On March 12, the Annual Meeting of Provincial Assembly elected Harvey Bischof as the 66th President of OSSTF/FEESO. A teacher from District 13, Durham, Harvey is a veteran of the Provincial Executive. Having spent four years as an Executive Officer and another six years as a Vice President, he is, in his own words, “as well prepared as anybody could ask to be, in terms of experience, to take on the challenge of being President.”
He remembers his time as a secondary student at Dunbarton High School in Pickering with fondness: “It was a great experience for me. I loved high school. I ran track and played on the soccer team. Academically I was equally interested in the humanities, English in particular, and in the maths and sciences. I had so many really good teachers, people who were rich in subject knowledge but who also really connected with their students. One of them, my grade 9 and 11 English teacher, remains a close friend of mine to this day.”
“I knew all along that I wanted to be a high school English teacher. But when I graduated high school in 1982, teaching jobs were scarce, so I enrolled in the Applied Physics co-op program in Waterloo. When job opportunities proved scarce there too, I switched to English at Trent and eventually did my Master and Bachelor of Education at Queen’s University.”
Like many teacher candidates, Harvey has mixed feelings about his time in the education faculty. “What I felt we really needed was classroom management skills, things we’d be able to use when we walked into a class. There was some useful instruction in terms of designing lessons, but too much that was not connected to the classroom reality. What I loved, though, were the practicums. I endured my first weeks at the faculty and then, the first day I got into the classroom, I knew absolutely that I had made the right choice in pursuing a teaching career. I had known before that—in a kind of theoretical way—that I liked teenagers and I cared about helping them and educating them, but it was only theoretical until I got there, and then it became so real to me just how much I really did care.”
Before even graduating from Queen’s Faculty of Education, Harvey was quickly pool hired by the Durham District School Board. “The Durham board showed up at the faculty, they did interviews, and at the end of the interview they said, sign here, you’re hired and you’re guaranteed a job in September. I didn’t even have to walk out of the building and wait to hear back from them. That was January, and I knew I had a job waiting for me in September. I never forget how different it is for new graduates now.”
Looking back, Harvey reflects positively on his time in the classroom. “I miss working with kids, for sure. I miss the opportunity to help students. You know you don’t reach all of them, and different teachers reach different kids, but for whatever reason there are always some kids that you personally are able to reach and you can’t always predict who it’s going to be. You watch them grow even within the short space of a semester. Or sometimes, because you’ve had them in grade 9 and again in a later grade, you can chart their growth over a longer period. It’s hard to imagine anything more rewarding.”
Extracurriculars were also a big part of Harvey’s teaching life. “I coached boys’ hockey, boys’ soccer, girls’ soccer and track and field. I supervised a writing club, among other things. There was one year when I coached girls’ soccer in the fall, then there was an overlap with boys’ hockey in the winter, and then there was another overlap with boys’ soccer in the spring. I just sort of threw myself into it. In the end I swore that I would never again coach three sports in one year on top of a full slate of English classes, but I loved being involved.”
“I used to tell people all the time, a decade into my teaching career, that I’m as lucky as they get when it comes to having picked a job because I never go to work not wanting to be in the classroom and work with the kids.”
As fortunate as Harvey felt in his teaching career, trouble was looming and it would bring significant changes to his path. When Mike Harris attacked educators and proposed sweeping changes to the entire system, Harvey disagreed but endured. However, when he was told that he was now expected to teach four out of four classes a day, Harvey had had enough. “I said something has to be done, who’s fighting this? And it was the union that was fighting it. The first thing I did was volunteer to be a picket captain during the political protest of 1997. The next year I ran and became Branch President.”
After the two-week protest, most of the school boards in the province found ways to avoid forcing teachers to teach four out of four, but the Durham board dug its heels in. In 1998, Harvey’s Bargaining Unit went on strike. “We were out for three weeks before we were legislated back to work. When I heard that the legislation had passed, I remember actually sitting down and crying because I knew the school system that I loved working in was going to be utterly, utterly damaged by this. And it was. I went back to school the next day and taught four classes, three English and a Math. And it was brutal. I mean, many of my colleagues were dropping. And because my union was the one resisting, I thought this is where I’m going to attach myself. And the more I did, the more I realized it just accorded with things I already believed in.”
