Education International
Education International

North American educators show great solidarity in times of crisis

published 13 November 2012 updated 21 November 2012

The teaching profession has undoubtedly suffered as a result of the onset of the 2008 economic recession that still hovers above the heads of educational professionals around the world today. Teachers’ salaries have been cut or frozen, teaching hours have increased in several countries without added pay, collective-bargaining rights have been restricted or banned in some countries, and curricula have been trimmed in those “unnecessary” areas; as a result, educational attainment today no longer possesses the well-rounded quality it should provide.

While this seems to be the case across the globe, many teacher unions are pushing back against the fold; specifically, EI’s affiliates in North America, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the National Education Association (NEA) and the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF) have advocated on behalf of the teachers they represent in such a way that affirms that the teaching profession and the concept of teacher unions is still alive and strong. Teachers and unions around the world should look to these examples to as a guide in a time of crisis; in solidarity, teacher unions around the world can fight back against the attack on quality education.

The Chicago case:  American advocacy for strong union movements

The advocacy for teachers’ rights is the main goal of any education union and on the heels of the largest U.S. teacher union strike of the past twenty-five years, voices of nationwide solidarity rose and culminated to reaffirm the strength of the teaching profession. The strike was a response by the Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU), an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), against the educational reforms that aimed to have teachers’ assessments subject to evaluation based on students’ standardised test scores, as well as other issues such as teacher benefits and wage increase freezes. The strike prompted Chicago legislative officials and Mayor Rahm Emanuel to enter immediate negotiations with the CTU.

The reluctant motion to strike was deemed a necessary front after several negotiation attempts between the CTU and school administrators failed over a period of eight months. "This is no way to measure the effectiveness of an educator," CTU President, Karen Lewis said.

She went on to explain that " there are too many factors beyond our control which impact students’ performance on standardized tests, such as: poverty, exposure to violence, homelessness, hunger and other social issues beyond our control."

AFT letter of support

The AFT, along with 1,5 million members’ voices nationwide, issued a swift letter of support for its affiliate. In it, AFT President Randi Weingarten stated: “The American Federation of Teachers and our members across the country stand firmly with the CTU, and we will support its members in their efforts to secure a fair contract that will enable them to give their students the best opportunities.”

She added: “CTU members— the women and men who spend every day with Chicago’s children—want to have their voice and experience respected and valued. They want to be treated as equal partners in making sure every student in Chicago succeeds. That has been the CTU’s guiding philosophy throughout their negotiations, and it remains so on the picket lines. The students, teachers and educational support staff - and the city of Chicago - deserve a school system that works for everyone. In the end, that is what this strike is all about.”

NEA solidarity

Another national voice that rose in solidarity with the CTU came in the form of a letter from National Education Association (NEA) President Dennis Van Roekel: “On behalf of over 3 million National Education Association members across the country, I am writing to express our solidarity with you and your fellow Chicago Teachers Union members.   The fact that more than 90 percent of your membership participated in the strike authorization vote is incredible.  This level of participation illustrates how deeply your membership cares about providing the best possible atmosphere for learning and student development, and we salute you.  You are on the frontlines – giving students the tools they need to succeed in school and in life.  I hope for a quick resolution so that you can get back to doing what you love—providing great public schools for the students of Chicago.”

The stand that the CTU took to support their teachers, as well as the national voices heard on their behalf from the AFT and the NEA, is a distinct example of how a strong education union movement can strengthen the teaching profession; however, movements aren’t the only front that teacher unions need to consider when it comes to advocating for a strong teaching profession. EI’s Canadian affiliates, the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF), have implemented policies and actions centered on their belief that “teacher unions should play an active role in the preparation of new teachers both pre-service and at the commencement of service.”

EI Solidarity

EI stands in solidarity with both the CTU and its affiliate, the AFT. “EI represents the voice of teachers worldwide, and Chicago’s teachers need to be heard,” said EI General Secretary Fred van Leeuwen. “Teachers’ job security should not suffer as a result of poor education reforms. Quality education is contingent upon quality, effective teachers, whose rights should not be deprived of them. Chicago’s teachers deserve a fair system of evaluation as well as appropriate pay and benefits.”

Canada takes steps to maintain the teaching profession

Attracting young teachers is an essential element for maintaining the longevity of the teaching profession; and, on the flip side, the allure of the teaching profession is undoubtedly subject to the availability of opportunities for young teachers to maintain their skills throughout their professional careers without hindrance to their pay.

CTF unwavering advocacy for the teaching profession

CTF Communications Director, Francine Filion, has elaborated on the CTF’s [via their affiliates’] involvement with maintaining the allure of the teaching profession:

“Many of our teacher unions in Canada:

·         sit on faculty councils to determine education program content at universities;

·         participate in presentations to pre-service teachers within their education program;

·         provide introductory help sessions for first year teachers;

·         are active in mentorship programs, often in partnership with employers; and

·         take part in the development and roll-out of teacher induction programs.”

She went on to explain that “teacher unions have a role to play in the development and dissemination of resource materials related to teaching as a career and all information should enhance the image of the teacher and the teaching profession. Teacher unions are advocates for on-going professional development for their members. Many successful events and conferences targeted at maintaining currency of teacher skills are organised by teacher unions themselves. Some Canadian teacher unions have days provided for professional upgrading work provided in statute as a responsibility of the teachers’ organisation (e.g. Alberta).”

