School Politics

Participation Inequality 90 9 1

Image courtesy of Christopher Allen on Flickr.

It is a common sentiment that schools ought be apolitical spaces, despite the fact that in policy, curriculum, and objectives they cannot help but exist in political reality. In the resultant power dynamic that confronts us as professionals, even reluctant teachers engage in a struggle for agency and voice in working for what we believe are the best interests of our students. As union members and public employees, our contract negotiations, and evolving role in society is regularly part of the broader political dialogue that surrounds schools, whether in our neighbourhoods, newspapers, broadcast media or holiday dinners.

Our efforts to work alongside our colleagues and cultivate the spaces of public education take on political dimensions in other ways beyond the classroom, as well. As the Canadian Multicultural Act puts forth, our pluralist democracy is only realized through “the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society.”

However, even while we are each ensured this right as citizens of Canada (a right reinforced by the collective bargaining power to resist provided with our union membership), the structural inequalities present in society manifest themselves in our classrooms, and are similarly recreated among school and district staffs.  Intersectional privileges and marginalization lead to working environments which have largely been established (and continue to be maintained and administrated) by those who have been the beneficiaries of the system as it exists.

Administrators and trustees, board office employees and superintendents, department heads, increasingly essential Parent Advisory Council leadership, union representatives and other decision-making committees in a school or district tend to skew toward those who share a collection of unearned privileges: they are disproportionally male, often white, and possess a particular confidence and conversational / social capital. Among those who are not male, or caucasian, there is often a shared economic class (even among teachers, who share a pay scale but emerge from relatively diverse economic backgrounds), or level of education. Recent immigrants are at a disadvantage in acquiring these attributes (which can be acquired), and can be delayed in attaining positions of influence or power; as in all aspects of social life, those who are not comfortable or confident vocal participants in larger groups are underrepresented in the collected culture.

At this disempowered end of this spectrum of influence we generally see an over-representation of the young, new Canadians, visible minorities, members of the LGBTQ community, people with more challenging social-economic backgrounds, and women.

And yet, the Multicultural Act promises not only a national aspiration toward “the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society,” but demands that Canada “assist them in the elimination of any barrier to that participation.” We are not merely assured this right as citizens and educators in Canada, but also challenged to continually strive to expand the circle of participants in our emergent national narrative.

It may be easy to see that this ought be our intention as teachers orienting our schools and classrooms toward citizenship, and providing a democratic education; however it is important to consider the role we each play in cultivating the public school space as one which seeks to eradicate the inequalities which prevent “all participants” from contributing to “all aspects” of community life and identity.

Fortunately, there are many avenues and opportunities for these inclusive dialogues to take place, and which ought be embraced by those looking to work toward social justice in our schools, for our colleagues as much as our students: professional development, collaborative decision making, departmental, committees, union volunteerism, and social planning groups offer official channels for discussion and dialogue that includes the possibility of all voices. Beyond these our hallways and staff rooms, intramural pitches of competition and picket lines offer an informal space of interaction that can foster collegiality and consensus that enables our capacity to collaborate as professionals.

Across these settings there are inevitably those whose voices are heard above the rest, and we needn’t take anything away from those possessing the ability to influence; but we are not practicing democracy if we do not work to correct a system of interaction in which many are disproportionally voiceless.

Teaching in the Patriarchy

PATRIARCHAL EDUCATION 2014

Image courtesy of Christopher Dombres

Even as we might strive to discuss Herstory and the silencing of minority voices in our curriculum, it is startlingly easy to perpetuate and recreate the same inequalities we strive to combat in our work as educators. While we may have the best of intentions in our explicit messages about the nature of equality and justice in our classrooms, each of us brings myriad complexities of unconscious privilege and inequality into our work with young people just by way of inhabiting a culture which is composed of them.

For instance, I am a thirty three year old, caucasian, Canadian male, living in an affluent suburb of one of the world’s most livable cities. I work with gifted youngsters in a program that gets them out of doors and into the curriculum in ways that are intended to engage their voice and agency in a responsive and authentic learning community. And I was even in a similar program back in my own highschool days before riding an athletic scholarship to the states, where I competed in the NCAA.

