The Common Interest of Elementary, Secondary, and Post-Secondary Teachers
By Jeff Noonan
Vice-President (Internal) Windsor University Faculty Association
As Alan Sears demonstrates in his superb Retooling the Mind Factory, the values the school system will serve has been a fundamental political-economic problem for over a century. Mass education developed as a response to economic changes that required a literate and numerate workforce. At the same time, the development of literacy and numeracy skills enable working people to think for themselves, with the attendant danger that they will begin to think against rather than with the dominant value system and structure of power.
The political and economic struggle of the ruling class to control educational labour reveals a contradiction in its social interpretation. On the one hand, education is regularly extolled as the means to economic success and equality. On the other hand, educational workers are regularly demonized as incompetent, lazy, greedy, and selfish, in need of strict managerial control if they are to fulfill their responsibilities to students and society. The rhetorical attacks prepare the public to support legislative attacks on their conditions of work and right to bargain freely. In the past five years alone Ontario teachers have seen their right to collectively bargain stripped away by Bill 115 and have been pushed into a strikes (high school teachers) and a work to rule campaign (elementary school teachers) by a government seeking to impose wage freezes and undermine teacher autonomy in the class room.
The problem is not limited to Ontario and elementary and secondary school teachers. The Nova Scotia government is currently trying to pass Bill 100, which would effectively bar strikes in the University system, allow the government to violate existing collective agreements, and essentially impose budgets on Nova Scotia universities. Across the university sector faculty are seeing more and more resources devoted to administrative salaries, while administrators themselves increasingly forget their roots in academia to behave as urban planners embarking on ‘campus revitalization” projects and business managers bent on imposing discipline on faculty members treated as disposable employees.
The neo-liberal assault on public institutions has become a coordinated assault on educational workers at all three levels of education, with “student interest” invoked as justification for policies which manifestly do not serve them (larger class sizes, higher tuition, fewer courses, intensifying pressure to forsake educational for critical consciousness in favour of careerism). As with any assault on working conditions, its success depends upon the degree to which workers are able to find the confidence to resist and build networks of solidarity, between each other across sectors and levels and with students. The current moment seems ripe for both.
As with any assault on working conditions, its success depends upon the degree to which workers are able to find the confidence to resist and build networks of solidarity, between each other across sectors and levels and with students.
To build the network of solidarity needed to both resist the austerity agenda and construct a democratic alternative guided by the real values that education must serve (openness of mind, capacity for social criticism, understanding before acting, openness to the new and different, the capacity to evaluate alternatives non-dogmatically) we first need to remind ourselves that the problem in the Ontario economy (as elsewhere in the global North) is not lack on funds to support public institutions, but priorities. While the government demands that teachers accept another wage freeze, the average salary of Canadian executives rose approximately 25% between 2008 and 2013, from $7.35 million to $9.21 million. Clearly, there is money in the general economy that can be accessed by government through taxation if it wanted to access it. Government is only as poor as it wants to be. If education were a priority, then the government could generate funds to support its institutions and its workers if it wanted to tax wealth appropriately.
When put in the context of the fiscal priorities of government (tax breaks for the rich, austerity for workers), the argument in support of free collective bargaining, including the right to bargain wages, salaries, and benefits, is easier to win. The greater job security (for the moment) that educational workers have vis-à-vis their counterparts in the private sector should be seen as a source of strength. Just because it is difficult to lay off teachers and tenured faculty means that these workers have an objective basis of strength to fight back in the strongest way possible—by taking strike action and building links between strikers at different levels in the educational system.
However, the fight is not wholly financial. Alongside the budgetary constraints imposed on public institutions and public sector workers governments, school boards, and university administrations are keen to impose an ever wider set of political constraints on the nature of educational labour. In the current round of negotiations, both high school and elementary teachers are pushing back against demands to change their working conditions which would: threaten larger class sizes, put the control over teachers’ preparation time in school board/government hands, and generally further erode the professional autonomy of teachers. Similar moves have been made at the post-secondary level: Strategic Mandate Agreements, learning outcomes, institutional evaluations based upon “key performance indicators” (which by and large reduce to the success of graduates in finding work after graduation). While these new expressions of managerial power over educational workers might appear to be justified by appeal to students’ interests, the real interest served by these metrics is the interests of employers in having open access to a steady supply of compliant people willing to do whatever they need to do to find a job—until that job disappears and they need to reinvent themselves to find another one.
I am not saying that educators and education can be indifferent to students’ need to find paid employment. At the same time, educators cannot fulfil their vocation as educators and meekly accept the subordination of education to schooling. Education frees the intellect of students from subservience to appearances and the status quo—it demands that both justify themselves at the court of truth. The goal of schooling, by contrast, is to integrate students into existing social structures and roles, seeking meaning in life only in the rewards the current society makes available. If, as at present, pursuit of those rewards generates economic, political cultural, and environmental crisis, but education can help young people understand these causes and start to work against them, then the subordination of education to schooling ensures the perpetuation of crises, not their solution.
There are many differences between teaching toddlers and adolescents, teaching a secondary school class in calculus and supervising a doctoral dissertation on string theory. Yet, more important than these differences is the continuity of the austerity agenda underlying the attacks we are facing: on our bargaining rights, on our professional judgement and capacity to do our jobs free of stifling managerialism, on the finding for the institutions in which we serve our students and the public. Together, these attacks are not only attacks on educational workers, they are attacks on education. Teachers and professors, not administrators, bureaucratic overseers and their abstract, generic metrics inspire (or do not inspire) the animating love to understand the real education cultivates in students. In standing up for their autonomy and professional integrity, Ontario secondary school and elementary teachers are saying to the government: we did not choose this career so that we have summers off, but because we care deeply about the intellectual growth and well-being of students—leave us alone to do our jobs.
Austerity in the schools is not only an economic agenda, it is political. Its aim is to increase pressure on educators to accept the values of productivity that rule in the private sector economy. In order to impose those values– the production of the most graduates with those skills and those skills only that labour markets are willing to hire, for the least cost—rights to control our own labour have to be undermined. Since we are all facing a common problem, we need to start to work out common solutions. This work needs to go beyond informal picket line visits (important as those are). Both the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations and the Canadian Association of University Teachers have been strong critics of austerity as it negatively effects university education. We need to make the links to its negative effects on elementary and primary education. We need to build a public campaign to counteract managerialist propaganda by reminding the public that those who educate their children are the ones who best understand how the goals of education are best accomplished. And finally we need to build solidarity in action, coming together as educators in demonstrations and building connections when workplace struggles break out. The public wants their children to receive the best education they can receive. It is our job to provide that—but also to prove to parents that there is a contradiction between the austerity agenda and excellent education. In making that case, we also make the case for our own autonomy as educational workers to teach for the sake for freeing students’ minds, as opposed to schooling them as mere inputs for labour markets.