Sunday, December 07, 2014

How then to shrug and walk away

Strange as this may seem, since the return to work in BC schools after a long labour dispute, school boards across the province have been asked by the public education employer's association (a government-controlled body called BCPSEA) to give extra vacation time to principals and vice-principals for the perceived extra work-load during the teacher job action and strike. This information was revealed at our local public board meeting on Nov 25th and has been a topic of discussion in BCPSEA circles, among administrators, and among #bced tweeters for some time. I'm not sure how many boards in BC took up this cause, but in my school district it appears to have been a closed-door decision at some point between BCPSEA's request and the Nov 25th board meeting. I guess the board forgot an important and necessary step of releasing the outcome of their talks (the decision to award vacation time), thus putting administrators in an awkward position of being informed of their extra holidays but in theory not being allowed to know about it. Imagine the awkward moment when a principal puts in a leave application for a day off for which he or she is not supposed to be aware.

At any rate, after the public board meeting we now know about it and can begin to consider why it is that managers should receive extra vacation time when employees engage in job action. The irony in this situation is that with empty schools -- almost no staff and no students for 5 weeks -- administrators can hardly be said to be overworked. No doubt concerned parents made their usual phone calls, and everyone left in the building had to scramble when the government ordered report cards to be salvaged from disrupted school year, but I'm at a loss to figure out how this scenario translates into the need for extra vacation time. The conversations I had with principals and vice-principals during the job action (the ones that stopped at the picket line to talk) confirmed this -- they wished us well and acknowledged that it was a bit dull on the inside without staff and students. There were similar comments about Phase 1 -- the modified work-to-rule that preceded the full strike. While management had to pick up extra supervision duties (except for recess, which they cancelled), they also had no staff or committee meetings, no emails with teachers, less paperwork, no involvements with learning teams and other special meetings. There was perhaps some new stress, but no more that what we all felt, especially those having to defer mortgage payments. Maybe it's about danger pay -- there was the prospect of zombies showing up to summer school after all. Adding to the BCPSEA bizarro, we now see that stemming from the same time period when BCPSEA was taking 10% of teachers wages by locking them out of mainly voluntary duties, administrators are being gifted vacation time for... um, for what I'm not quite sure. Who comes up with these things, and which of our trustees voted in favour of this?

Recently I came across a "Michael Fullan" graphic (shown below) from the Nov 14th BCSSA/BCASBO (educational leadership) conference that encouraged districts to pursue "lateral capacity building, a culture of trust and collaboration, and building connections with teachers as activators." At the end of the strike in September we also heard from the BC government that they wanted to patch up the relationship between teachers and the employer after the mudslinging during the job action and the turbulent history going back 12 years. In light of this, I'm trying to think of an angle from which it does appear that BCPSEA's request to compensate management (while each teacher gave up $1000s in wages) seems cynical and ill-timed.

Why do I care? Why should others care? First, there is the fairness of a decision to reward management for a labour dispute -- profiting from another employee group's loss. This is not fair to management -- I know for a fact that many do not want to be put in this position again (administrators were gifted with an extra 5 days vacation during the previous job action in 2011), and it is not fair to teachers. I also care because the decision does not seem like a positive step towards improving our education system and mending relationships, which should be a priority for both school boards and BCPSEA. This sets us back.

As a background note, I have been a public education advocate in earnest for about 4 years, an observer and intercessor on local issues for about 7 years, and an active agent for educational change and mutual accountability for my entire teaching career. My spouse was a local school trustee for the last 3 years and we share many of the same beliefs about how our education system can be improved. That has led to some awkward moments over the last few years because she knows stuff that I can't (and don't want to) know about, so a careful dance has been necessary, and yet we have also discussed the things she can talk about because we are both interested in organizational health and the evolution of education.

She is finished with being a trustee now, and we don't have to walk that line anymore. I can see her stress levels easing off by the day, and I'm even feeling a need in myself to back away from the advocacy role and devote more of my attention to creative pursuits, my family, and my students. Maybe by the time the next labour dispute, teacher strike, or local hot issue flares up we'll both be able to join the ranks of people who are able to shrug, block it off, and carry on our way. Not likely, but definitely worth a shot.

As I have sometime noted at the end of blog posts over the last decade, if anyone has comments, corrections, or concerns with what I've written, please leave a comment below or contact me. Having recently had my hand slapped for apparently saying too much about this topic at the wrong time and place, I thought it was important to craft a "slow" piece on this topic. My thoughts can be summed up in one statement: if the BC Government, BCPSEA, and local boards actually want to rebuild trust and "develop lateral capacity" they need to see these beliefs visited upon all of their decisions that affect the organizations in which we work (together).

Monday, November 24, 2014

There and Back Again

I had the pleasure of spending last week in London and Oxford, England. It was formal and informal pro-d for me, and my first time off the continent since 1988. This was covered in part by the PGDTA PD Fund (the committee approved an amount commensurate with a BC-based conference) and the rest from aeroplan points and what I'll have to think of as an advance on my BCTF signing bonus :)

I attended a "Tolkien symposium" in Oxford, focusing on medieval language, literature, modern philology, and Tolkien's connection to all three. I chased down a few of the haunts of the Inkings (the literary circle that developed around C.S. Lewis), found the grave of William Blake among others, and visited every museum and historical site I could get to with the remaining time. Highlights included the Ashmolean, Bodleian Library, the Wallace Collection, Tower of London, and Portobello Road Market.

As a personal and professional learning experience, I am only beginning to realize how this will influence my approach to "what's important" in Social Studies. For the next time my locally developed course Middle Earth 12 runs, I think I have reckoned what needs to be at the centre of it. More practically, I have some good new stories to tell about aspects of history and culture e.g. English Civil War, WWI, colonization & empire, the London Blitz, the Holocaust, and how modern cities preserve the past without being blind to progress.

I took over 1000 pics, and tweeted out some of them with captions. I have archived these at for you to see.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

End of an era

This week marked the final nail in the coffin for Apple computers in School District 57. My school's remaining iMacs, and all other remaining Apple computers in the district will shortly be "spiked" and sent out as scrap.

Back in 2010 the School District's senior management decided that two computer platforms (Mac and PC) were too difficult to support, and they asked trustees to make ours a PC-only district. The proposed move was initially slipped quietly midst a mountain of budget cuts ands school closures, but urges from teachers delayed it for a few weeks -- educational and financial arguments, case studies, and research stalled the decision but did not end up making a difference. The school board went ahead with the "single platform directive" and talked about a plan of some kind that would address the concerns of Mac users who were concerned about software, services, innovation, and diversity in educational technology (e.g. not looking forward to one-size-fits-all). While the plan never came, the remaining Macs were allowed to remain in use, but with no upgrades to the operating system, repairs to hardware, or renewal of software. Four years later, however, the lack of OS upgrades means that some of our schools' mac computers are now vulnerable to viruses such as the BashBug. A quick decision was made this week to pull the remaining Macs off the network in case this threat became real. I guess the thinking was that going 100% PC means we'll never have a virus problem again, right?

Like many other school jurisdictions, we have been using Apple computers in education since the 1970s -- for many that remember their school days from yesteryear, Apple and Macintosh is their main association with computing and information technology classes. As a high school student in the 1980s I remember figuring out how to use the "Finder," programming in BASIC, and playing classic games from Pong to Oregon Trail ("You have died from dysentery").  As a teacher in the 1990s I saw the potential in Macs for an elegant approach to resource design that was not available on a PC -- albeit this meant ClarisWorks on OS9. Others went much further than this and used Macs to experiment with local area networks and school servers -- this was the time when teachers had free rein to make technology decisions. In the 2000s Apple had the go-to Operating Systems and software for creative design, layout & publishing programs, graphic manipulation, movie editing, and sound engineering. I cut my teeth on Macs as a teacher trying to use technology for more than the flashy gimmick or suped-up overhead projector -- I used tech to challenge my students, develop my storytelling ability, and build solid learning resources for myself and colleagues across the district, province, and apparently China (I've received a few emails from teachers at BC Offshore Schools asking to use my Social Studies junk).

