Editorial: On french fries and overflowing plates

March 13, 2017
Jonathan Teghtmeyer, ATA News Editor-in-Chief

Expectations heaped on teachers shouldn’t interrupt reasonable workday breaks

My first real job with a regular paycheque was working the deep fryer in a fast-food restaurant when I was 15. I gained a lot from that position cooking french fries, especially in terms of learning about work ethic, customer service and the world of workplaces.

I also learned a fair bit about my rights under the Employment Standards Code. It was pretty much assured that management was not going to do anything beyond its obligations under the code. To their credit, the managers were quite good at living up to those obligations, which is more than can be said for many employers. And so I know that workers in Alberta have to be paid for a minimum of three hours even if they work less than three hours, and they are entitled to 30 minutes of break during each shift longer than five consecutive hours.

I can already hear the groans from teachers. Or is that just the grunts as they try to hold their bladders just a little longer?

Over the years, the Alberta Teachers’ Association has heard from many members who hardly have enough time to go pee, let alone eat lunch. While we believe that the Employment Standards Code applies to teachers, some boards are not living up to it. The comprehensive 2015 Alberta Teacher Workload Study found that teachers accessed just 21.3 minutes of break time in the average workday, and our administrators managed with just 13.3 minutes.

As teachers, you know that too often lunch hours and recess breaks are quickly occupied by answering emails, returning phone calls, responding to student requests and engaging in last-minute class preparations. If urgent matters do not overrun teachers’ time, then they might be inclined to pick up a stack of marking to work on while they chew their ham sandwich.

Edmonton Journal columnist, and my favourite Twitter frenemy, David ­Staples got quite an earful from teachers when he recently suggested on Twitter that school fees for lunchroom supervision should be reduced by having teachers take on that responsibility. If that didn’t get blood boiling enough, he added that teachers could simply eat their lunch while watching over kids.

Sure, in many places that is what happens now, but that doesn’t make it right and that doesn’t mean we should impose it where it doesn’t currently exist. Obviously, a mishmash of practices exists out there, so perhaps some guiding principles should be put into place.

I was more incensed, however, by the troubling notion that we could simply place more expectations on teachers without any costs attached to them.

That is wrong. There is always a cost, either in teacher wellness or in the tasks that the teacher has to push aside in order to make room for the new expectations. You can pile only so much onto a full plate before stuff starts falling off the side or the plate breaks.

You can pile only so much onto a full plate before stuff starts falling off the side or the plate breaks.

Unfortunately, Staples’s attitude in this conversation was indicative of the attitude of many when it comes to teachers’ work. And while I could forgive a newspaper journalist for his ignorance of the situation, I can’t forgive those in the school system who, for years, have been piling expectations onto teachers, thinking that teachers can do more at no cost.

The 2013 legislated settlement was supposed to manage this. School boards and government were supposed to examine their expectations of teachers and reduce any unnecessary tasks.

Unfortunately, neither party put in the effort needed to make it successful. Teachers need a better solution.

One positive aspect emerging from that settlement was the comprehensive workload study that now clearly indicates the problem that exists. I’m hopeful that government and school boards now recognize the issue and are ready to address it. And they can start by ensuring that teachers get their 30 minutes of break in the course of their day.

If it’s important enough that we ensure our french-fry cooks have it, then it should also be important enough to be the norm for the people looking after our children’s education.

I welcome your comments — contact me at jonathan.teghtmeyer@ata.ab.ca.