Sean Casey, 16, rallied with his fellow Citadel students on Friday, December 2, to support their teachers.

It’s been a full week since the Liberal caucus revolt Stephen McNeil insists never happened; since Education Minister Karen Casey’s 180-degree, we-must-close-all-the-schools-right-now-to-protect-student-safety/no-we-will-reopen-all-the-schools-tomorrow-to-protect-our-government’s future; since the government called its special session of the House of Assembly to pass legislation to impose a rejected contract on the province’s 9,300 teachers, then sent the MLAs home with nothing more than a per diem for time served and a legislation-what-legislation/what-me-worry public shrug; and since the premier’s own bizarre where’s-Stephen disappearing act in the midst of that massive Monday meltdown…

It was a week.

Today, Nova Scotia’s education system is back to what passes for its new normal. Teachers are teaching in their classrooms, but otherwise working to the letter of their contracts. They are no longer supervising breakfast programs, orchestrating children’s Christmas concerts, advising political science clubs, organizing International Baccalaureate volunteer credits, chaperoning high school dances, coordinating educational co-ops, coaching school sporting teams, offering one-to-one extra help after class. All those myriad and meaningful duties teachers used to perform, but for which they are not paid, have been cancelled while the government and the Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union attempt to negotiate a new contract.

But the two sides are not negotiating a new contract; they are not, so far as we know, even speaking. So we are no closer to a resolution of the current contract dispute, or even back to what once passed for fair collective bargaining.

Worse, the current dispute is far from the worst of it. We have not yet begun to deal with the larger issues that plague our public school system.

In my role as a university professor, I occasionally visit classrooms to talk with students about journalism, writing, current events, their own career hopes and dreams. Those brief forays into the P-12 school system have given me some modest appreciation for the incredible work the best of our teachers do, and the increasingly difficult circumstances in which they do it.

Our education system has become obsessed with “outcomes,” and with often questionable testing to measure those outcomes and then judge teachers’ competency based on them. And teachers no longer teach a class of students, but a collection of complexities: students with dramatically different abilities and interests, students with special needs, students on individualized learning programs with individual expectations, students who don’t speak English as a first, or second, or any language, students who are occasionally violent… And they do it all with little in the way of support.

At the same time, teachers must also attempt to respond empathetically to their students’ diverse cultural and economic backgrounds, mental health issues, family dynamics and demands… all while feeding a never-sated data maw that continuously demands from them new and different, often contradictory information, in order to collect whatever it is the powers-that-are require them to measure this year — data that will almost certainly be rendered irrelevant and outdated as soon as the next new shiny data star-point is discovered.

And, oh yes, teachers must keep up with the latest developments in their own specialties as well as trends in pedagogy while continuing to teach the latest, ever-evolving curriculum to their students, and still find time to volunteer for all those extra-curricular activities that make school an enriching  and meaningful experience for their students.

The current dispute between teachers and the province is, of course, in part about pay and benefits. How could it not be? But it is also clearly about much more than that.

How else to explain the reality teachers — members of the “good” union the government had once depended on to docilely set the stage for its more draconian plans for other, more militant public sector workers — have not only twice voted overwhelmingly to reject tentative agreements their own negotiating team had reluctantly recommended to them, but also voted 96 per cent in favour of job action to demonstrate their frustration in the only way that seems left to them?

These days, there is no light at the end of the education tunnel.

Sometimes, there does not even seem to be a tunnel.

Stephen Kimber

Stephen Kimber is an award-winning writer, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A journalist for more than 50 years whose work has appeared in most Canadian newspapers and magazines, he is the author of...

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  1. You might want to mention that teachers make well above the provincial average wage, have total job security, two months off in the summer and great pensions.

    If teachers are so hard done by why don’t they quit? Walmart’s always looking for people.

    1. Why shouldn’t a highly trained professional make above the provincial average in salary?

      Total job security? Are you aware of annual surplus to the system determinations that result in an increasing number of teachers losing their jobs each year as larger class sizes are negotiated and course selections are reduced? Did I hear you say seniority? How many salaried & skilled jobs don’t have some sort of seniority structure to preserve the skill set? Protection of incompetent teachers? Prove their incompetence and act on it. There IS a process.Try getting rid of an incompetent enginer/ lawyer/ busdriver /city worker / nurse…

      Two months off in the summer? There have been a number of educational theory based initiatives related to optimal learning conditions which propose abandonment of the old agriculture driven model of the school year. Note- this school year was never mandated BY teachers but by social / economic conditions. Every time, changes are proposed, they are rejcted by parents because many people still want their holidays in the summer & want to spend them with their children. Parents of older students want them to work. For many, it reduces daycare costs when an older sibling or neighbourhood kid can babysit. European models such as five weeks in school then two weeks off are consistently rejected in North America as too disruptive to parents’ work schedules. Meanwhile, parents who have the luxury of scheduling their own holidays think nothing of pulling their kids out of school when it suits them AND expect teachers to prepare take along catch-up assignments that, in my experience, were seldom completed and seldom with any kind of quality.

