Posted on September 3rd, 2012
When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?
When I was little, I wanted to be a ballerina. After that, I wanted to be a novelist.
It didn’t occur to me to want to be a teacher until later. As a homeschooling kid, I didn’t even have teachers other than my mom.
Then I went to public high school, and had many different teachers, including some really amazing ones. It was my senior French teacher who inspired me to consider a career in education. She was (and is, I’m sure) a wonderful, talented person who taught because she loved kids and wanted to engage with them and help them to do better in life. I loved her class.
When I decided I wanted to teach, it wasn’t because I wanted to be rich. (I already knew that teaching is NOT the way to get rich.) Ditto being famous. I wanted to use my languages, to help other people find their love of language, to impart knowledge and connect with young people. To teach. It sounded so rewarding, so community-oriented, so purposeful.
I remember that my awesome French teacher came to my farewell party before I left for France, after I’d finished my degree in French and Spanish at university (which was also inspired in a large part by her). I hadn’t seen her in four years – four years during which Mike Harris had wreaked havoc on Ontario’s education system. She was looking forward to retirement, and she was feeling, for the first time in her decades-long career, disillusioned and sad about teaching. I remember her saying, “It’s different now. The government speaks badly of teachers, so the parents speak badly of teachers, and the kids come to class with that disrespect in their minds. It’s a terrible atmosphere to teach in.”
The same thing has been going on in British Columbia now since 2001 – an agonizing demoralization of educational professionals through consistent bad-mouthing and a gradual stripping of contracts and working conditions.
Now here we are in Ontario, once again, dealing with a provincial government who blabs on about “putting kids first” as they scramble to lay blame for the deficit. (Ask any Ontario public school teacher – this catch-phrase is so hypocritical it makes us want to throw up.)
This is the one thing I actually hate about being a teacher. There are many things that are hard, annoying, and stressful, but they are all things we sign up for when we undertake to teach – not things I hate. What I truly loathe is that whenever contract negotiation time rolls around, people suddenly feel justified in calling me horrible things: greedy, lazy, opportunistic, irrational, whiny, selfish, uncaring…. You name it, I’ve been called every ugly thing in the book. Not to my face, of course, but by the government (in slightly less inflammatory but no less influential terms), by the media, and by countless members of the public who have no idea what teaching actually is.
This time around, I’ve vowed not to look at any comments from online forums about the issue. They just make me feel like shit for choosing a job I thought would be helpful and meaningful in the world.
Maybe people would be less likely to say all those mean things if there were a bit less bias and a bit more truth in the media. If I didn’t know what actually goes on in schools, I might get nasty about this too. (Luckily, I’ve learned in school the importance of respect and compassion.)
Let me attempt to clarify a few things.
About teacher salaries
As you may have heard, the Ontario government wants all teachers to do their part by taking a pay freeze for two years, while the pay grid is examined and revised. For those who don’t know, teacher pay is based on A) the teacher’s education, B) the teacher’s years of experience (to a maximum of 10), and C) negotiated salary increases to account for cost-of-living. In Ontario, your average teacher has at least two university degrees and starts out being paid $50-55K a year. At the top of the pay grid (based on A and B above), this can go up to 85-95K a year.
I don’t know any teachers who complain about the salary. Even the pay freeze is an idea most of us can live with. It’s a bit scary not being told what the pay grid might look like after revisions… but we can hope for the best. What really sucks is the government talking as if we are suddenly demanding outrageous raises, asking for more than what was previously agreed to. (Come on. Nothing in the contract agreement is a surprise to the government.) That, and the members of the public who, quite literally, state that we are not worth that kind of money.
It’s always refreshing to think about the pay on a per child per hour basis, as in this article (from the U.S., where teacher salaries are lower, but the point still stands). Also, it seems worth mentioning that part of what is costing so much in Ontario public schools right now is the changeover to all day, every day kindergarten. The Liberals staunchly defend the program, because it saves parents a lot of money on day care. And teachers are basically being asked to pay for that personally, through salary cuts, as well as providing that extra “day care”. Interesting.
Furthermore, if teachers are not worth what they are being paid… who IS worth that kind of money? And who could ever possibly be worth more than that? Are we saying that corporate CEOs, professional athletes, and famous actors – whom we support by choice with our business all the time, and whose salaries dwarf those of teachers – are better people, truly worthy of more money? That they contribute more to the lives of normal people?
