Patti Bacchus: Are attacks on teachers attacks on women?

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      Is the patriarchy rearing its ugly, entitled head at the bargaining table, where talks are underway to strike a new deal between the B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) and the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association (BCPSEA)?

      I pondered that after hearing the term “management rights” popping up about who gets to call the shots about the supports students with special needs get in school.

      My sources tell me BCPSEA, which represents school boards and the provincial government, is proposing contract provisions that would allow school principals to decide whether to recommend to their district offices that little Nathan needs an educational assistant or if Felicity should be referred for psychoeducational testing.

      Restored contract provisions in many—if not most—school districts leave those recommendations up to elementary “school-based teams” (SBTs), which are led by school resource teachers and comprise classroom teachers, school principals, and sometimes counsellors or other staff with specific expertise. It’s a collaborative approach that focuses on what students need to be successfully included at school and to make sure they have the chance to reach their educational potential. It’s a good system.

      After teachers’ contracts were stripped by former education minister Christy Clark in 2002, school principals and school districts were largely unfettered by such inconveniences as collective-agreement provisions around how much education support must be provided to a student or requirements to collaborate with teachers and other professionals to determine that. It was not a good system and led to decisions being made in the bottom line’s best interest instead of what’s best for students.

      Charlie Smith

      I’ve attended a few SBT meetings over the years. They’re generally blunt conversations about what’s happening in classrooms and how to support students who are struggling, lashing out, falling apart, disrupting the class, and other issues. The professionals at the table put their heads together a strategize about the best way to support the students whose cases have been brought to the team by classroom teachers. Then they come up with recommendations that are submitted to their district offices, with a request for the supports or additional staffing allocations.

      Most principals working in schools today weren’t in that role prior to 2002 and are used to being able to call the shots and ensure that committee recommendations fit within the school’s staffing and funding allocations, even if students’ needs exceed those. Districts don’t tend to look kindly on principals who rock the boat and demand too much, so many don’t.

      This is one of the areas the BCPSEA folks are referring to when they talk about “management rights”. The proposals they’ve tabled in bargaining, according to my sources, give school principals “unfettered” rights to organize classrooms and allocate supports for students with special needs. That means teachers would no longer have a final say in SBT recommendations. That should worry all parents, and not just those who have children with special needs. When students who require support don’t get it, it ends up affecting the whole class. It also increases teachers’ workloads, which is why it’s a topic at the bargaining table.

      I’m guessing good old BCPSEA, which, as I recall from my days as Vancouver School Board (VSB) chair, tends to hold management rights as sacred, is irked that the restored contract provisions include teachers’ rights to participate in SBT decisions and recommendations. That would be perceived as an erosion of management rights, which those folks would find hard to swallow.

      BCPSEA’s position is that because principals are responsible for managing budgets, they should have complete say over classroom organization and how special-education supports are allocated. Anything less is “fettering” them.

      It’s frustrating to lose the control you’ve enjoyed and to have to share it with the professionals in your school, especially those who put kids before the bottom line. Although, to be fair, I’ve come across many wonderful elementary principals who lead through respectful collaboration and will go to bat for what a student needs. I wish all of them were like that and that more school-district senior managers were too.

      BCPSEA’s current proposals, as I understand them, don’t include contract language regarding class composition but, rather, focus on class-size averages and restored management authority over decision-making.

      It all comes down to who gets control, which is also a battle between male-dominated senior-management ranks versus the female-dominated teaching ranks, which is what got me wondering about where the patriarchy comes into play at the bargaining table.

      Having to share power makes some people angry

      As VSB chair for six years, it was my job to attend BCPSEA meetings on behalf of my district. From time to time, BCSPEA would invite all school-board chairs and some of their senior staff to meetings in hotel ballrooms, where they’d have a head table set up and they’d take turns talking about bargaining plans.

      Some of the BCSPEA speakers—and as I recall, they mainly happened to be men, although not always—got a bit worked up when they talked about management rights. Sometimes they seemed downright angry about a perceived erosion of them and the disputes and arbitrations they had to deal with as a result of teachers filing grievances over principals and managers going too far in exerting control.

      From what I’m hearing from folks close to this year’s bargaining table, the BCPSEA brain trust is pushing hard to reclaim management rights. I can’t see any valid reason for that, aside from a simple power struggle, where those who had some power are determined to keep it. It sure isn’t about what’s best for kids.

      Patriarchy is about men holding power and dominating leadership positions. It’s about oppressing and exploiting women. And it just so happens that approximately 75 percent of B.C.’s teachers are women but more than 60 percent of school superintendents are male. Even at the school-principal level, men are still disproportionately represented in relation to the teaching force.

      I also hear the patriarchy shouting loudly on social media, whenever I comment on teacher bargaining. Replies can pretty much be summed up as “shut up and teach” (with apologies to the Dixie Chicks) and “learn to budget better”.

      Why is it that when teachers’ representatives point out that their members’ salaries have fallen behind counterparts across the country—and goodness knows how much in relation to male-dominated sectors that require similar levels of postsecondary education—the response is that they’re being unreasonable or greedy and are never happy?

      With starting teachers making just under $50,000 a year in B.C., affording rent, student-loan payments, transportation, child care, and luxuries like groceries isn’t a matter of being good at budgeting, for fudge’s sake. The math just doesn’t add up.

      By comparison, Vancouver police officers’ starting wage is more than $70,000 a year but doesn’t require a university degree (that often requires a big student loan that must be paid back). Vancouver firefighters also start at about $70,000, make almost $100,000 by their fourth year on the job, and are not required to have a university degree. Guess which gender dominates policing and firefighting?

      I’m all for police officers and firefighters being paid good wages, as they do important and complex work. But I believe teachers do as well, and that they should be fairly compensated for it.

      What I’m seeing emerging at the bargaining table, the airwaves, and social-media channels, is a power struggle. It pits the traditionally male power roles against teachers who have long been expected to put up with difficult working conditions and the expectation that they are carers who will even spend their own money to supply their classrooms and feed their hungry students. Meanwhile those with air-conditioned offices and expense accounts should, apparently, get to make decisions about what students need.

      In fairness to school-district senior managers, they’re actually underpaid too, relative to comparable male-dominated sectors. Vancouver’s superintendent of schools (who, for the first time in history, is a woman—hooray!), earns just over $200,000 a year and manages an annual operating budget of a half-billion dollars, a massive real-estate portfolio, and about 6,000 employees. Meanwhile, Vancouver’s city manager is paid about $350,000 a year, and the park board manager gets almost $300,000. The police chief gets about $360,000 and even the fire chief makes more than the superintendent of schools, at about $250,000 a year.

      As I watch in despair at the increasing attacks on women’s reproductive rights south of the border, I see a connection to the attacks here on teachers, who work in a predominantly female profession that is, it seems, a path less paid.

      As someone who cares about public education, womens’ rights, and who wakes up each day ready to smash the patriarchy, I feel a responsibility to draw attention to the misogynistic underpinnings of the attacks on teachers and on women’s rights to control what happens to their bodies.

      The patriarchy isn’t the only issue holding up a deal at the bargaining table, but I have no doubt it’s there, lurking below the surface, or even rearing its entitled head on occasion.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.