While public-school teachers in British Columbia are busy working in overcrowded classrooms, struggling to meet the needs of all students, and dealing with ever increasing demands (with fewer resources), teachers are now facing another stressor: Deciding how to best apply the pressure needed to ensure that the government delivers on its promise to value public education.
It’s no wonder that so many teachers are feeling overwhelmed. To stand up for public education already requires extraordinary levels of work every school day and a constant willingness to make personal sacrifices for the benefit of the public education system as a whole. As this government continues to drag out bargaining with concessions, distractions, and an unwillingness to consider why its past promises matter, teachers are worried.
So goes the latest round of bargaining between the public-school teaching profession and the government of the day, with today’s B.C. NDP seemingly now playing the part of the B.C. Liberals of past governments. As the teaching profession ponders what it must do to bring public education back to the political forefront, teachers must ask the following question: Is conservative now synonymous for progressive, or has the NDP brand become like a sheep’s skin that masks the values and priorities of another agenda, a mere shadow of its truly progressive past?
Understandably, many teachers are beyond frustrated. Not only must they donate extra time, sweat, and tears to keep their schools and classrooms above water, but now they must consider doing things that don’t come naturally to most teachers, such as engaging in a political conflict, drawing attention to ourselves (rather than to the students who always deserve the spotlight more than we do), and possibly withholding some of our labour to force the government to act.
Why must we take this challenge on, especially given that the NDP promised that it would value public education, reconciliation, and social justice equity across the province? Many teachers rightly believed that once the NDP was in government, major reinvestments in public education would soon follow. Teachers are not only overwhelmed and worried, but also feel increasingly disappointed by the government’s priorities and values.
It’s beginning to feel like déjà vu. Why won’t the NDP fully stand up for schools and students, recognizing first that its 2-2-2 mandate shortchanges all public sector employees (who must all take multiple pay cuts given that a 2% cost of living adjustment falls below the rate of inflation). And then why won’t they recognize that providing a remedy for years of underfunding (by the B.C. Liberals) requires actually investing more in B.C. schools?
Teachers are front-line professionals
For teachers, none of these issues are abstract. All of the issues facing us speak directly to who we are, what we value, and why we teach. We see, daily, how overcrowding and understaffing affects young people. We work at the front-lines of everything that’s going on for families across the province. Like doctors, social workers, nurses, police officers, fire fighters, and other front-line public service providers, teachers are the first to know when things go wrong. We’re also often first to respond.
On a given school day, I will work directly with between 50 and 70 young people in a middle school of about 500 students. I listen to students when they need an open ear, pay attention to warning signs of students in distress, contact parents and families when a helpful hand is needed, meet with social workers to provide additional supports, and refer students to crisis counsellors. And I do all of this while also teaching reading, writing, mathematics, and the rest of the provincial curriculum. I am part of a workforce that is not only highly productive and efficient, but that is also caring and effective.
Moreover, depending on the year, I can expect that between 20% and 75% of the students in my core Grade 7 class will be formally entitled to special education services (this well exceeds the limits set forth in my collective agreement). These services are stretched thin, with my colleagues who are specialist teachers carrying caseloads that are hard to imagine. These levels far exceed the agreement reached in my collective agreement, but continue, due to understaffing at my school.
Thankfully, I now work in a school with a team of counsellors. But in my first few years of teaching at another district, my students faced counsellor shortages. To help students in need, I had to learn how to conduct suicide first aid and how to apply a trauma-informed lens to my teaching practice, on my own time and with the help of the BCTF, Doctors B.C., and community social service providers. Honestly, I was overwhelmed in my first few years in the profession, as I learned how to support and teach in conditions that very clearly exceeded the limits of what is reasonable and adequate.
On top of all this, I volunteer with other teachers to direct and produce the school play and extracurricular drama programs. I volunteer for two overnight camping trips, help raise thousands of dollars each year to pay for trips and extracurricular programs, and help students organize dances, school events, and other activities. I am not unique in any of this, as most teachers volunteer at their school in their own, building communities at the heart of local schools across British Columbia.
Students pay in terms of educational opportunity
My job is highly skilled and difficult, and it is a choice that I have made because I value public education and love teaching. But student have no choice but to pay in terms of their education when faced with an under resourced public school system.
I entered the teaching profession as a second career, after working in communications, media, and community organizing before. Back then, I thought I worked hard. But now I know how real hard work feels, especially since I lack many of the resources that I always took for granted (like a phone at my desk, a room with a working heater, or even paper and pencils for the students who need them in my classroom).
While the job is difficult, I love it and I choose to work under these conditions. As a professional, I am certainly entitled to the resources needed for me to do my job, but it’s my students who need these resources even more. They have no choice but to pay the price in terms of their own educational outcomes as the government keeps refusing to fulfill its promise to fully support public education.
My working in an overcrowded classroom also means that my students are learning in an overcrowded classroom. And my being overstretched in my work means that my students have an overstretched teacher. By assigning up to four times the allowed number of students with special education needs to my classroom, it is my students who are being shortchanged the most. Across this province students are hit hardest by under funding, over crowding, and not investing in our public schools.
I am more than a witness or bystander to these conditions, as it my job to show students that not do I care, but that the province does too. I am meant to be the face of a government that values education, that prioritizes reconciliation (I teach in Ts’msyen territory and 80% of the students in my core classroom are Ts’msyen, Haida, Nisga’a, Gitxsan, or of another coastal or inland First Nation), and that honours its commitments to families and communities. But I cannot be that face, because while I can keep my promise to my students I cannot make the government keep its promises, too.
Teachers see the cracks in the system
It is hard for teachers to talk about our stories, in part because first and foremost our job is to protect our students. Talking about ourselves feels to miss the point, as it’s our students who need ones who need the resources. And talking about their personal struggles, even to garner the resources they need, feels intrusive. This is why the stories I share reflect a composites of the actual classes that I have taught. My aim to anonymize the stories while retaining the authenticity of my direct experience.
I have been a teacher for less than five years now, and already I have helped dozens of students face grief and trauma. Two students with whom I have worked have died, one while still in high school and another less than a year after graduation. Life and death are part of life, and so too is trauma and tragedy. I accept this. When I signed up for teaching, I thought I’d be just teaching how to think, read, write, and compute. I was prepared for this, but not for meeting the many other needs of young people in my community. Thanks to the wonderful support of community and colleagues, I have come to be prepared to respond too much more than the academic needs of my students.
We are being asked to do even more
But now, I am being asked to add one more task to an already untenable list of job requirements. I, and all other teachers in the public education system, are facing a government that, despite rhetoric and promises, either doesn’t get it or doesn’t care. Either way, pressure is needed to draw attention to the needs of my school, classroom, students, and me (their teacher).
None of us, myself included, can do this alone. But if not us, then who? Who will stand up for public education? Who will stand up for competitive salaries for teachers in B.C.? Who will stand up for reasonable workloads, supportive class sizes, and adequate instructional supports for students with special education needs?