Revanchist Review

Friday, October 21, 2005

Unclear on the Concept – BCTF Executive Obtuseness

As I watched the head of the Surrey local of the BCTF (am I the only one who grates at this union terminology used to describe the decision making units of those charged with the care and intellectual stimulation of our kids) proclaim he could not recommend acceptance of the Vince Ready brokered settlement because it did not contain any substantive benefits for teachers, I was reminded of an experience I had as the parent of small children.

My wife and I were at church one Sunday morning with our two boys, then aged 5 and 2 ½. It was a few minutes before the service was to start and the boys were full of energy and questions. The eldest, spying a woman in the pew ahead of us who was rather overweight, asked in his loudest most earnest voice – “Daddy is that lady fat?” We huddled and I explained sotto voce that it was rude to make comments about a person’s appearance. We continued the discussion on our walk back home after church and I was satisfied a life lesson had been learned.

That afternoon I took the boys to the club for a swim. We were in the men’s changing room seated on a bench between rows of lockers as we undressed and got into our bathing suits. An older man (probably my age now) walked past naked, on his way to the shower. As the man passed, my oldest son in his same booming voice turned to me and said, “Dad, look at all those spots on that man’s back! I grabbed his arm in a vice like grip and said, “What did we just talk about this morning?” He looked at me in bemusement and said, “Is he fat too?”

There is a precious innocence possessed by children as they learn about life. They are unaware of nuance and focus with a burning clarity on individual facts without reference to context. As someone once said, the attributes we find endearing in children are often disagreeable when found in adults.

Is the fact teachers spend so much time in the presence of children part of the explanation for the child-like behaviour displayed by BCTF leadership throughout this dispute, and which is often repeated by individual members during their picket duties and rallies? A friend told me her 4 year old son was watching with her a news report of the rally in front of the legislative buildings and he asked if it was a movie from the summer camp he had attended.

What is it that leads a mature and educated man to conclude, that after 14 days of illegal picketing, a $500,000 fine imposed on the body in which he exercises leadership and fiduciary responsibilities and the promise of greater penalties if the strike continues, a compromise solution brokered by the most respected mediator in British Columbia does not offer any substantive benefits? Perhaps he meant substantial and doesn’t know the difference. Whatever the cause it was a shocking display of obtuseness.

Another news item today showed picketing teachers in Victoria. A female teacher was asked what she thought of the proposed settlement. She said something to the effect that “I’m disappointed because umm I was hoping for something umm, something excellent!” Well isn’t that a good reason to engage in illegal picketing, it is all a search for excellence. No doubt her definition of excellence may be unlike that of most right thinking British Columbians.

Based on the samplings of interviewed teachers, and even allowing for the fact one is not always as articulate as one would like to be when confronted by a camera and a microphone, there is a shocking combination of vacuity and inarticulateness displayed by the sampled group. Surely all the thoughtful and articulate teachers are so appalled at the illegal actions of the union, they wouldn’t be caught within miles of a picket line - hope springs eternal. The only articulate teacher I saw interviewed on television the past two weeks was the Victoria teacher who crossed the picket line early in the first week because he believed teachers must be held to a higher standard because of the importance of their profession, and he wanted to be in class where his students needed him.

As I write the BCTF executive has yet to announce whether it will recommend the settlement to its teacher members, and reportedly at least 4 local leaders including the referenced Surrey teacher will recommend rejection.

One can only hope there are enough rank and file teachers who are clear on the concept of what it means to honour the rule of law and who are eager to show the moral and intellectual leadership which has been so noticeably absent on the part of their leaders by voting to accept this settlement.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

A Debate

A friend sent my wife an essay on the teachers' strike. I could not resist a response and I share with you the viewpoint of one Mary-Ellen Lang apparently published on the CBC News Viewpoint, and my response.

I apologize for the formatting of the viewpoint.

