Public education is being dismantled

This is my anniversary. This year marks 20 years that I have been a teacher, something that I have wanted to do as a profession and have had a calling to do for my entire life. Teaching runs in my family from my dad and mom to relatives, and I married into a family that has two tables full of teachers at our extended family dinners. I even have an essay that I wrote in Grade 5 where I talk about becoming a teacher, and, yes, I still have it because it meant so much to me.

So, when I talk about the dismantling of public education in British Columbia, please understand that I am discussing it from a place of lived experience as I have given my heart, my time, my energy and my passion to teaching for the last 20 years.

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Teachers in British Columbia today are demoralized and feeling profoundly disrespected. The system over the last 10 years has been cut to the bone, and it cannot be sustained for much longer. Teachers, support staff and administrators have been carrying the system for a decade now and we are tired. If you say otherwise, I can only assume that you either do not have a child in the public education system or you are choosing not to see what is in front of you because it conflicts with your political belief system.

There are so many untruths out there about our profession (just read the comments under any news article) that it is hard to know where to begin to counter them. And when teachers do try to counter them, we are accused of whining or being self-serving. It's a difficult position to traverse in any meaningful way. So, instead, I will talk about my lived experience and ask some pointed questions in the hope that it resonates with readers in some way.

* A teacher's education: I have seven years of post-secondary education, and this is not unusual for teachers. My solid education has enabled me to feel confident enough to have helped to write curriculum resources, create a locally developed course, work as a school and faculty associate mentoring student teachers, deliver professional development workshops and organize professional conferences. Am I supposed to feel like a greedy person because I would like to keep up with the cost of living and keep at par salary-wise with my colleagues across Canada? Don't we want well-educated professionals teaching our children? If we do not pay a wage on par with other professionals, how will we attract the type of people we want to teach our children?

* A teacher's time: My average day, helping students, prepping, marking, sponsoring clubs, attending meetings, engaging in professional conversations, writing and returning emails, developing units, writing reference letters, planning and attending events and the like, makes my average work day about 10 to 12 hours. I try to limit myself to a half day's work on the weekend, but I know many teachers who do not. This does not include the "extras" that teachers do that might include weekend professional development, field experiences or enrichment opportunities such as spring break trips with children. This is not an unusual work schedule, nor is it a complaint. I love the enrichment opportunities I create for my students and I love my summers off with my children. In essence, I work a condensed work year, 10 to 12 hours a day, and have extra holidays as compensation. Children need their summers. Teachers do, too.

Teachers did not create this existing linear timetable, and some schools do not use it anymore, but there is something to be said for children having the summer off to be, well, carefree children. And anyone who begrudges a teacher this time has had no experience working with classes full of children for almost 200 days of a year. Again, not a complaint, just a reality of the daily grind of a high-energy job. Don't we want teachers to engage in the coaching, volunteering, sponsoring, and enrichment opportunities that support our children? Don't we need to give teachers the time they need to be able to think and create unit and lesson plans in a meaningful way? How can we expect teachers (and it is expected) to do all this extra work without acknowledging it in some way?

* A teacher's classroom: It is no exaggeration to say that this generation's classroom is not the one that you knew as a child. Anyone with children in public education knows this. Teaching today is a complex venture with many acronyms that require time and attention: IEPs, I reports, SLPS, DPA, LSS, ELL ... the list goes on of adaptations and modifications teachers make to help ensure student success. Many of the processes behind these acronyms are additional ways to support learning, but they nonetheless take time for a teacher to manage. Few of these existed with formalized paperwork and procedures in the time you went to school.

Compounding this in British Columbia is a staggering amount of hidden (and not-so-hidden) child poverty and all the socioeconomic complexities that come with it. With counsellor time cut in the schools (some schools have gotten rid of counsellors altogether), teachers spend much more time trying to help students socially and emotionally than they did even a decade ago. Massive cutbacks in non-enrolling teachers (counsellors, librarians, resource) take supports away from the students who need them most.

Teachers have twice won court rulings in the B.C. Supreme Court about our working conditions. This is also our children's learning conditions. Why are we increasing class size and class composition when we know this does not positively support our children's learning and development? How can we possibly justify this knowing that it hinders the learning of those who need the most help, the most vulnerable and needy learners in our classrooms?

* A teacher's school: Just as a teacher's classroom has become so much more complex and challenging, so too have the school dynamics. Drastic cutbacks to support staff over the last decade have affected both administrators and teachers. The off-loading of clerical work has meant more administrative work for everyone in the schools. This is coupled with a growing pressure to gather "data" and "quantitative and qualitative evidence" within schools to support district paperwork without extra time to do so.

Custodial cutbacks have also meant that schools are much dirtier than in years past, and when support staff and custodians are sick they are often not replaced right away. In some districts they have gotten rid of daytime custodians altogether.

School PACs have become the place to find funding for the technology, field experiences and odds and sods that used to be covered by a well-funded public education system. Fundraisers abound at schools now as parents and their PACs try to compensate for the ever-growing holes in the system.

Most disturbing, though, is the time and energy put into "marketing" public schools now. Neighbourhood schools cannot merely be good, solid places to educate children. They must have niches now, be dual track, fine arts, international student havens (and the big money that comes with them), outdoor ed, sports-oriented, or immersion specialty schools meant to attract out of catchment students at someone else's expense. It pits one school against another in competition for the funding dollars that come with the student, one district against another to the detriment of all.

Lastly, costs keep being off-loaded onto individual school districts. A zero increase budget in education means de facto cuts to our schools. Increasing hydro bills, supply costs, off-loaded seismic upgrade costs, etc. come from existing pools of money. What other system do you know of that relies so heavily on fundraising and goodwill? How deep do the cutbacks have to go in schools before the system topples? Is the long-term goal of the government to get rid of local school boards by putting inordinate pressure on them? What's really going on here?

* The bigger picture: The time has come, folks, to take a stand about what is happening to our public education system. I could spout out a lot of statistics, but each side has been doing that, and quite frankly, I am tired of turning our children's educational experience into a percentage or a graph. It makes it too easy to forget that we're talking about our loved ones. The B.C. Teachers' Federation has become a target to poke at in large part because it is the only real threat (or opposition) that the Liberal government has nowadays. It is time to get past the rhetoric, get to the realities and stop letting people who have their own children in private school destroy our public education system.

You know what is happening in our schools, you feel the unease. You see the bags under the eyes of your child's teacher and her administrator. You feel the stress and tension permeating out of them. You know.

Please do something about it right now. We are at the precipice, the tipping point, whatever you want to call it. If you value a healthy public education (and I think most Canadians do), it is time to start speaking up and having those potentially difficult but necessary conversations.

British Columbia has one of the best public education systems around, and we even sell our Dogwoods to other places in the world. The chronic underfunding of our public education system is pushing families to private schools, and that the exact reason for the underfunding.

The privatization of education in British Columbia will enshrine and ensure the continuation and the exacerbation of classism in British Columbia. Those who have money will have the best of everything schooling has to offer, and those who cannot afford it will go to a barebones, stripped version of what used to be our robust public education system.

As with most important things, we start with taking a breath and then 20 seconds of courage to forge ahead. So, please, take that breath, then take that one minute of time and sign a petition. Five minutes of time and phone a politician. Ten minutes of time and write a letter to Education Minister Peter Fassbender. Take an afternoon over the next couple of weeks, pick up a placard and protest with your child's teacher. This is it, folks. It's now or it's gone. Public education in British Columbia is being dismantled quite deliberately by this government, and it is time to stop it.  

Elizabeth Byrne-Lo is a B.C. teacher.

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