Nature Abhors a Vacuum (Collective Bargaining)

Christine Brown

According to a recent report from Statistics Canada, the amount of time that Canadians spend with their families and friends during a typical workday has declined significantly over the past 20 years.1  On average, Canadians spent 45 minutes less per workday with their families in 2005 than they did in 1986. “Family time,” for purposes of the study, includes a wide range of activities, such as helping children with their homework, watching television together, and having dinner as a family.

While there are many factors driving this phenomenon, the author of the study notes that “the amount of  time spent at work is the factor that correlates most  strongly  with time spent with family: as work hours rise, family time falls.”

As educators, you will hardly find this conclusion  surprising. Consider the following scenarios:

  1. A teacher leaves her school, where she has been completing report cards, and goes to pick up her teenage daughter from a babysitting job. It is 11:30 on a Friday night.
  2. A principal schedules four staff meetings in a month, and informs the staff that anyone with children at home can leave at 5 p.m.
  3. An occasional teacher is asked to stay after school to assist with an extracurricular activity. As an OT dependent for her livelihood on the day-to-day goodwill of the powers that be, she is reluctant to say no.
  4. Board practice is that running records about pupils be done three times per year. A principal asks staff to produce them every month instead.
  5. A teacher whose board is moving to Web- based report cards sets her alarm for 2 a.m. Experience has taught her that the system is less likely to crash between 2 and 6 a.m., as it has not been designed to handle the traffic it receives during normal hours.
  6. A professional learning community initiative that is supposed to be teacher driven and teacher directed has been taken over by the principal, who proceeds to assign “homework” to the staff.

These  are  egregious  and  outrageous  battle stories from the workload front. Sadly, they all have actually happened. In those cases where the ETFO local was informed in time, it was able to successfully intervene.


The reluctance to say “No”

How do such ridiculous situations even arise? The  answer is  neither  simple  nor  straightforward. In part, it is because teachers are socialized from the very beginning of their careers to sacrifice themselves in the cause of education. Young teachers, who are typically less familiar with their rights than  their  more experienced colleagues, may be especially reluctant to “just say no” when confronted with an unreasonable request. Yet all educators, committed as they are to education and to their students, are sensitive to the charge that saying no might be construed as not being “professional.” Indeed, there are even those who will tell you that “professionals have no business belonging to unions.”

We need to take a long, sober look at this very loaded word. It is everywhere we look, it pushes everyone’s buttons, and it is too often used to guilt teachers into impossible situations. Professional is not used only to categorize certain types of workers, and its opposite, unprofessional, is an insult to any worker, no matter what the occupation. It is no accident that the College of Teachers named its magazine Professionally Speaking. For the record, it is not “unprofessional” to say no, nor to assert your legal rights as an employee. Far too many teachers every year find themselves on stress leave when their jobs simply overwhelm them.


The origins of overload

But teachers are not the primary authors of their workload problems. There are many underlying causes, and it is not possible to address them all here. One is the most recent incarnation of the  accountability-in-education fad.  Accountability in  education  is,  of course, a very good thing. The problem is in the way it is implemented. For example, there has been a massive shift in the thinking underlying assess- ment and reporting. Quantitative measures make for better sound bytes than do qualitative ones, even if the latter are inherently better suited to the complex business of assessing a student’s progress. Standardized testing results generate headlines, benchmarks, instant comparators, and fabulous charts.

Similarly, ministry and school board personnel are quick to adopt the latest in professional learning trends from other jurisdictions. Again, there is nothing wrong with this per se, as long as the programs that result are meaningful, voluntary, teacher directed, properly resourced, and implemented on the board’s time – not the teachers’.

The same can be said for technological change in the education workplace. By all means institute  Web-based  report cards (assuming that the information is appropriately secure and protected). But don’t  design a system that causes teachers to lose sleep, literally and figuratively.


Collective bargaining  brings relief

In the last round of collective bargaining, teachers supported their negotiating teams’ efforts to increase preparation time and reduce supervision time. Occasional teachers backed their own negotiators in the fight  to achieve appropriate timetables. And you won: a small window opened onto the gloom that is teacher workload.

That window, that measure of extra, self-directed time, was designed to help alleviate your existing workload. But nature abhors a vacuum, and so do school boards, apparently. New school improvement plans, new board improvement  plans, new  reporting  mechanisms, shiny  new  diagnostic toys, and new “voluntary” PD have increasingly rushed in to fill the alleged void.

Your union can help, but only if your local is aware of what is happening. Talk to your school steward, talk to your local executive members; tell them what is going on, and find out what your rights are.

By doing so, you will also help prepare the ground for the next bargaining round. In a matter of months, your  collective agreement will expire. You can expect that workload will, once again, be a major issue in negotiations. You demonstrated in the last round just how powerful the united voices of educators can be. Your commitment and solidarity will be needed even more in the next round.

In the meantime, bear the following truths in mind. Your time on this earth is short. Your work should fit into your life, and not the other way around.


1  Martin Turcotte (2007), “Time Spent with Family during a Typical Workday, 1986-2005,” Canadian Social Trends, no. 83.


ETFO president Sam Hammond

In August, just over 600 delegates gathered in Toronto at ETFO’s 2014 Annual Meeting to debate resolutions to guide our union and enhance the teaching profession.