Dear Mr. Lavallee,
You wrote a letter to the editor that appeared in The Chronicle Journal on Saturday, April 11: “Teachers have no right threatening education.”
Your letter communicates a great deal of frustration with teachers, arguing that we suffer from a sense of entitlement, that we strike because we aren’t satisfied with how easy we already have it. You ask us how we “dare” to “hold our kids’ education hostage.”
The truth is, the decision to strike is never an easy one. Striking is not easy. We don’t do it very often. We teachers are, by and large, passionate about our jobs: we love what we do, and we love being in the classroom with students. It’s true that the weather has recently taken a turn for the better—but I can assure you, we would much rather be inside, teaching, than outside on a picket line.
It is because we are passionate that we consider strike action. It is precisely because you and I share a concern for our children’s education that we teachers require adequate working conditions.
You seem to be under the impression that teaching is a cakewalk: we “make great money, have great benefits, two months off per year.” Some teachers make great money. Some teachers have great benefits.
I'm always puzzled when people seem so quick to judge other professions. I would certainly never assume that a construction worker, a police officer, nurse, or a civil servant have it easy. I have an imperfect, if any, conception of what it takes to be successful in those jobs. And if those professions had grievances (as they sometimes do), I would listen with an open mind, rather than label them "greedy" or "whiny."
So, if you are willing to listen, here we go.
The truth is, that for the past few years, school boards have been downsizing at incredible rates. As teachers drop off the full-time list into occasional (supply teaching) positions, that money and those benefits dry up. I’ve been certified for three years: I spent the first two in England, because I couldn’t get a job here, and I am lucky to be on a few part-time contracts here in Thunder Bay now. Do I get great money? Not really. Do I get benefits? Yes. But I have neither job security nor job seniority. While there is a small minority of teachers who are quite well-compensated, the profession as a whole has felt the same crunch as the rest of society.
I am 25 years old, and if I want to stay in Thunder Bay—my hometown and the one place I want to live—as well as be a teacher, then I have to face the likely possibility that I will not have reliable full-time employment for a long time, if ever. I’ll work what contracts I can get, and continue with my other part-time job on the side.
Many of my peers, having seen the state of the job market, have chosen to leave the profession. Some of these people could have made amazing teachers, capable of inspiring and engaging children in a wondrous variety of ways. We’ll never know, now. And I can’t blame them; I can’t tell them to tough it out when they have student debts to pay or parents or siblings or partners to consider. Like you said, Mr. Lavallee, lots of people are struggling these days.
I went into this profession aware of these difficulties, and so far I am managing to stick it out—because teaching is the only thing I have ever wanted to do. Please don’t think I didn’t go into this for the pay, or the benefits, or the time off.
Speaking of those “two months off per year,” that is an old chestnut but not a good one.
Surely you’ve heard of summer school? You need teachers for that.
And those of us who don’t teach summer school? Well, that doesn’t mean we spend the entire summer relaxing by a beach somewhere, counting all that money we’re making. Many teachers use this extended time outside the classroom to get better at teaching, by taking professional development courses or doing Masters degrees. These are difficult (though possible) to do during the school year, when we are so consumed by, you know, teaching. So sometimes we prefer to compress what should take three or four months into those precious two, even if it means we don’t actually get that much of a break before we have to go back to the classroom (before September) to prepare for teaching. Part of our responsibility as teachers is to model for students the value of lifelong learning. We always strive to better ourselves.
Plus, teaching is not an ordinary 9–5 job. We can’t just show up at school ten minutes before the children and leave ten minutes after. We can’t, contrary to what some might think, teach the same lesson year after year, from a dusty binder. (Some teachers, I think, would like it if this were true, and I’m sure some try. But that’s not how it works.) No, we have to plan lessons—true, we do get some planning time during the day, but it’s not enough (and the government would love to take that away too). So we plan before school (when we should be eating breakfast) and after school (when we should have a personal life). We mark before and after school.
If, after we have finished planning and marking, some of us are lucky enough to have time to take care of children, or parents, to do chores and run errands, and maybe to relax. That is, if we are not coaching, supervising clubs, or running other such extracurriculars that students (and parents) rely on. We don’t do that during school time. We do that on our own time, because we are invested in making kids’ lives better.
Moreover, our schedule is much less flexible than the average 9–5 worker’s. We can’t just “take a day off.” Well, we can, but it involves a great deal of paperwork, and requires another person to come in and take our place. We can’t just close our office door for the day and reschedule meetings. And every day that a student’s regular teacher is away is a day they are missing out on something, even if they have the best supply teacher in the world. So I can—and have—dragged myself to school on days I really don’t feel like being there, provided I’m sure I won’t be infecting the students while I’m teaching them, because I know they depend on my presence to learn and flourish. Every time I have an appointment, or any other reason I can’t be in that classroom, I have to worry about how the students will get on. (Oh, and I still have to plan and set the work they will do when I’m not there.)
