English schools more like guinea pigs than labs for ‘innovations’

By Robert Green

The following op-ed appeared in the January 17 edition of the Montreal Gazette

In a recent interview with The Gazette (“An ‘ideas lab’ for education,” Opinion, Jan. 9), the retired chief negotiator for the Quebec English School Boards Association, Ben Huot, talks about innovations within the English education system.

Mr. Huot touts, as a positive innovation, the fact that teachers in Quebec’s English school boards will now receive extra remuneration if they supervise extracurricular activities. He neglects to mention that if the money committed for this program this year were divided equally among all the teachers of Quebec’s English school boards, each teacher would receive about $75 per year in additional pay. In future years, this will increase to the mighty sum of about $300 annually. In theory, a teacher could earn up to eight per cent of his or her pay in such bonuses, but this would necessitate large numbers of his or her colleagues receiving nothing. The real experiment here is seeing what the introduction of such competitive policies will do to the sense of collegiality and the level of collaboration among teachers in Quebec’s English system.

Mr. Huot also fails to mention that teachers in Quebec’s French school boards are already remunerated for extracurricular activities; such work is factored into the calculation of their overall workload. In other words, when teachers in the French system take on extracurricular activities, their teaching load is reduced and they have more time for course planning and marking.

One would be hard-pressed to find a single teacher in Quebec’s English system who would not, in an instant, exchange the pittance being promised for extracurricular work for the much-needed additional prep time enjoyed by teachers in Quebec’s French system. To state, as Mr. Huot does, that teachers’ unions in the French system would want to “ride the coattails” of the English on this issue is absurd. If anything, the leadership of the provincial English teachers’ union should be explaining why they agreed to an “innovation” that is clearly worse than what exists in the French system, and that will inevitably be used by the government as a rationale to take away the advantages enjoyed by its teachers.

Another example of innovation that the article cites as positive is the fact that Quebec’s English school boards are planning to “enlarge” teachers’ jobs to include the teaching of other teachers.

While facilitating greater peer-mentoring among teachers is a great idea, the teachers need to be given the time to do this. As it is, most teachers are donating a portion of every weekend and many of their evenings to accomplish all the work they don’t have the time to accomplish during their paid hours.

The last 20 years have seen Quebec teachers being constantly asked by government to do more and more with less and less. The result is an enormously high rate of teacher burnout. In 2006, the CBC reported that 31 per cent of teachers in Quebec’s English school boards who went on long-term disability did so for reasons related to stress and burnout. Unless the school boards can convince the provincial government to invest in reducing teaching loads, such a peer-mentoring program will only make this situation worse.

It is extremely telling that none of the examples of innovation cited in the article came from parents, teachers or the community at large. They came from school-board bureaucrats, who have their own set of interests.

We also should not overestimate the role played by school boards. The reality is that the decisions of the provincial government have a far greater impact on the quality of education in Quebec’s English system than those of the school boards. It is the government that determines funding, class-size limits, the curriculum, etc.

Mobilizing for increased funding and higher standards for all Quebec schools might be a far more fruitful approach to protecting and improving the quality of our children’s education than engaging in the fight to save school boards.

Robert Green teaches at Westmount High School.

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