During this time I was fortunate to have many opportunities and district support to teach other teachers about digital technology in the classroom and experiment freely with what we called "transformative educational technology." From 1999-2007 (ish) we had strong technology leadership at the district level and an exemplary standard of collaboration between teachers and management on the vision for integrating technology and learning. It was a time of growing "digital confidence" among teachers, and (at no small cost to the district), and we encouraged teachers and their students to immerse in new technology. I can't help but wonder whether the demise of Macs is a reflection of what has been going on with technology more recently. Our district has had a rough go with educational technology over the last 5-7 years, with many budget cutbacks and restrictive policies creating a tricky landscape to navigate for teachers looking to innovate and push the technology envelope in their classrooms. The "cost-cutting" measure of removing Macs from our district is just one of the ways in which this landscape  has changed. Another example is the global introduction of the iPad in 2010, just after the decision to go PC-only. The iPad's range of educational apps and uses by students and teachers grew exponentially during a period where our district was turning down requests for pilot projects and innovation grants related to mobile devices. Although the iPads were (are) PC-compatable, the fact they are made by Apple put them on a do-not-purchase list and we never got to see the impact on learning that these revolutionary tools have had in other educational jurisdictions. The confusion over new technology in general has led to an unofficial ban on all tablet purchases for school -- I'm hoping this is a temporary blinder and that schools wanting to innovate will not have roadblocks set up on their technology plans. In the whole scheme of things, this concern over technology is not that big of a deal -- we often deal with much more profound problems in the classroom than whether we get a say in the computers we use. Our district does a a good job at tackling some of these other problems, e.g. we have a lot of time and expertise invested in our response to poverty and at-risk students. Technology has been allowed to slip down the priority list, though, and acknowledging that it really is an end of an era might be the first step in figuring out what comes next. The locus of new technology paradigms will not come from district plans or bizarre policies that restrict purchases, it will come from the interesting work that has been going on for years within small bunkers of creativity that have largely been off the grid or under the radar. The expected financial savings from going "single platform" were not realized by getting rid of Macs, they were found by reducing tech budgets at every school and lowering the expectations for what we want to get out of educational technology. Maybe we are at the end of a chilly climate for the support of innovative.  Seriously, we have regressed 10 years. I suppose it was found that to be too complicated and expensive to actually chase new trends in edtech, so we just stopped trying at the district level.  Classroom by classroom, in small cells and pockets of "what if," we keep trying.

Long story short, I have built my teaching practice (the digital part, anyways) around Mac stuff, and it is sad to see the district support finally dry up. Like others, I have and will continue to buy my own (Apple) technology to supplement the "vanilla PC" offerings from the underfunded school district. Apparently this is part of the plan -- students and staff have been encouraged to "BYOD" (Bring Your Own Device). This reflects the reality that each person prefers something different and most already owns the technology they prefer to use. It is also another example of how students, parents, and teachers are subsidizing public education in BC.

Mobile devices (phones, media tablets) are becoming ubiquitous in schools and have helped fill the gaps left by shrinking tech budgets and the extirpation of Macs. We used to beg for a few digital cameras and video recorders, and now most kids have both in their pockets, not to mention an instant connection to the interwebs. Computer labs (Mac or PC) are becoming unnecessary for the majority of tasks we ask our students to complete. I suppose it is not fair to complain too much -- the opportunities for seemless integration of technology have never been better. I do still complain that the decision to remove Macs was made with shaky financial data that was challenged by multiple groups of educators. One of the arguments made was that a "mostly Mac" school (mine, in fact), produced more requests for tech support than any other. When we examined the actual tech request log data, we found that the PCs in the building generated twice as many tech support requests than the Macs. Another secondary school produced a cost-benefit analysis that showed the Macs cost less over time (hardware lasted longer) and delivered more educational value (e.g. price of software) than PCs with similar set-ups and functions. Ahh, bygones.... these arguments and the research was ignored.

I guess if I have to complain it would be about how we educate ourselves about these opportunities and how we've placed barriers on innovation. In 2014, this is no longer a platform problem. These days, there are only a few differences in the range of educational potential between Macs and PCs -- in fact most teachers need only basic office and web-based software, an internet browser, and access to a printer. And while there are a few really cool things that work better on a Mac, in the main it is only "high-end users" that get bummed out at the loss of Macs in schools. Many more, though, are miffed that the district will not really answer the question about why PC-compatable iPads have been banned. As we hear more about how "21st Century Learning" will be empowered by technology, we continue to hope that the creativity and energy among educators and students for this work will be matched by an equally supportive vision at the district and provincial level.

The loss of Macs is a good time to reflect on the fact that many teachers and students have reached a saturation point with technology and look for more tactile and embodied ways to stir learning. The digital overload of the last 15 years (not to mention the money it costs to keep up with trends) has led to burnout and a rejection of tech-for-tech's sake among many educators. I'm seeing a lot more emphasis on mind-body connection, critical thinking, outdoor education, and "made" stuff in classrooms -- a deliberate attempt to unplug, regain all of our senses, and practice skills that foster self-reliance instead of media dependency.

Another issue exists with our final good-bye to Macs. Our school district currently has no strategy for repurposing surplused equipment. This means that discarded books, computers, and other items are sent out for scrap or recycling rather than reused, sold, or donated. In the last four years too much equipment has been trashed that should have had a second life. We have had many offers by volunteers to wipe & restore computers and donate them to needy people, but these offers have been rebuked. At my school, a brand new lab of thirty aluminum alloy 21" iMacs were purchased in 2010. These will now be "spiked" (so they can't be used or mined for information) and discarded as a waste product. When our school is tight for funds and facing program and service cuts (like everywhere in BC), it is truly nasty to be dumping $35,000 worth of computers that have a lot of life left in them.

Alas... the past is not always an indicator of the future; maybe something new is around the corner that will make all hardware and software conversations seem antiquated. For now, I'll take what I can from the past. Here's to almost 40 years of Apples in schools, and to the great teaching and learning that I've had in the last 18 years with some really gorgeous technology and wonderfully curious students. I'm thankful for a very cool job and the freedom to experiment with curriculum, teaching strategies, and even sometimes with the technology.

Final thoughts from Apple: 30 Years of Mac Ads

Friday, September 26, 2014

AESN Case Study

Network of Inqiury and Innovation
Aboriginal Enhancement Schools Network grant - project summary

School: D.P. Todd Secondary
District: SD57 Prince George
Area of focus: Student Level
Inquiry Team Members: Glen Thielmann, with support from Deb Koehn

Question / focus area: 
The Language and Landscape Program: blended learning course combination project: English 11 and Geography 12 together for a full morning each day with opportunities for flexible blocks where some students came for seminar and the rest worked independently at school or at home.

1) Transitions – preparing students for new learning environments (blended learning, independent inquiry, cross-curricular, small group “seminar” settings including student-led)
2) Making modern connections to Traditional Knowledge (cultural and ecological) 
3) Place-based learning (incorporating field study)

Students recognized that blended learning was a skill that, if mastered, could be very useful. They were very honest about how challenging it would be to own their learning time and be responsible for meeting outcomes with minimal supervision during the time set aside for “flex work.” Many students were unable to use flex time to our satisfaction, and, more surprisingly, to their own satisfaction. They found some of the cross-curricular and “identity-rich” work challenging – very much an indicator that while we often ask our students to think outside the box, or to put themselves into their projects, we have much to learn about doing this on a daily basis and in a comprehensive, dynamic manner. Put simply, the students were good at small tasks and discreet outcomes, but synthesis and broad connections were somewhat elusive.

We set out to see what happens when conventional English and Geography curriculum came together in a context that emphasized skills and inquiries that are currently more common in post-secondary environments - blended and independent learning, cross-curricular project work, field work, and discussion-based seminars that are co-facilitated by teacher and students.

The main inquiry was on the work of students in the Language and Landscape program but this was continued with similar cross-curricular learning in a subsequent locally developed course called Middle Earth 12.

Our hunch was that students are often challenged to work harder or get more organized, but not often challenged to take charge of their own learning agenda. We wondered whether mind/body connection would be the way in to this discussion. Students have a somewhat better handle on what it means to own their physical development (e.g., diet, exercise, choices about drinking/drugs). Their educational experience, however, is largely constructed by others and seems designed to receive passively. In a broader context, we wondered about whether our school and district were ready for significant experimentation with “schooling.” For example, were they ready for blended learning?

New professional learning: 
We’ve learned that it takes an incredible amount of something to make a system-wide change. That something could be:

a) Sticktoitiveness – eventually people understand what you’re trying to do
b) Collaboration – having a groundswell of support and shared work towards a goal
c) Luck, or knowing the right people or being at the right place at the right time

In the case of our blended learning experiment, we obviously didn’t have enough of this “something.” Despite assurances from the start from the local curriculum department and our principal, and support from the Ministry of Education that what we were planning was exactly what they wanted to see, the flextime component of the course (the heart of our blended learning model) was shut down by the district senior management. Ironically, a similar “flex” approach is being used by two entire secondary schools in our district as a means of scheduling tutorial time for students and collaboration time for teachers. We suppose the individual classroom was the wrong scale for the application of this idea. 

