Monday, June 18, 2018

Teachers as Advocates for Public Education

Like many school districts, the one in which I work has policies on employee rights & responsibilities that includes language on how teachers can speak out:

3.14 is an interesting one and the focus of my post. It has been used as a bugbear by both employees and the employer to suggest that teachers have a gag order on public commentary and should avoid bringing concerns about the education system to the media. This sentiment was not the intention behind the policy nor should it be the basis of interpretation. This was made clear during a policy revision process in 2016-17 that included Policy 1170.3. Both sides affirmed the idea that employees are welcome to use reasonable tools to raise awareness and make improvements to public education.  The employer did not dispute the almost ubiquitous association between responsible use of social media and public commentary. The Prince George Teachers (PGDTA) lobbied to bring changes to this policy, to affirm the idea that healthy, responsible, public comment by teachers was both of benefit to the education system and also respectful of tradition and diversity, not to mention Charter rights. Alas, the feedback and proposed changes from the PGDTA were rejected by the trustees on the advice of senior management.

The wording of this policy as it stands does, however, provide a starting point for a reasonable interpretation of the extent to which teachers can use public commentary to advocate for a quality education system.

The key word here is "irresponsible" -- e.g. a public comment making a critique personal (e.g. directed toward a district employee), or using false information, inflammatory language, breech of confidentiality, slander, careless generalizations, etc. "Responsible" comment should be welcome. There is no gag order (or Charter or Rights exception) on teachers using media to improve the education system, nor does a critique of a particular policy or initiative undermine the public education system -- it is intended to bring about effective change.

We have ample precedents of practising teachers in Prince George and BC responsibly offering public comment in order to identify educational issues and suggest solutions. I have done this myself many times since 2010 on radio, newspaper, TV, public board meetings, and on social media. I have spoken out on technology plans, school closures, program implementation, district budget cuts and budgeting process, superfluous spending, management of student data, student data security, school achievement contracts, asset disposal, collaboration models, labour negotiation, bad faith bargaining, Labour Relations Rulings (one of my faves), school ground greening, school repair, response to mental health services, and many aspects of leadership and district planning process.

As a rule of thumb, the more the public comment is directed towards general trends and local or provincial phenomena that we can all own as a education system, the better. "Public commentary" should be about "public issues" and not about private concerns and personal grudges. A good example is the current revision to the curriculum in BC -- hundreds of BC teachers have chimed in via twitter, facebook, and blogs about how this process has unfolded and about the mistakes made along the way. These folks are not just complaining or hanging on to the past, they consistently offer solutions or alternatives, and speak from a position of authority and/or experience.

There are special circumstances that call for actual whistleblowing, e.g. a response to corruption, gross negligence, child protection, workplace harassment, or serious safety violations.  Sadly, our district policies do not include protection for whistleblowers, and no doubt there have been issues in the past that were allowed to fester unchecked because no one wanted to confront the problems publicly.  I believe that situations calling for whistleblowing should be dealt with separately from Policy 1170.3 -- advocacy for public education is one thing, coming forward with an allegation of harassment or a dangerous workplace hazard is another.

Of course, many teachers are comfortable leaving advocacy on serious or sensitive issues to their union leadership -- that's ok. Full-time released union officers are not bound by Policy 1170.3 or its equivalent elsewhere, and often do spend some of their time preparing briefs for the media and engaging in public comment through social media and public presentations to local school boards. We can rely on the BCTF, too, for providing public education advocacy -- they have devoted considerable resources to this end and have made it a core value of the organization.

Ordinary teachers, however, should be comfortable with the idea that part of their responsibility as a professional is to be an advocate for public education. This means that they should not shy away from responsible public comment and, where appropriate, political action and social justice projects. Our job does not end in the classroom, although that is the most important part. Our job includes diverse roles within overlapping educational communities on many scales, from the classroom all the way through to international solidarity. In between are school, district, and provincial issues that absolutely require both private and public comment from teachers. Thankfully, each of us does not have to attend to all issues at all scales -- do what you are good at, do it when you are ready, and do it responsibly.