Our teachers deserve better

Three people standing with signs/placards at an STF rally in front of the legislative building.
The most chilling thing about this photo is not the weather, but the realization of how poorly teachers are treated. Emilie Wren

Hurting teachers eventually hurts us all

by alissa sadler, contributor

We have all had teachers all our lives. We may not have always had good personal experiences with them, but one thing remains certain: they are undoubtedly a necessary part of raising the next generation, and they are crucial to society. Their value has become abundantly clear during this year’s job actions from the Saskatchewan Teacher’s Federation (STF), which represents 13,500 Saskatchewan teachers.

While some think this is sudden, protests like this do not come out of nowhere. They often stem from complicated past interactions and building tensions, and this scenario is no exception. The provincial government has long shown little care for schools, which has resulted in poor working and learning conditions for teachers and students. It is now up to the government to listen to teachers, make long overdue changes to class size and complexity, and invest in Saskatchewan’s future before they lose more than just money and resources for classrooms. They may lose the bright futures of the youth of Saskatchewan.

Since the STF came to be in 1933, teachers have engaged in sanctions three times. Their main goal each time has been increased wages and more funding. This demand increased in urgency following a $54 million budget cut in 2017. Sanctions were set for 2020, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all that could be achieved was a quick contract that set salary increases at 6 per cent over four years and promised a provincial committee to investigate classroom complexity. 

Classroom size and complexity have also become primary negotiation points for the STF because of a well-documented increase in student enrollments and complex classrooms with fewer supports. However, the provincial government is refusing to bargain this, claiming that it is a job for local school boards. This is questionable, as other federations and unions across Canada, such as in Ontario and Quebec, regularly discuss class size and composition with their respective governments. The Supreme Court even ruled that the government of British Columbia infringed on teachers’ bargaining rights by refusing to negotiate class sizes. Why do the same rules not apply to our government?

The government has offered a memorandum of understanding to address the STF’s requests for more funding. While this could mean something, it could also (and likely does) mean nothing because there are no measures of accountability to ensure the funding actually happens. For all we know, this could just be lip service.

Understanding the state of Saskatchewan public schools helps to show why the STF is advocating so hard for change, and why we should be fighting alongside them. Many of the province’s teachers, parents, and school staff feel that learning conditions and staff morale have worsened over the last three years.

Teachers are burnt out and under-resourced, teaching in overpopulated classrooms.  Saskatchewan has cut per-student public education funding by 10 per cent since 2015. Out of all provinces, we are in second-last place in per-student operational funding, which has decreased by 14.2 per cent between 2013 and 2020. The 2022-23 school year saw the largest student enrolment growth in 20 years with almost 4,000 more students in classrooms, but there were 300 fewer teachers in 2022 than in 2021. 

Teachers are doing more than they are paid for. They supervise children at lunch and in extracurriculars for a fraction of their regular pay. Just thinking of keeping 30-40 eating (and often screaming) children under control by myself gives me a headache, and that’s not even considering the less-than-ideal compensation for it. They are also forced to take on more specialized roles they are not trained for due to simultaneous increases in students who need intensive support and declines in English as an Additional Language teachers, educational assistants, counsellors, and speech-language pathologists. Teachers are doing work that is significantly above their pay grade.

To put it bluntly, this is exploitation. It is so normalized that teachers not doing what they are not paid for is seen as job action. Teacher working conditions inevitably affect student learning conditions. Reading levels in early elementary schools have noticeably dropped since the pandemic. Students are also not able to get adequate one-on-one support due to over-populated and understaffed classrooms.

Students make up a higher proportion of the population in Saskatchewan than in any other province. By not investing time and money into the staff and resources they need, the government is sending a message that they do not care about the success and future of a large part of our population.

It is not surprising that teachers are protesting, and they should not be blamed. The fault lies in a government that has created these issues by neglecting education, demonstrated by a decade of underfunding. To fix this, they need to agree to binding arbitration and bargain on class size and composition. This is the only way to substantially address problems with Saskatchewan classrooms today, ensure that change actually happens, and prove that they do care about today’s youth.

So, instead of getting angry at the teachers for extracurriculars like HOOPLA and the Optimist Band Festival being impacted, parents, students, and other members of the public should make their concerns known to the government. This will show firsthand the negative effects of negligence on these students. We as the public must stand in solidarity with our teachers until we see real change in our education system. If we remain silent, we are complicit in the poor conditions happening in schools that should be an ideal space for teachers to teach and students to learn effectively.

The point is simple: the clock is ticking. Teachers, students, and parents alike are frustrated. The government needs to invest money and resources in our classrooms, for the sake of Saskatchewan’s future, before further damage is done to our youth.

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