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November/December 2016

In my September/October Up Front I wrote about the stress created as a result of Budget 2016, the relationship between teacher burnout and student stress, and how our desire to make things work is not working for our schools. Making things work comes at great cost to ourselves and our students. I ended the article with the idea that from time to time we may need to step outside of our individual comfort zones if we hope to make positive change.

Since that Up Front I continue to hear from teachers how it’s only the start of the year and they’re already “April tired”. I’ve heard more from teachers at the startup of this year than I have at the startup of the previous three years. In order to make things work this year, teachers are sacrificing family and personal life to do so. And still they feel they are failing their students. I listened to stories of teachers cleaning their classrooms because support staff were not being replaced. We heard the exhaustion, anger and demoralization from teachers during the first Town Hall meeting we held.

And despite all this, many teachers are still reluctant to step outside their comfort zones and take the necessary steps to help themselves and their students. We’ve been advising teachers to first contact the NLTA when faced with unreasonable expectations and demands. We then advise them to say or put in writing, “I’ll do the best I can,” and ask for the necessary release time if it’s a priority for the employer. It’s a simple, yet powerful sentence.

Fear still prevents many teachers from taking action, and now it’s not just the fear of being “blacklisted” (though, I can honestly say I have not seen evidence of this). Teachers also fear looking less professional than one’s colleagues. “What if I’m the only one taking the action? What will parents think? What will my colleagues say?”  As teachers, we find it difficult to rock the boat and disturb the “calm” waters. At our St. John’s Town Hall meeting, a number of teachers expressed concern that speaking out would make matters worse. Another responded, “How much worse can it get?”

Let’s admit it. There’s a stigma attached to saying “No” and we fear it. We don’t want to appear “weak” or unable to handle the demands of our chosen profession. We have inextricably linked saying “Yes” to our identity as professionals. For many teachers, saying “No” feels foreign and is tantamount to failing their colleagues and students.

The decision to say “No” is the undiscovered country for many teachers. So we take what comes our way and pay the price with our personal and family lives. Let’s not kid ourselves, it’s affecting us professionally as well. Sometimes, deciding to take control over our professional lives is frightening. Sometimes deciding to say “No” is the most professional thing a teacher can do.

Decisions are rarely easy.

From the beginning, I promised to be your voice. It’s a theme that runs through many of my articles in The Bulletin and messages to you. At times, it can be scary living up to that commitment. For 32 years I was responsible for my classroom. For the past three and a half years I’ve been responsible for representing over 6,000 teachers. And the decisions ultimately rest with me in the messages I choose to deliver and the manner in which I deliver them. Do I be assertive or do I play it safe? Will teachers respond positively to what I say and how I represent them? What message best captures the mood of teachers?

Some of our colleagues across the country know the uncertainty of making difficult decisions. Fourteen years ago the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation decided to fight their provincial government when it used its legislative authority to strip teachers of their right to bargain over class size and composition. It was a fight that took them all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. On November 10, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favour of BCTF. The ruling will restore staffing levels to what they were 15 years ago and have implications for collective bargaining rights across the country. Despite the landmark outcome, the decision to launch the court challenge in the first place could not have been easy. The expense, the commitment of resources, the uncertain result, and the consequences real if they lost. Closer to home, members of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union entered unchartered waters recently when they voted 96% in favour of giving their union leadership a strike mandate. While the outcome is not guaranteed, teachers know that their current situation cannot be tolerated.

Amelia Earhart knew a thing or two about choice and making decisions. She was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean and the first person to fly solo across the Pacific. In 1937, at age 40, she disappeared as she attempted to become the first woman to fly around the world. In her poem, Courage, she says, “Each time we make a choice, we pay with courage to behold the resistless day, and count it fair.”

I’m not asking you to sacrifice everything that defines you as a teacher. I am asking you to push back against the excessive demands and unrealistic expectations of Government and the employer that threaten to smother us. Making the system work is not the sole responsibility of teachers, and sometimes choosing to say “No” is the most professional decision you can make for you and your students. When you are ready to make that decision, contact your Association. We can help. It’s actually quite peaceful on the other side.

Jim