Back to School(s): Part I

Salad Roll / Tentative Deal Day

Having only spent a few Septembers free of my varied back-to-schools, I have difficulty not viewing fall as the start of a new year. Rested and inspired following summer break, September has become a time of renewal, setting goals, and staking out the terms and terrain by which the academic year will unfold. As I’ve been able to fold my professional pursuits within my personal endeavours and interests these last few years, I’ve increasingly looked to the dawn of autumn as an inspiring time.

Relieved as I may be to have returned to school this last week following the longest strike in British Columbian schools’ history, there is something that makes this September’s embrace somewhat awkward.Labour Days

Forced, even.

Until just last week, teachers in BC’s daily reality concerned a struggle for what many of us see as our part contribution toward realizing democracy’s noble aspirations. Faced with a government that has repeatedly shown disrespect and disregard for the purpose and mandate of public education, the majority of my 40,000 colleagues across the province and I were committed to standing up for not only our own rights to education, but those of our students, present and future.

And while the thought of it made me sick to my stomach, I was committed to standing on the street in front of our school as long as it was going to take to preserve those rights.

For eight weeks this summer, and for two into the new school year, the government’s proposed contracts contained strips (or at least threats, depending on the lawyer at hand) to legal victories which have cost the teachers’ union significantly, both in its finances and its standing with the public. For more than a decade, the combat of the BC Liberals and the BC Teachers’ Federation has revolved around the constitutional violations of a contract ripped up in 2002. While repeatedly admonished in the courts, the government has consistently and blithely thumbed its nose at the law and the province’s public schools, increasing funding to private “independent” schools, duplicating legislated language already deemed to be outside the law by the Supreme Court, and even diverting school funding during the strike for parents to seek out ‘other educational opportunities’ such as online courses or private education.

Not Your Family

As was noted in several conversations I’ve had in recent months, in the current government we faced “a totally different animal than ever before,” and there was no telling to what depths Premier Christy Clarke and Education Minister Peter Fassbender might sink in attempting to extract a victory by attrition to win back cases they’d soundly lost in the province’s highest court (twice). There was little reason to expect that part of the Liberals’ agenda included keeping public schools closed, and teachers’ families going without income, into October.

But I am proud to have been part of such a tribe as teachers who looked at such a set of circumstances and agreed to stand firm in our resolve to resist such a government. I’m glad to have fought alongside my school staff to make the best of a bad situation, to bring each other food, and emblazon T-shirts with our simplest of battle cries, and to share in one another’s company, and solidarity.

I’m proud to know the parents, and students, and members of our community that recognized the stand we were taking, and the toll it was taking on us, and helped us out: who wrote letters, and organized sit-ins, and brought us food and coffee on the picket line.

We believe in Public Education

And I’m proud to say that as a result of our shared efforts there was an end to the strike that protected our court victories, and even won several concessions for our elementary colleagues and TOCs in the province.

But between the official ending of the strike and the starting up of school this pride and sense of victory has soured some, as we have returned to school with these as the most meagre of victories. Victories which are so minute, in the grand terms of the struggle, that I am filled with a sense of anger at the blindness of government that would so unnecessarily lead the province’s public school system through such a protracted crisis.

For what?

To return to classes which are still too big, and getting bigger.

To reenter schools where our librarians are picking up blocks to teach, and our administrators are finding their way back into classrooms so students have courses to take.

Where our foods and shop classes are swelling, and our district continues to find ways out of its millions-of-dollars-a-year budgetary shortfall by amending class size limits or asking teachers to shoulder an ever-laden burden.

So as much as we have returned to work, we have also merely changed the venue of a fight against a government that stretches back more than twelve years. Where past Septembers have taken my aims and interests into blogs, and open courses, and trips into the British Columbian wild, I am compelled to continue the fight of our strike now in our day to day work as teachers. To this end I’ve taken on the role of (one of) our staff union representative(s), and hope that this new perspective on our profession allows me further opportunities to fold my personal and professional ambitions into a modeled teaching persona that is of pedagogical value in my classrooms, as well as the local community our school serves.

Setting out in the construction of my Masters of Education project, I plan to continue this year in exploring notions of citizenship education, both as a component of experiential education as well as in my work and advocacy as an open educator. Elements of this exploration touch upon curriculum, philosophy of education, and the advent of the Digital Age, and it is my hope to refine these strands of thought around ongoing projects in my fall and spring classes which I will describe in greater depth in a second installment of Back to School(s).

