Teachers' working conditions are students' learning conditions

On Tuesday night NSTU President Liette Doucette informed 9000 teachers that Oct 25th will be the date they will need to vote to strike or not in response to Education Minister Karen Casey's announcement last Wednesday that her government will not go back to the bargaining table after teachers voted - twice - not to accept the deal put forward by the McNeil Government. If they vote to strike it will be the first-ever, full, across-province strike by teachers.
Coming from a family of teachers, I know how hard teachers work. They are required to spend long hours on top of their teaching time doing extra paperwork, new Report Cards, administrative data entry, and keeping up with constant curriculum changes. Teachers do this on their own time and on their own dime, and these extra duties take time away from their ability to focus on what teachers do best: teach.

In my role as NDP Education Critic teachers have shared their concerns about working conditions with me. They include: data recording, IPPs, smart phones in the classroom, standardized assessment, violence in the school, lack of preparation time, lack of specialists or supports for the classroom teacher, and the need for more class caps.

As Education Critic over the past few years I have seen two very clear themes emerge when it comes to the McNeil Government and Education: in spite of their promises to the contrary, this government is focused strictly on balancing the budget no matter the cost to our schools, staff, teachers - or their rights to collective bargaining.

And they are bullies. Something teachers tell their students not to do. In fact over the past three years I have seen this government bully many hard-working Nova Scotians.
In December, 2015, the Liberals passed the Public Services Sustainability Act, otherwise known as Bill 148. If proclaimed this session, this piece of legislation will impose a four year wage pattern on 75,000 public servants. And shamefully, most of these workers are women: nurses, home care workers, continuing care assistants, long term care workers, and now teachers.
This time, Premier McNeil has been trying to force teachers into taking contracts that freeze wages and cut their Long Term Service Awards without addressing the worsening conditions in the classroom that teachers are now facing.

And lest we forget, teachers' service awards were hard-won during bargaining sessions with the previous Conservative government when they agreed to give up their indexed pensions for a one-time Service Award. And now the McNeil government is trying to take that away too. Both Minister Casey and Premier McNeil have made separate threats that if teachers didn't accept the contract offered they would get a worse offer the next time. This is not what I would call bargaining in good faith. Neither did the teachers as they voted down the contract. Twice.
In a recent survey, 90% of teachers surveyed said they believed hunger was an obstacle to learning in their classrooms. Since the McNeil government came into office in 2013, there are 7500 more people in the province using food banks – a 20% increase - and over 13,000 kids now rely on foodbanks. Students are coming to school with no breakfast, no money for lunch, and no supervision when they return home.

How can children learn on empty stomachs? Wouldn't common sense tell us that hunger likely contributes to behavioural problems in school as well? So naturally teachers, who get to know these students on a personal level, are deeply concerned for their welfare - and many teachers end up spending their own money on food and other personal items for students in need.
Also in order to create individual programming for 'special needs' students, teachers must use hours of their own time and much of their own money to purchase or make special items to engage these students as well. Why should teachers be expected to spend their own money on school supplies? And what is this government doing about reducing poverty or helping low income families afford nutritious food?

Adding to many teachers workloads, the Halifax School Board recently welcomed over 300 Syrian children spread across 30 schools. While this shows a wonderful warmth of spirit and inclusiveness by our communities, the impacts of war and forced migration are going to impact these children for years to come, and teachers need appropriate assistance including more English tutors, mental health experts, and cultural advisers.
These are just some of the concerns I have heard from teachers who devote their lives to the youth of this province - spending days and nights coming up with ways to inspire our children and grandchildren in order to thrive, and expand their minds and horizons in a rapidly changing world.

We need to all realize that the classrooms of today are not the same as the classrooms most of us remember from 20 years ago or more. So wipe out the image of the old blackboard and chalk where an entire class learns the same lesson at the same time. Instead imagine 10 different lesson plans being taught by one teacher to 25 to 40 students at a time. And then multiply that by several daily classes plus tests, voluntary afterschool and lunchtime activities, followed by daily data entry, homework preparation, marking, and reports.

And that doesn't include the urgent issues that occur on a daily basis in the average school, including sudden outbursts of violence, more lockdowns and security threats, and the emotional challenges of today's average student population - many of whom appear to be suffering from greater anxiety, depression and addiction issues than ever before.
Teachers in Nova Scotia are doing their best. They are standing up for high quality public education and for the ways and means they know are necessary in order for them to provide students with the best education they can in spite of so many increased challenges.

Let's stand with our teachers, and let them know we support them.
Remember this: teachers' working conditions are our students' learning conditions. Let's improve both. Our students — and our teachers — are worth it.

Lenore Zann, MLA
Truro-Bible Hill-Millbrook-Salmon River
212-35 Commercial St.
Truro, NS B2N 3H9
1-902-897-9266
Fax: 902-897-1841
Email: lenorezannmla@bellaliant.com
www.mlalenorezann.ca