There were also many cool things we took away from the course – “Good, Bad, and Ugly” of Social Learning, stages of student project development in problem-based learning, using narrative self-inquiry as a tool to explore established curriculum, use of an online program, making community and parent contacts to support learning (rather than just to ask for stuff or send/receive communications). We also learned more about local Lheidli T’Enneh culture through two of our field trips, one of which was student facilitated.

Taking action: 
Aside from what has been mentioned above (e.g. blended learning design), part of the overall strategy was to encourage students to think more about what their course work and education looks like when they settle in to a few good questions about themselves, the topic, and ways they can connect the two. We did this in two main ways. First, there was an ongoing invitation to add to the course blog (response to prompts, many about the process of learning over the product of learning). Second, we did small group brainstorm & poster paper shares on every aspect of learning design, starting with student expectations for themselves and the teacher, and progressing to their deep questions around the purpose of education and the reasons why school has been set up the way it is.

A complete list of strategies would exhaust this exercise... much of it is included in the course blogs. We incorporated field study (e.g. Ancient Forest, Exploration Place, UNBC), and we allowed time and freedom to return to a theme that arose during the brainstorming work at the beginning of the course (connection to place – topophilia).

Students definitely got a handle on the extent to which their learning style and habits would support their plans for post-secondary (school or work). The foray into blended learning (curtailed after intervention from the school district) helped expose a gap in our school system: are our senior students ready to take on their own learning in a partially supervised setting? The answer, or course, was varied and coloured by individual bias (some students were hard on themselves when reflecting, others were not). The feedback was collected in conversations, exit forms, and on the course blog(s).

While our trip to the Ancient Forest was the most fun and physically/metaphysically satisfying, the trip to UNBC to participate in a “day of Geography” was the most rewarding according to the students. Many of them had no idea what university life was like and found the tours, talks, and round tables with faculty and students enlightening.

We’ve learned that one should not try to break the mold on every item. We took on too much. We would suggest that other schools look at one new focus per year per course or program, and try to get all stakeholders together to agree on parameters before it starts.

We were so glad that we included parents in the process – they were very clear about what we were trying to do and this helped convince the students to push their own comfort zones. They knew that the teacher and their parent’s goals were the same.

Monday, June 30, 2014

network breakdown

I saw this teacher/zombie meme on twitter today... perhaps referring to the emotional stone faced by educators in BC right now, or maybe a reference to the Zombie Summer School that the BC government deems an "essential service." This stirs up some thoughts about how educator networks are under strain.

Last night I attended a meeting for the my local teacher union and was struck by a few things that the teachers there seemed to have in common: 1) continued anxiety over the unresolved labour situation in BC Schools. 2) humour, creativity, and hope as we discussed what job action, if any, would be useful and necessary in summer. 3) the need to get some closure on the school year, to put things in perspective, and reserve some energy for the other good things in life that aren't locked out or on strike.

After, I had a short online chat with a Ft. St. James colleague Kelley Inden who had many of the same thoughts. She is a remarkable teacher and storyteller, with obvious commitment to her students. She is also one of many teachers who closely examined BC's new Education Plan, got past the rhetoric, ignored the parts that had a political agenda, and found areas that resonated with her own practice. For example, her efforts to transform assessment and nudge all students to think critically show a willingness to experiment and cast off old practices when they no longer make sense.

Much of the work of teachers is connected by the networks they share. Some are face-to-face, like the union executive meeting I attended, and others are online, like the circle of educators that folks like Kelley and I have happened across via twitter in the last couple of years. These groups don't have to be close, we don't even have to like each other, but we keep gnawing away at what drives our teaching and what inspires learning. Real community (like family) is something different, and can survive hardships like labour strife, but networks are engineered entities and relationships built on function are are highly susceptible to redesign, for better or worse.

This lockout/strike/negotiation has been hard on networks. We say things we probably shouldn't, we second-guess our efforts, we deal mostly in anger over an intransigent contract-stripping government and sometimes the direction our union takes, or individual members therein. Anti-teacher trolls step up their efforts to equate the bctf with communism, teacher trolls flame the media for not being compeltely sympathetic to our cause, and a variety of other kooks come out of the weeds to embarrass us in other ways. Our government employer and education minister make statements in the media that wouldn't stand up to a modicum of fact-checking, district administrators seem content to carry out the government's directives without protest, and school board trustees seem confined to writing letters and offering condolences via social media. No doubt in the midst of this some strategies are working (for both "sides") but it will be a pyrrhic victory regardless of the outcome -- the educational landscape is currently being scorched, most visibly in the way we treat each other.

Longer term, we worry about how the widening gulf between teachers and all arms of the provincial government will play out vis-a-vis education reform. If anyone had any doubts about embedded cost-offloading, privatization, and de-professionalization of teachers in the BC EdPlan, they've found plenty more evidence in the last few weeks. One example is the government's use of the curriculum-focused @bcedplan twitter feed to broadcast bargaining messages from the employer with "funny" math about teacher wages. Other moves, like the bizarre lockout, the dumbing down of "essential" exams, and the summer school directive that actually excluded all (living) students in BC, have further alienated future efforts to build common language and actions for education reform. These moves have also shown that the government is more interested in punishing the teacher union than it is in a settlement. The middlemen in this battle, school administrators, have been hosed from either side... set up for failure by district admin and the BCPSEA in regards to the lockout, marks, summer school, and picket lines, and then vilified by teachers for being virtually silent on any of the education and funding issues facing our education system.

In short, the bad relationship in BC Education has gotten worse, and it happens at time when progressive educators -- teachers, principals, and others -- were making some progress towards understanding where our education system might go in the coming years. I've noticed this breakdown most in the conversations I've had with educators about their networks -- teacher in-fighting over labour tactics and actions past/present/future, administrators collectively embarrassed about what they've been asked to do, endless twitter battles between groups that are not going to shift their position, and growing anxiety about what next year will look like after present charring of the educational landscape.

Hope, resilience, and humour, however, are never in short supply, so I'm of a mind that "this, too, shall pass." I do share Kelley Inden's concern, however, that picking up the pieces next year will be challenging, regardless of the eventual contract settlement. Personally, it has strengthened my resolve to build more self-reliance as a teacher (which means shutting out some of the crap that comes from colleagues, school, districts, and province), and also to foster more interdependence through the networks that re-emerge from this present strife. Having broken down to some extent, educator networks will necessarily go through a period of renewal next year as people come to terms with what they've said and done and reposition themselves with others who offer good dialogue, support for fresh thinking, and continued efforts to make teaching and learning joyful and rewarding.

Failing that, there is an awesome two months of summer ahead and I plan on avoiding zombies while camping, teaching my son how to fish, keeping up with my daughter in the pool, and coaxing my wife to stop fretting so much.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Morbid Summer School Ruling by LRB

The British Columbia Government and BC Teachers Federation are in the midst of a labour dispute that is trying to unpack 12 years of cuts and contract strips related to class size and compensation, an impasse on compensation, and resulting actions from both sides including a gov't lockout and a teacher strike. The latest issue is whether Summer School should continue.

I've just read the recent ruling by the deciding body, the Labour Relations Board (LRB), on whether Summer School is in fact an Essential Service in BC. Take a quick look at this short summary from the Langley Teacher's Association and the actual interim ruling, especially 2.a.1:

The interim ruling says that Summer School must be offered, and run by administration if possible, but only applies to Gr. 10-12 students who have failed a required course and can't take it again in the following year. Unfortunately, that pretty much excludes all (living) students in BC.

Given that any student can return to school, even after Grade 12, and that every district offers required courses in every school year (either at a local school or through a Distributed Learning Centre), the only students to whom this applies are ones who will not be alive in the following school year or plan on being physically or mentally incapacitated between the end of summer school and the beginning of the next school year. I suppose it would also apply to students who plan on being out of the province for the entire year without access to the internet for an online version of a required course, or can't receive mail from one of our regional correspondence centres. So, dead, incapacitated, or missing -- truly a morbid set of criteria to lay on students.

I sure hope the interim in their interim ruling means "we'll throw this out there for starters and see what happens next." The imprecise language might cut it for a hasty press release or impromptu media interview, but not a legal ruling that needs to hold up to precise, literal application. This reminds me of how Government negotiator Peter Cameron described the bizarre and contradictory lockout notice for teachers as a "living document" -- subject to interpretation and changing emphasis on a daily basis. This was the lockout notice that both banned and encouraged voluntary duties, and was used to justify taking 10% off of teachers' wages. That is, until they brought it to the LRB where the employer argued that it's own lockout didn't justify the 10% deduction, it was the services withdrawn by teachers. These services amount to less than 2% of our paid time at work.

