Then there’s the Union. This is a ticklish one. I was raised Socialist the way some people are raised Catholic. In light of this, I’m going to choose my words extremely carefully, and even so, I’ll probably screen my calls for the next little while. So first, I’d like to say, “I know.” I know the union is the reason that we were making $45/ hour when some private schools were offering minimum wage. I know that it’s good to feel that there’s someone who has your back if you are being treated unfairly. I know and I’m grateful, but still… It’s not that the union shelters bad teachers (I’ll leave that argument to my colleagues on the right.) It’s that it has difficulty encouraging good teachers. I’ll try to explain why. Union collective agreements enshrine our right not to do more than we are hired to do, and that makes sense. The problem is that policies like that tend to create a sense of the lowest common denominator. Let’s take the example of DM, one of the Overland legends. DM would sing The Red River Valley with his class before afternoon break. https://youtu.be/z1-QLr6aBaw At the end of year picnic, he would travel to the event in his handmade canoe and then give students rides around the island.
Now, if there were a policy passed demanding that we all provided those services to the students, it would be absurd. We of course would be up in arms. As for the students, if I tried to replicate either of these it would be disastrous: the first would merely constitute cruelty, but the second would definitely expose me to legal action. There is no way to make those sessions part of the standard syllabus. Still, I have a feeling that the Canadian folk songs and handmade canoe represent where Dennis lives as a teacher.* What I’m saying, I guess, is that a collective agreement standardizes job descriptions while the things that make us who we are as teachers lie outside that standardization. I suppose it all comes back to the at school/at the school conversation. The most controversial product of the collective agreement was the seniority list. Teachers originally asked for this, and it does make sense. Otherwise, long-standing teachers lose their jobs when a class closes. Nobody wants a flood of fortysomethings released into the job market, especially if they have few transferable skills (unless someone wants a quick active/passive sentence transformation). At the same time, there’s no denying that it is demoralizing for newer teachers (and the hiring policies have created a situation where people stay new teachers for a very long time). I salute those guys, who keep on doing what they do from year to year, never knowing in June where they will end up in September, building up their rapport with the class, only to be moved on if a more senior teacher applies for the job. So for teachers, I guess it comes down on the side of a necessary evil: it’s probably the system that keeps the maximum number of us employed for the longest time. For students, though, the bumping system is definitely unwelcome. As I have said before, the big centres have powerful institutional memory: friends tell friends about such and such a class; a teacher’s methods and idiosyncrasies become part of the lore of the immigrant communities. When the established teacher doesn’t return in September (or sometimes even vanishes in the middle of the year), students are confused and angry. And why shouldn’t they be? Nobody has consulted them. Often classes get together a petition and bring it to the site manager or program officer, but he or she is unable to take their wishes into account. This further highlights their sense that student needs are not considered important. Frustrated and resentful, they are not primed to be receptive to their new instructor, and they often drift away from the class, and perhaps from English lessons altogether. So yes, unions do make things fairer, and they do create a sense of equality, but standardization can negate the individuality that makes a teacher shine. What’s more, when teachers are reduced to Tetris pieces in staffing model, we lose track of the needs of the students, who are, after all, the most important elements of this endeavour. *There’s probably only one reader who would realize this, but this is a Tina Torlone line; please consider it homage rather than plagiarism.