Teachers’ resiliency is profession’s backbone

May 29, 2012
Raymond Gariépy, ATA News Staff

ATA President Henderson highlights ATA’s and teachers’ accomplishments

The resiliency of teachers working and living under difficult conditions was hailed by the ATA president in her speech to ARA delegates.

Carol Henderson mentioned the first anniversary of the Slave Lake and area wildfire that destroyed the homes of townspeople and devastated businesses and lives. She spoke about the resolve of fire victims to keep schools open. And she described her recent visit to Arrowwood School, near Strathmore, which was damaged by fire April 27, and the resourcefulness of the teachers, who continued classes in the community centre. (But little did many delegates know that Henderson could well have been recounting her own ordeal by fire last May, when she was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness—a fact she addressed at the conclusion of her speech.)

The resiliency of ATA staff, who faced innumerable challenges yet maintained services to members, was singled out by the president. She described how Member Services (MS) staff had spent the last year coping with issues tied to teachers’ working conditions, transfers, terminations and reassignments without reason. In the year ahead, MS staff anticipate assisting members with “expectations of school districts, parents and Alberta Education adding tremendous workload issues and adding stress and interpersonal conflict,” Henderson said.

The ATA’s evolving relationships with several Alberta educational institutions was a highlight for the Professional Development (PD) program area. Staff facilitated the signing of agreements recognizing the teacher-preparation programs of Concordia University College of Alberta, King’s University College and Ambrose University College.

Also, initiatives in leadership development undertaken by the government and the PD program area will ensure that “progressive PD practices are reflected in the learning framework anticipated next month,” she said. PD staff continue to advance professional interests with curriculum reform, technology policy and student evaluation. And in 2011, the PD program area received a $1 million grant from Alberta Education to develop an online professional growth Web service.

In terms of teachers’ contracts coming due in August, Henderson said the five-year labour agreement between teachers and the province likely means that, in the words of the coordinator of Teacher Welfare, “many of us need a refresher course on how negotiations work.” Henderson cautioned that “we can’t rush settlements and we must be very deliberate.”

Henderson highlighted the work of the teacher and student exchange program administered by the ATA’s Government program area. The exchange program provides teachers with PD opportunities for short-term and year-long exchanges with colleagues around the world.

Teachers’ work–life balance was the subject of research conducted by the ATA. Henderson cited survey results that found that teachers "logged on average 55 hours per week—the equivalent of two days a week of unpaid labour." The survey found that although teachers are highly satisfied with teaching as a career and with their level of pay and job security, 60 per cent of respondents signalled dissatisfaction with their ­workload and hours of work. "Teachers feel compelled to sacrifice their family lives for their work," Henderson said. Such a situation "places teachers at considerable risk for psychological distress." Teachers’ well-being and creating optimum conditions for student learning could well be an ATA focus next year, Henderson said.

The change in Alberta’s premiership and the recent provincial election meant that no headway was made in the transformation of education or on issues tied to special education. Henderson expressed her disappointment that the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement (AISI) had fallen victim to the government’s funding cuts. While she acknowledged that AISI wasn’t perfect, she said that "school improvement has been a very important feature and has put Alberta on the map as an educational leader." Cutting funding to AISI "diminishes teachers’ ability to move forward."

Unlike the government, the Association has not been on hold; considerable headway has been made in school improvement and transformation. Henderson cited Alberta’s partnership with Finland as a stellar example of cooperation between world leaders in education—"leaders not just in the world but for the world."

Teachers’, parents’ and society’s relentless search for increased flexibility and choice in education has inadvertently led to the belief that students learning alone on computers at any time, in any place and at any pace is an educational panacea. Rather, it is a road toward standardization and narrow outcome-based accountability, the president warned. Such a myopic view of education—propagated by corporations, businesses and fiscal conservatives—means that education is an "emerging, lucrative and for-profit marketplace." Teachers’, parents’ and society’s relentless search for increased flexibility and choice in education has inadvertently led to the belief that students learning alone on computers at any time, in any place and at any pace is an educational panacea. Rather, it is a road toward standardization and narrow outcome-based accountability, the president warned. Such a myopic view of education—propagated by corporations, businesses and fiscal conservatives—means that education is an "emerging, lucrative and for-profit marketplace." She cited the example of Pearson Canada, a publishing company that is pushing hard to develop e-learning resources. "Personalization is one thing," Henderson said, "Pearson-alization is something else."

To counter this trend, the ATA is "focusing on a vibrant public education system that will innovate and lead the way to transformation by fostering creativity, diversity and global perspectives in our schools and communities," she said.

The president thanked members for taking on leadership roles at the local and school levels. "Leadership is not a position as much as it is a responsibility; it’s not about pushing, controlling or manipulating, it is leading with others choosing to follow," she said. And as a teacher-leader, Henderson has set the bar high, for her recent "journey with cancer" required her to call on her strength and faith in order to overcome an "aggressive form of lymphoma" and subsequent diagnosis of leukemia.

"It’s been the most difficult time in my life and I could not have come this far without the support of so many people," Henderson told delegates. And, as with every exemplary leader, Henderson’s humility and her love for people and the teachers she represents were clear to delegates, who in turn showed their respect and love for their leader with a sustained standing ovation.

As Executive Secretary Gordon Thomas said about Henderson’s illness and recovery in his ARA speech, "She has made it very clear that she was elected to serve the teachers of Alberta and she will do so!"