Stephen McNeil

To Stephen McNeil:

I’m pretty fed up, so let’s just get right to it.

We all get that your script says for you to repeat the phrase “we continue to invest in classrooms.” We get it. Every single question someone asks you about the looming teachers’ strike, instead of addressing concerns, offering solutions, or even just answering the question, you say the same line: “we continue to invest in classrooms.”

But listening to you regurgitate the same self-congratulatory statements in every interview is doing nothing to persuade parents to turn against teachers, as is clearly the intention. And I’ll tell you why.

Because we’re not stupid. We won’t be fooled into thinking this strike is the doing of greedy teachers holding out for unreasonable pay raises. Yes, they want a pay increase – but how many contract negotiations don’t include salary? No, they don’t want to go to the bargaining table with a bunch of government-imposed conditions that fly in the face of fair negotiations. And you can’t expect for a few supper hour television commercials to convince us to take your side.

The real issue is this: we’ve reached a breaking point in Nova Scotia schools. It is a culmination of years of unaddressed issues and changing times, and the pot is just about ready to boil over. Walk into any school and you’ll feel it; there is a storm bubbling just beneath the surface of every forced smile, every nervous attempt at discipline, and every case of unmet potential. The frustration is palpable for everyone. It is the elephant in the room.

I read a letter yesterday that sheds a “the truth hurts” light on what schools are like these days, and some of the examples of what teachers mean when they say the classroom environment needs to change in order for them to do their jobs. In summary, it said the reality of school these days is you have one overworked teacher trying to wrangle 30 or so elementary-aged kids. Some have special needs, or personal issues at home that are affecting their day. Some are insubordinate, obstinate little terrors with no respect for authority. Throw all these kids in a classroom ill-equipped with material resources, and leave no one to complain to but parents who threaten a lawsuit if someone confiscates their kid’s smartphone, under an Education Department that concentrates more on data collection than the well-being of the people they oversee.

And that’s before the morning bell. Bring the issue of learning into the mix and we just have more to be concerned about.
I don’t know how to fix it, but teachers on the front lines – who are in those classrooms every day and bear witness to the problems that exists – will have a better grasp of the most pertinent issues, and more realistic input and advice to contribute. Anyone who argues that should look at the mess years of failed bureaucracy has caused and considers that we need a new approach to get our school system back on track.
And yes, a new approach will take money, as you pointed out in the news. (I believe the quote was: Where do I find $50 million?)

Please, allow me to make a few suggestions to that end.
Last I checked, the Bluenose II is costing $25 million, which is less than the $33 million coming out of the budget for the Yarmouth ferry. So since we have that much money to spend on watercraft, one would surmise that maybe $50 million for the sake of education wouldn’t be hard to scrape up.
And since you pointed out how teachers’ salaries affect the overall distribution of education dollars, might I suggest a re-evaluation of the salaries and pension plans of your senior staff. Maybe your ministers would consider sacrificing their “I served for a handful of years in government” pensions (a far cry from the 35 years teachers have to work for theirs). And I believe I just read that one of your secretaries makes $160,000 – surely she wouldn’t mind shaving a little off the top to make some of those classroom investments you keep congratulation yourselves about, right?
(I’d have a hard time picking apart a teacher’s salary when one of my clerical staff makes more than double theirs, but that’s another article.)

In all seriousness, as far as this looming strike goes: these are our friends and relatives. They are the people in line behind us at the lights in 11-year-old Corollas. They are our kids’ hockey coaches. They are not the spoiled, selfish, unreasonable lot of aristocrats you make them out to be.

So stop framing it that way, no one is buying it. Negotiate in good faith, cooperate, and fix what’s broken.