Wages aside, teachers need to be heard

Strike should put classroom conditions and child poverty in the spotlight.

While driving by a group of teachers picketing along the highway Monday in Salmon Arm, I ran into a professional, ethical dilemma: to honk or not to honk.

As a news reporter, I am compelled to remain objective, and I was “on the clock” at the time. However, I also believe teaching to be a noble profession, and that teachers are a critical cog in our cultural/social construct.

But then I thought, how often do I get, let alone take advantage of, an opportunity to honk the car horn? Sure, I’ve been in a number of situations where it was justified. But for some reason, I am reluctant to “speak up.” Instead I’ll just stew it over, maybe grumble about it later with friends, or post something on Facebook.

So I did it. I honked my horn. I supported the teachers by indulging in a blast of audible audacity that, thankfully, didn’t cause disruption among my fellow drivers.

The purpose of the car trip was, in fact, to speak with teachers in Sicamous who were demonstrating against the provincial government’s plan to legislate an end to teachers’ job action.

I spoke to several teachers and generally heard the same thing – that their three-day escalated strike is not about the wages. It’s about class size and dwindling resources that have spread teachers and administration thin.

Much of the focus in this dispute seems to be stuck on the 15 per cent wage increase, over three years, that the B.C. Teachers’ Federation is trying to negotiate with a government that’s standing firm on a net-zero mandate on public sector wage increases. Understandably, the BCTF’s case is tough for the court of public opinion to swallow when we are constantly being told we must do more with less (more often than not by those who appear to be doing quite well).

But seriously, when teachers are telling you they have used up their paper allotment long before the school year’s end, and are subsequently having to buy paper for their classrooms, you have to wonder what’s going on.

In September 2011, frustrated Lower Mainland elementary school teacher Carrie Gelson tried to let the public know what’s going on with a heart-wrenching open letter to the media. She noted how her role as an educator has expanded to that of child poverty advocate, struggling to support children who are coming to school hungry and without proper clothing for the rain and cold.

“Personally, I’m exhausted by the other things I do – co-ordinating, organizing, distributing to try and stay just three steps behind the need (I am never ahead),” writes Gelson.

No doubt there are many teachers in the Shuswap who feel the same and, if so, it is likely true that for them, this strike is not about wages. It’s about our priorities as a province. In which case, a good horn honking for our teachers is not only justified, it is overdue.