Professional Autonomy and Development

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Following the acrimony of our recent job action in BC schools, I’m inclined to take stock of what may be considered ‘wins’ in an otherwise defeating series of events. Having seen the government come to the terms that it did in the end, it’s hard not to feel that the major motivation Peter Fassbender and Christy Clark brought to the bargaining process was to spitefully take almost ten thousand dollars from me and my colleagues.

Those were mortgage payments.

Student loans deferred.

It’s difficult to not see it as mean-spirited, is all.

Of course, the government’s representatives were asking for much more, and to have struggled to a draw against a government that pays no heed to repeated admonishments in the province’s highest court is a victory of sorts, even while it may not give teachers as much to show for their efforts in the strike as we may have liked.

A raise that keeps pace (or caught us up) with inflation would have been a start.

Meaningful reforms to class sizes and composition ratios would have been another.

That said, in our local agreement Coquitlam teachers did affirm our rights to professional autonomy by gaining further control of our professional development in Article F.22, which guarantees us the affordance of a Pro-D committee that has access to school-based funding, as well as the autonomy to determine and advise administration on matters relating to professional development. This contract language represents a progressive step toward greater teacher autonomy as we assert more control over our own professionalism, which both our union and employer agree is tied to ongoing professional learning.

From its guide to members, the BCTF recognizes the following principles of professional development:

  • Members have an ongoing responsibility to develop professionally
  • Members have autonomy in making choices about their own professional development
  • Professional development planning is guided by members’ needs
  • Professional development informs teaching practice and encourages collegiality
  • Professional development requires time and resources to meet members’ needs
  • Professional development incorporates a wide repertoire of teacher collaboration, mentorship, action research, workshops, professional course work, professional reading, peer coaching, and reflection.

The British Columbia Teachers’ Council similarly maintains the following Standards for Education, Competence and Professional Conduct, with respect to professional development:

Educators engage in career-long learning

Educators engage in professional development and reflective practice, understanding that a hallmark of professionalism is the concept of professional growth over time. Educators develop and refine personal philosophies of education, teaching and learning that are informed by theory and practice. Educators identify their professional needs and work to meet those needs individually and collaboratively.

Educators contribute to the profession

Educators support, mentor and encourage other educators and those preparing to enter the profession. Educators contribute their expertise to activities offered by their schools, districts, professional organizations, post-secondary institutions or contribute in other ways.

Taken together with our new collective agreement around professional development, these principles of professional learning create an opportunity to revisit our school’s culture around pro-d and create an emphasis around lifelong learning, collaboration, and accountability.

If the professional development committee is to take its place alongside the CTA representation and Collaborative Decision Making Committee (CDMC) as another avenue of representing the voice of our teaching staff alongside our local stakeholders, I suggest it establishes a mandate for individuals to create and maintain an individual growth plan, and initiates a process of collaborative inquiries extending from these stated goals. Such a framework could then be used to guide a school’s Pro-D committee in facilitating meaningful, relevant, personalized professional learning throughout the year.

Such a reform would mirror the emerging themes in educational research stressed in the 21st century (inquiry, personalized learning, collaboration), and furthermore reflects a professional expectation for teachers to continually engage in learning about and reflecting on our craft as educators. It is this expectation which differentiates us from what might be considered vocations, or merely more general ’employees,’ and is a distinction that is especially important to make following the protracted battle our profession has waged in the court of public opinion in British Columbia in recent years. Having defended and expanded our rights to autonomous professional development, we owe it to ourselves and the communities we serve to explore the potential of our own learning such that we might be able to better demonstrate – for one another as colleagues as well as the student and parent communities we serve – the value of our recent struggle.

In breaking down the notion of Autonomous Professional Development, we might glimpse the convergence of our rights and responsibilities as practitioners:

Autonomous 

Engaged in by me, and us as a community of individuals. Owned by the individual and the community.

Professional 

Highly skilled. Adhering to standards and expectations.

Each of these first two may be seen to be both rights and responsibilities, and the freedom encapsulated in our rights is proportional to a commitment in our responsibilities to continually develop our understanding of autonomy and professionalism.

In other words, if we expect ourselves to be autonomous and professional, our responsibility is to continually develop:

Develop our skills. Develop our community. And develop our profession.

This act of development is a constructive act, one which suits the principles of democracy that we are all – regardless of subject speciality – charged with teaching in our classrooms, and a process we are obligated to engage in as citizens in a democracy, as well as teachers, and professionals. And if we are to provide this type of learning in our classrooms, we should be engaged – and are compelled to be engaged, in the language of our own members’ guide and professional expectations –  in a similarly constructive development of our own practice and profession.

Throughout this process we are guided by the following questions:

  • What are you working on?
  • What are you trying to do?
  • What do you wonder about?

It is not acceptable to not have an answer to these questions, and for my part I am suggesting that we amend our policies and expectations around professional development at our school to reflect this attitude. To this end, I hope to see our professional development committee move to require teachers to submit a personal growth plan at the outset of each year that will help direct our school based Pro-D toward a collaborative inquiry framework to support teacher-professionalism and community-building.

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).

Guest Post: Letter from a Colleague

We believe in Public Education

Melanie Stokes is a colleague of mine who forwarded me this letter that she submitted to the Vancouver Sun to share here. 

As teachers are now in their second week of full job action, it may be important to consider the reasons why this situation is happening now.  Over the last thirty years, society has undergone great changes and the role of education has expanded accordingly. The time has come for us to decide if we are able or want to support education with all the expectations of what it must deliver.

Thirty years ago, classes were often larger but were mostly a homogenous group of kids.  Schools had clear expectations about discipline and students were streamed according to academic ability.  Curriculum was focussed on basic literacy and numeracy skills and going into the work place rather than university was the norm after graduation.  Students with special needs were segregated. Schools were not expected to deliver individual education plans; neither were teachers required to meet all the learning needs of all the children in their classes. Teachers taught the whole class as a group and did their best to provide accelerated materials to the bright kids, and get the slower learners caught up.  That was pretty much it.  No one felt it necessary to feed children breakfast because they were too hungry to learn or had to learn how to deal with autistic, Downs Syndrome, ADD, ADHD, Oppositional Disorder students or large groups of children who spoke no English at all.

Over the last thirty years, education has been given the job of trying to fix all the problems of an increasingly complex society.  Teachers took it in their stride, believing that they could, and would be able to make positive changes for the children in their care.  They embraced the idea of integration for special needs students and never considered that at some point, the funding to for teacher support would be reduced to the point where classroom management would become almost impossible.  They have accepted children in their classes who have no idea how to function in a group setting, how to speak or comprehend English, children from poor, dysfunctional families with no social or financial resouces, refugee children from war torn countries with resulting psychological problems, learners with a myriad of challenges that teachers are expected to address.

Teachers did and still do go about their jobs every day believing they can make a positive impact on the social, emotional, and acedemic growth of the children in their care.  Despite the rhetoric of government and union, this fight is about the value of education and what we, as a society deem important.  Do we want a return to the “one size fits all” education practice of the past, or do we wish to continue with the education system we have grown to expect?  If so, then we should be prepared to pay for it.

Schools of today are successful because of the efforts of those who work within them.  If there is no will or not enough money to support educators to do the job we demand of them, then we should go back to the old school system and stop expecting teachers, principals, and support staff to do more and more for our children with unrealistic funding and less and less support.

If a good education for all children is considered important, and it should be, then let’s stop the erosion of services and demand that our government provide the necessary financial support to keep the education we expect for our children.