Public education is under attack, so teachers are going to have to fight for what they believe in over the next year.
That was the message shared by Alberta Teachers’ Association president Jason Schilling on Thursday during an address to delegates of the organization’s Annual Representative Assembly (ARA).
The annual policy meeting normally takes place during the May long weekend, but due to COVID, it was postponed and is being held via video conference Aug. 13 and 14.
“I am aware that many of you in this Zoom conference know full well the constant pressure teachers and public education have faced in this province,” Schilling said. “I also know you are frustrated, angry and worried about what the future holds. So am I.”
Schilling used the word uncertainty to describe the theme for the past year.
He referenced the UCP government’s decisions to reduce LGBTQ+ rights, change the date of teachers’ salary arbitration, undertake curriculum redesign without input from active teachers, cut education funding and hijack teachers’ pension fund.
Schilling said the pension issue prompted one of the largest political engagement activities he’s ever seen teachers undertake, resulting in tens of thousands of emails, letters, phone calls and visits to MLAs.
“The government heard your voices but they chose not to listen, which tells me more about their ethics and not your unwavering and continued advocacy,” Schilling said.
The emergence of the COVID pandemic raised issues of income security for substitute teachers as well as concerns about equity and the well-being of students. And while the Association worked with government in an attempt to create a plan for a safe return to in-class teaching, its concerns have not been adequately addressed.
“Again, I know we were heard, just not listened to,” Schilling said. “Now we find ourselves on the cusp of a re-entry to school plan that falls short on addressing the safety concerns of teachers.”
Schilling noted that teachers showed their ethics by rising to the challenge when asked to change overnight how they teach due to the COVID pandemic. He expressed hope for the future.
“For me there always has to exist an element of hope,” Schilling said. “Some have said to me … ‘how can you have hope in the face of so much negativity?’ My answer is simple. I have to. We have to. We are fighting for something greater than the moment we are in. We are fighting for the future of our profession and our students.”
Schilling said that, in the last few weeks, he’s reviewed the Association’s central objectives — to advance and promote the cause of public education in Alberta, improve the teaching profession and increase public interest in the importance of public education. He pledged that members of the ATA’s elected council and staff will continue to work with government to achieve the Association’s central objectives.
“There are those who are opposed to a strong public education system in Alberta. They will try to divide and to split us. They will attempt to undermine teachers, our Association, our values, and one of the best public education systems in the world,” he said. “We cannot allow that to happen. We need to stand together, united as a profession and not get distracted by the little things.”
He added, “I believe in public education, I believe in my students and I believe in you, my colleagues. I hope that we will continue to stand and shout that public education matters. I also believe that next year we are going to have to fight for what we believe in. I know I am ready for that fight; my hope is that you are too.”
Follow ARA proceedings on Twitter and Instagram: #ARA2020.