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upfront

After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb – Nelson Mandela

January / February 2017

As teachers, we probably know exactly what Nelson Mandela meant. My wife – a retired Grade 2 teacher – often noted that from the beginning of the school year until the last day of school in June she and her colleagues faced one hill of deadlines and challenges after another. And each new year seemed to bring its own new chain of mountains to climb. Our trek never seems to come to an end.

The same can be said for our Association. When I took office, our “great hill” was our collective agreement. Negotiations had stalled, our contract still had not been settled, and the chances of reaching an agreement soon looked slim. In fact, it wasn’t until the fall of 2014 that we ratified and signed a milestone collective agreement that for the first time guaranteed family leave.

Now as my term winds down, the peaks of a new round of negotiations rise before us, seemingly larger than the previous one. Soon we will exchange opening proposals. This time, a crushing provincial deficit, an approaching provincial budget, and a government determined to slash spending to balance its budget, will exacerbate the challenges normally associated with collective bargaining and will have an impact on our ability to meet the needs of our students.

Our colleagues in Nova Scotia are in the middle of climbing their own “great hill” as Premier Stephen McNeil and his Liberal government apply their own brand of austerity to collective bargaining. For the first time in their history, Nova Scotia teachers have taken a province-wide job action to back up their demands for fair and meaningful negotiations. On December 6, I joined other Atlantic teacher union presidents and stood in solidarity with NSTU President Liette Doucette and over 2000 Nova Scotian teachers at a rally outside the provincial legislature in Halifax. At one point we encircled Province House. It was an impressive display of strength, solidarity and commitment to public education.

In many ways, the hill before us is no different from the last round of negotiations or the other hills we have climbed together – and we have climbed a few in the past four years. We settled a contract, stabilized our pension plan, increased public awareness of teacher and education issues and raised the profile of our Association.

And like our Nova Scotia colleagues, we’re becoming more confident and more willing to use our voices. I know it from the many teachers, administrators, and specialists who have taken it upon themselves to call our office seeking advice on how to address violent students, excessive workload demands, and lack of human resources. I know it from the teachers who attended our provincial town halls and eloquently and passionately gave voice to their concerns.

At the time of writing this article 32 educators from across the province gathered to participate in a CBC production on the realities of the classroom. By the time you read this article CBC will have aired or will be airing the town hall in segments as part of a week-long focus on education.

It was a remarkable experience, and marked the first time a group of teachers have gone on air to discuss some of the challenges facing our education system. They exemplified courage and professionalism. We hope this event not only provides the public a glimpse inside the classroom but also encourages our government to reverse the cuts to our education system and restore the resources needed to meet the needs of our students.

When I took office I committed to being your voice, and I have never wavered in that commitment. But I’m only one voice. My voice is amplified by the voices of our 6000 plus colleagues. I’m calling on you again to use your voice. On January 27 NLTA staff and I appeared before the Premier’s Task Force on Improving Educational Outcomes and presented the concerns of teachers and made recommendations on inclusive education, teacher leadership, professional learning and the learning/teaching environment. We argued for the necessary financial, material, and, most of all, human resources needed to achieve educational outcomes. You can view our presentation on the NLTA website.

Now it’s your turn. I sent out a similar message two weeks ago. Consider this a reminder. If anyone knows how to improve outcomes, you do. You know the needs of your students, and you know what is necessary if you are to help them reach their potential. Whether you do so as an individual, as part of a staff, NLTA Special Interest Council, or Branch Executive, submit your thoughts and recommendations to the Task Force. The report of the Task Force will be used to guide government education reform initiatives. Make sure you have input into shaping those recommendations and the future of our province’s education system.

I’m also asking you to stay informed and become involved in the collective bargaining process. Following the exchange of proposals in mid-February, meetings will be scheduled throughout the province to present the contents of those proposals to teachers. It is imperative that you attend these and any other meetings, ask questions, and have your say. We’re in this together, and we have a duty to ourselves and to each other to negotiate a collective agreement that respects and recognizes the work we do as educators.

The hills stretch out ahead of us. The time for rest is short. Together we’ll scale them. So, strap on your climbing gear and put on your hiking boots. We’ve got some climbing to do.

Jim