From the President

February 28, 2013
Carol Henderson

Working together is a strength of ATA

I am looking forward to spring and a feeling of renewal.

Spring is marked by teachers’ conventions held across Alberta, and I’m looking forward to meeting many members in attendance. Conventions are an opportunity to celebrate where teachers and public education have been and to look ahead to where we’re going.

This spring, the Alberta Teachers’ Association will mark its 96th anniversary. We’ve celebrated good years and survived tough years. Once again, it appears we may have tough years filled with uncertainty ahead us, years that could mirror the province’s dark days under Ralph Klein when classes were bursting, educational resources were lacking, school buildings were crumbling and teachers were forced to take a salary rollback—in short, a time when public education, teachers and students were not valued. Klein spurred us to action; once again, we gelled as an organization and our members united in the campaign to protect public education. We held a massive teacher rally at the Alberta legislature in 1997 and took further action in 2002 by withdrawing our services.

In 2013, Albertans are facing a manufactured crisis under Premier Alison Redford because her government refuses to look at the revenue side of the provincial budget. We have heard about potential spending reductions, including possible cuts to education and healthcare. Why is it that the richest province with the most vibrant economy is facing cuts to vital programs and services? The answer is simple: In the lowest taxed province in Canada, Alberta’s government is scared to take constructive steps needed to raise revenue.

Alberta’s public education system can’t withstand Kleinesque cuts to an already stretched budget. If this government, which teachers helped elect, moves in that direction, teachers will face larger classes, worsening teaching conditions, fewer resources for at risk-students and low staff morale. I predict that Alberta’s reputation for having one of the best education systems in the English-speaking world will be difficult to maintain.

Funding for the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement (AISI) could be cut by the government. AISI is recognized as world-class and put Alberta on the international map. AISI is the bridge needed to span the unsettled times of budget restraints and get us over to Inspiring Education.

In addition to education funding is the matter of teachers’ workloads. If workloads aren’t addressed and teachers do not see improved conditions of practice, then I predict labour unrest among our members. Forty per cent of our members do not have limits on time; in some jurisdictions, teachers work 56 hours per week. Even teachers with limits to instruction and assignable time realize that in many cases their workloads do not allow for balance.

And added to all this is the ugly matter of merit pay. Teachers have no idea why Education Minister Jeff Johnson raised this issue in early January. Research shows that merit pay has no merit. Recently, Harvard University undertook a major study that looked at New York City’s $75 million experiment with teacher incentives. The study found that student achievement actually declined. Academic literature is full of examples of the complete and utter failure of merit pay to improve teaching. Merit pay was introduced during the Industrial Revolution and worked well for assembly line workers who got more pay if they produced more widgets. The province’s schools are not assembly lines and teachers do not produce widgets.

Raising the topic of merit pay is an insult to the profession of teaching, as it suggests that teachers aren’t doing everything they can for their students. Teachers do not need cash incentives; they are rewarded when they see positive outcomes for their students or when students tell them their teaching made a positive difference. I experienced this recently when a former student e-mailed me a photo of the first Grade 1 class I taught in 1977. My former student had posted the picture on her Facebook page and sent along comments from her classmates. I reminisced for a bit, attempted to recall the name of each student and enjoyed good memories. Her e-mail made my day—that was my reward.

Of course, being rewarded with fair compensation for work provided does matter, but that isn’t the reason why people teach. Ben Levin, professor and research chair in education leadership and policy at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, says that working conditions often matter more than pay. He also states that high-performing education systems tend to have strong teacher unions and there’s no reason to think that strong unions are inconsistent with high-quality education. Labour disruptions don’t typically arise over the issues alone; they arise because of ill feelings and bad relationships. By floating the ill-conceived notion of merit pay, the education minister has provoked teachers and risks undoing the goodwill built up over the last decade between teachers and the government.

Teachers and government can work constructively together; this was proven when we reached a provincial agreement in 2007 that settled the unfunded liability of the teachers’ pension plan. It is also demonstrated when we work together on a mutually agreed agenda for curriculum change and other aspects of transformation.

The future is uncertain; no one knows what lies ahead. What we do know is that a unified membership’s collective voice is powerful and that teachers can look ahead to working together to make the future better.