      Great pensions? Any public sector worker has a great pension BUT modern collective bargaining is chipping away at historical gains. It’s part of the cycle. Fifty years ago, teachers did not have great pensions. The forecast is not great for teachers in the future. Are you happy now?

      Why don’t they just quit? Why don’t doctors and nurses and police officers and firefighters and fishers and amed forces personel and social workers just quit? And if they did go to work at Walmart, you can bet that they would go above and beyond the call of duty there too!

      1. Teachers make lot of money, have great job security and not a whole lot of training. It’s easy to get a degree in education. Ask a teacher.

        I used to do a newsletter on education According to a very qualified education expert i once intgerviewed, there is a raging debate on whether to eliminate Grades 7-9 entirely since hormones make kids unteachable at that age. So why don’t they? Because parents would have to stay home and babysit their kids. Junior high is babysitting.

        The education students I met in university are emphatically not the people you describe as going above and beyond the call of duty at Walmart. Those people were looking for secure, well-paid jobs.

        I don’t have anything against teacher earning huge salaries, gold-plated pensions and five-hour days, as long as that is part of the debate. Personally I don’t think teachers are worth what we pay them. I do think education is important, even vital. But teachers don’t necessarily have a lot to do with education. We need to re-evaluate.

    2. Where to start? So ill-informed and such a stereotypical response as a result. Please educate yourself. Consider the result if NO one decided to be a teacher because the work conditions are so onerous. Consider one of the previous comments that outline what all teachers deal with on a daily basis – an overcrowded classroom consisting of a group of diverse students with many different requirements for their learning due to physical, mental or logistical restrictions. Unlike your days in school, children with disabilities, mental health concerns, and cultural limitations are now the norm in the classroom. Many will have individual learning programs. Teachers no longer stand at front of classroom and teach a lesson. They still attempt to do that but now there are adjustments to be made for those kids with individual plans, those who have dyslexia, those with anxiety issues, those who have ADHD, those who don’t speak English well or just barely, those who are autistic. I could go on but you get the picture. Now add to this the constant requirements to input data about each student into different systems, administer tests, mark tests, and do individual assessments on the students to inform the DOE about the progress each kid is making in certain disciplines like English and math. These are just a few examples of what your “overpaid” teacher is dealing with. I haven’t bothered with extra help outside of classroom or the coaching, meeting with parents, counselling, chaperoning etc because that is not a part of their job. Government is creating a situation with teachers wherein burnout is becoming a serious issue. They offer little to no support for the situation they have created taking advantage of the commitment most teachers have to their children. This is our future. The future leaders, doctors, engineers, scientists, etc. that society depends upon. Your specious comments denigrates the seriousness of this problem and is unhelpful.

  2. In principle, I can’t see a problem in measuring outcomes. In practice, I’ll bet the problem is deciding what outcomes to measure and how to measure them.

    1. I feel like our school system has been doing this for a while, tho. I agree that big data can be pretty useful. It’s really how we interpret and respond to it. I would love to see what direct impact this data has had on the curriculum over the past 2 or 5 years. Or, is our school system responding too dramatically to small trends? If you’re plugging data in every day, you can have a system that responds too drastically to a temporary hiccup in the system. I would suspect great, positive changes to the system could be achievable if teachers were asked to do data entry only once or twice a month.

      Just as an aside: nurses were waylaid with this task about four years ago under a system called Emerald. We were told that the system was supposed to identify what workplaces required more or less help in relation to the acuity of their patient populations. I was initially excited about this because the unit I was on had a high acuity level in a couple different areas (pain control requirements, nutritional support, adverse post-surgical outcomes to name a few). I also knew a couple of my peers who volunteered to meet with the software designers to put this together, so I thought the results would be a pretty accurate measure of the amount of effort each nurse would have spent on any given day. The result: managers and directors didn’t use the data for anything. In fact most managers refused to believe that their staff were working as much as they noted in the system. Staff subsequently stopped doing it in the QE2.

      I’ve heard the system itself cost $3-million to acquire, install, fine tune, and run. I check on it last week. It’s completely abandoned.