Editor’s note: This is a letter that was sent to Premier Stephen McNeil.
Dear Premier McNeil,
I am a 20-year veteran teacher in Nova Scotia. I implore you to listen to what I am and my colleagues around the province are saying. I realize you are not solely responsible for creating the mess NS schools are in. Buchanan stole from our pension funds, Savage rolled back days, and Dexter cut massively. Regardless of political party, all of them implemented neo-liberal ideology. I know you are getting inundated with what teachers and parents say we really want, so perhaps I’ll leave that part out, and let them speak for me.
Instead, I’d like to educate you about what has been done by your government to make the situation worse. First of all there is the 2014 survey open to NS residents. You cannot make real changes to education based on a populist survey. Many people who are not stakeholders in education but are political can sway the results. While everyone has the right to an opinion, not all opinions are valid. We only have to look to south of the border to see the possible effects of this. So why weren’t teachers on the ground given more of a platform to be involved in a comprehensive review? Because Nova Scotia is infected with GERM. The survey and other attempts to de-legitimize the professionalism of teachers is not unique to Nova Scotia. It is happening all across North America, Australia, the UK, and other places where the interests of neo-liberals are upheld. It started with Reagan and Thatcher and regardless of the political power, it has continued to influence politics. In education, neo-liberalism is nicknamed GERM, or Global Education ‘Reform’ Movement.
Classic symptoms of GERM include deprofessionalization of teachers, outcomes based education (which lowers the bar), hyper-inclusion, hyper emphasis on literacy and numeracy, data collection, school choice, and low risk ways to reach learning goals. Neo-liberals use leftist language to make it sound desirable. Do not be fooled. You cannot use market based ideas to drive the education based reform you are looking for. This should be especially evident as we watch capitalism fail in the US, UK, and EU. Education has changed drastically since you and I and the consultants went to school. I can attest to the fact that they have changed dramatically over the last five to ten years.
Paul W. Bennett is also a poor source. He taught in hoighty-toighty private schools in Ontario (Upper and Lower Canada College) and at Halifax Grammar school. He is aligned with the neo-liberal think tank AIMS. Even without his private school background, he is hardly qualified to tell it like it is in NS schools because it has been over ten years since he’s taught in any elementary or secondary school. You have the opportunity to begin real change in NS. Maybe the money available would not result in transformative change, such as what was seen in Finland and their education system, but you may be the first in North America to stop the tide of neo-liberal destruction in schools. You can have that legacy. You can begin with the items that teachers have told you have no cost associated with them. You can ask Minister Casey to scrap the policies that came about as a result of the survey. A paltry surplus in a have-not province with a 22.5% child poverty rate is not the legacy you want.
We can’t fix poverty with our budget, but you can allow teachers to help all students to achieve their greatest potential if you listen to us. If you do not find a way for real improvement in education and your dealings with the NSTU, this is what will happen: you may experience what you perceive is a ‘win’ for you this time, but you will lose in the election.
Maybe the number 9,300 doesn’t scare you but the NSTU membership is very educated. Two degrees to become part of that membership and many with more than that. That 9300 probably helped the Liberal party get elected as the party philosophy lines up well with what the social elite thinks. While you may have the counsel of professionals dedicated to PR, we have numbers, so 9,300 should worry you. Of the many hats we wear, one is ‘researcher’. Another is ‘public speaker’. We do it for hours a day, 195 days a year.
We educate the young— some of whom will be voters in the next election. We speak to our family members, our neighbours, our kids’ teammates’ parents. We have many parents who have seen what is going on in schools or have made them aware of it in the last few months. While only 59 per cent of the electorate voted in the last election that made you premier, the NSTU had over 100 per cent turnout in the last few votes. If the full force of 9,300 doesn’t sway you, what about 30,000 NSGEU members? Add 6,900 to that (NSNU). You know what the biggest number that should concern you? 118,000. 118,000 students plus their parents.
From observing social media, it is clear some of them don’t understand the real issues in education. But we do, and hopefully you do too now. You can improve the education for that 118,000 by providing meaningful change, not through committees and consultations that will only result in trifling trickle-down effects. I come from a highly active Liberal family.
My father, Doug Caldwell, was a lawyer with Patterson Law, formerly Patterson Kitz and Patterson Smith Matthews & Grant. He had opportunities for personal conversations about politics with P.E. Trudeau, Paul Martin, and Jean Chretien while working with Liberals. He was the campaign manager for many candidates in Colchester-Musquodoboit, such as for Dennis James, Eleanor Norrie, and Ron Creighton. He even held a political position as Commissioner of the Nova Scotia Liquor Commission under John Savage. He died suddenly, but happy in his political element, on the eve of the 2011 federal campaign as manager for Jim Burrows (Cumberland-Colchester-Musquodoboit).
I voted Liberal in almost every election I have been old enough to vote in. However, to borrow a term I heard used by Graham Steele, I have become a ‘broken-glass voter’— that is, the voter who would crawl over broken glass to make sure another party gets in. Broken-glass voters have long memories.
If you do not settle with the union in a way that respects teachers and students, I will be that voter, and so will many others. You have the power to make sure your legacy is one you can be proud of. Do it.
Stephanie Caldwell, B.A., B. Ed., M.Ed (May 2017)