All of which is to say that I can acknowledge that nearly everything about my life presents a near perfect model of white male privilege.

My whole life has offered a continual reassurance that my voice and contributions were worthwhile and valued by others; that my opinion and interpretation of events can be offered with authority and will be respectfully received has been reinforced at nearly every juncture in my life, which doesn’t necessarily make me a self-centered egomaniac, but  does remind me to be aware that not everyone has been on the receiving end of a lifetime of attaboys for a range of choices and behaviours that have vacillated between the stellar and foolhardy as much as anyone.

Such an acknowledgement is a first step in addressing the myriad inequalities from which I have (and continue to) benefit, but then only begins an exploration of the ways in which I reproduce and witness the perpetuation of these inequalities in my countless daily interactions with students, teachers, and the culture beyond my school.In my travels

As when the hands that invariably leap up to offer opinions in class discussions are those that are white / upper-class / extroverted / etc…

As when a colleague asks an administrator why they haven’t hired any young goodlookin’ contract teachers this year or last…

As when an established teacher monopolizes the agenda at a union or staff meeting with their interpretation of “What’s in our interest” without seeking to represent the views of younger teachers or colleagues from minority populations…

That we are swimming in layers of unrecognized privilege and yet exist as the stewards of a system which organizes itself around meritocratic principles presents a contradiction our public schools ought confront in an effort to prepare young people to better realize the values of multicultural democracy that truly

“promote[s] the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society and assist[s] them in the elimination of any barrier to that participation.”

Moving beyond the acknowledgement of this contradiction, however, is where such affluent experiences and classrooms such as mine struggle to create more equal and democratic experiences. Observing and reacting to overt manifestations of discrimination is something that comforts us, as do signs of solidarity such as awareness campaigns like the Anti-Bullying Day or Me to We Fundraising initiatives.

But these efforts are largely organized by privileged kids in privileged schools: do they really bring us any closer to creating a truly inclusive society?

Or do they further alienate and separate the haves from the have nots (whatever those possessions may be)?

Leveraging our collective privilege to ‘rescue’ those who are disadvantaged by systemic oppression is a hollow aim unless our gaze is fixed upon a critical view of the sources of our own advantages, and we seek and strive to make these advantages visible to others who would unknowingly perpetuate them to the detriment of others.

What this means is difficult for many of us who enjoy various privilege to envision; but what it does not mean is retreating into silence.

It doesn’t mean that the kids whose hands shoot up at the beginning of a class discussion need to sit on them.

It doesn’t mean the principal isn’t allowed to share a joke with a colleague.

And it doesn’t mean that those of us who don’t mind speaking our minds at staff or union meetings ought not take those opportunities to cultivate dialogue with our peers.

But it does mean recognizing that some of these activities and modes of participation – by which success and membership in our communities are judged – are easier for some of us than others, and that this ease has little or nothing to do with any of our respective effort or merit. By extension this means that the ability to include marginalized voices in our collective discussions demands that we employ these privileges in the greater inclusion of others in them, and toward the elimination of barriers that keep others from that “full and equitable participation.”

Which in the very first place involves listening, rather than speaking. Hearing what life is like, and how the existence of our privileges effects others.

But we need not take what we hear as personal idictments: after all, if we did nothing to earn the privileges that have led to our successes and power, we likely are not conscious participants in the oppression of others.

However, we become agents of injustice if in gaining an awareness of our own privilege and good fortune, we do nothing to increase the justice and opportunity afforded others.

Why Picket

On the picket

On the picket with my mom and sister.

Hey all,

As we get toward the end of our first week on the picket line, I wanted to take the opportunity to invite the discussion of how we might share ideas to maximize our efforts in what could be a crucial week of negotiations between teachers and the government.

I realize that some of you may not be enthused about the prospect of being pilloried in a sandwich sign while you’re asked to pace in front of your job site for a few hours every day, and know that not everyone is the sort of extravert that is able to jump into these sorts of things easily, even when they agree with the cause. But I would point out that the purpose we are serving on the picket line is twofold:

  • We are refusing / preventing work normally done on our work site to apply pressure on management / government at the negotiating table;
  • We are building public awareness of key issues which greatly undercut the government’s steadfast narrative of greedy teachers demanding more free massages and “more than twice the raise any other union got.”

