I was a secondary school teacher for over 33 years. Even though I have retired from active teaching, I will always be an educator. Each day, it seems, I read or hear on the news about something that it wrong with the state of education in Ontario. At issue is Bill 115, and the responses to it by teachers’ federations, boards of education, provincial party leaders, and the provincial government. As I listen and read, I am concerned about the effects of the current situation.
I come from an anti-union background. My father owned his own business and was adamantly anti-union. Yet, in the workplace, unions and management are the system which is in place in our society. During the course of my teaching career, I experienced four major strikes or work actions – in 1975, 1991, 1997, and 1999. What I know from all of these experiences is that, during any work action, there are no ‘winners’. Everyone is affected – parents, and teachers, and students.
The tone of much of the argument generated against the current teachers’ actions in the province is that teachers and their federations are self-serving. The tone of much of the argument generated against the provincial government and Bill 115 is equally as negative. There is an ‘us vs. them’ atmosphere.
In my experience, the majority of teachers know that they are a significant adult presence in the lives of students. They understand the impact that they have on each student’s growth and development as self-confident people who contribute to the betterment of our world. They know that, for many students, a great deal of valuable learning happens outside the classroom on teams and in clubs, and so they support these extra-curricular activities.
Every argument from both sides of the current situation in education is, at its base, always about the perceived value of money vs. the rights of workers. Each side seems, to me, to be operating as a monolithic entity – a collective which chooses to participate in and perpetuate the system as it has always been. Each side seems to seek to maintain the current structure through bullying, intimidation, and disrespect of the individuals within their collective. Both sides claim that they are working for the common good. And they may be but, to my mind, they are both working from unclaimed and unexpressed habit. “This is the way things are done because this is the way things have always been done.”
As I watch and observe what is going on now in Ontario, I wonder where the individual teacher is in all of this? A good friend of mine chose when his district went on strike, to not strike. He chose to cross the picket line. He could not ignore the effect of the strike on the students with whom he worked. He could no longer tow the union line. It took what Breneé Brown calls ‘ordinary courage’ for him to be true to his own beliefs and to act accordingly. He paid a price for choosing his own path AND he still made his own choice.
I am not suggesting that one side in the education issues which now exist is in the right and the other side is in the wrong. I am not suggesting that any teacher ignore the advice and counsel given by his or her teachers’ federation. Yet, it seems to me that the system as it has existed is broken but still both sides of this issue keep trying to shore up that broken system. That strikes me as an exercise in futility with the individual teacher getting lost in the process.
For all of this posturing and negativity and intimidation, I do not see the fate of education in this province as hopeless. I believe that the hope for change and transformation lies within each person involved in education in this province. In the midst of the current malaise in education in Ontario, each individual has the power to effect change which will impact the whole of education in this province.
I urge each teacher to step back from the rhetoric and to reconnect with all that they believe about the value and importance of being an educator. If teachers, individually and in conversation with each other, would take the time to understand why they are making the choices which they are making, if they choose not from fear of reprisal or consequence or punishment but from a firmly grounded sense of who they are as educators and what being an educator truly means to them, then they will move forward with optimism rather than being held in stasis by frustration and anger.
AND it is not just teachers who must choose. I urge everyone who is involved in education in Ontario – boards of education personnel, staff of the Ministry of Education, and all politicians in the house to remember why they are involved in education in this province. In the end, it’s about students. Make individual choices which are not driven by concerns about money, deficits, workers’ rights, or fear of reprisal for not towing the party line.
I do not envy any person having to work in the atmosphere of recrimination and threat which exists right now. AND I know that the only hope for change and growth lies within the grasp of each individual involved in education in Ontario as each decides for him or herself to be true to what each believes.