Let Them Learn From Our Example(s): Time for a Christmas Cool-off

What is it that we wish most for our children in life? Health and happiness. Fulfillment and joy. Challenge and opportunity.

If the youngest among us learn by example, then what are they to take from the past number of days’ events involving the Government and the Nova Scotia Teacher’s Union (NSTU)? If you can answer that question without a look of deep and pained confusion on your face, I’ll buy you one of those fancy coffee drinks they only make at Christmas.

There have been barbed, pointed and angry comments about the Government’s moves that – their spokespeople say – were designed to ensure student safety during a planned work-to-rule by teachers; moves which, let’s be honest, have come off looking ham-fisted at best.

There has been hand-wringing, scratching of heads and accusations that the NSTU is continually raising the bar, seeking to maintain gold-plated benefits and get a wage settlement that the province cannot afford, and to which the vast majority of Nova Scotians could not lay claim.

On Monday, Nova Scotia became a national news story because, depending which narrative you believed, students were either unfairly “locked out” of their schools for the first time ever, or teachers were threatening to “leave them unsafe”.

The narrative extremes – and the actions they set in motion – serve to bring no one closer to a solution, and they shed no light for the many parents and Nova Scotians not privy to the discussions at or around the bargaining table. They just want this whole saga to go away.

And the cold, wintry reality is that we are an ultra-marathon further away from a negotiated solution than we were at this time last week.

The conditions precedent to a constructive dialogue, leading to a contract proposal which stands an odds-on chance of being ratified by NSTU members and adopted by the provincial Cabinet have gone south, just like the snowbirds.

So is it time to shrug our shoulders, and dig in for a long, hard winter of labour discontent, hardening resolve and an epidemic of stress throughout our school-aged children?

That’s hardly the example our children deserve.

Although a “charitable spirit” has not been much in evidence over the past week in this dispute, the parties would do well to offer all Nova Scotians this early Christmas present, in three hard but necessary steps:

  • Agree to a cooling-off period. To be effective, it needs to include a suspension of work-to-rule and a commitment to no government/legislative action against teachers. It should last long enough to allow the parties to do their homework, and begin to re-engage constructively in the New Year.
  • Get down to work on their homework:
    1. For the NSTU, the kaleidoscope-of-demands at the bargaining table, with no real evidence that the bargaining committee knows what the members want, has to stop. They don’t get to blame the government they need to own the fact that they have been tin-eared to their membership. Extensive consultation is required, which should include helping to close the gap between ambition and reality among their membership. There needs to be a (no-doubt difficult) reconciliation of what NSTU members want, and what it is they can fairly achieve through negotiation. If the emphasis is not on wages and benefits, but on working conditions – as every teacher I have spoken with claims – then all the time and money needs to be focused on that. If the emphasis is, in fact, more on wages and maintenance of certain benefits – then it’s time to drop the contrivance and say so.
    2. For the Government, they have internal consultation of their own to do. It’s fine for politicians not to want to “let down their side” publicly, and pledge fealty to their boss (no matter how far they have strayed off course). The clear reality on Monday pointed to strong currents of disagreement within the government caucus, which means they have work to do. The $10 million pot of money with a promise to address working conditions has been clearly rejected as a pig in a poke – concrete measures with a start date and implementation plan are required to overcome the deficit of trust made worse by this week’s events. The contrivance that some of these “working conditions” are not within the Collective Agreement, and should therefore be dealt with later is just that – a contrivance.
  • Develop an agreed schedule of talks that begin sometime into the New Year, with a commitment to stay at the table – and keep the cooling-off period in force – while students get educated, and the parties work-through matters with a renewed focus and internal mandates which better reflect where the parties want to end up.

The educational challenges in the classroom and in our schools are real. Teachers deserve our respect for the work that they do, and the care they provide, to our children and youth every day. My father-in-law retired from teaching 20 years ago, and continues to be approached by former students about the extent of the impact he had on their lives and development, often to his great surprise.

The financial challenges we have as a province are also very real. To dismiss them out of hand, and to ignore the debt-burden of the province and the high level of taxation we pay, is to do a disservice to these same youth and children; for they will inherit a rusting hulk of a province if we can’t keep an eye to the future when making financial decisions today.

As a parent I can definitively say that this dispute – and the current work-to-rule action – is impacting our children, and not for the better. 

It needs to stop, and fast. Children thrive in a predictable, consistent environment where expectations are clear and trust is built through following through: what they expect from their teachers, and what their teachers expect of them.

This situation did not develop overnight. Solving it overnight is neither realistic nor plausible. But ending the blame game, rolling up some sleeves and making an honest start – without suspending our students in the middle – is an example our kids will learn from.