Arwen, a writer friend of mine, wrote the following regarding the B.C. teachers’ strike this past spring:
“The thing is – I work in the private sector, with professionals, and I have never ONCE heard someone with a university education and specialized skills apologize for wanting to be paid for their time commensurate to other individuals, and to have regular cost of living raises and the possibility for advancement.[...] It’s not shameful that professionals don’t want to see years of no-increase in their salaries. I’m tired of hearing teachers be pushed into a position where they’re forced to choose thinking of the kids vs. thinking of the profession.”
About taxpayer money
I can’t deny that it bothers me when people talk about paying taxes with an “us” and “them” attitude. As if “you” pay “my” salary. Teachers pay hundreds of dollars per paycheque in income tax. There are more than 100,000 full-time teachers (and thousands of part-time ones) in the province. Lots of tax money. When the job market flounders, it’s the taxes from secure, well-paying jobs like ours that are supporting those people who have been laid off.
Just sayin’. Paying taxes doesn’t make you special.
About sick days
To be honest, I’ve never come close to using all the sick days I’m allowed in a year. Not even this year, when I had to dedicate several days for baby-related appointments – and one or two for mental health. The only teachers I know who have taken the allotted days and/or used banked sick days are ones who had to either care for a sick child, or fight cancer. To be honest, taking sick days is a pain in the neck, because you have to plan (on your own time – while sick!) for someone else, who doesn’t know your class or your routines, to do your job for a day. We don’t do that unless we need to.
BUT, let it not be forgotten that schools are basically the germiest places on the planet. Teachers are generously given every opportunity to get sick. Children as a group are SO. DIRTY. They are, on the whole, terrible at washing their hands (even when we explicitly teach them how). They cough all over the place, they are full of snot… Some of them pee on the floor (or worse), and some even throw up on their teachers.
A friend and former colleague of mine, Lisa (who also happens to be fantastic teacher), had a conversation with CBC on Ontario Morning, and it’s well worth a listen. One thing she explains is how parents, without realizing it, rely on teachers’ generous sick days by sending their children to school sick.
About the Catholic teachers
One of the favourite arguments against public teachers right now is, “Catholic teachers agreed to the terms, so they’re obviously fine. The rest of the teachers need to suck it up.”
I can see how folks would think that. Are there any other factors that could be at work here?
What you have to keep in mind is that many Ontarians are currently wondering why we have a publicly-funded school board for Catholics when A) we don’t have that for any other religious group and B) certain teachings of the Catholic church are actually at odds with Canadian law. There are those in the Catholic union (and, similarly, francophone school boards) who believe it would be a bad idea to make waves when it comes to contract negotiations. It is not surprising that Catholic teachers feel the need to, shall we say, pick their battles.
[Update: it has been brought to my attention (thanks, Sarah!) that the agreement between "Catholic teachers" and the government was a basically unilateral action by union leaders, and one that has frustrated many actual Catholic teachers. My apologies for using the term "Catholic teachers" (just like the news media - shame on me!) when it was actually the OECTA president doing the battle-picking... What a pity for both separate and public school teachers.]
Let me be clear: teachers don’t want to go on strike. We dread the idea as much as parents do. Striking is not what we’re here for – it’s boring, unrewarding (financially – since strike pay is terrible – and career-wise), and it messes everything up for the kids, for planning, for report cards… everything. AND it makes people hate us. Trust me, we know this all too well, and we don’t want to do it. But it needs to be an option.
Teachers are the people who spend the time with students; teachers are the ones who truly know what is needed in schools. For the government to say, “Agree to these non-negotiable terms, or we’ll legislate and force you to agree,” is insulting and degrading, not to mention undemocratic. I use this technique with my son sometimes, but he’s three years old (and parenting is not a democracy). Maybe if we were preschoolers, such tactics would go over just fine. As it is… we are not impressed.
I know lots of people have a hate on for unions. Many non-unionized working people think of us as whiny, greedy, unrealistic, and… well, see above. They think we live in a dream world of unreasonable bliss, and that we need to return to the real world with working conditions like regular people have.
“As unions disappear, so do well-paying, secure jobs. When labour is strong, even non-union shops pay well — just to prevent themselves from being organized. When labour is weak, that pressure evaporates.
“As well-paid jobs disappear so does the middle class. A study released this week by the U.S. National Employment Law Project confirms what many suspected: the American jobs being regained since 2008 pay far less than those which were lost.
“Sadly, much of the middle-class doesn’t recognize the role that unions play in keeping everyone’s wages at livable levels. A survey done for Public Response (a spin-off from Ottawa’s Rideau Institute) suggests that about 42 per cent of Canadians think unions do little for society at large.
