Nova Scotia

Stop promising help and start providing it, say teachers who voted no

Two teachers who have rejected all three of the province's contract offers say a deal is possible but only if the McNeil government offers concrete solutions to problems in the classroom.

'There's been a lot of talk. They know what our problems are,' says teacher Lalia Kerr

Elementary school teacher Lalia Kerr is one of many teachers who has voted to reject all three tentative agreements reached between the province and the Nova Scotia Teachers Union. (CBC News)

Elementary school teacher Lalia Kerr is only a couple of years away from retirement, but there's still plenty of fight in her to bring changes to the classroom.

She has voted to reject all three tentative agreements reached between the province and the Nova Scotia Teachers Union.

That's because she didn't think any of them would help the Grade 1 and 2 students she teaches at Three Mile Plains District School just outside of Windsor.

She found the most recent deal the least appealing, despite a promise by the province to tackle complaints by teachers about the makeup of classes and other workload issues.

"It says, 'OK, we'll set up a committee and it'll talk about inclusion,'" she said. "'We're going to set up another committee that's going to talk about your problems.'

"Well, there's been a lot of talk. They know what our problems are. We don't need a committee — we need help right now."

Supports union

Kerr said she would accept a contract with a cap on class sizes that takes into consideration students with severe learning difficulties who are on individual program plans. One of those students should count as the equivalent of two or three students within the cap, she said.

"I worked as a mentor and I was in a classroom that had, out of 29 students, 10 [individual program plans]," said Kerr. 

"Well, how is that teacher supposed to do a job? We need really hard work towards addressing that problem, and right now what it seems we're getting [is] lip service. We're getting baited and we're being treated as pawns in a game. But it's not a game to me."

Kerr stands behind her union and its negotiating team, which recommended acceptance of all three tentative deals with the province only to have each one rejected by teachers. 

"I think they've got a super hard job. I think they're dealing with a government that doesn't want to budge but that really needs to budge in order to do something good for my students."

Coping with extra demands

Neil Fisher, who teaches Grade 7 and 8 math at Bicentennial School in Dartmouth, said he feels the same way but admits he's struggling with work-to-rule, which has been in effect since early December. 

"I love teaching," he said. "I love working with the kids, I love coaching, I love giving my time and I don't expect to be paid extra to give my time." 

But like Kerr, Fisher said teachers need help and the government needs to lend a hand.

"Teaching is getting hard, not because I'm not a good teacher (but) because our circumstances have changed a lot even in the 10 years that I've been in the system," he said. 

"There are a lot more demands on us."

Real change more important than wages

He also sees a deal possible if there is a real give and take.

"Wage is definitely important but I think that wage would be less of an issue if there were tangible changes to the system, to the classrooms."

Darren Biddle's daughter, Jordan, is a student caught in the middle. The two spent part of Friday's snow day skating at the Halifax Oval.

He thinks his daughter and her friends are missing out.

"Students are certainly affected by this work-to-rule because school is more than just classroom stuff," he said.  

Searching for compromise

Like the teachers, Biddle thinks there's a solution possible but only if each side comes to the table ready to compromise. 

"Both sides are going to have to move a little bit on the issues and until they do that, I don't see how it's going to end."

Education Minister Karen Casey issued a statement late Thursday, saying she was disappointed in the results of the vote. She said the "agreement provided a fair wage offer and showed we were willing to make further investments in classrooms.” (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

The McNeil government has the power to impose a new contract. It recalled the legislature last Dec. 5 in order to introduce legislation to do just that, but adjourned the House instead. The draft bill remains in the government's hands.

Kerr said the governing Liberals should think long and hard before imposing a contract on teachers.

Waiting for government action

"It will have an impact long term," she said. "I've only got two years left. There are a lot of young teachers starting out who have a lot of years left. Do we really want to squander the pride they have in this profession, the feeling they have that they're accomplishing something good when they go in every day?"

The government hasn't said what it will do next.

The only official reaction to Thursday's vote result was a news release from Education Minister Karen Casey saying, once again, she was disappointed teachers had voted down the tentative agreement.