There are many occupations where work–life balance is difficult, especially in the age of always-on Internet and email. Teaching is one of those. So our “two months off per year,” which as I noted above is seldom as much as that, seem a fair compensation for the inflexibility and demands of our schedule during the school year.
You mention serving overseas, and for that I thank you. And I know, then, that you will be able to sympathize with what I say next. You will know how it feels; you've been there yourself.
See, while it’s true that in my profession I will never hold a gun and never (unlike in some countries) have a bomb thrown at me or drive over an IED, I would argue that teachers face their share of trauma, and that sometimes, lives are on the line.
If that sounds like hyperbole, just consider names like Amanda Todd, or Rehtaeh Parsons. Those children, and the many others who have committed suicide because they were bullied, or didn't fit in, or simply felt that it was too much any more—they all had teachers. You can bet their teachers are devastated. You can bet they ask themselves questions like, what did I do wrong? What didn't I see? What could I have done that might have made a difference and meant these children would still be alive? I feel for the parents of these children; I can't imagine what they are going through—but I also feel for their teachers and the stress and trauma they experience.
I learned a powerful phrase in my teacher education program: in loco parentis. It means “in the place of the parent.” Because that’s what we are: for those five hours a day, five days a week, we are parents to these children. Most parents are responsible for between one and three children’s well-being. When I was teaching full-time in the classroom, I was in part responsible for the well-being and learning of over a hundred children. I knew all their names. And I was often among the first to learn when something was wrong. When they were having a good day, I celebrated with them. When they were having a bad day, well … I did what I could. I listened. I advised, if that's what they wanted. I tried to be there for them.
We teachers are among the first and sometimes few lines of defence when children are on the ropes. We are there to help them through some of the toughest years of their life, when hormones and society seem to collude to tell them that they are worthless, that they need to be prettier, skinnier, richer, more popular—and that if they don't become these things, then something is wrong with them. We are there to put the lie to such whispers and help them develop into the strong, capable citizens they all deserve to become. We are there for them—sometimes, for some, even when their parents are not.
And we do this over and over, year after year—some of us for decades.
I’m only 25. Maybe I don’t know anything, right? I don't have kids yet—might never have kids.
Here’s what I do know, though.
If someone came into a school with a gun, or knife, or any other weapon, I would place the safety of the children ahead of my own, even if it means giving my life.
I will always be there for children, tell them they are worthy, that they can learn, that there are good things in this world.
I will give up a good portion of my “free time” to plan and prepare exciting, engaging lessons that try to motivate students to stay in school, keep learning, and get ready for the world beyond the classroom. I will encourage them to participate in extracurriculars that help them make friends, build character, and learn more—and I will help run those extracurriculars as needed, and when I am able.
I may be only 25, but I am well aware of the challenges I face going into this profession, and of the tremendous responsibility that rests on my shoulders as an educator of children. Like you, I take education seriously. I will do all of the above things because I am passionate about teaching and want to see children become the best people they can be. I have not forgotten that I am paid with public money; I am aware, every day, of that fact—and hence, that the job I have, unlike some people’s, is a public duty and a public trust.
You and I both want the same thing, Mr. Lavallee. We want the best education system for our children. To have that, we need effective teachers. Unfortunately, the government and school boards don’t quite seem willing to work with us on that. Unless you think teachers will somehow be more effective if they have to teach larger classes and have less time in the day to prepare for those classes.
That’s what it’s about, really. Yes, issues of pay and benefits and sick days are a part of it—they always are. Ultimately, though, what we want is really only what anyone expects from their employers: fair treatment and the working conditions we need to be our best. Surely your children, if you have any, would benefit more from being a class that’s closer in size to 20 students than one that has 30 or more in it. Your children would benefit from a teacher who isn’t so stressed and overworked that they don’t have the time or energy to engage them with new and exciting lessons and ideas.
We don’t want to strike. We know it’s a headache. We know it’s disruptive. But if things continue the way they are going, then you will have fewer effective teachers, which means more teachers going on stress leave or leaving the profession entirely (not to mention the teachers who will be laid off, putting a burden on the systems unemployed people access). When a teacher leaves in the middle of the year, they get replaced—by someone new, who hasn’t spent months getting to know the students. That’s disruptive. And that’s not a threat—that’s simply the reality. We’re humans, not robots.
I respectfully submit, then, that the “threat” to education is not striking teachers. The “threat” is a government that has forgotten that teachers have an invaluable role in making education work, but to do that, we need their help: we need the same respect and working conditions that any other profession deserves. If they shortchange teachers, then ultimately, they shortchange students.
Thank you for taking the time to listen. I hope you better understand now the challenges that teachers face, in the classroom and at the negotiating table. We both want the same thing, what’s best for our students. I hope you can help us and support us as we try to ensure we have the resources and wherewithal to give it to them.
Ben Babcock, OCT