An Open Letter to BC Education Minister Peter Fassbender

Minister Fassbender visits the TALONS Classroom, October 2013

May 31st, 2014

Greetings, Minister Fassbender,

As a social studies teacher in the Coquitlam School District’s T.A.L.O.N.S. Program, my teaching partners and I work to support the learning outcomes of our course curricula by cultivating an experiential, interdisciplinary learning environment. In designing a program which meets the social and emotional needs of gifted learners, T.A.L.O.N.S. teachers strive to align the explicit purposes of schooling – to educate the younger generation in the concepts, skills and competencies required to construct their individual and collective futures – with the implicit messages about our shared democratic values as Canadians – that each voice in our society is valued within the system of laws and government we are handing down to young people.

As you may realize it is important to teach courses on the foundations and traditions of our democratic history within a context that is true to these ideals. To this end T.A.L.O.N.S. students are provided with opportunities to exercise agency and voice in the creation of their own learning, as my colleagues and I believe that teaching students about the principles of the Enlightenment in a classroom that does not honour collective expression and democratic principles would negate the lesson at hand before the bell had even rung. As Gert Biesta and other educationists have noted, “Young people learn at least as much about democracy and citizenship – including their own citizenship – through their participation in a range of different practices that make up their lives, as they learn from that which is officially prescribed and formally taught.”

As such the context in which the learning occurs communicates a great deal about the meaning that is created in the democratic classroom. And I raise these foundations of the T.A.L.O.N.S. program to your attention in part to refresh your memory that you’ve actually visited us in action. Along with our local MLAs, Coquitlam Superintendent Tom Grant, and other educational dignitaries, you were brought to see a few of our district’s exemplary classrooms at Gleneagle Secondary last fall. You were only with us for a few minutes, enough time to tout your government’s dedication to providing more education in line with how our students introduced the program’s philosophy, but I feel it appropriate at this time to highlight how incongruous your handling of the British Columbia Education file has been with public education’s democratic ideals in the time since.

Your government has been found twice to have violated BC teachers’ Charter rights to collectively bargain. Additionally, the Supreme Court found the Liberal Government to have bargained in bad faith to provoke a strike that would allow you further infringements of the province’s public servants. In the ten years that this affront to justice has been allowed to continue – in duplicated legislation and dubious appeals – the children of the province have seen their futures stolen out from under them with unstaffed libraries, under-supplied learning centers, closed language labs and counseling offices ill-suited to address today’s (significant) student needs.  The defense your government has raised when judged categorically by the Supreme Court to have broken the law (twice) is that adhering to the law as written would be “too expensive” at this stage in the game.

You can be forgiven for your lack of history education. But as someone charged by the government to teach young people about our democracy, I find it difficult to reconcile the lessons in my prescribed government curriculum with the context created by your Liberal government’s disrespect for the country’s highest law. After being told in 2011 that Premier Clark’s own Bills 27/28  were unconstitutional, the Liberals did not appeal the decision and proposed nearly identical legislation that was rejected by the Supreme Court yet again in 2014. Rather than take this judgment at face value, or even oppose it on the merits of the case, your government has instead hired a private trial lawyer at taxpayer expense to argue before the Court of Appeal not that the ruling was flawed, or that your government did not in fact violate teachers’ Charter rights, but that obeying the law would be too expensive.

As a private citizen you might be entitled to such unique interpretations of the country’s laws. In fact, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was conceived so that individuals would not be so vulnerable to the lumbering power of the State. But as a representative of an elected government, your continued disregard for the law of the land, taken together with the subversion of its very intent by using the Court of Appeal to further abuse educators and students is fundamentally opposed to the spirit of Canadian democracy as it is taught in the province’s schools. It is a shame that when you visited our classroom you weren’t given the opportunity to explain why it is you and your government feel it is that you are above the law.

Our public school classrooms are intended to reflect democracy as an ideal, a point beyond the horizon toward which humanity is forever striving. And this ideal holds that each individual’s voice is granted respect and protection by a mutual agreement that no one is above the law, or able to exert their will upon the group by sheer force or inherent power.  In attempting to design a classroom where these lessons are taught on the pages of our textbooks and in the activities we undertake as a class, the T.A.L.O.N.S. teachers’ intentions are to provide learners with lived lessons in democratic functioning.

What have your actions, and those of your government, sought to teach young people in British Columbia about democracy? About the rule of law? About our collective responsibility to one another?

When you visited us, and in the press releases I have seen in the time since, your words have often seemed directly in line with the values at the heart of the public education system. But your actions have consistently negated whatever weight these words might have carried, and such incongruence demands either an explanation or a change of course.

I would be heartily pleased to see either of these, though your past actions haven’t made me hopeful.

Regards,

Bryan Jackson T.A.L.O.N.S. Program Teacher SD43