Canadian education unions provide support for beginning teachers

In Alberta, Canada, CTF affiliate, the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA), offers a mentorship program to beginning teachers for the purposes of “helping beginning teachers to become more acculturated to the profession and to grow professionally. The Association offers staff support to assist locals and school jurisdictions in organising mentorship programs for beginning teachers. One of the most effective strategies is to pair a beginning teacher with a veteran teacher in their subject, grade or school. Using such strategies as collegial support, reflective practice and collaborative learning, the program provides protégés and mentors with opportunities for professional growth and development. Evaluation of the program shows that both the protégés as well as the mentors are convinced that the mentorship experience, as part of a comprehensive induction program, improves their teaching practice and student learning (Alberta Teachers Association).” ATA “Healthy Interactions Program”

The ATA also supports teachers with a program called “The Healthy Interactions Program”, which trains all staff in the jurisdiction in the communication and conflict-resolution skills they need to handle parental complaints and other concerns. Participants finish the program with increased confidence in dealing with concerns.

The “Healthy Interactions Program” has four different modules of implementation:

  1. Understanding Conflicts in Schools:This module will give participants a greater understanding of conflict and conflict resolution. The conflict cycle is discussed, and participants identify factors that increase resolution resistance. Core conflict is separated from complicating factors. Interest-based framing is used to define underlying interests, as this often makes it easier to resolve conflict.
  2. Communication Skills:This module will reinforce participants’ existing skills and allow them to develop and practise new communication skills to deal with conflict.
  3. The Healthy Interactions Process:This module teaches participants how to implement a district-wide template for handling concerns in a consistent, comprehensive and interest-based manner that is fair to everyone.
  4. An Ethos of Good Faith:All community members must know that concerns are resolved in an interest-based manner that is fair to everyone. This module shows participants how to develop a district-wide public relations plan for improving interactions between all parties.”

ETFO “Survive and Thrive” Programme

Another CTF affiliate, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), supports beginning teachers through its programme “Survive and Thrive,” a free on-line conference for all teachers in their first five years. This programme offers downloadable classroom resources, keynote presentations by experts, useful web-links and much more. The ETFO-developed book club facilitators’ guides are provided for five of these resources: “Making Math Happen in the Primary Years, Making Math Happen in the Junior Years, Classroom Beginnings, Teaching for Deep Understanding, and The Class That Reads.”  These guides are useful for locals who choose to run a book club for their members during the year. The conference and more detailed information concerning its 2011-2012 agenda may be found here.

AEFO “A la Découverte” Award

The Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens(AEFO), another of CTF affiliates, has developed an award-winning tool kit for beginning teachers by the name of “Ala Découverte” providing new teachers with the necessary information and professional advice they need to guide them during their first years in education. It is structured to help beginning teachers meet the many challenges of teaching. It provides suggestions for managing class sizes and guidelines for establishing good rapport with both students as well as their parents. “Ala Découverte” also provides ways by which new teachers can learn about AEFO, its operation and its services. More information as well as the tool kit itself may be found here.

Lastly, CTF affiliate, the Sasquatchan Teachers’ Union has composed an extensive list of resources for beginning teachers on their trade union website. The site aims to alleviate new teachers from the daunting endeavour of beginning careers in the classroom. The online resource guide aims to disseminate information, tools and published resources to that will help new teachers to better navigate their profession. The resource guide contains publications such as “Taking Your Place in the Professional Community”—a PDF handbook for beginning teachers, or “Creating a Supportive Environment”—an administrator’s handbook for working with beginning teachers, among others. The online resource guide may be found here.

EI supports the CTF initiative towards better acclimating beginning teachers to the profession. Every teacher should have an equal voice and the support of a network of other teachers. Education unions should also provide that network and strengthen those voices, and through its efforts, the CTF is clearly affirming the strength of and capabilities of an education union.

Controversial merit pay

Merit-based pay, or pay determined by performance-related factors such as the case of students’ test scores being used as a basis to evaluate Chicago’s teachers, is poor method of compensation that is being introduced education systems more and more. It is a way to “limit the effectiveness of an educator,” as previously stated by CTU President Karen Lewis, essentially by means of paying teachers less to do more. Merit pay holds teachers responsible for several factors beyond their control, such as a student’s socio-economic status, family struggles, or inadequately funded learning environment.

The CTF is in firm opposition to the “merit-pay” system, as indicated in their by-law 2.4.5 on compensation:

·         teachers should be paid according to a schedule based on qualifications and teaching experience which provides salaries high enough to attract and retain the services of well-qualified professional teachers; and

·         teacher compensation should not be based on any "pay for performance" or "merit pay" scheme.

As indicated in the report on the Canadian Delegation for the International Summit on the Teaching Profession in New York in March 2011, research done by Dr.Ben Levin (Canada Research Chair in Education Leadership and Policy at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto) showed conclusively that the merit pay concept is a flawed and ineffective approach to teacher compensation. The full report on the Canadian Delegation may be found here.

EI supports the CTF position on merit pay as an unfair, insufficient system of evaluating and compensating teachers and the unfair evaluation practices that have recently threatened Chicago’s teachers’ jobs is a direct example of this. Teachers should be regarded as essential instruments for providing their students with a quality education. They should therefore be compensated adequately so that they are able to perform their jobs effectively.

By Abigail McGinnis, Research Unit, Education International (EI)