CBC News Viewpoint | October 14, 2005 |
When teachers strike
By Mary-Ellen Lang

When thousands of law-abiding citizens vote en masse to break a particular
law and place themselves in a position of contempt of the courts, it is a
worthwhile exercise to wonder why they would do such a thing. What
precipitates such action? What drives such resolve?
Most teachers by nature fit into "the system." Indeed it could be said
they are the system. So when they decide to directly oppose that very system,
it is an event worth noting. In B.C., the current teachers strike is the
culmination of years of what feels to teachers like battering at the hands
of an abusive "partner."

While it is certainly true that the B.C. Liberals, as is their habit,
legislated an end to bargaining and imposed by means of their creative
law-making talents a "new" (same old) contract on teachers, and while it
is therefore true that teachers are breaking that law by striking, it is also
true that Canadians in general are heir to a long history of admiration
for law-breaking of a particular sort.

Canada has consistently given refuge to fleeing Americans who have run
from "the law" of the U.S. Runaway slaves, First Nations (Sioux) refugees and
draft dodgers have sought, and been given, sanctuary here.

Canadians still debate whether or not Louis Riel was a traitor or a hero.
But they tend not to debate the relative merits of such law-breakers as
Dr. Martin Luther King, Alexander Dubcek or Nelson Mandela. Generally,
Canadians are quite clear on the morality of resisting immoral laws or situations
that are a serious affront to human rights, freedoms and dignity.

At the present time, most B.C. teachers (even those who didn't vote)
regard > Bill 12, the B.C. Liberal law that nullifies teachers' right to collective
bargaining (again), as bad enough to warrant civil disobedience.

If objecting to Bill 12 were all there was to it, it could be argued that
the teachers' stand is questionable. But Bill 12 is just the tip of the
iceberg. There has been a long buildup of actions and attitudes by B.C.
Liberals that feed the present resolve to resist them.

They unilaterally tore up legal, lawfully negotiated contracts, stripped
class size standards and many sorts of professional services from the
province's students. They orchestrated the backward slide of income (given inflation) and attempted to prevent teachers from even talking to parents about school conditions through (unsuccessful) action in the courts.

The Liberals took over the B.C. College of Teachers, fired its
democratically elected directors, appointed buddies in their place and
denied teachers any say in this government-controlled institution. Then
they threatened to cancel teachers' licences when they refused to pay dues to
this farce.

This government-controlled group sponsored media ads encouraging parents
to report on bad teachers directly to this new college and when hardly any
reports came in, escalated this campaign (still without the results they
apparently expected).

Since the Liberals have taken power in B.C. over 2,000 teachers and over
100 schools have vanished from the educational landscape. Classes of 35 to 40
students, a quarter of whom may have significant behavioural and/or
learning problems, are not uncommon.

School libraries are without librarians, while programs, services and
courses of every sort no longer exist. Teachers are getting by without
textbooks, or are keeping the ones they've got going with duct tape.

Counsellors who should be looking after the social and educational needs
of students are in overcrowded classrooms, instead. In high schools students
now have "spares" where courses used to be.

As far as I can tell, there are three equal issues that drive the current
illegal strike in B.C.

First, the actual income and buying power of teachers is diminishing.
Although teachers are getting better qualified all the time, they have
less money in hand than 10 years ago after factoring in inflation.

Secondly, teachers believe that Bill 12 is more worthy of a fascist state,
than a democratic one. Their reasons for this attitude are rooted in the
observation that the B.C. Public School Employers Association's so-called
"bargaining" behaviour could more accurately be described as stonewalling.
It brought zero to the table, had no offers or suggestions to make.

We didn't get anywhere because it had no intention of getting anywhere.
Further, the subsequent legislation, which I suppose it had hoped would
look like the solution to a teacher-caused impasse, looks instead to most
people like premeditated sledge-hammering.