Way to go LRB, Minister Fassbender, Mr. Cameron, and the BCPSEA team. You've taken a silly notion -- that Summer School is somehow an Essential Service in BC -- and managed to make a macabre joke out of it. I guess there is a logic to it... "Essential Services" usually refer to life-and-death duties in society. Apparently Summer School is a life-or-death decision for students -- if they attend, it means that something unfortunate will happen to them before the new school year starts that would prevent them from taking courses. If you follow the LRB logic, that is. Maybe this is an end-run around the "optics" of who is responsible for the inevitable cancellation of summer school in most districts -- it is no longer essential or necessary to operate if the rules exclude virtually every student in the province.  With a number of logic-defying restrictions in the order, it will be impossible for school districts to pull it off, and thus they can cancel summer school and avoid the head-ache. Beyond that, I can't imagine why the LRB would goof up on their wording on such a basic point -- an essential service designed for no one in particular, at least no one who will be alive enough to attend in September.

Next up: the LRB will no doubt rule on students who are both dead and plan on returning -- Zombie Summer School (thanks @_MrsBarb for the idea). Between the "living document" lockout that was not a lockout, the dumbed down exams that were still somehow essential, and now the "Fawlty Wording" that excludes virtually every student in BC from Essential Summer School (the "undead document?"), it's hard to see where the LRB ends off and Monty Python begins.

Monday, June 23, 2014

I'd Rather be Teaching - Guest Post

Guest post by Judy Addie, a long-serving teacher who "most recently" has been at D.P. Todd Secondary for almost 37 years. She teaches Alternate Education and has been instrumental in the success of "school-based teams" (collaborative problem-solving for at-risk students) in School District 57 Prince George. More importantly, she has been a caring adult for hundreds of lost souls and troubled youth, guiding them to firmer ground (academically and emotionally) by providing attachment and safety when these students had few other options. 

This letter was written in during the longest teacher strike in Canadian history, a situation brought on, in part, by the violation of Charter Rights by the Government of BC.  

Thanks, Judy, for sharing your open letter to trustees with others in British Columbia. Also, good luck on your retirement from all the staff at D.P. Todd. Your wise counsel & sense of humour will be missed!
Dear Trustees, 

I am a teacher in School District No. 57 ( Prince George) and I'd rather be teaching today and everyday until the end of this school year. I hope that you can use your influence to bring a negotiated settlement and a fair deal for students and for teachers.

After 45 years of teaching, I will retire on June 30, 2014. I have seen many changes over the years, but the last few have resulted in drastic effects for my students. I teach students who are at risk not only academically, but because of other factors in their lives. Some are affected by mental health issues, some are affected by drug and alcohol issues, and many are affected by poverty. I have one student, a teenaged boy, who boils water so that he can bathe because the gas has been cut off in his home. I have another student who comes to school just to eat the breakfast and lunch that we provide because those are the only meals he gets. I have students whose mental health issues are so severe that they only attend one class per day.They arrive and leave when the halls are clear due to anxiety issues. I have students with behavioural issues who need time away from class to cool down. I have students who have severe learning disabilities who do not receive extra help except for the bit of one on one help that I can provide as I am moving about the class. These students need counsellors, learning assistance teachers, youth care workers and educational assistants to help them get through their day.

Some might think that the end of the year is not a busy time for high school teachers. There is so much I still have left to do before my retirement. In addition to the usual year end activities, I need time to write notes to the students' teachers next year. I need to meet with the new teachers who will be replacing me. I need to tell them about the program and the 19 different courses that are available in Alternate Ed. I need to tell them about each individual student and their strengths and their challenges.

There are only 5 more days in my career, and………. I'd rather be teaching.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Upsurge in Anxiety - Guest Post

Guest Post by Dave Harper, a Humanities, French and Music teacher at Southgate Middle School in Campbell River, BC. He is also plays the banjo, guitar, and harmonica and shares his love of Bluegrass with students. Thanks, Dave for sharing your thoughts.

My experiences as a middle school teacher lead me to share much of Glen Thielmann's thinking. I honestly feel that what he has written in his blog is the outline for a book about the contemporary middle school / senior secondary and how life within it and its social media and hallway nexus plays out on a 24/7 basis for our students as part of the upsurge in anxiety in students.

At the root of it all I see the Neufeld / Mate theories of attachment playing out in real time every day. Only five years ago it was rare to have students arrive at class as anxiety-ridden wrecks saying that they can't attend that block and just leave (often with a friend escorting them who is going to assist in their "decompression") . Usually I discover quickly it is the result of a social media driven interaction that has just occurred or has been "building" over the course of the day. This is now a thrice weekly occurrence at a minimum.

Note that I generally agree to let the other student go with the student in the midst of the anxiety attack because there is no counsellor available and I have 28 to 30 other kids who are expecting me to teach the class. Only five years ago my middle school had two full-time counsellors. The extrapolation to what is playing out on the sidewalks in front of schools around the province is a bit of QED.

Interestingly I notice the greatest degree of inner calm in those students who either do not have or whose parents do not allow devices to be brought to school.

The link to the then-Minister Abbot-era drive for BYOD ( bring your own device ) and the increase in student anxiety is very clear in my mind. We cannot say no to the devices being at school now. Most / certainly many elementary schools try not to allow them. I notice that the majority of elite prep schools are explicit that personal devices are to be left in lockers or will be taken away. I don't know if that is an "all talk" but without follow up policy that looks very different in practice than on paper. I feel it is the correct policy but we are unable to have such a policy at public middle and secondary schools.

As the parent of a seven-year old boy I have already decided that my son will not be allowed to have a device at school when he gets older. The boys in my classes without devices are generally more focussed, involved in less social conflict, and involved in sports and real social interaction. The shockingly few girls without devices at school also tend to be calm social leaders who are involved in leadership activities and have "balanced" lives.

Are they calmer because they don't have devices or are they calmer by nature and therefore they don't feel the need to bring a device? Chicken and egg, perhaps.

I think I may ask Glen if he wants to collaborate on a book! Typing these thoughts has got me thinking that there is something deeper going on here with which our schools are ill-equipped to cope. Feel free to ask me any follow up questions if my thoughts are not clear to you.

student anxiety

Every now and then I start writing a tweet and try to jam a blog post into 140 characters... the solution, of course, is to write a blog post!