“Blinkered thinking. We are all paying the price.”
Personally, I would much rather that the working conditions that “regular people” have could progress toward those of unionized workers. Then maybe everyone would be less grumpy.
About vacation time
You’ve probably already heard that A) teachers are not actually paid for the summer, our salary is pro-rated to be distributed evenly throughout the year, and B) most teachers spend a good chunk of their summers working anyway.
Once again, we are well aware of how good we have it when it comes to the amount of vacation time inherent in the system. No complaints there.
But if I’m honest about it, I must admit that I would not be a teacher today without that vacation time. The prospect of summer holidays was the only thing that got me through my first couple of years in the profession. I had some pretty rough jobs at the start, ones that made me feel awful, like a failure, every single day. This is partly because I was a newbie with a lot to learn, and partly because kids, especially in packs, can be brutal. I longed for my old office job in which I only spoke with adults, and we all just did our own work… where we could book an appointment without booking a replacement… where we could take a bathroom break whenever we needed to… I still sometimes long for a job in which the tenor of my day does not depend on large groups of youngsters all dealing with their own individual dramas. All teachers ask themselves, especially in the first few years, “What the f*** was I thinking??? Why did I voluntarily subject myself to this??” Being able to distance oneself from the emotional drain of teaching is the only reason we don’t just burn out in droves every year.
And I must reiterate my point about working conditions and ask why people feel it’s better to aim for the lowest common denominator. Why do you want me to have less vacation time? Why don’t YOU want MORE? I personally think that two weeks of time off out of 52 is not enough for anybody – not even close. Studies show that people are healthier, less stressed, more positive, and more productive when they have more time off to rejuvenate themselves. Everyone deserves decent vacation time.
It’s true: there are lazy teachers in the system. There are bad teachers in the system. (There are duds in most every workplace, so this is not a shock.) In my eight-year teaching career, spanning six different schools, I’ve known a few. They’re teachers who got into the profession for the wrong reasons, people who don’t seem to like children, who don’t have patience for kids’ foibles, who love to complain about how hard the job is. They do as little work as they can get away with. And when I talk with such people, I have the impression that whatever their reasons for becoming teachers, it’s not really worth it for them.
The truth is, the vast majority of teachers I’ve known work really, really hard. They come to work and put on their game face, no matter what they’re dealing with in their personal lives. They spend countless hours outside the school day improving their practice, providing extracurriculars, meeting (and exceeding) government standards.They do their best for every child in their care: the ones who learn almost effortlessly, as well as the ones who never say a word, the ones who haven’t eaten breakfast and have only sugary crap in their lunch, the ones with five-second attention spans, the ones who can’t stop talking, the ones who are relieved to come to school because their home lives are miserable, and the ones who have to be bribed to show up. And they work with parents too – the neglectful, the overprotective, and everyone in between. These teachers are intelligent, creative, caring people who really love kids – your kids. They inspire me every single day. What a shame that they also deal with being called greedy and lazy every time their contracts expire.
About putting kids first
Recently, in The Globe and Mail, Education Minister Laurel Broten was quoted as saying, “I really want to encourage our teachers to put the interests of the students that they have the privilege of teaching every single day first.” In an attempt to invalidate any job action, the Minister has come up with a statement so condescending, it’s almost laughable. Laurel Broten is not a teacher. To say something like that (and many other similar inanities) shows that she doesn’t spend real time in schools, witnessing what teachers do every day, which is: put kids first. Her opinions and wishes, therefore, are irrelevant, except that along with Dalton McGuinty, she apparently has the power to force them upon us.
I have no idea how Broten and McGuinty think they are putting kids first. Unless they think that insulted, disheartened teachers do a better job?
A final word
I know tomorrow is the first day of school (maybe even today by the time you read this), and although I won’t be joining your ranks this year (too busy being hugely pregnant) I’m thinking about you all.
None of us sleeps well the night before the first day of school, but I know you will go into your classrooms determined to be the best teacher you’ve been yet, to reach more children than any other year, to be even more awesome than you’ve been so far.
It’s inevitable that you will have a school year filled with ups and downs, but I know you will weather them with grace.
You will even manage some finesse when faced with ignorant members of the public saying offensive things about you, because it’s apparently part of your job to do so.
You are amazing.
(And remember, Matt Damon loves you. )
UPDATE: This post was written on September 3rd. If you are reading this because you have a concern about teachers’ job action, there is a more recent post here.