Finally, the issue of class size, class composition and services to
students is a major sticking point with teachers. Imagine classes in which some
lone teacher is expected to manage the educational fortunes of 43 Grade 8 math students,35 English students, 38 Grade 5s, Industrial Ed classes of 36
(although there are only 21 tools), Grade 6 classes with four emotionally
disturbed students, three ESL kids, and a blind child packed in among the
other 20 "average" kids. (I'd like to see our esteemed minister of
education > try to teach one of those classes for a week.)

Governmental disregard for the learning conditions of students and working
conditions of teachers (the two cannot really be separated) is so
pervasive and debilitating it's only a matter of time before a class-action suit for incompetence, willful negligence and arrogant pomposity is laid at their

Teachers, as everyone says, do not like to strike. In fact, they hate it.
What they hate considerably more though, is the disrespect, abuse and
incompetence they are subjected to as they try to deliver an education to

Mary-Ellen Lang delights in being a mom, grandma, writer, teacher,
gardener and equestrian, usually in about that order. She has been teaching since
1972, and writing since 1980. Two of her three (award winning, Young
Adult) > novels are published in many languages in Europe, the USA and Canada.

My Response:

I would like to respond to Mary-Ellen Lang's essay. She begins with a false assumption that the "system" into which she declares teachers to fit is one occupied by souls other than doctrinaire union supporters. It is a symptom of our times that intelligent people like Ms. Lang are unable to see the tactics of the teachers' union as a declaration that the group firmly adheres to a "system" that is in rebellion against the "system" she holds up as a foundation of society. The true "system" is one based on an unwritten social contract, which has given teachers the esteemed place they hold in the hearts and minds of the public. It is a system that believes in the rule of law and one that abhors anarchy. In contrast, the teachers advocate a system where everything is relative and if a person or group doesn't agree with a decision it simply ignores it and looks to mount public approval for its resistance - an approval based not on the rule of law and the prescriptions that serve as the glue to keep this fragile social structure together, but rather on popularity. What a sorry example that presents for our next generation of children that we entrust teachers to act toward in loco parentis.

Ms. Lang compounds her error by suggesting teachers feel like they have been battered at the hands of an abusive partner. Now employers and emloyees sometimes do enter into arrangements where they so align their interests as to be seen to be partners. This happens often in the private sector and successful models are based on some fundamental principles such as 1)accountability, 2) shared vision, 3) incentives to succeed and excel, 4) consequences of failure.

Since the reality of the relationship between teachers and their employers beginning with unionization in 1993 has been the antithesis of a partnership, and since the unionization of teachers was something they as a group fought hard for (a tenacious foot soldier being Jinny Sims, armed as she was from her experiences as an eager member of NUT in the UK) it is disingenuous of Ms. Lang as a teacher to offer up the image of a battered partner to characterize the plight of the teachers union in 2005.

If one accepted the partnership model, how would one then interpret the actions of the BCTF in spending untold amounts on advertising that directed vicious ad hominem attacks against its partner, sinking to the depths of publishing mugshot photos of the premier to be stapled to every telephone pole. Ms. Lang clearly has never had to work in a true business partnership, and sadly neither has the vast majority of teachers. Furthermore the reality is that teachers cherish the sinecure of their employment, one devoid of measurable standards of performance, devoid of meaningful sanctions for failure or incompetence and with impregnable job security for those with seniority, hardly the foundations on which to build a healthy partnership.

It is remarkable to me how easily folks like Ms. Lang gloss over the illegality of what the teachers are doing by defying an order of the Labour Relations Board and the Supreme Court of the province. It is even more remarkable that she seeks to justify this law-breaking activity by relying on a specious interpretation of Canada's history of admiration for law-breaking. She suggests that granting refuge to escaping slaves from the US should stand on equal ground to opening our borders to draft dodgers and Sioux refugees. It is a meretricious argument that proposes Canadians in general admire and condone the list of lawbreakers she advances in support of her argument.

To compare teachers' disgruntlement over the economic value of their services and the working conditions under which they provide them for 193 days of the year to the evils of segregation, apartheid or communist oppression, is odious and a reader of Ms. Lang's piece would be pefectly justified in placing her essay in the dustbin at this point.