I have been teaching for 19 years and over the last dozen or so I have noticed an interesting trend in my students:  an increase in student anxiety. I am hard-pressed to come up with a single reason why this is the case, nor have I made an effort to quantify or document this trend in any formal way. I am also at a loss to say whether what I'm seeing are anxiety-like symptoms or actual disorders that have been diagnosed (or should be diagnosed). I'm no expert on the subject although I know firsthand what anxiety does to someone because my wife suffers from anxiety -- it was her suggestion to include that! That leaves me with some observations and opinions. The reader may notice that I don't offer many solutions to the anxiety factors I list below. Maybe I can follow up with what I've tried over the years, or what my school does to address mental health, but for a thoughtful read on how student "weaknesses" are often an invitation for educators to develop empathy, focus on strengths, and work through the anxiety, try some of the blog posts tagged "relationships" on Chris Wejr's site. Here's what I've seen as the basis of growing "general" anxiety among my Grade 9-12 students in a public high school in Prince George, BC:
  • ACCEPTANCE. More openness in talking/dealing with mental health in recent years has allowed students to "come out" with their issues and seek help -- "anxiety" as a condition (for better or worse) has less stigma and is even seen as a normal part of many students lives. Anxiety was a hidden condition 15 years ago, and is now part of the parlance of classrooms and staffrooms. In the past, students "put up or shut up" about OCD, anxiety attacks, and much of the fear that comes with anxiety, in part because these issues were poorly understood by the adults in their life, and in part because that's what one did; even before social media altered our external selves we have become a society accustomed to letting our problems spill out in our public persona --in many ways this has been a good thing, a necessary step in establishing LGBTQ rights for example. My school recently had an awesome assembly from a group talking about schizophrenia among other things -- both the presentation and message were well received. 15 years ago, this presentation would not have taken place. Having close family members and many friends who deal with mental health issues, I am glad it's out in the open.
  • SCRUTINY. When I first started teaching, I almost never heard from counsellors or got a run-down on the emotional needs of my students; now, I regularly have counsellors drop by (usually at the beginning of a course) and let me know that so-and-so has anxiety, needs to take breaks, needs a special place to write tests, needs to be allowed to come late and leave early to avoid hallway scenes, needs to be excused from answering questions out loud, etc. -- I think all three of the above points are at play here, plus new diagnostic categories and sensitivity from educators. Anxiety has nuance (expressed in so many ways) and can be paired with other like depression, eating disorders, and so on. Our school system and medical spectrum professions (i.e. including psychologists) have more ways to label and treat mental health issues than ever before.
  • REDIRECTION. Over-diagnosis and over-medication (or self-medication) for anxiety leads many needy teens to grab on to anxiety as a "cover" for the normal angst and hormone-driven craziness of growing up -- it is a reasonably acceptable mental health category which some students find useful as a coping mechanism for diverse teenage problems. Of course their are also many students for who the designation absolutely fits (whether or not they have received help), but there are many more for whom the anxiety is a normal response to what is going on their lives and would go away if they could deal with or get help with the surrounding triggers (such as the other points mentioned here)
  • ROLES. Parenting has shifted, in some ways for the better (again, another blog post), but in other ways towards indulgence, neglect (hands-off or absentee parenting), entitlement, and trading a loving parent-child relationship for some kinds of zero-judgement friendship with their kids. What did Phil Dunphy call it on Modern Family... peerenting? Kids are protected from failure and given smaller and smaller opportunities for self-reliance. I don't get a lot of phone calls from parents but I have noticed more parents that advocate for their children for exempting any kind of consequence for skipped classes, missing work, poor assessments, etc. This is not new, but the scale is ridiculous -- having parents who write a blanket notes excusing all 30 absences is certainly their prerogative, but it is not helping the student any. Both parents and teacher alike are powerful models for kids, even when it doesn't seem like it, and students see more and more modelling of anxiety-causing behaviour in their parents and teachers than in the past. Maybe the adults don't hide it as well as they used to, or maybe our whole society has developed more neuroses.
  • ATTACHMENT. Genuine loving attachment and self-regulation are often lacking -- my students appear to raised by their peers and are missing quality connections to caring adults. It is a gap that many teachers are aware of and try their damnedest to fill, but the need is growing, especially in a city and school like mine with increasingly vulnerable and at-risk students. Gordon Neufeld, Gabor Mate, Stuart Shanker, and others have written about this extensively and found a large audience among educators, so I don't think I need to elaborate
  • STANDARDS. Our education system through its administrators and teachers has gone away from many of the penalties associated with poor attendance and lack of success that have characterized schools for generations. Lates, skipping, incomplete complete work, even drug offences are seen as "related to background problems" and result in more conversation that consequence. I think this is because our system has misinterpreted or misapplied much of the popular literature about punishment and rewards (not to mention assessment), but on that topic I'll again steer the reader to Chris Wejr's posts about penalties to see how this trend can be redeemed. Meanwhile, I have noticed an entire generation that does not take their elders seriously and as result misses out on much of the guidance that might have actually dealt with the anxiety before it claimed their being.
  • TECHNOLOGY. Digital communication, in particular interactive social networking, has created layers of identity-forming possibilities with which the human brain has not yet caught up -- the kinds of interactions student build online are not foreign to the human experience (gossip, flirting, and hazing go back to the Stone Age), but now they are in high-speed, recorded for posterity, and include images. I read an article recently about how teens get anxious about casual prom pics and selfies because they know every image will be used across multiple social media sites to "frame" the individual and narrate the event -- this is "identity work" in real time.  I read this article, too, which had a similar theme. Many "connected educators" (e.g. @technolandy and @gcouros) would counter the idea that technology itself is the problem, and that mobile technology and social media can be the basis of incredible discovery, awareness, and even help for mental health disorders. I would not disagree, but I've observed that technology is never one thing, it is not a passive tool. At the same time as personal devices are powerful conduits for learning, they are also used to tune out, get sucked in to mind-draining drama, and provide markets for an endless bombardment of commercial and social propaganda. As one person put it, we make our 16-yr-old kids go through multiple stages of preparation before we let them drive a 4000 pound car, but we routinely hand over to even younger children the most powerful communication device in human history with almost no training. Technology is by no means neutral -- it does some cool stuff (for this reason I have been quite active in pushing transformative uses of technology), but it also routinely facilitates enormous damage to the lives of kids.
  • SILENCE. The technical demands of social media alone are cause for anxiety... many students feel an obligation to keep up with dozens of conversations each day across multiple apps and platforms ranging from the facile to the thought-provoking and always with an emotional undercurrent and a constant need to maintain multiple personas (establishing oneself in a certain way, building a personal brand that is popular, funny, edgy, juicy, alluring, etc.); however, many of my students have lost the tech skills that students had even 7 years ago -- they are less tech savvy (because new tech is so easy to use and one never has to "break open the box") and yet there is an expectation (i.e. from teachers) that they be tech experts in order to live their lives online. The time involved in playing with tech and maintaining online "relationships" (not to mention all the nifty games!) is overwhelming for my students -- it has replaced TV, play, staring and thinking, and everything else that used to engage the senses and move the body. For many of my students (and colleagues, and myself at times) addictive technology has filled every uncommitted minute of the day and thus fills that part of our brain that evolved to make better use of silence and slow bits in the day... the contemplative life.
  • DISCONNECT. Students with an intense social media life have isolated and , ironically as they are also hyper-connected and superficially engaged with others -- many of my students lack the social skills to carry on sustained face-to-face conversations with peers or adults, and fall back to their phones as a security blanket; more seriously, many students are engaged in a constant battle to reclaim their self in a digital swirl of peer pressure and sometimes bullying... the close scrutiny and intense pressure to look a certain way is more than many kids can handle and yet they come back to it day after day.  It is not a coincidence that my most anxious students, or at least the ones that aren't dealing with it, the ones that leave the room in tears or are involved in non-stop drama, are also the ones who are glued to their phones and become upset by the minute details of other people's problems. Twitter was bad enough, but Snapchat and other means of getting up in someone's space have amplified anxiety triggers and created a 24-hour arena in which anxious banter opens surface wounds or bandages them up without ever really getting to the heart of the problem. Every now and then I poll students about their device usage... most go to sleep with their phones and most of those leave notifications on.
  • PORN. Sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, actually. I think the fact that students have instant and intense access to hardcore porn has led to anxiety. Students have messed-up ideas about everything to do with sex and this leads many of them to make some stupid decisions that leave an emotional wreckage behind. In particular, the expectation of how females should service males has created mass confusion for both genders and has set back feminism sharply over the last 10 years. If in doubt, seek out a high school counsellor for a one-on-one conversation to learn how deep this problem goes. Misogynistic music does not help the cause, either. How many thousands of times does a teenage boy need to see or hear that girls are "bitches" or "hoes" before the image sticks? Without getting into #yesallwomen and the roots of misogyny, I'll go out on a limb and suggest that the high school fashion trend of yoga pants and exposing cleavage is not helping boys or girls develop successful relationships. This may seem like a surface issue (pun intended), but is nonetheless a sign that kids have internalized patriarchal expectations of gender and porn-inspired reduction of people in parts, and in my mind it represents a botched job of empowerment. Suffice it to say that schools are more sexually charged for students than they have even been and that all students have unrealistic expectations about what their bodies should look like and what constitutes beauty. This is a huge cause for anxiety, especially among girls. 
  • DOPE. Did I forget about drugs? The ease of access to illicit drugs and the increasing acceptance of marijuana has also done wonders for the teenage brain. Again, this is well documented elsewhere so I won't elaborate. I will add that parent modelling is important when it comes to drugs. Too many of our students who are busted for drugs (and this is different than 15 years ago), do them openly at home with parents dismissing the activity or looking the other way. Call me old-fashioned or living in a bubble, but I still think dope makes kids stupid and is not an acceptable medicinal solution to mental health disorders. I'm not going to vote for Harper or any such insanity, but I have observed the effect of dope on teens for many years and the impact is consistent.
  • PASSIVITY. My students are more docile than ever before, even as I teach more vulnerable, impoverished, and at-risk students. This sounds cynical and contrary to everything you read in the BC Edplan, but most of my students would rather complete a worksheet than jump into an interactive social learning activity or pursue project-based learning. My colleague Rob Lewis explored this in a little more depth. When I first started teaching, I seemed to spend a lot of time on classroom management and dealing with student behaviour. Now, I almost never have to ask a kid to step out into the hall for a conversation. I'd like to think it is because I've become a master teacher but in reality I find that is an increasing challenge it to engage students with shorter attention spans using the same kinds of go-to activities that used to get students thinking and talking. Why are they so quiet, so polite, and so compliant? Perhaps we've beaten the play out of them with a widespread reliance on passive forms of learning and a reliance on instructional technology -- we've constructed a comprehensive and responsive sit-and-listen program for students to follow rather than opening up a space in which a healthy tension exists between what is being taught and what is being learned. What does this have to do with anxiety? It reflects a larger pattern, one in which students have many obligations on their time but are still left alone to be mediocre by their parents, teachers, administrators and society. For most students, this is not a big deal, it gives them the space to follow their own path. but for the students suffering from anxiety, it creates an echo chamber in which they are alone to deal with their problems. Add the social isolation and technology disconnect, and the passive, subdued, and sanitized milieu in which students are dropped is a petri dish for culturing anxiety.
  • POVERTY. A less abstract petri dish are the social and economic conditions in which and an increasing number of my students grow up. Child poverty, single-parent homes, vulnerable neighbourhoods, and the residue of colonialism touch about 1 in 6 of the students in my school, although substantially less in the classes I teach due to the variety of special programs. Poverty translates directly to student stress, anxiety, anti-social behaviour, and depression. Take a look through the work of Edmonton educator Dan Scratch to see the connection and also how social justice can empower impoverished youth to break the cycle. About 4 years ago I facilitated a staff discussion about the changing demographics in our school. We were about to take in two new feeder schools, one of which had a high vulnerability index (we used the neighbourhood data from to anchor our discussion), and also noted that all of our school catchment area was predicted to move further into the vulnerable zone and lower income categories. We ended up with 100 more questions that when we started -- one of the leading concerns was about whether we were equipped to deal with the emotional needs of poor, stressed out, and anxious students.
  • MEDICATION. I wish I understood this better, but I get the sense that quite a few of my students and a fair number of my colleagues are on medication for anxiety, depression, and variety of other mental health conditions. I also get the sense that half of them should not be, I think it masks the tensions that have led to anxiety and prevents them from dealing with the issues. I know too many people on meds, so I'd rather just leave this topic with a reference to some recent reading on how anti-depressants may not be the best treatment. and also how drugs may not be enough.
  • DIET. What students eat, drink, and how much they exercise is also a factor in anxiety.  Although BC schools have tried to promote health food choices and daily physical activity, the battle against obesity and overall health is still uphill.  Lifestyle "choices" (often the choices are limited) among impoverished and vulnerable students are a particular challenge. This is not new science, but I place some of the blame for mental health issues on the shitty high-sugar diets that so common for my students. One could explore lack of sleep as a related factor, although that outcome sits at the intersection of many other factors.
  • PLAY. I think many of my students suffer from "nature-deficit syndrome." This subject is expertly handled by Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods. The topic of safety overload in playgrounds has also been in the news. Many of my students do not know how to use their own bodies to get stuff done.  I see it clearly on the soccer fields where my 7-yr-old son plays -- the kids actually have to be taught how to "cavort." I have a gym teacher colleague who has observed this with his Grade 8 and 9 P.E. classes -- increasing numbers of students who can't run, jump, throw, catch, or simply "be" in their own bodies. This is another area where educators are paying close attention and I'm quite impressed (though still shocked that it is needed) by all the work with physical literacy not just in Phys Ed but in multi-disciplinary environments. This can't come soon enough -- students who have lost their connection to the real world and miss out on the powerful need for play are placed in the zone of anxiety. Some hold out longer than others, but the effect is cumulative and has the potential to split the mind and body -- a recipe for unease.
  • UNDERFUNDING. To be honest, I didn't see the connection right away, although I'm sure teachers and counsellors who deal directly and expertly with anxiety issues and solutions could expound on this with more evidence. I'm also aware that my secondary academic course load does not qualify me to fully understand what elementary teachers in inner city schools deal with on a daily basis. Anxiety is ripe in many of our classes, and has become a school focus and therefore a funding issue where it was largely swept under the carpet from the perspective of school organization and staff planning. Teachers have always built empathy for students' needs and tried to work towards wholeness, but the scale of the problem in today's classes requires a depth of response that many teachers have a hard time balancing with all the other things happening in their space. Our schools now deal with "services" that used to be performed by solely by parents and also the Health Care sector (including Family Services), and we've done so on reduced budgets and no contributions from the Ministries who let us be their frontline.  It is not by accident that the BCTF finds itself engaging in extensive social justice advocacy -- our schools are ground zero for hunger, depression, diverse health issues, poverty, and anxiety. The job of teaching has changed as a result, as have the composition of school staffs and the roles that other workers in our system play. We've made the leap to providing education to providing a range of social, emotional, economic, and health services alongside education. This is a huge reason why underfunding has come to a head in our schools -- we have been doing more with less for too long.
O.K., I've cranked this out rather quickly and late at night, but I do see a rough pattern or two in the factors leading to student anxiety. If someone else would like to provide a succinct wrap on these patterns, be my guest. I came back a few hours later to add some thoughts and edits, but feel free to message me or tweet about remaining typos, semantic lapses, and simply to dispute or discuss.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

