Teachers and Trustees: Same Schools, Different Worlds

The two groups appear to have little in common as they struggle to meet education's complex challenges.

By Crawford Kilian 14 Sep 2004 |

Crawford Kilian was born in New York City in 1941. He was raised in Los Angeles and Mexico City, and was educated at Columbia University (BA '62) and Simon Fraser University (MA '72). He served in the US Army from 1963 to 1965, and moved to Vancouver in 1967. He became a naturalized Canadian in 1973.

Crawford has published 21 books -- both fiction and non-fiction, and has written hundreds of articles. He taught at Vancouver City College in the late 1960s and was a professor at Capilano College from 1968 to 2008. Much of Crawford's writing for The Tyee deals with education issues in British Columbia, but he is also interested in books, online media, and environmental issues.

Reporting Beat: Education, health, and books

Crawford's Connection to BC: Though he was born in New York City, one of Crawford's favourite places is Sointula, a small town off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island.

Twitter: @crof

Website: H5N1

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For a change, the B.C. media did not run back-to-school stories in August about the dismal state of education. But when I recently talked to the heads of the BC School Trustees Association and the BC Teachers' Federation, I got some disquieting hints that all is not well in our public schools.

That was partly due to what they said, but mostly because they were looking at education from very different points of view. I'd sent Penny Tees, recently acclaimed as the new president of the BCSTA,  Jinny Sims, the new president of the BCTF, almost identical questions. Their answers, I hoped, would combine to form a kind of conversation. Instead they sounded almost as if they were in different worlds.

Here are the questions, with summaries and paraphrases of their answers:

What are the major issues facing trustees and teachers this year?

Tees said, "The biggest task for trustees is to meet the goals for improving student achievement." A new graduation program is being implemented. Trustees are also awaiting a new structure for teacher bargaining, which the Campbell government will have to implement, and the provincial election next May means boards will have to explain education issues to their communities.

Sims, by contrast, saw one big issue facing teachers: "Lack of resources--not just textbooks and supplies, but human resources as well." In the last three years 2,500 teachers have left the B.C. schools. "We have fewer specialists, fewer counsellors, fewer librarians. How do we have inclusion when we have inadequate funding? The support systems are no longer there."

Sims said it now can take two or three weeks for a mental-health officer to respond to a student with a problem. "Inequity is growing," she said. "Boards are becoming businesses. How do we keep the public in education?"

Do some boards or district teachers' associations face unusual challenges?

"Every board is unique," Tees said. "Urban boards are dealing with traffic problems and English as a second language. Rural districts face declining enrolments and program differences, especially with First Nations. But each board has its own specific concerns."

Sims saw "intense challenges" in districts outside the Lower Mainland: "Prince Rupert has high unemployment, which has an impact on children in school. Cariboo Chilcotin has seen school closures. Schools in the Gulf Islands are going to four-day weeks to save money. The level of service for special needs has declined right across the province. Students with severe behaviour problems no longer qualify for help, and even the qualified don't get services. Targeted funding has gone."

She meant provincial funds earmarked for specific services in each district. Now, school boards decide how much to spend for such services, if anything.

Are you maintaining good communications with Minister of Education Tom Christensen, and vice versa?

"Yes," said Penny Tees. "We have an open line for communication. He seeks us out; we get regular updates from him and from the deputy minister."

"We look forward to meeting him to look at these issues," Sims told me. "We're waiting for his response to our invitation."

How are trustees and teachers coping with the demands of their jobs?

"Teachers say their caseloads and the complexities of the job are becoming very draining," Jinny Sims said. "But we have hope. Teachers are working extra hours, and spending their own resources. B.C. teachers spend twice the national average out of their own pocket for classroom supplies."

"Being a trustee is a demanding job," Tees said, "but 60 percent of trustees have been in office two terms or more. They're prepared for the demands. I see a lot of energy and enthusiasm from trustees."

Do you see changes in the demographics of your people? More newcomers, more veterans, more women or men?

Women are becoming a growing force in the BCSTA, Tees told me. "In 1999, 52 percent of trustees were women. Now it's 57 percent. For 10 years, 40 percent of trustees have been in their first term. Communities seem confident in their trustees, and few trustees are defeated when they run for re-election."