So out of this turmoil came Harvey’s engagement in his local union. The next year he was elected to the local executive as Vice President, all the while continuing to serve his school colleagues as Branch President. He was then hired as their Chief Negotiator, a position he held for four years before he was elected president of District 13, Durham.
After a year as local president, Harvey took his second run at Provincial Executive, successfully becoming an Executive Officer. Four years later he was elected Vice President.
“It’s quite a learning curve when you get onto the Provincial Executive, it’s enormously steep. Especially coming out of Durham, which only has teacher members. You need to quickly grasp the complexity of the organization, its geography, the fact that every local does things a bit differently, the various organizations with which we are involved such as the Ontario Teachers Insurance Plan (OTIP) and Educators Financial Group and the Ontario Teachers’ Federation (OTF), as well as the broader labour movement. It’s been a steep learning curve but I feel that I’ve at least had a pretty thorough opportunity to absorb all of that.”
One of the more rewarding opportunities for Harvey has been his involvement from day one on the Equity Work Group. “I was assigned to chair the work group after an AMPA motion passed to create a self-identification survey of the membership—and I was perhaps an interesting choice as a straight, white, middle-aged male—but I learned so much and became really, really attached to that work. I like to think that I’ve become a committed ally to the equity work that our Federation does. I learned about the obstacles and barriers that some people face, issues I had not been conscious of because I come from a place of privilege. And it was eye-opening to discover the extent to which I come from that privilege, and to acknowledge that I’d never had to walk into a Federation event and wonder whether I would be welcome there as some people do.”
Harvey admits that he is perhaps most comfortable in roles where he can use his collective bargaining skills. “I’ve been at the table as a Resumption Chair within the school board sector many times, and in the university sector as well. As chair, I took a couple of university Bargaining Units to their first ever strike votes. We helped them, I think, mature as Bargaining Units and recognize the effectiveness and the power that they had by taking strong positions. We have a long history of bargaining effectively for our membership, and by bargaining effectively we protect the quality of public education. And I’m proud of that fact. Had there been a conflict between union rights and quality of education, I don’t know how I would have resolved that in my own mind. But I never had to face that conflict because, by advancing the interests of our members, we’ve also always advanced the quality of education. I’ve always found it interesting that our members insist that we bargain on behalf of their ability to do their jobs well. Our members insist that we try to secure for them the ability to do the best possible job that they can for the students that they work with.”
Harvey sees both challenges and opportunities ahead for bargaining. “I think we’re in the midst of one of those transformational times in the union. There was a time in the past when we were legislatively barred from bargaining working conditions; yet at some point we rebelled against that and took the reins and said no, we demand to bargain working conditions as well. There has been employer and governmental opposition to us bargaining provisions around our professional practice in the past, but I think we cracked that nut for the first time in the last round of central bargaining when we achieved language regarding assessment, evaluation and reporting. We also got PPM 159 on collaborative professionalism, and as much as I find the bureaucratic language troubling, at its core it is a very valuable idea that we need to inculcate into the culture of what we do in every school board Bargaining Unit in the province. If we’re going to advance our members’ ability to exercise their professionalism, we’re going to do it through the union. We’re going to do it through negotiations and contract maintenance. In the midst of all of this, in an environment militating against it, we need to focus on supporting and nurturing strong local Bargaining Units. We will only continue to build a strong union if we do so on the foundation of local strength.”
When asked to single out a specific Federation initiative he is proud of, Harvey says, “even though it was long before my time, the fact that we decided to become a union of educators and not teachers alone is very important to me. Our diversity across the public education sector in Ontario makes OSSTF/FEESO an important voice in this province. It opens doors when we go to talk to the government, because we represent members from JK to university. I think the fact that people within OSSTF/FEESO thirty years ago had the foresight to begin that organizing, and the place it’s led us to now, has contributed so much to the Federation’s character and what we stand for as a union.”
Harvey Bischof’s term as president begins July 1, 2017.