BCPSEA confusion

If the BC Government set out to undermine the teacher contract negotiation process and frustrate all stakeholders in BC Education, they have found a winning strategy.

Students are heading into a week like no other in BC Schools. Rotating strikes by teachers will close some schools, but it is during the rest of the week when things get weird. The representative of the BC government and school districts, BCPSEA, has issued a "partial" lock-out notice for teachers that prevents them from working outside of classes and 45 minutes before or after school, and not at all at recess or lunch. Doing so will result in discipline that administrators will be forced to carry out. Teachers are also banned from doing certain voluntary activities listed in the lock-out notice. These restrictions are then used as the basis to deduct 10% pay from teachers. The catch? Teachers can still be on site during the "off-hours" as long they are doing other forms of voluntary work not listed in the lock-out order, again open to interpretation and different from teacher to teacher. Presumably, we know the difference in our minds and the administration will use the honour system in determining whether we are breaking the rules. All across the province principals and teachers are guessing and second guessing what the ridiculous lock-out really means and as a result have cancelled services to students like tutorials and extra help, curricular and extra-curricular field trips, events and concerts -- anything that walks the line between what has and has not been restricted by BCPSEA. Even lunchtime is now a question mark -- if we are found to be working (marking, planning, etc.) or engaging in voluntary collaboration or professional development, we can be disciplined or fined. Part of the original lock-out notice even restricts the evaluation of students, depending on whether BCPSEA actually meant what it wrote on a Wednesday vs what they backpedalled on Thursday. At the heart of the problem is BCPSEA's choice to focus on unpaid work as the basis of the lock-out and a deduction of pay, work that falls outside of our contract but work that teachers do because we are professionals -- the myriad extras that make sense of our time with students and allow the education system to function. This work runs the gamut -- professional development, coaching, sponsoring a club, collaboration, tutoring kids, developing learning resources, joining committees, reading, writing, staying caught up with technology, taking students on field trips, designing student projects or new courses, etc. -- all stuff we choose to do (mostly unrecognized), and which have nothing to do with our paystubs. BCPSEA has held its dowsing rod over this abstract list of professional/voluntary activities and chosen a few of them to add to a lock-out notice. No one is completely clear where the list starts or ends or how broadly the items can be interpreted, but we are clear about the penalties involved. We are set to lose 5% of our pay for not being able to volunteer as much as we normally do, and 5% more for skipping hallway supervision and staff meetings (which actually account for less than 2% of our paid time). All told, 10% pay deduction for exercising our legal right to strike.

Let's get into the details.

BCPSEA reference documents: -- They move things around a bit but it is not hard to find the May 21 lock-out letter, and the May 22 and May 23rd follow-up memos (now called "Consolidated Q&A"). Also, see School Regs 4.1 g and subsections g.1 and g.2:

BCPSEA starts on May 21 with a lock-out notice to BC Teachers, a legal order delivered to teachers via the BCTF to which we are bound, and then followed up by posting  a May 22 Q&A document on their website -- not actually delivered to the BCTF and thus not legally binding. The Q&A was supposed to clarify the lock-out notice but has instead led to chaos about what exactly is expected of teachers during a lock-out and what is expected of the management staff who are tasked with enforcing the lock-out. Both documents contain some wild assumptions about teachers' work, and have created uncertainty for teachers and administration alike as to what next week is supposed to look like in BC Public Schools.

