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From the Archives: A tough NUT to crack

September 26, 2017 Maggie Shane, ATA Archivist

John Barnett cut his teeth on teacher advocacy in the UK

Leading up to its official 100th anniversary in June 2018, the Alberta Teachers’ Association is celebrating its history through a number of initiatives, one of which is this column. Curated by archivist Maggie Shane and appearing in each issue of the ATA News this year, this column will feature significant moments and individuals in the Association’s history as well as interesting artifacts or documents from the Association’s archives.


John Walker Barnett’s contributions to the teaching profession in Alberta make for a long and storied history. But where did Barnett acquire and perfect those formidable skills in pedagogy, administration, oratory and organization that made him such a potent force in Alberta’s early history? The answer is surely informed by his work ethic, character and constancy of vision. Nevertheless, we are also well rewarded by giving some attention to his time with the United Kingdom’s National Union of Teachers (NUT).

Having graduated from Westminster College in 1901, Barnett took up his duties as an educator sure in the conviction that teachers’ working conditions, salaries and professional status should be secured through collective bargaining and mutual support. By the time Barnett entered the profession, the NUT was in its 31st year, having formed in June of 1870 as the National Union of Elementary Teachers.

Teachers had organized in opposition to the practice of paying teachers according to students’ examination scores. From the outset, NUT advocacy encompassed student welfare as well as that of teachers. By the turn of the 19th century, the NUT had achieved compulsory primary education and raised mandatory schooling to age 12. These improvements characterized the growing strength of the United Kingdom’s teaching profession in 1911, when Barnett sailed for Canada.

As writer Shelley Trigg noted in the January/February 1993 issue of the ATA Magazine, Barnett encountered a profession “fraught with problems: wages were low and often infrequently paid; there were no salary schedules; and collective bargaining was unheard of.”

Having been active in the NUT as a local union president, Barnett was uniquely qualified and suited, in experience, talent and commitment, to begin the heavy work of raising up Alberta’s teachers and to build, in the image of the NUT, a strong, forward-looking, resilient and effective profession. After all, Barnett had been a first-hand witness to the explosive growth and rise in influence of the NUT. According to its website, the organization was founded by 400 teachers and grew rapidly between 1895 and 1910, doubling in size to 68,000 members.

Barnett’s energy and tenacity were sustained, not only through a personality disposed to leadership, but by a singular vision for Alberta teachers. He was fully seized of a vision of the possible. He had worked and lived the NUT’s success and now set about enacting, embodying and demanding change for Alberta’s far-flung and isolated teachers. ❚

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