A Teacher's Struggle
Matthew is an Occupy activist. He is not a member of any union, and co-habitates with a public school teacher. After attending the B.C. Teachers' Federation annual general meeting, he wanted to speak to teachers to hear their take on the on-going dispute between the teachers' union and the provincial government.
Nancy Hawkins has been teaching French immersion for 30 years, both in Ontario and B.C. Currently she is a vice president of the Vancouver Elementary Teachers' Association.
I asked Nancy how her class size and composition had changed over those 30 years. In the early 80s, pre teachers' union, it was "atrocious," she says. She taught two half-day classes with 36 students per class. During the later 80s, teachers were able to negotiate with their local school boards, and put language in their contracts to bring class sizes to more manageable levels. Support for teachers and classes slowly improved as the union locals negotiated more manageable ratios of special needs children, secondary support for special needs students, teacher assistants, and teacher librarians. Professional development was encouraged amongst teachers and administrative support was more forthcoming, giving teachers more time to spend with individual students.
Things changed when provincial bargaining was mandated in 1994. Between 1991 and 1998 per-pupil spending on public education dropped by 6.4%. During the same period, class sizes increased by 9.8%, the number of special needs students in classrooms rose by 62.5% and the number of students for whom English was not their first language rose by 47.8%.
The increased educational demands, combined with the decreased funding resulted in fewer support staff, more offloading of administrative duties onto teachers, the near elimination of dedicated teacher librarians and fewer special needs support workers.
This trend continues today. Currently in B.C. over 6% of classes exceed the legislated maximum of 30 students and a staggering 18.8% exceed the legal number of special needs students. Funding continues to stagnate. This has a detrimental affect not only to those with special needs, but as Nancy points out it leaves behind those kids who are just barely meeting minimum outcomes. Now, under Bill 22, class sizes will continue to grow, there will be no extra support for special needs students and teachers with larger classes will receive no extra funding or resources. And, of course, under Bill 22, no pay increases will be forthcoming.
I asked Nancy what she thought was more important: class size and composition or teachers' pay? Nancy pointed out that in the past teachers have taken wage demands off the table to maintain smaller class sizes. She is also quick to point out that she does not want teachers to be undervalued. "Net zero", the provincial government's policy of no budget increase for wages, plus rising cost of living equals a pay cut for B.C. teachers, who are already the ninth lowest paid in Canada.
"With the cost of living what it is in Vancouver that does not seem right," she says. Nancy also points out that many costs have been and are increasingly being downloaded onto parents. Bill 22 is now law. I asked what Nancy thought this said about the B.C. government's commitment to public education. She feels it shows a lack of commitment to education, and says much about their neo-liberal agenda. They are out to undercut unions and take away rights, she believes. Education Minister George Abbott keeps giving parents and voters the same message: Teachers are greedy and lazy. He continues to misrepresent the facts to try and win over public opinion.
*Photo by Ian MacKenzie