One example of the uncertainty -- BCPSEA has locked out teachers from School Regulation Section 4.1 (g) "Evaluation of educational programs," e.g. curriculum committees and curriculum development. However, they did not specify whether this included subsections (g.1) and (g.2) which are the general orders for teachers to evaluate students and supervise/mark exams. It is quite normal to include subsections with sections unless stated otherwise, but BCPSEA has not actually come out and said that they have excluded (g.1) and (g.2). Assuming we are allowed to mark, Provincial Graduation exams take place on Tuesday June 24th in the morning and afternoon, but the teachers whose students write them are fully locked-out on June 25th-27th -- the only time available in which to mark the exams.

How about this one: "The performance of the following work will also be suspended until further notice: [a]ttending... collaborative and/or professional community meetings." The next day we're told that "[n]othing in the lockout order prevents individual teachers from discussing student needs or concerns with their colleagues or school administration." So -- we can't collaborate, but nothing prevents us from collaborating. The logic goes beyond oxymoronic to just plain moronic.

This is simply the beginning of BCPSEA biting off its nose to spite teachers. As if the May 22 BCPSEA Q&A memo wasn't confusing enough, they have posted Q&A #2, with statements like: "The guiding principle for all decisions with respect to extracurricular activities is that if they are voluntary (i.e., not part of a teacher’s work), they are not covered by the lockout order. Please contact BCPSEA directly at any time if further clarification is required."

So all voluntary work is back on? Does this include the voluntary duties described by the lock-out, or only if they happen outside of curricular time? And I can contact BCPSEA -- who do I call? I'll give up another day's pay just to have these questions answered. Seriously. I have lots of questions.

The original lockout notice contains items which, while often useful and something we do as a professional service to students and colleagues, are not paid work and are by definition voluntary. Example: attending pro-d outside of a NID, attending a staff committee meeting, sitting on a curriculum committee, joining a professional learning community discussion. The BCPSEA interpretation of "Evaluating educational programs" is limited to committee work and curriculum development which teachers choose to do (or are asked to do); this is not part of a regular paid day unless release time is provided. I have spent thousands of hours of my own time on curriculum development and professional development over the last 18 years -- evenings, weekends, and summer time that was never paid but willingly offered because I am a professional. This work, including the department meetings and so on that I opt to attend, is both curricular (because it often relates directly to my current classes), and extra-curricular (because it is often unrelated to my current classes and is sometimes meant to benefit only myself, other teachers, or the profession in general). By contract, and by direct observation, my "job" is to prepare for classes (unit and lesson plans, assignments, tests, learning resources), to teach students (almost exclusively within the school timetable), and deal with the aftermath of teaching (like assessment and reporting). Like most teachers, I do a tonne on top of that that is neither defined by contract nor absolutely essential to the paid part of my job -- pardon my Old English but I do the extras because I give a shit about my students' learning and the quality of both my own teaching and the public education system in which I work. It really chafes me that my employer wants to block me from the smallest slice of this volunteerism, and then use this plus the fact my union is exercising their legal right to strike in order to steal from my paycheque.

In short, we are locked out from work that we:
a) do on a voluntary basis because it augments our profession and practice
b) do when released from our regular work or do on our own time -- none of it is, by default, part of our paid work

The Q&A memos suggest that I can continue with some voluntary work, but the lock-out notice says I should cease other voluntary work. Maybe BCPSEA can produce Q&A #3 with an exhaustive list of the unpaid work from which I am banned or not banned. In the mean time, teachers should speak in hushed tones (for fear of being seen to collaborate), and put paper covers on all reading material (for fear of being caught doing professional development). The Eye is watching.

I really hope BCTF, BCPSEA, and the LRB will spend some time this week focusing on the bogus nature of the "partial" lockout (one colleague said a partial lockout is like being partially pregnant). I can actually accept that I should be fined or docked for unpaid work like striking, or withdrawing my supervision time which is about 1.8% of my work week, or my 1-2 hour staff meeting 7-10 times a year which is about 1.4% of my work week. I can't accept that I should lose 5 or 10% of my pay for not doing work that is unpaid to begin with and work that my employer doesn't understand or keep track of. If I am actually compensated based on a 9 hour day as BCPSEA suggests (which is about right considering the planning and marking I do), supervision and staff meetings in total account for less than 2% of my paid time. Here's my math: 540 minutes x 190 days = 102,600 minutes. 30 min/week of supervision plus a max of ten 1.5 hour staff meetings is 1980 minutes (although at my school we usually have eight per year that each last about an hour). Divided by the minutes worked in a year and we get 1.93%, not the 5% calculated by BCPSEA. I am not going to quantify written and electronic communication -- some teachers choose to spend hours a day on email, some check it once a week and ignore most of what they see. Actually talking with our adminstration has not stopped, and in fact has become more purposeful and fulfilling during the current job action. Problem-solving still happens, and is often slower when you can't just fire off an email.

So, BCPSEA, do you actually want me to resume voluntary work as you suggest in Q&A #1 and 2? Should I resume voluntary "evaluation of educational programs" (as you've defined it), voluntarily going to department meetings, voluntarily going to school org meetings, or voluntarily doing a professional development activity? Today (Saturday) I am reading some professional articles I accessed through Twitter -- by one of your definitions (the lockout letter), this is banned work and I could be subject to discipline (plus a cut in pay). By your Q&A #2 memo, though, I am free to pursue voluntary/unpaid work, so maybe my clandestine professional development is ok?

The "volunteer/don't volunteer message" has teachers and principals scratching their heads. My school's drama teacher was planning an evening performance -- but by BCPSEA's rules, the teacher would not be able to put this on because it is part of the curriculum and assessment plan for her class -- work that should not take place outside the lock-out hours. Yet, if it were to take place, I am free to attend because I would do so voluntarily? According to the lock-out letter I can't have a department meeting (where we often discuss student concerns) but according to BCPSEA's Q&A memo #1, I can meet with those same folks to discuss student concerns? What's the difference? Sitting or standing? Someone taking notes or being more bossy than the others? How about the Grade 10 field trip to Barkerville we had planned? It is extra-curricular in that we do not mandate that kids have to go, but we designed it (and the activities we do while we are there) to exploit learning outcomes and conduct research for projects in Social Studies 10. Should we proceed with the field trip because BCPSEA says it is ok, or do we cancel because we will be "teaching" before and after school hours and right through our lunch? Will I be disciplined if I incorporate ideas into my Social Studies class that I generated from the field trip? To do so would confirm that is was curricular in nature and in breech of lock-out duties hours.

What about lunch-time lock-out? Should I roll the dice on whether hanging out at school will lead to discipline? Is it my earned break time (eating lunch), my professional time (conversing with colleagues at lunch) or my voluntary time (having my room open for students). I feel bad for my principal -- as a manager, he will have to determine whether I am breaking the lock-out order or not and whether a letter of discipline is necessary. Should I hide all professional material in case he walks in and catches me engaging in professional development? Should I warn the students who use my class at lunch for a gaming club not to ask me questions that might be curricular in nature? Should I avoid talking with colleagues because it might be construed as a department meeting or a professional development activity? If he catches me reading a book, should I say "oh, the book is quite terrible. I really haven't developed professionally at all from reading this; please don't write up a letter of discipline." That sounds silly, but this is the position that BCPSEA has placed both teachers and administrators. The uncertainty is driving teachers out of the building -- most staff will now spend their "lockout lunch" off school grounds.

We could get sillier with this, and in fact we are -- these "what-if" scenarios are being played out across the province within groups of teachers, administrators, and boards. Who wouldn't be confused when BCPSEA's collection of notices can be summed up as: "do what you normally would do but only during the normal hours, unless it upset your plans. Don't do what you normally wouldn't do, especially during the normal hours, unless you don't have to do it, in which case you can do it, but only in the hours you normally wouldn't.  If you understand this you will lost 10% of your pay.  If you don't understand this, you could lose more and also be disciplined." Beyond the silliness, the wise ones on all sides of this issue are thinking about the mountain of grievances that await when the dust settles, perhaps more court cases and lawyer costs, too. BCPSEA's bizarre lock-out will place more pressure and hardship on management than BCTF's Stage 1 job action ever could.

Conclusion: BCPSEA threw out a blanket lock-out based on voluntary activities, and has added layers of confusion with two non-binding Q&A documents. It seems they are scrambling to ease the impact on the public by teasing out extra-curriculars from the long list of unpaid work that we do (a portion of which is now locked out). Confused? You should be -- one can only assume that the BCPSEA lock-out was designed hastily in a backroom by people who did not have the experience in schools to think through the consequences of banning voluntary work and then docking pay for it.

