The following opinion piece was written by Sachin Maharaj, and published in the Toronto Star on October 5, 2015.
Why won’t elementary teachers just agree to the deal accepted by Ontario’s other teachers? For one, their jobs are harder.
Elementary teachers in Ontario have stepped up their work-to-rule campaign and are no longer regularly communicating with parents, updating websites and blogs, and will not be attending parent-teacher interviews. This is on top of the previous job action that saw an end to field trips and report card comments. But why doesn’t the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) just agree to the deal that was accepted by Ontario’s other teacher unions?
Part of the reason is that teaching at the elementary level is unique. Whereas high school students are learning mainly content, kids at the elementary level are learning how to learn, social skills, emotional regulation, and a host of other things, in addition to whatever the subject area may happen to be. And even when it comes to subject areas, elementary teachers teach their students a range of subjects like English, math and science, whereas high school teachers typically teach in just one subject area.
Outside of the classroom, elementary teachers also do a range of other activities. This includes regularly communicating with parents, meeting with colleagues and administration, organizing school assemblies and events, planning field trips, maintaining up-to-date student records, as well as running student clubs and extracurricular activities. But elementary teachers are given very little preparation time to do all of this, which is one of the big disparities in the way teachers are treated between the elementary and high school level.
In an average week, elementary teachers receive over two hours less preparation time than their high school colleagues, even though they arguably have a much more complex job. The reason for this is both historical and sexist. Historically, elementary teachers were typically women and high school teachers were predominantly men.
So for mostly reasons of gender discrimination, pay and working conditions in elementary schools tended to be much poorer than those in high schools, a legacy that continues to this day.
And while it was argued at the time that teaching at the high school level was more complex and required greater skill, we now know that the educational experiences that students receive in the earlier grades are far more consequential for their development and life outcomes. If anything, it probably makes sense for pay and working conditions in elementary schools to be even better than those in high schools. So perhaps it is understandable that elementary teachers are attempting to address these inequities.
Parents are understandably anxious and frustrated by these disruptions, but it is important to put them into context.
In labour negotiations such as these, the government holds all the power. If teachers strike, they can legislate them back to work. Or instead of negotiating, they can just impose contracts directly on teachers, which is what happened back in 2012. So the reality is that job actions such as these are one of the only ways that teacher unions can try to fight for improved working conditions in schools.
It is also important for parents and members of the public to consider the alternative. And if you want to see what that looks like, just look south of the border. In about a third of American states, teachers possess no collective bargaining rights whatsoever, and in many others they are so weak that teachers cannot effectively take any job action. And what is the result? A nationwide teacher shortage. In the absence of collective bargaining, pay and working conditions in many parts of the U.S. are so poor that nobody wants to go into teaching.
So while parents here are frustrated by the disruptions in our schools, parents in the U.S. face the prospect of their children being taught by unqualified teachers with little or no training. But here in Ontario, teacher unions have been able to fight for good pay and working conditions, which is why we are continually able to attract talented people into the profession, which in turn has produced one of the highest performing education systems in the world. That’s worth keeping in mind.
Sachin Maharaj is a PhD student in educational policy at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and a teacher in the Toronto District School Board.