The OTHER cost

I teach high school mathematics.  I love my job, which I believe is much more about helping students learn how to persevere in the face of challenge as it is solving equations. And so I think what I do is really important.

I’ve been doing a lot of persevering lately.

You see, I’m a public school teacher in Nova Scotia, where the Liberal government as led by Stephen McNeil has been laying siege to all public unions, and teachers in particular.  Much like our orange neighbour to the south, Mr. McNeil delights in using a lot of spin and angry rhetoric.  And much like 45, it seems like Mr. McNeil is using this bluster to mask an agenda which prioritizes big business at the expense of public services.

The government would have you believe that teachers are greedy. That this is about money.  That we just don’t want to cooperate.

In one sense, they are right – this is about money.  But if this was just about how much teachers get paid, the Glaze Report and the implementation of some of its recommendations would not be causing such panic and dismay among the teaching professionals in this provinces.

Because all along, it’s really been about investing in the things that will directly benefit our students. It’s about more school psychologists and reducing wait times. It’s about making sure that the initiatives in schools actually work before moving on to the next latest-and-greatest fad. It’s about more face-to-face time with students and less time tracking data and triple-justifying professional decisions. It’s about making the education system in Nova Scotia a place that attracts world-class teachers instead of driving them away.

How often do you think a teacher needs to print or copy things as a part of working with students? On any given day in my school, I may not have access to a working printer. There may only be a single working photocopier for more than fifty staff members to share – that is, to try and share during the 35 daily minutes of time that we average to plan, prepare and correct work for the 120 students.

Did you catch that?

My colleagues and I get an average of less than one third of a minute per student each day to try and prepare to give them the best education we possibly can.  Which is exactly why, as an experienced teacher with a good library of personal and shared resources to draw upon, I still typically put in 60 hours a week on my job. And I’m okay with that – because I love my students and I love my job. “My kids” (and yours) are worth all that unpaid overtime.

But since we are considering worth, let’s get back to that idea of cost.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that while all of this is going down, the rightly-upset public school teachers of Nova Scotia also have to make a significant decision about our retirement finances.  You see, a few decades ago this province couldn’t afford to give teachers a well-deserved salary increase to instead a deferred-salary arrangement was negotiated wherein the teachers of the time accepted lower annual incomes to help the government balance the books, in exchange for a one-time payment at retirement.  Over the years, this deferred salary (now termed the “Long Service Award” or LSA) has saved the taxpayers of this province millions – perhaps even BILLIONS – of dollars.  It has also been the justification for accepting other concessions in later contract negotiations, such as changes to our pensions which have not been to our advantage.

Flash-forward to February 2017, when the McNeil government passed legislation to impose a contract on teachers which included stripping this benefit from teachers.

It’s now one year later, teachers are being asked to make a decision whether or not to take a payout of the LSA monies we are entitled to now or to wait until retirement and hope that the option to collect the truncated LSA will still exist.  Very few teachers are optimistic enough to believe that the same government which has refused to value our profession or our opinions will leave that option on the table.  And given that there are also concerns about our pensions, smart financial planning says to take the money now and invest it under our own control.

But this leaves us wide open to once again being tarred with a “Greedy Teacher” smear campaign again. Just wait – accountants for the McNeil government are likely already crunching the numbers to publicize the “cost” of cashing out all of the service awards. Someone has probably already written a speech about how the funds going to “retirement bonuses” cannot be spent in classrooms.  But remember, prior to Bill 75 this was already accounted for in the education budget and it represents a significantly smaller burden on taxpayers than the raises that were given up in return.  The rest is just spin.

The real question that we all need to ask is: how does the McNeil government plan to reckon the OTHER COST of all this labour unrest? The cost of the brain-drain as dozens or perhaps hundreds of the finest teachers in this province admit that they feel too threatened, too bullied and too brow-beaten to stay in a place where we are not respected and head to other jurisdictions that hold teachers in higher regard?  The cost of  the lost contributions to this province that would have been made by the family members who also move away? The cost to the students who never benefit from the experience of those teachers? The opportunities that are lost . . . the connections never forged . . . the students who don’t have an advocate to fight for their education . . . the impact of the OTHER COST will be felt throughout Nova Scotian society for decades to come and it can’t be tracked in a spreadsheet.

And that is why, disheartened as we are, we are raising our voices again.  We are pleading for some sanity. Some respect. Some foresight.

We are pleading for the people of this province to tell Stephen McNeil and friends that the OTHER COST to our students and to their futures is too high.

2 thoughts on “The OTHER cost

  1. Why don’t you send this as an op-ed to the Chronicle Herald? You have explained beautifully the link between the origins of the $ problem and the disrespect shown to teachers which will inevitably lead to a teacher shortage. It probably already has. The public needs to understand this more fully.


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