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."