When Mary Bell became the president of the Wisconsin teachers’ union in 2007, she didn’t envisage she’d be leading a grassroots battle agai
The Challenges of the New Early Learning Program (Collective Bargaining)
Next September, elementary teachers in the new Early Learning Program (ELP) will welcome thousands of young learners into their classrooms. By 2015−16, when the program is fully phased in, there will be no more traditional kindergarten classes as we know them. Next year, for the first time, kindergarten students will be in classrooms staffed by both teachers and early childhood educators (ECEs), classes in which the program, as mandated by the Ministry of Education, is fully play based. Where demand warrants, an integrated before- and after-school program staffed by ECEs will also be available. There is a certain precedent for this new model: there are already some 180 public elementary schools that offer full-day all-day kindergarten; some teachers already use a play-based model; some teachers also have experience in working with ECEs. The difference is one of scale. In this respect the Early Learning Program is the most dramatic transformation in the structure of elementary education that we have seen in years.
One thing that the provincial government, teachers, school boards, early childhood educators, and parents agree upon is the need to ensure that the new program is successful. Teachers will face a number of challenges as this new program rolls out.
Understanding the Kindergarten Teacher
In labour relations, understanding members’ rights and challenges begins with understanding who they are. So – who are kindergarten teachers? According to ETFO’s internal survey data, in many ways, kindergarten teachers are no different from the elementary teacher population as a whole. They are similar in age, experience, and family profile. Where kindergarten teachers differ significantly from their colleagues is in gender. Overall some 81 percent of elementary teachers are women, but for kindergarten teachers the figure is 95 percent. To put this in perspective, this is roughly the same percentage of women as is found among Ontario’s nurses; in other words, teaching kindergarten is a highly feminized profession.
Kindergarten teachers are also more likely to work part-time: 25 percent compared with 12 percent of teachers overall. This is not surprising given that women overall are more likely to work part-time than men (though other factors also come into play).
What are the implications of these characteristics for members’ rights and collective agreements? The rights of part-time teachers have been a point of contention at the bargaining table for decades. Scheduling, access to insured benefits, experience credit, attendance at meetings, and the ability to move between part- and full-time assignments are just a few of the issues. In addition, as is the case for many occasional teachers, there are kindergarten teachers whose part-time status is a choice they have made, not something that has been imposed upon them. Yet we know that some boards are now pressuring part-time kindergarten teachers to work full- time. We can expect these and related issues to continue to surface as we move toward the 2012 round of bargaining.
Collective Agreement Challenges
In any new initiative, especially one this far-reaching, a key challenge is making sure there are appropriate resources underpinning the program expectations. While teachers will retain their duties under the Education Act, they will face a major adjustment in sharing the classroom with another professional, someone who is also highly qualified and has significant program responsibility. This change presents challenges in both human relations and labour relations. The two categories often overlap, but it is the latter that concerns us here.
After decades of struggle, including several strikes, elementary teachers now have preparation time that exceeds 200 minutes. Collective agreements state that preparation time is to be used for professional activities as determined by the teacher. Teachers need every minute of this time (and then some) fortheir existing duties. Implementing the ELP will require additional prep time for both teachers and ECEs. At a minimum, the individual teacher and the ECE(s) will need time together to plan, share strategies and concerns, and discuss programming, assessment, communications with parents, classroom management, and many other issues. Such meetings constitute significant new, additional duties that will require additional paid time to complete. Existing preparation time must not be eroded because of them.
Some boards will undoubtedly try to download this extra work, knowing that teachers have long experience in just “making it all happen.” We all want the new program to function smoothly, but a work speed-up is not the answer. Stress-related long-term disability rates among teachers are far too high already.
Furthermore the ministry’s staffing plan for ELP classes is based on an average class size of 26 students. In practice, this means some classes could reach 30 − despite the ministry having for years extolled the virtues of small classes in Primary grades. Early learning research does not support classes this large, nor do school infrastructures (especially with a play-based model), and the health and safety implications are numerous. These are questions of pedagogy and planning, teacher and ECE well-being, workload, and other terms and conditions of employment.
As with any new program, there are other hurdles. Will there eventually be coaches, lead teachers, or similar positions for the ELP? How will individuals be chosen, how will they be compensated, what will their working conditions be? The principal is the supervisor of both teachers and ECEs. Will boards be tempted to use information gathered from coaches and lead teachers in evaluating staff?
Collective bargaining will be key in addressing these and other thorny questions. The first year of the ELP will require vigilance to ensure that existing rights are upheld. It will also be a time to gather the detailed, classroom-specific information that can be used at the bargaining table in 2012.
On Friday, September 11, after just seven days of bargaining, the Ontario Public School Boards Association and government negotiators told the mediator facilitating our discussions they “were done” and wouldn’t negotiate further with ETFO. In effect, they walked away from the table.