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THE IVORY SILO: Teachers dispute not about the money

Take away the government’s only negotiation weapon and progress will be made on the education standoff, writes Stewart Skinner

When I was growing up, it was never fun in our house when there was labour strife in the education sector.

It seems that opinions get more inflamed about labour issues in education than they do for other sectors, likely because work interruptions have a widespread impact that is felt differently in different households. The laziest criticism folks would use when casting a teacher in a negative light was the ‘but they get summer off’ argument. As a kid who had a front row seat to life of a long-time teacher in our area, questioning the work ethic of teachers would raise the hair on the back of my neck.

If you attended, or had kids attend school in this area over the last four decades, there is a good chance you got to know Nancy Skinner. Mum is not large in stature, but she has a limitless heart and she loved and cared for every kid that passed through her door. She poured herself into her job, first as a primary teacher, then music and finally in the kindergarten rooms of Howick and Eastdale elementary schools. I didn’t really think of it at the time, but later in life I developed a real appreciation for what she did as a teacher day in and day out.

Every day she was out the door at 7 a.m. and often wasn’t home before 6 p.m., and the evidence of her hard work is multiple generations of kids who have a special place in their heart for Mrs. Skinner. She would not likely want to draw attention to it (in fact this might make her uncomfortable), but her work and dedication touched their lives of children in this area and helped propel them on to great things.

While my mother is an extraordinary woman, her passion for education and dedication to her students is not extraordinary among teachers. Is there the odd teacher in it for nothing more than a pay cheque and those two months off in the summer…sure…but they are the exception, not the rule. Teachers are literally tasked with teaching little humans how to become functional members of society. Yes, they are there to teach ‘subjects’ and help kids learn math, English, etc. But day in and day out they help kids navigate life; in every class, there are kids from all socioeconomic backgrounds and home environments and teachers help them learn to interact with one another.

The fact that one person is entrusted with 25 little individuals and the end result is each kid receiving building blocks for their development is remarkable. You can’t do what teachers do if you’re just punching the clock and filling time from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; it takes real skill and a dedication to the craft. It should be celebrated that we live in a place where every child is given the opportunity to learn from people that are devoted to their development and future success.

Mum was always the first one to say that labour strife was never about the money. During the Mike Harris years, it was cuts to classroom funding and increasing class sizes because she knew that every kid being added to the class meant it would be exponentially harder to give each individual the attention she knew they needed. Talk to any teacher today and they will tell you the same thing about this current round of trouble.

There is a reason the Education Minister and Premier always try to frame this as a question of pay rates, they know that they can tap into the ignorance of the ‘but they get summer off’ crowd. Last week’s announcement to bribe us with our own money is proof that the government knows that if their talking points stray from anything beyond salary increases that they will lose public support in the fight against the teachers.

So here is a suggestion for the folks bargaining with government negotiators. Take their only talking point away. Drop the request for any pay increases so there is no room to wiggle on the far more important issues of cutbacks that directly lower the quality of education here in Ontario. Some of us know that you are not in it for the money, but the general public doesn’t necessarily understand that. The general public will understand the number ‘0’ if that’s what teachers are willing to accept for the next couple years in return for maintaining the high quality of our education system here in Ontario. Would that stink for teachers not to get a raise? Sure it would, but it would also demonstrate that they understand that many others around the province have had to go without raises for years on end. And it would show that teachers are more invested in delivering quality education than in just cashing that pay cheque. That is the current government’s only weapon in this argument, why not take it away?

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Stewart Skinner is a local business owner, former political candidate, and has worked at Queen’s Park as a Policy Advisor to the Minister of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs. He can be reached at stewart@stonaleenfarms.ca or on Twitter: @modernfarmer.