The relationship between the Ontario teachers’ unions and Premier Doug Ford’s government has gone from bad to toxic. Upset with the government’s education policies, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) recently began work-to-rule campaigns.
During work-to-rule campaigns, teachers refuse to write report card comments, attend professional development sessions, or respond to emails from school administrators outside of school hours. Teachers are also holding information pickets in front of schools, and they are handing out flyers to parents before and after school. Fortunately, teachers have not withdrawn from student extracurricular activities, so the impact of this job action on students has so far been minimal.
However, there is a real possibility that job action will escalate from the withdrawal of these services to a full-blown strike in which schools close down. Teachers are already planning to walk off the job for a day on Dec. 4 if a deal is not reached.
Neither the government nor the teachers’ unions have shown any signs of backing down from this conflict. If a strike happens, students and parents will feel the impact the most.
To be clear, teachers have legitimate reasons for their concerns. For example, the government’s stubborn insistence that all high school students must complete two e-learning courses has zero evidence supporting their educational impact. No other jurisdiction in North America requires students to complete two e-learning courses as a condition for graduation. It appears that these mandatory courses are simply an awkward cost-cutting exercise.
Nevertheless, strikes are a poor way to resolve collective bargaining impasses between governments and teachers. Not only are parents forced to make alternative child-care arrangements, students miss out on valuable class time and their learning suffers. There are only a limited number of days in the school year and it is nearly impossible to make up for the lost learning time.
Class time matters because research shows that important skills such as reading comprehension and critical thinking are linked closely to background knowledge. While many people assume that reading is a transferable skill that is independent of content, the reality is that background knowledge about a topic is the best predictor of a student’s ability to read and understand material about the topic. Similarly, students can only think critically about things that they already know something about. In other words, critical thinking cannot take place in the absence of substantial content knowledge.
Because of their need for background knowledge, class time is a valuable commodity for all students. Teachers are fundamental providers of this knowledge, and depriving students of their teachers for a long time sets them back in their reading and critical thinking skills. In addition, for many students who come from disadvantaged homes, school is a place of stability and security. It is unfair to deprive these students of the relationships they have with their teachers.
This doesn’t mean that teachers should unilaterally lay down their arms and surrender to whatever dictates come from their employer. Not only would this be unfair, it would lead to a lower quality of education for students. Provincial governments and school boards often promote education fads (such as mandatory e-learning) that sound great but don’t work in practice. Teachers are on the front lines of teaching and learning and they deserve to have their voices heard.
There are two provinces where teacher strikes cannot happen because they’re illegal—Manitoba and Prince Edward Island. In Manitoba, the teachers’ union voluntarily gave up their right-to-strike during the 1950s in exchange for binding arbitration, teacher tenure, and a provincial certification board. Since then, all impasses in collective bargaining have been resolved by binding arbitration. Today, Manitoba teachers enjoy similar salaries and benefits as their Ontario colleagues—without ever having to walk a picket line.
One objection to binding arbitration in Ontario is that the provincial government could overrule arbitration rulings. However, all provincial governments can already order striking workers back to work and impose a collective agreement. In 2015, Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government used back-to-work legislation to end a six-week strike of high school teachers in three school boards. No provincial government will stand idly by while students lose a substantial part of the school year.
As for resisting the useless fads often imposed by employers, the OSSTF is already doing some important work in this area. Last year, OSSTF sponsored researchED, a teacher professional development conference that is put on by teachers for teachers. Many of the presenters at the researchED conferences are at the forefront of pushing against the most useless fads foisted on teachers and students. Even before researchED came along, OSSTF spoke out strongly against a no-zero policy imposed by the provincial government, which was finally dropped.
Obviously, teachers are in a stronger position to speak out against silly fads when they are in classrooms than when they are standing in picket lines. Thus, it is possible for teachers to advance their interests without going on strike.
Students and parents deserve the stability of knowing that teachers will be in school for the entire school year.
Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and author of “A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.