Lang concedes that the teachers' stand is questionable if it were based only on an objection to Bill 12. This is a helpful concession since it is rather easy to demonstrate in fact that is exactly what teachers are doing and no amount of rationalization can change the reality of a democratically elected government passing legislation to confirm a policy it established in its previous mandate - namely that education is an essential service in this province.

The litany of complaints Ms. Lang lists as justification for disobedience of the law are facile and one-sided and ignores the role of the BCTF throughout the process. Even if everything she said was true, the simple fact is that despite spending millions of its members hard earned dollars on a futile attempt to defeat the Liberal government in the last two elections, the BCTF failed. The Liberal government has been democratically elected and more sophisticated labour advocates than Ms. Sims and her fellow executives have conceded that victory to them.

Faced with that result, the responsibility of the BCTF executive was to enter into negotiations with its employers with an attitude that recognized the political realities. It is clear it did not do so and while it is convenient for the BCTF to argue that the government was intrasigent, the ability of the Liberal government to successfully negotiate major contracts with other public sector unions refutes the BCTF's and Ms. Lang's arguments.

The BCTF used flawed tactics in its negotiations by bundling a number of issues together in order to attempt to paint the Liberal government as anti-teacher and anti-education. It is a risible proposition that unfortunately those who are inveterate Liberal haters, regardless of their intelligence, too readily accept without due consideration. Ms. Lang is doubtlessly an intelligent woman, but there is a chasm between intelligence and wisdom. Her suggestion that a class-action lawsuit might be launched against the government for among other sins "arrogant pomposity" merely underscores my point.

I believe most teachers do hate the thought of a strike. Regretably, the teachers in BC have displayed such lassitude in the past several years over the issue of who should represent their interests, they are now faced with the sad spectacle of having a dim panjandrum like Jinny Sims parade before the public as the face of the teaching profession in British Columbia. Right thinking teachers should be appalled at what they have allowed to occur. Their first step should be to overwhelmingly endorse Vince Ready's proposal no matter what he says. Their next step must be to find the courage to put forward to lead them, a slate of teachers who genuinely have pedagocic and not political ambitions.

Teachers have built up a huge historical reserve of goodwill capital with the public and it is a shame they wasted so much of it in this latest dispute.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Jinny Sims' Failing Grade

According to her bio on the BCTF website, Jinny Sims taught English and social studies in Nanaimo after she emigrated from England in 1975. She apparently also worked as a school counselor. She came to Canada armed with union movement experience in the National Union of Teachers in Britain, a movement that proudly and with no apparent sense of irony refers to itself as NUT. Its newsletter is the NUT News.

The BCTF website says Sims “was deeply involved in the first round of local bargaining when BC teachers began the drive to unionize”. That was 1993 under the Harcourt NDP government and since then it appears that she has concentrated on union activities serving on the provincial executive of the BCTF since 1998.

In her letter to the teachers of British Columbia dated October 6, 2005 she declared that the vote to strike was “an overwhelming endorsation of the goals we have set together”. What sweet irony when the leader of the teachers union of British Columbia uses an invented word to praise her colleagues as they prepare for an illegal strike. You won’t find endorsation in the Oxford, the Cambridge or the Merriam Dictionary, but that doesn’t stop this English and social studies teacher from using it.

The word of course is endorsement and the fact you can find endorsation in the minutes and resolutions of BCTF meetings doesn’t make it a word. This means precious little to Jinny Sims and sadly most of the teachers she leads would either be ignorant of her error or too disengaged to care. Certainly those teachers I saw on television singing songs and plucking guitars on picket lines or at rallies seemed more interested in making certain their lyrics rhymed than accord with even the most rudimentary rules of English composition.

