Teachers union head, education minister seek path to better relations

The head of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union and province's education minister both say they're looking to find ways to move beyond the conflict of the past few years.

Both sides see improvements, but grievances remain on the table

Teachers union president Paul Wozney and Education Minister Zach Churchill both say they hope the relationship between the two sides can move beyond the acrimony of last year. (Robert Short/CBC)

If Paul Wozney can avoid it, he'd prefer his tenure as president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union not be marked by protests outside Province House.

The Dartmouth-based English teacher took over as head of the union in August. He inherits a relationship between teachers and the provincial government that has been both acrimonious and contentious over the last few years and culminated in the province's first teachers' strike last year and an imposed contract by government.

"Contention is an understatement," Wozney said during a recent interview.

"When you have 5,000 teachers marching around Province House screaming at the top of their voice for a day, that's not a good place to be."

Paul Wozney took over as president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union in August. (CBC)

Getting to that place didn't happen overnight and Wozney is well aware that fixing things will take time, too.

The working conditions, and need for additional resources teachers have highlighted in recent years, continue to be a challenge, but Wozney said he's willing to be patient if the government sticks to the recommendations laid out in the report on inclusive education.

"It's reasonable to expect that this is going to take a while to take root and for it to be part of the rhythm of normal and for the real benefits to become apparent," he said.

"You can celebrate when there's cause to celebrate."

A good sign for teachers has been the government's successful hiring of education aids and specialists, said Wozney.

He welcomed that news, but said there remain concerns for the union. Those include the ability to get a steady flow of information and recent changes to certification requirements for speech language pathologists and school psychologists, a move that removed the professions from the teachers union, but the government said was necessary to better serve students.

Wozney said he's had brief talks with Education Minister Zach Churchill and Labour Relations Minister Mark Furey on the matter and he's hoping there's room for compromise so the union's rights are recognized while also achieving the government's end goal.

"If we accept the premise the goal is to improve service delivery to the benefit of students and families and communities, then we can't just say we don't like it or we think it's bad. We have to say, 'This is why it's bad and here's a better way to go about it.'"

Disagreements remain

Some of these matters have reached the point of the union filing grievances under the Teachers' Provincial Agreement. As of June, there were seven grievances on the books, including the aforementioned change in certification for some specialists.

Churchill said he wants to find ways to work with the union on "areas of mutual interest." But the minister also said he believes the steps government has taken in the last year or two have been with the aim of helping students and, ultimately, making things less challenging for teachers.

The union's grievances include pre-primary classrooms not being led by NSTU member teachers and the Education Department's decision to use graduate students from Mount Saint Vincent University to get rid of a backlog of students waiting for psychological assessments, something they required before other services could be provided.

Education Minister Zach Churchill says if both sides focus on students their relationship should improve. (CBC)

Churchill said on these points, where he believes the steps were essential to improving the system, he thinks the focus needs to be on what's best for students.

"I really feel good about what we're doing with early learning, I feel good about what we're doing with supports for inclusion and I really think that we do need to deal with the psychological assessment backlog that does happen because that helps teachers do their jobs better in the classroom and it helps our kids achieve higher levels of success."

If there's one thing Wozney and Churchill agree on, it's the need to find ways to work together in the interest of students.

"I think if we keep the conversation there then, you know, relations should improve," said Churchill.

When there are disagreements, Wozney said ideally the two sides will find a way to resolve them before matters escalate and they spill into the public eye.

"If all you say is, 'No,' and it's always anti-government, then people tune you out. Ultimately, public education is far too important to live in this state of always being at odds with the government."

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About the Author

Michael Gorman

Reporter

Michael Gorman is a reporter in Nova Scotia whose coverage areas include Province House, rural communities, and health care. Contact him with story ideas at michael.gorman@cbc.ca