Lesson to be learned: BCPSEA should stay out of the business of disrupting the education system as a bargaining tactic. It barely works when teachers do it, and we've been pretty careful to structure our job action to minimize disruption (some would say too careful). When the government does it, the real impact is not on teachers, but rather on the prospects for a negotiated settlement and the confusion of all stakeholders. The acrimony will also leave a bitter taste behind for upcoming years: an unwillingness to give the extras that we do to keep our system working (the services offered voluntarily as professionals that go beyond the job), and a lack of enthusiasm for the ambitious project of education reform that is underway in BC.

May 24th UPDATE: The BCTF has asked us not to picket our school while locked out at lunch and before or after school, presumably to "place nice" and avoid affecting CUPE employees inside the building. Even when kicked in the dingleberries and threatened with a pay cut for volunteering, we've somehow found yet another way to prop up the system.  Speaking of nice, here's a nice article on the same topic by Victoria teacher Tara Ehrcke, and an excellent graphic that sums it up:

May 25th UPDATE: BCPSEA has confirmed they are insane.  They have issued a second letter to BCTF president Jim Iker, reinforcing that "nothing in the BCPSEA lockout direction in any way restricts union members from participating in extracurricular and volunteer activities, including those that take place on school property at any time." The entire lock-out is based on voluntary activities. In effect they are rescinding their lock-out notice. That or crazy. BCPSEA also suggests that qualified management staff will mark provincial exams when the teachers are locked out completely on June 25-27. No doubt they'll get hardship pay. In our district we will have 400-500 Social Studies 11 exams to mark and we have only one or two administrators that have taught Social Studies before; I think only one has taught it since 2004 when the SS11 provincial exam was introduced. BCPSEA appears to be making up this lockout as they go along, and expecting it to be self-policing, based on the honour system.  No doubt teachers will work their hardest to make sure their own lockout goes smoothly.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

interesting turn

Pardon a few acronyms here, but I'll define them as I go. A local professional development (PD) issue in our school district took an interesting turn the other day. Our Prince George District Teachers' Association (PGDTA) has been buzzing with an announcement in March that the school board office (SBO) has proposed cutting support for a district teacher position that I happen to hold at the moment.  This position coordinates support for teacher PD expenditures & travel, organizes one or more conferences, and contributes to local PD, mentorship, professional networks, and what folks like to call "capacity building." Just four years ago we adjusted to a cut in this position from three-quarter time to half-time, so we are used to doing more with less. Our PD Funds are small in SD57 -- with or without the position attached we receive less per teacher than virtually every district in the province outside of the Lower Mainland. A good example is District 27 (Cariboo-Chilcotin). They provide teachers with more then twice the funds per member as we do in District 57, and this includes support of a two-fifths position for a coordinator. Another example is District 73 (Kamloops/Thompson) with similar demographics and geographic challenges to our own; teachers there also receive more than twice the funding for autonomous PD as do our teachers.

Despite our meager funds, the PGDTA are provincial leaders when it comes to offering PD (from small sessions to a major annual conference), supporting individual PD growth plans for teachers including conference travel and leadership experience, and communicating opportunities for all. We've also had success blending our work with the services and training offered by our SBO, Ab-Ed Department, and other groups in the district. The proposed total cut to this position means either: a) the coordination work undertaken for and by teachers is misunderstood and thus undervalued, or b) the coordination work runs counter to the SBO vision for how teachers grow professionally. If there is another rationale I don't know what it is -- no one from the SBO has talked to me about it and the PGDTA has not been engaged in any meaningful discussion about this position or the value in coordinated, teacher-autonomous PD. Common decency suggests that if an authority is going to cut a position with diverse responsibilities, the courteous thing to do is to actually inform that person and offer an explanation, but that's more about HR practices and not central to this issue. The official reason given for the cut was to help cover the unfunded CUPE raise but this explanation doesn't pass the smell test -- district support for this position goes back 20 years and has been the foundation of teacher-led PD throughout that time. The cost for this position is $39K or $45K depending on how the books are kept; it also generates funds to offset costs via conference fees and alleviates costs at the SBO by reducing pressure on their Finance department. My understanding is that we would not even have known about this cut by now if CUPE hadn't put in a Freedom of Information request to find out where their raise was coming from. So many secrets, so little time!

The full background to the issue is described in this open letter to trustees.  The duties of the position in question are outlined on the PGDTA website.

Back to the "interesting turn."  There has been debate among teachers as to what we should do about this situation.  Dozens of individual teachers and at least three whole school staffs have written to trustees about the value they see in teacher-autonomous, well-coordinated PD.  The trustees tend to stay mum on most matters that are under review, so it is hard to tell if they understand what's at stake. Some teachers have suggested that if the SBO wants to take away the tools that make teacher-autonomous PD work, then maybe we should take away our support for SBO-intiated PD, In-service, and other professional training.  So far, this had been discussed on the union email forum, at the PD Committee, at the Staff Rep Assembly and AGM, and now at the Executive level of the PGDTA. I wasn't sure how far this would go -- teachers tend to give and give and often find it hard to say, no let alone take something away (even in the midst of our current job action!), so I admit being a bit surprised by the strong motion that came out of the last executive meeting:
That should the board make any cut to the Pro D fund administrator position, a motion will be made at the June SRA (Staff Rep Assembly) that our members will not voluntarily participate in any Professional Development or training events planned by the district. (carried unanimously)
This has significant implications. Current district-planned PD and training includes Learning Team Grants, an Early Learning conference, an Assessment Academy, mentorship programs, and a variety of workshops and learning series put on by SBO and elsewhere. If triggered, this June SRA motion would signal a shift in what has been a relatively cooperative relationship between teachers and the SBO on PD. Why would teachers take such a step? They see the cut to PD coordination as a cut to their ability to access teacher-autonomous PD and a reduction in quality to the PD that comes out the use of the PD Funds. The backdrop to this is that the work of the SBO to put on PD, in-service, and training has 10 times the funding and has grown every year since they "right-sized" in 2010. The work they do is admirable, although there are a few positions there that are mysterious and under-utilized. SBO-planned offerings are valuable and often necessary, but they are different from PD that is directed for and by teachers. The impression left is that PD is great, but best it it comes from the SBO and not from teachers -- as such this is appears to be a move to squeeze out professional autonomy. This is the impression that is left when our PD allocation is decreased by a third while another budget (one that could ostensibly fill the gap but is out of teacher control) simultaneously increases by a quarter million. How do teachers respond to this perceived devaluation of their own PD? Well, the PGDTA executive motion suggests one course of action. I see it as a statement that if teacher-autonomous PD is undervalued, perhaps teachers should step away from voluntarily playing ball with the SBO. I'm sure this would be a tough pill for all parties to swallow -- teachers derive benefit from all forms of PD, autonomous or otherwise.

Tonight is a School Board meeting, the first reading of their 2014-15 budget. With this issue front and centre, I am curious to see whether there will be a change in heart. It is surprising how opinions shift and votes change when a matter leaves a closed-door meeting and enters a public forum -- I've found myself doing softening a stance in similar circumstances. To date, the trustees have been publicly quiet on the issue, but the powerful testimonies from teachers about coordinated, autonomous PD, and the motion from the PGDTA Executive may finally move our trustees to realize, as our PGDTA president said, that "three blocks of time is a pittance to keep relationships collaborative and positive."

I really have no clue who reads this blog, but I'd like to thank teachers and other members of the local educational community for supporting the work of the PD Coordinator this year and contributing to high quality, useful, and joyful PD on many occasions. If my position is indeed eliminated as intended by the SBO, I have no regrets as to how I spent my afternoons this year and I look forward to adding to the PD culture of our district next year, albeit in a reduced role and off the side of my desk. My only regret is still to come -- if the position is cut we'll be forced to cancel a New Teachers' Conference for Fall 2014, the Zone Conference for Spring 2015, and attend to the inevitable change in PGDTA policy from a Fund that supports rural travel and conference opportunities out-of-district to a system that simply divvies up money to teachers and does not attempt coordination. We've seen this in other districts and it is not a successful model, especially where the amount per teacher is a low. This year, with the support of the PD Committee, I was able to act on a vision for PD that included more celebration of teacher growth, increased local opportunities for excellent PD, reaching out to more stakeholders for shared projects, notably the Ab-Ed department, and stretching our  dollars as far as possible to support individual and group goals for PD.

So, enough gloomy speculation... we could be in for an interesting turn in the way teachers are supported in our district, but I also believe that trustees have been given excellent rationale by many teachers as to why strong support should be maintained and budget cuts should be sought elsewhere. If nothing else, this experience should give trustees pause to think about how they can lobby the provincial government for sustainable funding. Again, to quote our PGDTA president: "we have been dealing long enough with cuts to Public Education. Teachers have been propping up the system for too long."