It is time for the silent majority of teachers who have a real interest in pedagogy -if indeed it exists - to stand up and be counted. If your leader thinks she is Rosa Parks and relies on invented words to communicate, perhaps it is time you find new leadership.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Teachers As Anarchists - A Study in Stupidity

Teachers play an enormously important role in our lives. How many of us is unable to single out at least one teacher whose skill, care, understanding or concern played a significant role in shaping our lives or those of our children? As parents, we entrust our children to the care and supervision of teachers for some 193 days each year in British Columbia.

In my own case I hold in the highest esteem the late Elmer Lundbach, my grades 11 and 12 math teacher at Winston High in Watrous, Saskatchewan. I never saw Elmer without a jacket and tie, except when he was curling. He was from the tough love generation and when hundreds of his former students gathered to celebrate his life last fall it was clear that love had trumped toughness every time.

It would never have occurred to Mr. Lundbach to remove his jacket and tie and throw on a sandwich board so he could walk the sidewalk in front of his school to protest against what he considered to be unfair treatment by his employer. It would have appalled him to see teachers rally in front of the legislative buildings as if in preparation for the Sun Run, chant solidarity forever and urge workers in other fields to join them in a general strike.

He would have been even more appalled at the intellectual dishonesty displayed by the teachers and their leaders as they seek to spin straw into gold and paint their lawbreaking as civil disobedience, and their advocacy of anarchism as a natural offshoot of the freedoms afforded them as members of a democracy.

He would have said, “teaching is an honourable profession and teachers must rise above the fray and must not only adhere to but teach a higher standard of civility than do ordinary citizens.”

But that was then, and now is now. Now teaching is no longer a profession but a union shop. Teachers still want all the privileges of professionals but without the responsibilities and accountability. If truly a profession, mediocrity and incompetence would have consequences for teachers, other than a transfer to a different school, and excellence would be acknowledged and rewarded. If truly professional, teachers would acknowledge that there will be failures amongst their ranks and that incompetent teachers cause damage to students and bring the entire profession into disrepute if their failure carries no consequence.

As a trade union, solidarity is the motto. Rewards for excellence are restricted to tokenism, usually dispensed at a teacher’s retirement party or upon his or her departure from the rank and file to join the administration – the only method of financial advancement permitted in this socialistic environment.

As a trade, teachers have chosen to elect a union leadership steeped in the tradition of confrontational trade union bargaining. Politically teachers have permitted themselves to become toadies for the socialist political parties. Jenny Sims’ predecessor as head of the BCTF now sits as an NDP member of the legislature, a natural evolutionary result of union Darwinism.

Jenny Sims and her coterie of BCTF executives operate from a different agenda. Sims welcomes the prospect of being jailed, as it would increase her profile amongst the social activists who control the public sector unions and amongst the fawning press who would soon make her into a martyr. The BCTF has carried out its collective bargaining for the last decade with a mindset to promote confrontation with government.

I am convinced that the majority of rank and file teachers do not want to break the law. The original vote in favour of a strike was meant as a protest against what they perceived to be unwillingness on the part of government to listen to their complaints about class size and out of frustration at not receiving any wage increase. The solidarity mentality leads to fortress mentality and the government becomes the enemy, the faults of the union’s own leadership are ignored or go unrecognized.

Ultimately the crowd mentality overwhelms enough of the rank and file that we now have the remarkable sight of busloads of teachers filling a BC ferry to travel to Victoria to wave their placards and brandish their sophomoric slogans – all in defiance of a court order.

And yet they fail to see that what they are advocating is anarchy. The only consequence of persistent lawbreaking is either punishment or chaos. When those to whom we entrust the education of our children exhibit such aberrant behaviour I am reminded of Robert Musil when he said, “unfortunately, stupidity has something uncommonly endearing and natural about it. There is in short no great idea that stupidity could not put to its own uses. It can move in all directions, and put on all guises of the truth. The truth by comparison, has only one appearance, and only one path, and is always at a disadvantage.”

