Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Where Do We Go From Here? part three: Time for Teachers to Take Charge

Teachers at many KPR schools, not just PCVS, have felt that they’ve been under pressure from both their union executives and KPR administration to keep their criticisms of decisions made by Board administrators to themselves.

Any employee of any organization will naturally feel disinclined to voice their criticisms of their employer openly, regardless of the situation. No one wants to make political enemies, or to put their supervisors in an uncomfortable position.

Nevertheless, one may easily see that such a chill on critique in the workplace, especially a workplace specifically designed to serve the public, will not have positive long-term results.

The fact of the matter, whether they admit it or not, is that management needs unions to help them run their organizations.

Union work isn’t particularly exciting or glamourous, and often union executives have a difficult time getting their members to take an active interest in what they do. After all, much union work is really a kind of ancillary management, and if the front-line workers wanted to be managers, most would already have gone that route. Public school teachers typically thrive on direct interaction with children and young adults. If they thrived on paperwork, they wouldn’t have become teachers in the first place.

Unions usually only make the news when their relationship with their employer has broken down and work stoppages threaten. News media almost always focus on wage demands, which are easy for the public to understand, rather than on substantive issues around working conditions, which most members of the public don’t understand or care about. On the personal level, employees usually only pay attention to their unions when they have grievances to pursue.

Equally important, however, is the union’s role in assisting the ongoing management of the organization by keeping on top of management decisions on a day-to-day basis. A really effective union local is the result of an active and aware membership who are willing to contend for executive positions, communicate frequently with one another and with their executives, help the executive keep a close eye on management, and demand that the executive and any staff at the union office hold management to high standards and don’t let mere wage negotiations hog center stage. This is especially important today, because salaries are largely determined by Queen’s Park. With little local control by either Board or union over wages, working conditions and learning conditions should be of paramount importance.

If the locals of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF) have not taken the opportunity to speak out against a series of questionable decisions by KPR, from the balanced day, through huge expenditures on technology at the expense of educational quality, and now the proposed closing of PCVS, this may be the natural result of an inattentiveness on the part of teachers to their union locals.

The quality of teachers in the Peterborough area has never been higher. The emphasis placed in recent years on professionalizing teachers, requiring them to take additional qualification courses on an ongoing basis, and encouraging specialization, has resulted in an exceptional level of awareness across the spectrum. Teachers arguably know more about what’s going on their schools than do their principals. They certainly know more than Superintendents and other administrators, who can’t possibly keep track of all the classrooms for which they are supposedly responsible. Yet too often important information never makes it beyond the ears of other teachers.

Both elementary and secondary teachers need to take charge of their union locals, to make those locals into vehicles for positive change in the school system. ETFO and OSSTF should be seen by the public as working day-to-day to make sure the public’s tax dollars are being spent wisely by KPR administrators.

Step Three: All KPR teachers should make it their business to take a more active role in their unions, and to direct their executives to advocate publicly for better administration.

Another important point to consider is that almost all teachers are also property tax payers. Although teachers are paid from the public purse, they also pay into it, not merely through provincial income tax, but from their own property taxes. Even if teachers feel it improper to voice their criticisms of KPR’s management decisions in public, there is absolutely nothing stopping them from communicating their frustration as property-owners to our MPP Jeff Leal, who is paid to represent the interests of all Peterborough-area residents at Queen’s Park.

This is particularly important when it comes to KPR’s apparent attitude toward neighbourhood schools. Property tax payers deserve to have their dollars spent on school services for their own neighbourhoods, not just on mega-schools and new technology.

Step Four: All KPR teachers who live in the area should write to Jeff Leal to let him know that, as property-owners and taxpayers, they want Queen’s Park to monitor KPR’s decisions, and that they want neighbourhood schools made a priority.

It only takes a few minutes – here’s his email address:

If every KPR teacher took a few minutes to write a quick email, Leal’s mailbox would be full of communication from the people who know the most about our school system.

And that can only be a good thing.

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