Some serious teacher bashing is going on in British Columbia right now.

by Susan McCaslin

Some serious teacher bashing is going on in British Columbia right now.  Shelly Fralic, a journalist for the Vancouver Sun, recently exploited her personal issue of teachers parking their vehicles on a public street in front of her house as a means of arousing hatred against teachers for their “sense of entitlement.”[i] Teachers, she suggested, are lazy buggers who work from 8 till 3 and then get the summers off. Her piece was perfectly timed to arouse animosity, coming out just after the BC Liberal government had threatened that if teachers proceeded with their intended job action, the government would retaliate by cutting, not increasing, their pay.

First, I must come clean as a retired educator who taught at a local college in B.C. for 23 years, and before that as instructor, sessional lecturer, and teaching assistant. I began teaching in 1969 but knew I wanted to be a teacher when I was in grade 8. Teaching has been for me not just a job, but a vocation (a true calling) and a passion. So I am not simply a bystander, but still believe I can be objective based on my long experience within the teaching profession.

My sense is that most educators are idealistic folks who received encouragement from a teacher at some time in their lives and wish to encourage and support youth in return, or, for some other reason, care about children and young people and wish to nurture and support them in their formative years. Though there are a few wastrels in any system (legal, government, business), the majority of teachers of my acquaintance are rather diligent and conscientious, people who entered the profession, not so much for its respectability or potential financial remuneration, but for the opportunity to help young people evolve into mature, civic-minded, fully human, integrated individuals. After all, one can go into law, medicine, accounting, business, and have prospects of a much higher income and more respectability than in teaching.

Unfortunately, here in BC, and in many other places in the world, public education is underfunded and undervalued. In B.C., teachers and local government are currently heading into a collision of apparent irreconcilables.

Clearly, our public education system is in crisis. Due to burgeoning class sizes, an increasing numbers of “special needs” students, the elimination of teachers’ aides, and lack of classroom resources, teachers are stressed to the maximum. Some of them are leaving the profession because they can’t cope with the pressure. Marking and preparation, extracurricular activities, class room management issues, and administrative responsibilities conjoin to take a toll.

The B.C. Liberal government’s position is that the need to balance the budget precludes the provision of classroom resources, smaller student to teacher ratios, and a raise in pay for teachers. Repeatedly, when teachers have demanded better working conditions, the government has legislated them back to work. Refusing to negotiate, the government continues to generously fund corporate interests. When public education deteriorates, Premier Christy Clark puts her child in a private school. One has to wonder if the B.C. government wishes to allow the public education system to become dysfunctional in order to privatize education completely.

The question that recurs is “why?” Why such an adamant stance against teachers, students, parents, and anyone who desires a decent public education system for our children? Why such obvious distain of teachers? One would think such disrespect might be grounded in negative experiences with teachers in high school. Or perhaps the public has ingested the stereotypic depictions of teachers in the media.

And there is another reason for a lack of sympathy for teachers: a lingering, media-fed, irrational fear and hatred of unions. Yet without some kind of collective bargaining clout, how can teachers have any power at all to put forward not only their needs, but those of their students?

To my mind, the deepest reason for animosity against teachers is fear: the government’s fear of citizens who possess critical thinking skills. Historically, when right wing dictatorial governments rise to power, the first to be targeted are poets, writers, activists, and educators. This is because, traditionally, educators and artists include those who have the long view, those who are not motivated simply by pragmatism and greed. Educators in the arts, sciences, and social sciences have a legacy of examining the human condition in a larger context, asking about its meaning and purpose beyond that of immediate gain. 

“Something there is” (said Robert Frost in his poem “Mending Wall”) that doesn’t want the masses asking questions. “Something there is” that wants to turn out cookie-cutter consumers who will support the corporate status quo.

In my case, and that of many others, teachers helped us think and feel for ourselves. My grade 12 civics teacher helped me realize I could someday make the world a better place when he encouraged me to write on the United Nations and efforts toward world peace. A history professor showed me history wasn’t just about memorizing facts, but about asking what we can learn from the past. An English teacher in grade 7 taught me not just to memorize a poem, but to participate in the poetic mode of being, to be creative.

Now that I’m retired, this capacity to enter the creative process enriches my life as a writer. Without the encouragement and support of memorable mentors and educators while in school, I might be in a materialist’s void. Because of one particular teacher who told me I was a writer when I was 12, I am a full-time poet and writer. Because of a professor in grad school who introduced me to the power of myth in contemporary poetry, I am recreating myself through language and offering my gift to others. I am not just a consumer, a bored retiree, but fulfilled. Teachers proffered me the opportunity to truly be and to live more holistically.

Isn’t this what we want for ourselves and our children, as well as to earn a living and meet the necessities of daily life? Critical thinkers aren’t just passive victims of social patterns and corporate powers, but movers, shakers, activists – exactly what some governments most fear.