Education

Teachers in turmoil

New classroom rules provoke labor unrest

ROBERT SHEPPARD September 21 1998
Education

Teachers in turmoil

New classroom rules provoke labor unrest

ROBERT SHEPPARD September 21 1998

Teachers in turmoil

New classroom rules provoke labor unrest

Education

It was as if someone had hit the snooze bar governing the back-to-school bell. Last week, summer vacation continued for nearly 200,000 Ontario elementary and high-school students, courtesy of a series of strikes and lockouts triggered by the province’s school reforms. Meanwhile, nearly two million others staggered back to their classrooms, flummoxed by a nagging labor uncertainty that threatens to eliminate such popular extracurricular programs as drama classes and after-school sports. The contrasting school pictures could not have been more stark. In Parry Sound, home of hockey legend Bobby Orr and provincial Finance Minister Ernie Eves, there were four teacher-coaches for girls basketball at the local high school, up from one last year.

Young, newly hired instructors—with one of the more innovative teacher agreements in the province—were falling over themselves to help each other in classes or with extracurricular activities. “There is just a renewed sense of energy,” says English and history teacher Glen Flodgson, who is also a basketball and volleyball coach. The only drawback, he says, is that the schools they play against are not, for the foreseeable future, fielding teams this year. In Toronto and the surrounding regions of Durham, Dufferin-Peel and York several hundred, mostly Catholic, high schools were eerily quiet, save for the slow shuffle of picketers by their front doors. In thousands of others, classrooms were open, but there were no echoes of teenage enthusiasm in the gyms.

At issue is Ontario’s new funding formula, which imposes new limits on average class size, seeks to increase the amount of time teachers spend on “instruction,” and restricts the flexibility of school boards to run deficits or pay for these changes out of anything but strict spending envelopes. For the five hours a day that students spend in a classroom, elementary school teachers are expected to be there for four hours and 20 minutes, a standard most of them already exceed. High-

school teachers are now legislated to spend four hours and 10 minutes on instruction, an increase of roughly 25 minutes a day. But because the school day is not cut into convenient 25-minute chunks, most school boards are trying to add an entire extra 45or 75minute period to their teachers’ schedules, depending on how a particular school is organized. This not only eats into the planning

and extracurricular time that many teachers count on, but also adds considerably to the course work they must prepare for.

“The danger here is that we will evolve two tiers of school boards,” says Liz Sandals, head of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association. “Those who have the flexibility to reach an agreement and the vast majority who don’t.” In the latter case, that means boards in the larger metropolitan areas who tend to have higher salary grids reflecting the higher cost of living in those areas. Because the new funding formula is based on provincial averages, boards that are above the spending average cannot afford to maintain last year’s staffing levels, let alone increase them. To reduce class sizes, they must force teachers to work substantially

longer hours. This seems to be the government’s goal. But in a surprise move last week, only two days into the new school year and one day after musing about backto-work legislation, Education Minister David Johnson offered to give the boards up to two years to implement the new instruction-time standards. He is still planning a new law for the fall to define instruction time in such a way that does not include homeroom, hallway supervision, planning or mentoring programs. But if boards strike deals on class time before the law is passed, he will not overturn them; they can stand for the normal length of a two-year contract.

Johnson’s concession was hailed by the teachers unions. Marshall Jarvis, head of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, expected it would restart negotiations and have the majority of the strikebound students back in classrooms this week. But most teachers are expected to remain on a work-to-rule footing while the long-term search begins for the right balance between classroom instruction and extracurricular education. In Parry Sound, part of the Near North District School Board, which includes Premier Mike Harris’s hometown of North Bay, unions and school board officials feel they have found the formula. It has been adopted, at least in principle, by seven of Ontario’s 33 public boards, notes Earl Manners, head of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation. Under the Near North arrangement, teachers have given up their sabbaticals, _ personal leave days and some 2 retirement perks; more im1 portantly they have also I agreed to do unlimited “onI calls” to fill in for ailing colleagues or to spend at least 25 minutes a day assisting in someone else’s classroom or lab. “I don’t feel overworked,” says Hodgson. “We are doing a lot of the activities we would normally do on our own. Now, they are being scheduled in on a regular basis.”

Will this scheduling work in the larger centres? The London-area board, third largest in the province, will try it. But Joseph Martino, chairman of the Toronto Catholic District School Board whose 30,000 highschool students were locked-out last week, says it appears too complicated. Now, there seems to be a two-year breathing space to sort out the value of drama clubs and school sports. That may be what Ontario’s new school bell has rung in.

ROBERT SHEPPARD