Public school teachers in our area are on strike, part of a series of rolling strikes hitting different regions throughout Ontario. If the province doesn't back down before the beginning of the school year in September, we can expect all Ontario public school teachers to strike.
The roots of this struggle stretch back to 2012, when the provincial government stripped teachers of their right to collective bargaining, unilaterally imposed a contract, then repealed the law taking away their union rights.
My partner and I spoke with some striking teachers last week, and this is what they told us.
...Before we went on strike, we weren’t allowed to negotiate. Our contract finished in August of 2014, and before we announced we were going on strike, the Boards actually met with our union for four days. And they were short meetings. Nothing much was accomplished. As soon as we announced that we were going on strike, and we gave our legal notice, they were negotiating every day.
We still didn’t accomplish as much as we had hoped, we are still on very different sides in terms of reaching an agreement, but striking at least brought us to the table and convinced the Board to actually talk with us. That’s a big deal. In 2012, our contract was imposed on us. There was no negotiation, there was no care or thought for what is best for the students, what is best for the teachers. That was under the McGuinty government.
Kathleen Wynne has said she is not going to take those measures, but at the same time, the open communication and negotiation just hasn’t been happening throughout the year. So our Peel OSSTF
felt that this was the only way to actually move forward. And it has been positive in terms of bringing out our issues, and getting bargaining days.
There are also lots local issues that we are concerned about. Things like the amount of support for our special ed students. Control over the school day – right now, the board is proposing that principals have the authority to dictate every minute of the teacher’s day, what they do during their prep periods, what they do after school. That’s really hard for teachers. We’ve always worked really hard to provide the best that we can for our students, giving help during lunch, giving help after school, managing our own days around the students' needs. To have that taken away, or to have that even questioned - that we’re not using our time effectively - it’s really hurtful.
[What would they impose on you?
It could be mandatory professional days. It could be something like, 'Everyone who has fourth period lunch today, you’re going to the library and you’re going to learn about some new assessment policy that we want to put into place.' And so now teachers don’t have time to prep their lessons, to do their marking, to do all the stuff they need to do to be good teachers. So many of us are involved in so many voluntary things throughout the school. We’re coaching teams, we’re running clubs, we’re sitting on committees for assessment evaluation or safe-school policy. We’re doing so much in our time that we need to have it available to us. And we need the respect that we can make our own decisions with our time. We need to feel that we’re valued and respected and I don’t think that message is coming across in the negotiations right now.
[What other issues are there, such class size?
Class size is a provincial issue. We have two-tiered bargaining. We bargain on the provincial level with three parties - the government, the School Board of Ontario, and OSSTF provincial board. So the three of them are bargaining some major issues – pay, class sizes, the bigger issues that affect everyone. The local unions bargain issues that are local to teachers in our constituency - which for us is Peel Region, meaning Mississauga, Brampton, and Caledon.
Teachers in Durham Region are individually bargaining with their own School Board for the issues that affect the Durham schools. Things like how many periods are given for special ed. Teachers are released from teaching in the class room so that they can monitor and support special ed students. how many Educational Assistants are assigned to schools with special needs students. These are things that are decided locally.
So right now we are at an impasse at a provincial level. There are big discrepancies in terms of pay, the salary grid, the amount of time it takes to reach the maximum salary for teachers, when movements up the pay grade happen.
[Where does class size fit in?
The province sets the standard. Right now for academic high school classes, it’s 30 students – and for applied level/college level students, it’s 18 students, which is more manageable in terms of the number of people, bodies in the class room, but in terms of the trying to be a great teacher and reach students and support them, even 18 special needs students is a challenge.
So what’s on the table now is to remove that guideline altogether and make it open to the needs of the school, as determined by the principal. That means a principal could say, this class now meets in the cafeteria, period 1, and there are 200 students in it.
That’s an extreme example and I hope it would never come to that, but there are no rules, no guidelines. They want the rule to be removed. And maybe the rule is removed this year and then slowly, slowly, the numbers just creep up.
Right now high school teachers teach three periods a day and then they can have up to half a period each day of extra duties, such as covering the lunch room or the hallways during a lunch period, or covering another teacher’s class; if another teacher is away, they might cover half of that class. So teachers would be actively teaching 3½ periods a day. And that’s the same for occasional teachers; supply [i.e. substitute] teachers would do the same.
The government is suggesting making occasional teachers teach four periods a day, so they would teach the entire day, their only break would be at lunch. And as you can imagine, as an occasional teacher or supply teacher, it’s a stressful day, you’re on the ball, you’re on those kids, you’re not sitting back at your desk while they work quietly, that doesn’t work. It wouldn’t work for a group of adults. You’re engaging them, you’re encouraging them, you’re sitting with them and working with them, so to do that for the whole day straight without a break... It’s unfair to suggest this change. But again, that’s a provincial issue that’s being negotiated at the provincial table. We’re striking in response to local issues and our right to bargain.
Our bosses do not respect the front line staff anymore. It seems like everyone is replaceable. The only thing that matters is the bottom line. It’s not efficient. You’re not going to work hard if you don’t feel respected. Morale becomes low, and then people really start just phoning it in because they are not respected. And ninety percent of teachers get into this because they really love the job. We do so much on our own time, and they just want to push it so we do more and more.From another striking teacher:
We’ve been without a contract since August 2014 – and that contract wasn't negotiated fairly, it was imposed on us. It was passed by government legislation against our approval and despite our objections. That’s no way to negotiate any sort of agreement.
There are issues dealing with class sizes. They want to remove the cap on class size. There have been numerous studies proving that an increase in overall class size has resulted in a direct loss of quality of education. Students in large classes get much less one-to-one time, much less progressive assessment throughout the year. And as a result, they’re not getting the quality standard of education that they and parents expect.
In addition to that, the government wants to pass legislation regarding prep time. What teachers can do with prep time. They are trying to set it up so that administrators can assign duties to teachers during prep time, duties which may have nothing to do with their course or their lessons or may not even have anything to do with teaching.
[So when are you supposed to do your prep time then?
Well, that’s it. That time is time we need. We’re not just sitting around doing nothing. We’re marking, we’re doing lesson plans, we’re preparing activities, we’re even meeting students for one-to-one assistance, for extra help that they may need.
So again, this results in a loss of quality for the students’ education and for their individual lessons. As a result, they are getting a watered down quality, with lowered expectation, for their education. And we have a real serious problem with that.