Tuesday, January 17, 2017

An Education System Premised on Volunteering Was Always Headed For Trouble



Maybe you think the fight Nova Scotia’s teachers are embroiled in with the provincial Liberal government is all about wages and service awards. Or maybe you see it as being about the burden of classroom issues impacting students. Regardless of which side you come down on, and or whether you support the government position, the union position, or something in between, the current labour dispute has highlighted something we should have recognized long ago. An education system premised on teachers volunteering more and more of their time was always headed for trouble.

Can you imagine any large enterprise designing its business model on the foundation it would contract people to do a given job for a certain amount of pay, but assume those employees would openly add tasks and demands over time without quarrel? It wouldn’t work. But that, at some level, is exactly what has happened in education.

Not unique to Nova Scotia, teachers have been asked to go beyond educators, and become health professionals and social workers. Demands in the classroom to deal with social justice issues have increased, and whether it is by awareness or an actual increase in cases, the demand to deal with behavioural and health issues has also increased in classrooms.

Society has placed it’s own demands on teachers. Twenty or thirty years ago we would never have expected to reach a teacher outside school hours to ask about our child or homework. It never would have occurred to people to call teachers at home on a regular basis, and yet now, many teachers spend hours after work responding to e-mail (a practice now largely banned in some European countries for all occupations).

The system also used to ensure that most schools had administrative support to help with tasks like entering marks, printing, and managing records (indeed, in Dartmouth some supplementary funding monies went to this very support). Much of that support has disappeared. Guidance counsellors and some other specialists are now often shared between schools. New online systems have been introduced to manage attendance, marks, and homework (the latter two which we once relied on students to take responsibility for, copy down, and bring home). We have turned students into social science experiments through standardized testing which may have some value in limited implementation, but has little bearing on the educational success of students. Teachers are also mandated to sit on School Advisory Committees or other groups which almost always meet in the evenings, well after work hours, to accommodate parents who also sit on them. All this stuff isn’t bad, but we should understand what has happened in the school system over the past few decades.

Inevitably someone will say that everyone does more hours or more in their job than they need to. The truth is there are many jobs which are clocked in and out. Jobs where you are paid for the hours you work and overtime is paid after those hours. There are many jobs where you don’t take work home. Many jobs in fact where it would be impossible to take work home. On the other side, there are no shortage of people who have jobs where the duties come down to “anything as required”. 

Many people put in numerous unpaid hours and do work that goes well beyond what their job title or description suggests. At the extreme end is pretty well anyone who runs their own business. For many self-employed individuals the duties and hours are almost endless.

Every job is different. It’s as simple as that. This is about teachers. Arguing about who’s job is harder just isn’t going to get anyone anywhere.

For public school teaching (like many other occupations) a contract has been negotiated and amended over the years with the employer (the province) that outlines how many hours a teacher works in a year, what their duties within those hours are, and what the rate of pay will be for doing that work, within the hours specified. The education act has some additional information, but the contract pretty well mirrors much of the act.

Anything else is volunteer, or perhaps more accurately in some cases voluntold. Some online commentators have recommended the government should put an end to Work to Rule. With the possible exception of a few issues which are disputed between government and the union as to whether they are required or not (particularly around the duties of principals) it would be tough, if not impossible, for an employer, including government, to require someone to do anything beyond what is in their contract. Some things would be downright impractical to force such as reference letters given a forced letter would have little value to those receiving them.

It’s also worth recognizing that as far as any of the publicly available information indicates, the government has not proposing any changes to the teacher’s contract which would add the things people have raised as concerns during the Work To Rule to the job description of teachers. (things such as help outside school hours, Christmas concerts, lunchtime supervision, reference letters, and so on)

As Nova Scotians look forward, we must ask ourselves what happens next. The contract will inevitably be settled, either through negotiation or by government force. Will we continue to rely on teachers to volunteer their time? I have spoken to teachers who have told me that some of the extra things they do, like leading drama, yearbook, or sporting groups, are some of their favourite things about teaching. Others have told me they are realizing the time they were missing with their own families by being out many nights and weekends, and so they are likely to not be involved in as much in future.

Even if every teacher now volunteering their time to extra-curricular activities like sports tournaments, trips, the arts, and other activities cuts back by half there will be a massive hole in the system. The hole will exist because we built an educational system premised on the assumption teachers will always say yes and give much more than they are required to do. 

The question we all must address - government, teachers, students, and parents - is how long that is sustainable for.