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Teachers and the ATA need to stand together for public education

Q & A

June 14, 2022 Dennis Theobald, ATA Executive Secretary


Question: Now that the vote is in on the mediator’s recommendations, I am very disappointed that there will be little if anything in the resulting collective agreement to improve teaching and learning conditions, including curriculum, class size and complexity. What does the Alberta Teachers’ Association intend to do now to respond to these very real concerns?

Answer: The reality is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve effective improvements to classroom conditions through conventional collective bargaining processes alone. In fact, the things that teachers most want for their students and themselves, including substantial and sustained reductions in class size, improvements in supports for students with special learning needs, appropriate inclusion of teachers in curriculum design and implementation, appropriate funding for public education and meaningful and constructive approaches to student evaluation, have never been, and likely will never be, realized through efforts at the bargaining table alone.

I will hazard to say that in my 21 years with the Association, highlights of which include managing political and media relations and supporting negotiations during the 2002 strike, the 2007 pension agreement and the 2012 agreement that extended to many bargaining units previously unattainable limits on assignable or instructional time, whatever substantial improvements have been achieved in the broader conditions of teachers’ employment were only achieved by co-ordinating focused political advocacy with collective bargaining. 

And in every case where we did experience some measure of success, political advocacy served to define and advance the broad scope of the solution being sought, and secure a commitment by the province to act. Bargaining then provided a mechanism to crystalize that solution in collective agreements in a manner that was enforceable and upon which future incremental improvements could then be based. In short, advancing teacher interests, and the broader interests of public education, required both collective political engagement, advocacy and action as well as collective bargaining and labour action.

The German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz captured the underlying spirit of this observation in his treatise, On War, when he stated that “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” Clausewitz intended to emphasize that diplomacy among nation-states (this is what he meant by “politics”) does not cease with the outbreak of war but continues in other forms and, conversely, that the termination of military action does not mean the end of political processes. 

In our context today, the conclusion of the bargaining process with the acceptance of the mediator’s recommendation for settlement does not mean an end to our efforts to realize our broader objectives to improve the lives of teachers and students, but rather a shift to an alternative and potentially more effective mode of action, directed to obtaining those objectives that we could not, and could not hope to, obtain at the bargaining table.

The broad outline of that alternative approach was set out at the recently concluded 2022 Annual Representative Assembly. Resolution 3-28/22 directs the Association “to initiate a broadly based outwardly-facing program of research, expert consultation, public dialogue and member outreach to examine the academic, social and emotional challenges facing students in the post-pandemic period with the objective of identifying potential education policy responses to improve student well being and success.” 

Although its implications may not be apparent at first glance, this directive will have the Association move assertively into a space that is currently being monopolized by government. The intention is to foster a public dialogue with thought leaders, classroom teachers, parents and members of the public on the expectations and path forward for public education as students and teachers emerge into the post-pandemic world. The difference between the process we will initiate and the “kabuki consultations” put up by the minister of education is that ours will be genuine, informed, honest, open, fearless and with nary a non-disclosure agreement or gag order in sight. 

I am confident that if we build this, Albertans from all walks of life will come forward. They will speak with passion and conviction about the public education system that they deeply value and they will join with teachers in creating an inspiring vision and path forward for our province’s schools.

The outcome of that process will then inform and invigorate the Association’s actions in the run-up to the next provincial election as we advocate to make public education a critical public issue to be addressed by all political parties and candidates seeking office.

To succeed, though, this initiative will take real commitment, not just by the leadership of the Association, but by rank and file members. In recent days, tens of thousands of you expressed your willingness to commit days of effort and to forgo thousands of dollars in pay to achieve outcomes beyond what were available through accepting the mediator’s recommendation for settlement. You will now have an opportunity to act on that stated commitment. And you will be joined in those efforts by tens of thousands more teachers who, while believing that accepting that recommendation was the best alternative available, still want to achieve more for themselves and their students. 

Together we can make 2022/23 the year of public education in provincial politics. Together we can make a difference. ❚

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