large groups of the public (children, youth, young adults, and adults) for extended periods of time in enclosed spaces (often with poor or no ventilation).
  • Set standards and recommendations for the government, based on our expertise as teaching professionals, that defend the integrity of public education and that protect students’ health and well-being.
    • Teachers have a duty to teach students and to protect students from harm.
    • Teachers should be the ones setting the standards of practice for ensuring that the provision of education continue to be provided on a fair basis for all students. That is what professions do.
    • Part of every teacher’s job is to protect our students from harm. We should be vocal in defending the educational needs and well-being of all our students, as we carry out this part of our job.
    • Our union should be backing up members’ professional voices by standing up for student health and well-being.

These three issues are not the only pressing issues that we must face during COVID-19. But all three of the above issues must be addressed. You, the teachers’ union of professionals, alone can lead on all three. I look forward to seeing your response in action.

In solidarity,

Tom Kertes