At risk of giving him more attention than he deserves, I begin by quoting our friend Brian Lilley of the Toronto Sun in a column from April of this year:
It may not be the talking points that teachers’ unions want to put out, but teachers’ salaries have increased while student enrolment and student performance have both fallen. It’s time to fix the system. Where were the unions in protesting the failing math curriculum that saw students fall further behind over the last 10 years? They were silent. The unions only came to life once their revenue was threatened, once it became a possibility that they would have fewer dues-paying members.
The problem, of course, is that Lilley is not uniquely ignorant about the true nature of education unions in general and OSSTF/FEESO in particular (including the various kinds of educators we represent); his ignorance is shared with some portion of Ontarians.
The reality is that our union cares deeply about the quality of education in this province because our members care. Our members—support staff and teachers—work every day to provide the best possible opportunities for the students they serve, and they insist that the union bargain for conditions that will allow them to do their best.
Look at Nicole Charron’s article, “How students learn: How I teach,” in this issue to get a sense of how educators approach their work. Nicole is an OSSTF/FEESO member who is driven to improve. She clearly wants what is best for her students. Although she doesn’t speak in the article to what motivates her, it seems overwhelmingly evident that she wants nothing more than to give her students the best education she can. And Nicole and her fellow members can and do look to their union for support.
OSSTF/FEESO has long supported members in their efforts to pursue professional development (PD). Member-designed and member-delivered professional development has been a Federation specialty for years. And members regularly tell us that it is the best PD they ever get. Where possible, we have negotiated control of PD days to ensure our members get access to high quality PD. We have negotiated language in the teacher central agreement to ensure that educator professional judgment is respected in matters of assessment, evaluation, and reporting. We have repeatedly, over the years, negotiated improvements in supports for students through increases in the critical support staff who give so many students an equitable chance at success.
In some theoretical way, it would be entirely legitimate to go to the bargaining table with demands for improved compensation and benefits, and let school boards and government insist on higher staffing levels, smaller class sizes, and other supports for students that raise education quality. Realistically, though, that has never been who we are as a union because our members’ interests have never been that narrow. Nor has their pursuit of continuous improvement been confined to the bargaining table. And, just as Nicole describes herself doing, we are engaging the evidence.
Because of the infinite complexity arising from human interaction, education will always be part art, part intuition, about the best approach in any given circumstance. But there is a growing body of evidence that provides what I would describe not as certainties but best odds for success in any given circumstance. At the intersection of art and science is where educator
Even while under attack by a short-sighted and destructive government, we support members as professionals. To raise just a few examples: We will once again lend a hand in presenting, in May next year, a researchED conference, bringing together practicing educators and researchers in relevant fields. We are currently working with John Mighton and JUMP Math on a pilot project to see if there is something of interest in that approach for our members. We are in the process of creating a work shop to introduce interested members to the field of cognitive science and its intersection with education and pedagogy.
In other words, we may not protest (as Lilley suggests) when we identify an area for improvement in the education system, we just forge ahead, offering our members the supports they want so that they can do what is best for the students they serve every single day. That will always make me proud of my union and its members.