Greater Essex Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario

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Teachers no longer scapegoats, but more needs to be done

Terry Moore
Guelph Mercury
Jan 20, 2005

Public sector workers often argue a direct connection between their working conditions and the quality of the services they provide to the public.

The current public campaign by elementary teachers in Ontario -- Campaign 200 -- is designed to compliment efforts at the bargaining table to enshrine the right to 200 minutes of paid preparation time per week into their collective agreements. This is a campaign worth supporting.

Quite literally, teachers' working conditions are our kids' learning conditions.

While the Education Act in Ontario allows for up to 200 minutes of preparation time per week for elementary teachers, the province's funding formula only pays for 137.

Since teacher bashing became the sport of choice for the Harris Tories back in 1996, elementary teachers in the Upper Grand school district have actually lost between 30 and 50 minutes per week in prep time. The current Upper Grand elementary panel collective agreement provides for 150 minutes per week.

Upper Grand secondary teachers have fared somewhat better on prep time, although comparisons between the elementary and secondary teachers' workdays are difficult to do.

Secondary teachers have a longer and more militant history of collective bargaining on this issue, and their current collective agreement reflects that, providing classroom teachers with about 250 minutes of paid non-instructional time per week.

We collectively make incredible demands on teachers. The current Ontario elementary school curriculum, to take but one measure, lays out 3,993 specific learning expectations that teachers are required to help students achieve between kindergarten and Grade 8.

According to a study recently conducted in conjunction with the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (EFTO), these expectations average about 500 per school year until Grades 7 and 8 when they are closer to 600.

With the school year averaging five hours per day across 190 days per year and class sizes ranging on average between 25 and 35 kids, we are effectively demanding that teachers ensure each of their students achieve a learning expectation on average every three or four minutes.

And we demand that they achieve this mission impossible while funding for important supports, such as school librarians, special education programs, educational assistants, music teachers, and physical education teachers, have been cut to the bone.

While many would argue that teachers are well compensated for their troubles, few really understand how their work world looks from the inside out.

I live with an elementary teacher and have, therefore, received a front row education on the elementary teacher world over the past 13 years.

My spouse's life revolves around a work day that begins at least one hour before classes start and ends late at night. While there are programs and course materials available to assist her with designing the work units required to meet those 3,995 learning outcomes, none are designed for split grades, which have become more the norm than the exception.

None take into account or provide much assistance with developing the required individualized learning programs for special-needs kids. The bottom line is long hours spent preparing the minute details for tomorrow's lessons long after the nominal work day ends.

If my partner is sick, and believe me she has to be really sick to miss a school day, she, like the vast majority of her colleagues, prepare and communicate lesson plans to the supply teacher before the start of her sick day.

There is simply not enough time to mark time, and you end up paying dearly for any sick leave that you're unlucky enough to need.

Provincial regulations and school board rules require report cards to be produced three, sometimes four times a year. Each round takes several weeks, and many hours of concerted effort usually at home, at night, and on weekends praying that the computer doesn't crash before you hit the save button.

Every family member of a teacher knows when it's report-card time. You can cut the air with a knife.

Politicians and pundits are often heard singing the praises of the teaching profession. Premier Dalton McGuinty wants to be known, he says, as the "education premier" and the current minister of education, Gerard Kennedy, has put and end to the verbal abuse teachers and their unions were routinely subjected to by Harris Tories.

Teachers are no longer grist for political scapegoating, but much more is needed than soothing words.

While more resources have been put into education funding, the need far out-strips both the rhetoric and the reality. And that reality is very stark, indeed. Fully one-third of new teachers leave the profession in the first five years after they hit the classroom.

The workload is crushing, and the resulting stress levels debilitating in the extreme. The reported rate of stress-related long-term disability claims within the teaching profession is now one-third higher than within any other profession and has doubled since 1993.

Any industry that chews up and spits out workers at that rate is dysfunctional and not a healthy environment for "producers" and "consumers" alike.

Clearly, the education system has been stressed to the breaking point. Everyone seems to agree that teachers are a key element to helping our kids achieve to the best of their abilities and that our kids embody our hopes and aspirations for the future. In this context, healthy teaching environments make for healthy learning environments.

Increasing the amount of prep time is not the answer to all that ails our education system and can be only one small part of a program to regain ground lost during the Harris years.

But it is an important first step in reversing the disastrous morale problem among teachers.

Terry Moore is a member of the Mercury's Community Editorial Board.