It’s getting harder, these days, to think about writing anything strictly local. It seems that world events, or even just national, or provincial events, keep breaking in to every conversation, every element of daily life in North Grenville, or Merrickville-Wolford. The world intrudes into the news, social life, and, of course, social media. The municipal council can do wondrous things, or terrible things, and few people would pay much attention. They’re too preoccupied with the Coronavirus, rail line blockades, provincial strikes by teachers, and so many other issues that affect us here.
The teachers’ strikes have shown a different side of political life in Ontario. Gradually increasing in scope and frequency, they have been a genuine problem for parents, as children remain at home and have to be cared for, watched and entertained. At first, it was relatively easy to deal with the unscheduled holidays from school, they were in the same category as snow days. But the escalation has raised the stakes for everyone, and the attitude of the relevant government minister has hardly made the atmosphere conducive to positive talks.
At first, Stephen Lecce, Minister of Education, tried to alienate public support from the unions by promising money, not to the teachers, but to parents to help pay for daycare. That may have helped a little, but it didn’t have the impact for which he must have hoped. The unions continued to escalate their actions, trying to force the Minister to negotiate.
The Minister’s next gambit was to portray the teachers as uncaring of their responsibilities, willing to allow students to suffer educational decline, rather than discuss matters reasonably. But it needs to be remembered that there had been lots of time, even before these strikes began, to talk and come to a reasonable solution. In December of last year, the four main teachers unions had warned that they would go to court to question the validity of the government’s Bill 124, which restricted all increases in public servant wages to 1% per year for three years. This, the unions claimed, was an illegal denial of their right to collective bargaining.
Things just got worse, until all four unions ended up walking out in selective one-day stoppages. Stephen Lecce took the usual tack that these were unfair to students, parents, a denial of the proper duty teachers owed to their charges, and generally portraying the teachers as irresponsible.
Now, I am absolutely sure that many people share the views of a recent letter writer in this paper, that: “The teachers are again on strike when they already have great salaries, benefits, pensions, early retirement, and summer holidays that last for two months. Oh right, it’s about the students. So much for public “service”. Looks like self-service to me.” This seems a fairly balanced view of the matter, doesn’t it? Maybe not.
Teachers have a very high level of job stress, and if you have had to deal with even your own children in a confined space for hours at a time, five days a week, you might understand why that is. For years, we have taken away any means of control that teachers have recourse to in keeping a classroom relatively conducive to learning. Men and women are afraid to say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, or even look the wrong way at students, in case they are called to account and penalised, thus lessening their authority in the classroom even further.
I am very far from being in favour of the “good old days”, I clearly remember being strapped an average of every second day I was in school. And I was relatively well behaved! But education in Ontario has been completely transformed over the decades, and not always in a good way. Too often, we can mourn the loss of basic literacy skills, even the ability to count, divide, or multiply without the use of an electronic device. Schools are often forced to cater to the common denominator, leaving those who are relatively gifted, and those who are having a hard time, alone and left to their own devices.
This government has been messing around with class sizes, the curriculum in different subjects, and this has not helped teachers do their job properly. Whatever his personal opinion, comments like this from Stephen Lecce, “We want a deal that keeps students in class. Strikes by the teachers’ unions have resulted in millions of student days lost. Days where students should have been in class preparing for math tests, practising for hockey games or music competitions, and learning the skills needed to succeed in their educational journey and beyond”, just don’t seem to be in accord with actions and policies on education that his government has been pursuing. This goes beyond wages and conditions: it is about a deeper malaise in public education in Ontario that needs to be addressed quickly.