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ATA president to lead Canada's teachers

August 30, 2016 Cory Hare, ATA News Managing Editor

By this time next year, Mark Ramsankar will have transitioned from his role as president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association to the presidency of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF). A CTF vice-president for the past five years, Ramsankar was elected president-designate of the Ottawa-based organization July 15 at its annual general meeting in Montreal. His two-year presidential term will begin July 1, 2017.

Ramsankar won in a tight, hard-fought race with one other candidate, Jim Dinn, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers’ Association. His election makes Ramsankar the first Alberta teacher to fill the role of CTF president since 1979. Because of this development, this school year will be Ramsankar’s last as ATA president, a role he’s held since 2013.

Ramsankar sat down with the ATA News to share his thoughts on his upcoming role.

How does it feel to be selected as the next CTF president?

It’s exciting. I think the challenges ahead make it really exciting. The idea that we haven’t had Alberta’s voice in this position since ’79 is really big. The idea of carrying the voice of over 200,000 teachers ... every now and then it makes me step back with just a little bit of awe.

What do you think it means for Alberta teachers to have one of their own in the role?

Alberta’s voice has always been present and prevalent at the CTF table. I’ve followed in a long line of Alberta vice-presidents.

Our stature across the country is well known. I think having Alberta and a western voice in Ontario is a big thing. Western Canada — Alberta, specifically — has a very unique flavour, as do all of the jurisdictions, and being able to say, "This is Alberta’s voice speaking for Canada," is huge.

Did you ever imagine that you could rise to such a position?

No. I’m still struck with a sense of awe with the experiences I’ve had in the position I’m in now.

When you’re not afraid to express your views and you’re willing to back it with time and energy, it’s essentially my colleagues that have asked me to put myself out there, to take those steps. When you have that kind of support it makes it easier to consider challenges in the elected realm and go after it.

Opportunity knocked all along the way in my political career through the ATA and my work with CTF. I’m very happy that I chose to take the steps that I have. I don’t want to look back over my entire career at some point and say "I wish I would have tried."

Why did you run?

I think that CTF can have greater impact across Canada than it does at present. I’d like to see it have a little bit more influence than what it has at present. CTF has a great deal of presence in the international education community and the phrase that’s been used, because it’s a smaller organization, is that we punch above our weight. My goal is to take the CTF to a new weight class.

What does the role entail?

The president liaises with all teachers’ federations and unions across the country. We lend our voice to public policy and law across the country, and we also link Canada to the international education community.

We work closely with Education International and the programs that they have. We let other teacher organizations around the world know that a quarter million Canadian teachers support public education and the direction that they’re going in their countries.

What will you be doing to get ready between now and when your term starts?

I’ll be working on my command of the French language. That is a major piece for me in terms of preparation. Whether I’ll get there remains to be seen but I’m very cognizant of the fact that, as CTF is a bilingual organization, it would be beneficial for me to work on my French language.

I’ll be seeking guidance as the year progresses. I’ll be having frank conversations with individuals that have been in the [president’s] chair to get a better understanding of what types of activities I’ll be doing and roles I’ll be playing.

At this point, do you have a sense what your priorities will be when you do take over the president’s role?

My priorities will be to open communication with CTF and the provincial organizations. That will be one.

I would venture to say that the education issues that we are facing here in Alberta are very similar to the ones that are happening across Canada. Governments that are creating education or continuing education funding in austerity budgets — this is a very big issue across the country. The role of accountability versus responsibility for teachers’ organizations through high-stakes testing, the neoliberal view of education being delivered on a dime is a big problem. The fight for public funds for public education — this is a universal theme across Canada.

We’ve got three provinces that are going into similar fights with their governments around the concept of task forces to improve teaching excellence with recommendations that are not beneficial for the teachers’ organizations — very similar to the fight we had in Alberta three years ago.

There is the [international] issue of political unrest ... where teachers are being pulled off the street and arrested.

I am very interested in solidifying Canada’s role with the International Summit on the Teaching Profession and how unions work with government as opposed to being in adversarial roles to further education agendas.

Do you have a sense of what you’ll do after your term as CTF president?

At this point, no. The greatest fear that I have is what type of impact is this going to have on my family. My children are still school aged; my wife just became a principal. Our lives are really going to feel the impact of my moving and spending a great deal of time in Ottawa and on the road. I’ve got a year to work those routines out with my family. Once we have a handle on that, I’ll be able to look potentially at what the future would be.

I’ve never been one to look too far into the future. The future will unfold.

Would I have aspirations? Looking at potentially working with Education International — that’s an area of interest to me. Is it something I’m focused on and grooming myself towards right now? Maybe in the back of my head, but it’s not at the front. It won’t dictate decisions that I’m making. ❚

Editor’s note: Interview responses have been edited for length.

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