"We're an aging profession," Sims said about teachers. "But we see young people in the profession, especially in northern communities. More are retiring every year, and many are citing the impact of the job on their health." She added that shortages are worsening in specific areas like counselling in northern districts.

What concerns are Parents' Advisory Committees bringing to you?

"Mostly more interest and involvement," said Tees. "More concern about needed services," said Sims. "Parents are getting tired of fund-raising."

Are you having trouble recruiting good teachers and administrators?

"Yes," said Tees. "Trustees expressed concern at our AGM in April about problems in recruiting principals in northern interior school districts. The former incentives are gone, making it harder to recruit. It's also hard to recruit superintendents as the administrative load has grown through the merger of districts."

"Yes," said Sims. "Outside the metro districts, it's hard. Interior schools are having trouble finding teachers for chef training, music, mechanics, industrial arts, and home economics."

Do you see any specific problems coming to a head this year?

"An election year is always volatile," Sims said. "Do we want a public, inclusive school system, or privatization? Districts are signing contracts with junk-food vendors, and depending more and more on income from those vending machines. Are we sure we want this?"

Tees foresaw major decisions about the bargaining framework and improving student achievement. She cited Peace River North, where all grade sevens got laptop computers after doing poorly on writing exams. Improvement was so dramatic, she said, that the laptop program is being expanded to grade eight.

What issues will teachers and trustees have to explain to voters in the school-board elections in the fall of 2005?

"It's an opportunity to talk and listen with our communities," Tees said. "We have to reflect community values."

"We have to be advocates for a quality public education system," Sims said. "Boards' decisions are often forced on them by underfunding."

What's the least known or least understood issue for teachers and trustees this year?

"We're under a new kind of accountability," Tees answered. "We have to be really clear about what kids are doing and how we plan to improve. B.C. is leading the country in areas like aboriginal education and educating young athletes while they train. Kids now have many more options in their education, but this isn't always recognized.

"The least-known issue is the complexity of teaching today," said Sims. "Teaching is like holding a one-hour birthday party, five times a day, 200 days a year. It's a myth that the lack of resources must be the teacher's fault. But the resources just aren't there. A typical counsellor in the 1980s had a caseload of perhaps 250 students. Now some counsellors must carry over a thousand students."

When you talk with your constituents, what do they tell you is the most time-consuming part of their job?

"Reading!" said Tees. "We have to prepare for meetings, learn how the system works, and stay current with the community."

"Specialists complain about the administrivia," said Sims. They spend September and October just looking for money to help the kids who need it, instead of working with the students themselves."

Are you facing legal constraints, whether from government or court decisions?

Tees mentioned court decisions last year that meant boards face more liability about field trips. Trustees must therefore be more careful about where they send students. Boards are also working through the legal ramifications of the new graduation program plus legislation on students' freedom to choose their school.

"Yes, we've faced constraints," said Sims. "The government ensured that we can't bargain learning conditions, class size, or class composition. They also attempted to silence us to keep us from talking to the public about the lack of resources. But arbitration affirmed that we have the right to speak out about problems like larger classes. The biggest constraint," she added, "is exhaustion."

Granted, education advocates try not to bite the hand that feeds them. Trustees have vivid memories of boards that fought Victoria and were fired for their pains. Their quarrels now are no doubt conducted very privately.

The teachers have nothing to gain from battling a new minister of education. They have to point out the loss of teachers and the closure of schools, without blaming the minister personally--yet still maintain that they're doing a great job.

Hence their carefully bland words. What struck me, though, was how little overlap there was between the concerns of the two groups. The BCSTA seems interested in bureaucratic changes and staffing problems; the BCTF worries about disturbed kids who can't get help and teachers running on empty.

If they can't harmonize their priorities, it could be a bitter eight months leading up to the provincial election.

Crawford Kilian is a former school trustee who has taught at Capilano College since 1968. He is the author of School Wars: The Assault on BC Education (1985) and 2020 Visions: The Futures of Canadian Education (1995).  [Tyee]

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