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JONESIE: Spare a little empathy for government in teachers dispute

September 08, 2014 - 8:13 AM

It’s so darned easy to support teachers in a dispute like this because we all know teachers. We see their faces, we know their families, our kids play together, we walk dogs together—they are real people.

We know by now their families have foregone upwards of $6,000 during this strike. Lots of these families are teachers married to teachers as well so those losses are doubled.

This labour disruption is also as polarizing as it is maddening and as people start to lose their minds they go with their hearts. Premier Christy Clark must then be the devil because the teachers I know are just like me and there’s 40,000 of them.

But lets keep our minds for just a minute here and consider this dispute from the government side. I’m going to just leave aside for a moment the issues of compensation, benefits etc largely because that’s what a labour dispute should be about. That’s what collective bargaining is for.

What makes this dispute so much more difficult is the other stuff thrown in.

For a very simple example, put yourself in the position of the party required to manage this system—the government—for a moment. Actually that’s difficult to empathize. So lets do it this way: Imagine you are a teacher.

Your job is to take your pupils through the curriculum, with some but not much flexibility. You set out lesson plans and schedules, complete budgets for field trips and plan an entire year for your classes.

Except when you get to school, you find the students all got together and came up with a different plan. They want to use their own schedules, they want free periods to catch up on homework, they planned their own field trips. They voted and want to remove two disruptive kids from the classroom.

As teacher, you look over their plans and find for the most part, they meet the curriculum but all your own plans about how best to provide your skills this year are lost. At the same time you admire their interest in their own education, it lacks practicality. You’ve already lost two days discussing this with students before you advise them no: We are doing it my way.

But that’s not so easy. They want to argue. You try teaching the assembled students your lesson plans, but it becomes clear they intend to disrupt your instruction, hoping you fail. You start meting out punishment and doing your best to maintain control.

Again, the students won’t have it. They refuse to attend school under that arrangement. They get a hearing with the principal and argue a valid right to direct their own education because after all—they are the pupils. In response, the teacher says: I was given the responsibility for this class. So long as I am accountable for its success or failure, I must be able to direct learning.

The principal says no. Responsibility remains yours and you will be accountable for the outcomes, but you have two choices: Either the students determine their curriculum and who they want in the classroom or you talk with them until you find some agreement. And if you don’t find an agreement, you will be accountable for that as well.

Yes this is simplistic, but this is the position our provincial government—forget Christy Clark or Education Minister Peter Fassbender etc—is in. They have an obligation, guaranteed by the constitution, to provide education. They have the responsibility to set service levels as expected by the people who voted them in.

The B.C. Teachers’ Federation demands its own control about service levels, let alone costs. When the B.C. Liberals said no in 2002 and imposed a contract, the federation went to court. Twice a judge has said class size and composition CAN be part of collective bargaining. The Liberals said fine, we'll try to do this through collective bargaining and our opening position is no—so long as the responsibility and accountability is theirs, they reserve the right to set service levels.

I have trouble blaming them for sticking to their guns in this situation. Letting teachers set their own service levels is like letting kids rule the classroom and set their own budgets and salaries while they are at it. To resile from their position potentially dooms all future governments to bend to their unionized work forces to arbitrarily set their own service levels including salaries—and with no accountability to those of us who pay for it.

The government have been plenty fair in this discussion. They said lets figure out the compensation (that’s tough enough) and then we’ll work together to figure out classroom composition and sizes, etc. What's unreasonable about that?

— Marshall Jones is the editor of Infonews.ca

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