If not the BCTF, then who else would lead on B.C. public education and professional issues?

I had an interesting conversation on Twitter this weekend, about the role of the BCTF in the teaching profession. I’ll let others speak for themselves, but the essential question seemed to be around this question: What is the proper role for a union of professionals, like the BCTF?

Should a teachers’ union function as a professional body? Or should it simply focus on the collective agreement, wages, pension, working conditions, and occupational health and safety?

All teachers can agree on this: Teaching is a profession. We are a profession with a common set of principles and shared knowledge that together guides our professional practice. We can also agree that our work provides a public benefit and that there is a public interest in how our work is conducted.

Like all other professions, the teaching profession is held together as much through culture as through formal structures. But there are institutions that strengthen, represent, and reflect our profession as well. Of these, there is only one wholly democratic body that represents all public-school teachers in B.C. And that’s the B.C. Teachers’ Federation.

Teachers in B.C. are not a self-regulated profession. There is no College of Teachers in the province. In its place is a Ministry agency that includes a partially-elected body to help guide some aspects of regulation and certification for the profession. But we are nonetheless a self-recognized profession and we are fully professional.

What Should a Union of Professionals Do?

Unions are an important part of labour relations in B.C. and the rest of Canada. At the heart of unionization is collective bargaining, representation, workplace democracy, and the social democratic values of most unions in the country. Unions empower workers by not only defending workers’ rights but also by providing a platform for workers to express their views on all issues affecting their work. For a profession, this extends to the meaning and value of the work itself.

At a minimum, unions fight for fair compensation, good working conditions, equity at work, labour rights, occupational health and safety, and democratic participation in the union itself. But unions can do more. As democratic institutions, unions can help unite a workforce around common values. This is especially important for a union of professionals.

Almost all unions do not regulate their members at the workplace. But they can advocate for their members on how the profession should be regulated, what qualifications should be required for entry to the profession, and the standards of practice that employers should meet. Professions deliver benefits to the public, and unions of professionals represent their members in standing up for these benefits.

It is in the interest of both a profession and the public for employers to meet high standards in the provision of a profession’s public benefits. For teaching, these benefits are the provision of education, safety of students at school, and equitable access to education for all. A union of professionals will advocate on behalf of its members to ensure that public benefits are advanced. This matters to both the public, who want and expect these benefits, and to the professionals, who care about the quality of their work and the outcomes they help produce.

Professions are also cultures of practice. Unions have a role in supporting inclusive, fair, and just cultures focused on the provision of public benefits. They have a role in supporting respectful and caring workplaces. And they have a role in the leadership and professional development of its members.

What Should a Union of Professionals Not Do?

A union of professionals should not direct its members or set standards of practice for its members. Rather, it should set guidelines for employers to follow, such as guidelines (or better: agreements between the union and the employer) that ensure good teaching and learning conditions for students.

Very few unions hold both self-regulatory and collective bargaining powers. Unions that don’t hold these powers jointly have a different role: To balance power between the employer, the professionals, and the public that both serve. As the collective representative of the professionals, unions focus on securing the conditions and resources that members require to their jobs. They don’t have a role in managing, directing, or even guiding individual professional practice. But unions do have a role in supporting professionalism.

Teachers’ unions strengthen the profession by defending the integrity of the public education system itself, advancing the shared and unifying values and core ethics of the profession, and securing the conditions and resources needed for the professionals to carry out their roles. One important condition is that of professional autonomy. Professionals are responsible for basing decisions on the needs of those they serve, without conflict or compromise.

While unions should not set standards or regulations for their members, they should strengthen the relationship between client and professional by advancing professional autonomy. Since any profession that serves a public interest will need regulation, unions should also represent members in the fair regulation of the profession.

One thing that teachers’ unions don’t do is take sides on pedagogical issues. That’s up to the teachers themselves to decide. Again, teachers’ professional autonomy is key to all levels of practice and support. It should be respected by fellow teachers, unions, employers, and the government. The student-teacher relationship, grounded in professional ethics, should be foundational for all teaching practice.

The union’s role is simply to defend this space, not to direct what happens within it. Teachers, working in collaboration with each other, have a role in shaping these space – but not by directing each other through any institution. Again, the culture of practice, such as through direct conversations between teachers, sustains the profession as much as, if not more than, any formal structures or institutions within the system.

The Union’s Role of Leadership in the Profession

In B.C. there is only one wholly democratic body representing all public-school teachers in the province: The B.C. Teachers’ Federation. That makes the BCTF an important leader in public education. While it must lead in broad, unifying, and diverse ways, given the size and diversity of the teaching profession, the union must lead. That’s because if not the BCTF, then who?

Union members contribute dues to sustain the work of their union. These dues pay for core functions, like collective bargaining, legal representation, benefits, and the pension program. They also pay for advocacy and policy support on issues that affect teachers’ working conditions, job security, and health and safety. But a profession needs more than just these essentials to function as a profession.

Professions are collective bodies of practice and knowledge. They are cultures of practice. And they require a community to share ideas, develop innovations, reflect on practice, and advance the profession. The union’s role is not to direct the profession, but it does have the role of sustaining the culture of leadership within the profession so that the profession has the capacity to be a leading voice on its own professional matters.

If not the BCTF, then who would lead the collective voice of the public education teaching profession in B.C.? Certainly not the Ministry of Education with its role being oversight, direction, and management of public education. Not individual school boards either, which function as teachers’ employers.

And not individual teachers working on our own – as individuals. Professions are bodies and are collective. To have a collective voice and a collective presence, a profession must have its own institution to represent, advocate, and speak on the entire profession’s behalf. Individual teachers are much stronger by pooling resources to build and sustain spaces for the development of our profession. While we are each individual professionals, only a collective of all professionals can be the “profession” itself.

If not the BCTF, then others could try to perform this role. Perhaps universities, think tanks, or political organizations could try to fill the void and lead on behalf of the profession. But none of these could represent all teaching professionals. None could lead from the direct experience of working in classrooms and schools. None would be truly professional. None could represent the teaching profession in B.C. as a whole.

The BCTF engages with and empowers teachers in many ways. Provincial specialist associations connect teachers in various contexts of our work. Professional development days and programs provide time and space for the development of the profession. Union decision making, committees, conferences, and other functions bring us together and help us resolve matters between us on a democratic basis. The union also supports teacher-lead research, communication, inquiry, forums, and policy development through a number of programs.

Through the BCTF, teachers are stronger together. Teachers have a collective voice. We have ways to connect with others in our profession. And we are able to work together to advance public education, support our profession, and stand up for good teaching and learning conditions in all schools and communities. If not the BCTF, who would do all this on behalf of the teaching profession in B.C.?

Clarification: This version is edited to clarify a point about teachers’ roles as individual professionals (as essential) while also making the point that by working as a collective (in a union) teachers are stronger and more effective. The original version had an unclear section that could be read as suggesting that teachers should not lead the profession. That was never my intent.

The point I wanted to make is that teachers should work together to be effective as a collective, not that teachers’ individual roles in the actual practice of teaching should ever be superseded by our union. To the contrary, the union’s role is to defend and strengthen teachers’ professional autonomy as practitioners. This requires robust teaching and learning conditions, resources, and government policies to advance the professional aims of universal and equitable public education for all.

Teachers do the actual teaching, not the union and not the employer. We are the profession. (June 22, 2020)

Twitter: @tomkertes

About Tom Kertes

Tom is a founding organizer of the Critical Education Project.

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