Article

The Challenges of the New Early Learning Program (Collective Bargaining)

Christine Brown

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.

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