*cough* despite not coming off two years’ of zeros as teachers are. 

To these two purposes, I would argue that our attention while on strike is much better utilized if we focus on the second of these two goals. In most industries, a union withholding its labour penalized the owners financially as capital is prevented from moving and thus accumulating value. To most employers, this financial pressure can create an immediate effect; we saw this in action when the truckers’ union at the Port of Vancouver went on strike earlier this year, effectively shutting down a major port of trade, and were granted a deal in less than a week. But as the withholding of our labour actually saves the government millions of dollars a week, we can see that merely closing our work site created minimal (in fact opposite) leverage for our union in its negotiations. If we stick to this course of action, the government would have little incentive to not let the strike drag on until October until we’re broke enough to accept a deal that would negate all of the work, sacrifice and difficult choices we have made to get us to this point.

What matters, it seems to me, and could help us greatly in our cause as our walkout goes into a second week before summer vacation takes the public eye away from our negotiations, is the raising of public support for our struggle for a fair deal in this round of bargaining. Part of the way we do this is by positively representing ourselves and our intentions while on the line. How we interact with traffic, pedestrians and other working people in our communities goes a long way in establishing a public perception of our union and its efforts that many of us have long-wished was more a part of the face of the BCTF. For better or worse, while we are ‘on the line’ in front of our schools, we are who our neighbours are seeing as the union they keep hearing about on the news these days. They could drive by and see a bunch of folks socializing in lawn chairs with their signs propped up against the tent-les; or they could see an enthusiastic team of teachers actively courting their support and solidarity.

By all means, take some time to get warmed up. Bring a lawn chair to rest your feet or back, and catch up with your colleagues. Play a guitar. But each shift should be making a concerted effort to connect with the people driving and walking through our neighbourhood. You’d be surprised the effect of an engaging smile and a wave from a passing stranger, let alone fifteen.

Eye contact creates empathy and respect between people, even when they disagree. Pour on the kindness to those with stern glances, birds or words. Reasonable people can disagree, and these interactions allow people to take a stance on the issue of our negotiations. For my part I can say that in our weeks on the picket so far, these have been many, many more honks, waves, thumbs-ups, solidarity-fists, and smiles than there have been their negative counterparts. And as the government continues to stonewall progress on a labour-disruption that – for the moment – impacts every corner of the province, the imbalance has only grown. This groundswell of support is our only means of influencing government’s posture at the bargaining table, and we should actively continue to court it across our lines this week.

To this end I compel you to demonstrate resolve to stand together as a school against an imposed contract that would not only perpetuate the injustices of the past, but would further degrade the conditions of our province’s schools.

Not everyone feels as passionately as I do, perhaps, and I think that’s fine. A union is intended to be an expression of democracy, and the differences in our opinions make us stronger, not weaker. But at the moment we are on strike, the result of just such a democratic expression of the membership, even if you voted (or would have preferred to vote) no. If you are disconcerted by the hope of having ‘gone out,’ I would further add that the duration, not to mention the end results, of our current job action could depend on us maximizing our efforts to engage the public while out picketing.

If you are unconvinced, try driving by a school with a handful of teachers picketing from lawn chairs. Then drive by Charles Best as their entire staff is marching the length of Como Lake Avenue with their signs asking the province for A Fair Deal. Drive by Gleneagle during any shift many of our recall teachers are out there, and I would bet that it becomes a little harder to dismiss our union as an unreasonable party to an eternal gridlock in BC education.

Our energy line has pioneered a few new picket moves this week, and will be exploring more original material next week. Mike and others have supplied new and creative signs for our zone on Landsdowne. And there is talk of a ‘costume’ day on the line next week.

As the kids in my neighbourhood keep asking me in their scrawled hop-scotch courts marking the days of their newfound summer vacation, to boot: why don’t we have any sidewalk chalk out there? 

We aren’t on strike because we’ve lost or are losing. We’re on strike because we still might win. But what there’s left for us to win might have to be won this week.

So let’s make it count.

See you out there,

Bryan