Friday, April 15, 2016

Feedback on Board Policy 1170.3 Rights & Responsibilities of Employees

On April 5th, 2016, the School District 57 Board of Education approved Draft Policy 1170.3 Rights and Responsibilities of Employees for distribution to reference groups for input. The proposed changes (so far) are highlighted in yellow on the document posted at Draft Rights and Responsibilities of Employees.pdf.

Input Regarding:
Policy 1170.3 Standards of Employee Conduct 3.18 "Not engage in irresponsible public comment that would undermine confidence in the public education system."

This comes across as a gag order -- perhaps unintentionally. I suppose the original intent was to guard against defamation and embarrassment of individuals, not to hinder employee's freedom of speech or ability to improve, through constructive criticism, the public education system.

"Irresponsible public comment" should not be taken as anything that undermines public education, but rather a comment about public education that is
a) careless, thoughtless, cruel, or hurtful in a way that can be seen as defamatory
b) unfounded -- speculative in the sense that no evidence exists to support strong claims
c) personal attacks -- attributes blame for problems on named colleagues, management, or local stakeholders (I'm quite sure politicians are fair game, though, depending on how the criticism is worded)

Without more careful wording, 3.18 blurs, by association, the difference between "irresponsible public comment" and legitimate advocacy for public education, which in some cases necessarily undermines confidence in the public education system -- to affect change it it often requires showing that something in the system is problematic and needs change.

Additional Issue:
The ambiguity of 3.18 is reinforced with the only other (problematic) statement about public education in the policy, an employee responsibility (2.5) to "[C]ontribute to the positive climate and reputation of the school, the district and public education." Promotion of the "reputation" (e.g. of the school district) assumes blind support for the processes that have resulted in that reputation. In some cases, problems in a school (e.g. racism, homophobism), district (plans gone awry, decisions made without necessary consultation), or public education (impact of funding cuts) have indeed affected "reputation" -- this needs to be ackowledged and worked on, especially by management for who institutional reputation is of special importance. Using these examples, employees taking notice of (and acting on) racism, homophobism, failed plans, lack of consultation, or inadequate funding to meet needs are in fact doing their own part to contribute to the positive climate in schools but may indeed do so at the cost of "reputation." Employees should be less interested in a policy-mandated contribution to the reputation of the district or public education which could be equal parts poor, fair, good, or excellent (depending on perspective, opinions, choice of evidence, or criteria). Employees should be more interested in actually improving the school, district, and public education. When that work goes well, reputations can also improve in the same way that "confidence in public education" is aided by asking tough questions and engaging in critical dialogue. 

The concerns I have expressed above can be addressed in some simple ways.

a) add a Rights of Employees 1.8 "Engage in responsible public dialogue and advocacy to promote, understand, assess, and improve public education."

b) revise 2.5 from "Contribute to the positive climate and reputation of the school, the district and public education." to "Contribute to the positive climate and improvement of the school, the district and public education."

c) revise 3.18 to read "Not engage in irresponsible or defamatory public comment or attacks on public education that break the duty of good faith and fidelity with the employer, notwithstanding Rights of Employees 1.8."

d) as an alternative to point c), remove 3.18 altogether and instead develop a freedom of speech policy (including whistleblower protection) that respects points a) and c) and addresses point c). This could be stand-alone or could take the form of a revision (e.g. a Section 4) to Policy 1170.3. This police item could contain the obvious statement that employees engaging in public comment about their schools, the district, or the public education system do so on their own and do not represent or speak for their employer.

Examples of "public comment:" 
1) a teacher's letter to the editor about the state of education funding and the impact on classrooms and students from the teacher's perspective
2) a social media "tweet" about the challenges in navigating the Student Information System
3) a blog post critiquing the lack of action taken on the planning, support, and access to educational technology and missed opportunities for students
4) a response to an invitation by a reporter to talk about the increased challenges faced by the school system when responsibility of dealing with children in crisis, poverty in the classroom, or mental health are added to the regular duties of teachers
5) a comment on an online news story centering in on the need for more public consultation on decisions affecting the school district and its students
6) collaborating on a public report that critiqued and challenged management perspective on school closures and the rationale behind proposed cuts in the school district
7) a radio interview about the premature disposal of useful student equipment from schools
8) writing an open letter to the board of trustees expressing concerns about a proposed school district initiative/program for students that lacked adequate planning, denigrated teachers, and failed to follow policy
9) an article contribution in an educational magazine about the explicit, hidden, and "null" agendas behind the implementation of new BC curriculum
10) creating an internet meme during a labour dispute that parodied non-sensical statements from the education minister, chief government negotiator, and labour relations board

These personal examples are in the territory of "responsible public comment" -- intended to improve aspects of the education system, but each of these may indeed undermine confidence in the public education system as they point out flawed thinking, plans gone awry, or something important that is being ignored. These examples show why item 3.18 creates a crisis of interpretation -- policies should resolve dilemmas, not create them.

End Note:
My input, above, does not represent anyone other than myself, although I have no problem assuming that this feedback is intended to address similar concerns from many teachers who do not often get around to offering input on policy development! As someone who has advocated for public education and blogged openly about local and provincial issues in education going for over a decade, Policy 1170.3 item 3.18 rubs me the wrong way. It is not because of "heat" over my advocacy that I believe the policy needs to change. I have had some subtle and not-so-subtle heat, but only once have I experienced a directive about this (can you guess which of the ten examples raised the ire of the powers that be?). In fact, it is for the opposite reason that the policy should change -- it is employees that should be applying the heat, especially teachers who have long been both the guardians and advocates of public education (not to mention its key reformers). We need more employees to "own" the issues in education and speak up when they have something to offer. I have taken encouragement from the support for advocacy that I have been offered over the years by fellow teachers, principals, other colleagues, trustees, parents, students, family, media personnel, union staff, and even the Minister of Education (I have the 2010 letter from Margaret MacDiarmid framed and placed on a shelf in my classroom!). My story is not unique -- pick an educational issue or theme and it is not hard to a dozen advocates in British Columbia who add their voices to the discussion for better or worse.

I have written this end note in order to declare my bias, to which I should add that I have been a Humanities teacher for 20 years in School District 57 and have paid close attention to district management, policy, and governance from about 2003 onwards, spiking around 2010, and admittedly less so in the last few years. Some of the 'advocacy work" I have done has been a complete waste of time, while some of it has made an impact on local policies and practice, attitudes, initiatives, and occasionally a small ripple at the provincial level. It is a testament to the networked nature of our society and education system, and the relative openness towards respectful public dialogue shown by schools districts like ours (towards teachers anyways) that individuals can have both reach and impact. 

I believe that "getting it right" on Policy 1170.3 is very important because, as is the case within any other institution, the statements and interpretations of the rights and responsibilities of employees help determine the differences between a toxic vs. joyful work environment and a cynical vs. cooperative school/district culture.  Employees, especially teachers, will always work to improve the situation for students, including "responsible public comment" -- our policies should acknowledge this important work and revisit the parts which appear to marginalize this work.

respectful submitted,
Glen Thielmann