If you want to see an object lesson in stupidity, walk down to your nearest school and ask a teacher to explain to you again how breaking the law is good for your kids.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Problems of the Heart

The problem of civilization can be solved only by the heart - by the appearance of a new type of man. By an inner vision and a pure will.
The Man Without Qualities – Robert Musil.

A friend remarked that while he enjoyed my musings, he felt they were more directed toward societal issues and had less application to individuals. This meant they had less impact on him than if he could see specific applications to his own life.

That comment was made several months ago, and it has been percolating in whatever part of my brain these thoughts reside as they foment (ferment?) It is the human condition for one to pay less attention to ideas that do not have a direct personal application.

Of course, to direct my commentary to individual actions, is to risk offending those who with considerable justification would say – who are you to tell me what to do, or how to think, or how to vote?

Anyone who has read more than a couple of my essays knows I believe we have some serious problems in our society – here in Canada, and in our Western civilization generally. The more history I read the more I realize the problems I see are neither new nor unique to us.

One of the critical issues we face as Canadians is our smugness. We see ourselves as so much more fortunate than others. An air of moral and intellectual superiority with respect to our American neighbours exhibits this smugness. , With respect to poorer and less fortunate nations we pay lip service to how much we have to offer by way of assistance and expertise, but rarely do we walk the talk.

Our smugness allows us to ignore the systemic rot that has crept into our political structures and the historical foundations of our society. We stand idly by as proof upon proof is presented to us that our senior government is guilty not only of permitting but perpetuating cronyism, self-dealing, dishonesty and craven disregard for the exercise of prudence and fiscal responsibility. These are matters of the heart. There is something missing in our hearts if we refuse to take action to hold accountable those who have breached the trust we have vested them.

I have met no one who is able or willing to defend the practices and actions that formed the subject matter of the Gomery inquiry. The Dingwall affair is but another example of the lunacy into which we have descended. We are asked to believe that a political appointee who resigns in response to an investigation into $750,000 of questionable expenses should be entitled to a severance package to avoid a lawsuit. How long must the list of malefactors become before we are prepared to take individual action through the exercise of our free vote, and hold our politicians accountable?

It is as though we are caught up in a massive crowd and despite our intentions to change direction, we continue to be swept along, even though we may object to the direction in which the masses take us. Elias Canetti wrote about this phenomenon in his novel Auto-da-Fe and in his book Crowds and Power, the culmination of his life long study of the behaviour of the masses. “They act but know not what they do. They have their customs, but know not how they came by them. They wander their whole life long, but still cannot find their way; even so are the people of the masses,” wrote Canetti.

Put aside all political ideology or antipathy toward one political party or another and ask yourself – what does it say about my heart if I am willing to turn a blind eye to corruption? How can I be smug about the freedom we all enjoy as Canadians if I allow this freedom to be enjoyed by dissembling politicians? What will it take for me to see that freedom without prudence, or duty or responsibility and the other limits to freedom becomes but a parody of itself.

Consider for a moment the voters in Vancouver Centre in the next federal election. It appears they will have a choice between the incumbent Hedy Fry and the renewed and rehabilitated Svend Robinson. In Fry they have the admitted liar who invented a cross burning incident in Prince George to further her political interests, and in Robinson an admitted felon. Robinson is a parody of a parody. Like the child who killed his parents then threw himself on the mercy of the court citing his plight as an orphan; Robinson escaped a criminal record by pleading a mental condition and the fact he had suffered enough by losing his job as a member of parliament and suffering public humiliation. Now he comes forward and says his mental state is perfectly fine and he should get his job back.

I conclude with sadness not bitterness, that those who vote for Hedy Fry or Svend Robinson are neither insane nor foolish nor irrelevant. They are merely acting in accordance with the light which illumines their own inner vision.

If I am right, it would take countless individual acts of pure will and restored inner vision to begin to make even the slightest adjustment to the course charted by this massive crowd that is our nation, as it travels through time.

Much more than that, it would take a massive outpouring of grace. But since all human nature resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful, it may be a long time yet before the crowd changes course.