Why many New Brunswick teachers remain afraid to speak out
'As teachers, we are in the trenches, we know what's going on'
Education Minister Dominic Cardy says he knows of teachers so afraid to express their opinions they've created fake email accounts to contact him.
But he told a public consultation meeting in Saint John last week that he wants teachers to feel free to speak their minds about the province's education system.
The stop in Saint John was part of his cross-province tour to get feedback on his green paper on education reform.
A long-time teacher, who spoke out at the meeting, suggested there is a climate of fear that has some educators even refusing to fill out surveys.
Cheryl Kennedy, a resource teacher at Barnhill Memorial School, said she's no longer worried about speaking out because she's nearing the end of her career. She will retire in another year.
"I don't really have a lot to lose."
She said the "secretive approach to education" is preventing her and other teachers from being able to level with parents about the challenges they face every day.
"This has been an ingrained ideology in every educator that we do not have that right to express the flaws within the system," she said in front of the minister and a room of almost 70 people.
Cardy said there is no legislation preventing teachers from commenting on and criticizing the way things are done, except professional-conduct rules like naming specific co-workers or being "unprofessional" in their criticisms.
"There's no gag order," he said.
The New Brunswick Teachers' Association said there's never been a problem with educators contacting the minister with concerns.
But Rick Cuming, president of the association, said the same labour laws govern teachers as any other employees and public criticism may not be fair to the employer, leading to discipline.
Kennedy said she doesn't think teachers should be making unfair statements toward specific co-workers, or breaching the strict rules around students' privacy.
But teachers are "on the front lines," she said, and should be able to share their first-hand experience of the system, and make fair comments without fear of reprisal.
"As teachers, we are in the trenches, we know what's going on," she said.
She said if a parent wonders why their child with special needs isn't getting enough support, for example, teachers don't think they can comment generally about the challenges they see with inclusion.
This, in turn, puts a communication barrier between parents and teachers, she said, affecting the trust between them and leaving questions unanswered.
"They are looking for answers," she said.
A democratic issue
In an interview, Cardy said he's positive teachers should face no consequences if they contact him directly.
"We will go to the wall to defend teachers' rights to do that," he said. "I will defend them to the absolute end."
When it comes to speaking to the public and the press, they should practise "good judgment."
"If I come out and say something as a politician I think it is entirely reasonable for a teacher to go on social media and go 'I like' or 'don't like what Cardy said,'" he said.
He said this is "a really fundamental democratic issue."
Cuming said the concern is that teachers always have to respect confidentiality and privacy regulations when talking about their work.
He said teachers have the right to express themselves but it has limits.
He said the limits are set by the courts that have established that the employer "has a right to expect some fairness and integrity and loyalty from its employees."
He said teachers can express their voice through their administrators or through their elected school representatives.
If teachers believe they can't speak frankly to parents, they should communicate with them through the principal, he said.
He said a teacher's voice is always attached to the class that they're in, so privacy is always an issue.
She said if a teacher spoke publicly about an issue in their classroom, parents might wonder if the teacher was speaking about their children.
Kennedy said she's glad to hear Cardy say what he did at the meeting, but she's not sure it's going to change anything.
"I don't know if people will feel more comfortable," she said, noting she's still glad this is a topic of discussion.
"I'm very proud to be a teacher in this province … And I really love the fact that you know these issues are coming to the forefront."