Focus on the right message in Nelson

From the outside, it is difficult to follow the logic behind the proposal that teachers might withdraw support

From the outside, it is difficult to follow the logic behind the proposal that teachers might withdraw support for extra-curricular activities as the next phase in the ongoing labour dispute.

We have been told that teachers’ involvement in extra-curricular activities is voluntary. If so, then let’s separate this from labour discussions, which would allow us to support these efforts in the context of celebrating all volunteers in our communities.

We are also told that extra-curricular activities are not part of the core education program yet many students view them as integral to their school experience. Why do they believe that? Teachers and parents encourage students to participate, partly to create a sense of school community, which ultimately supports classroom learning. Schools also support these activities in many ways, including publicly recognizing their athletes and performing artists while no longer publishing a list of top academic achievers.

The messages are conflicting. We lack a clear and consistent commitment as to what our public education system will provide our community and, therefore, what responsibilities each of us must assume. This lack of clarity is one reason why assigning a value to the contributions of teachers is challenging.

Secondly, the union bargaining model was born on the factory floor where workers who produced tangible goods were directly responsible for generating the profits that owners could use to improve wages and working conditions. No such direct relationship exists between professionals and the generation of government revenue. That is not to discount the importance of professionals, but the bargaining model is without the checks and balances that would ensure union demands are reasonable and governments provide a real voice for its professionals — teachers, biologists, foresters, health care workers, etc.

Provincial-scale negotiations with the teachers’ union can’t resolve the broader educational issues that have become entwined with wages and benefits. The former requires meaningful engagement of teachers, parents, administrators, community leaders and students. The opportunity and responsibility for creative problem-solving must exist at all scales, including the community level. Currently, few significant decisions are made by local people who can be held accountable by the community as we are constrained, rather than supported by some aspects of government direction and union agreements.

With respect to wages and benefits, the needs of teachers must be considered within the context of what is happening to others in our community because we are interdependent — we are at risk of responding to the vocal and well organized without understanding the challenges others are facing.

Our board of trustees and parents would need to lobby to have significant decisions about public education returned to local communities and teachers would have to claim greater autonomy from their union. Each of us would then have to grow into our new responsibilities as we could no longer simply blame others.

We can tell our youth that there are responsibilities associated with being residents of a relatively wealthy, educated country or we can show them what is involved.

Cathy Scott-May