According to teachers’ unions across the country, teachers want two-metre physical distancing requirements enforced throughout the school day. To make this possible, class sizes should be reduced—and reduced substantially. In addition, all K-12 students and staff should wear masks all day long. As well, the start of the school year should be delayed so teachers have more time to plan for a safe re-entry.
Judging by these demands, it sounds like all teachers are living in fear and terrified of going back to work in busy classrooms. The only way to make teachers happy, it seems, is for governments to spend hundreds of millions of dollars hiring extra teachers and enforcing stricter health protocols.
The problem is that this narrative only reflects the views of some teachers. I’ve been a full-time public school teacher for 20 years and I have no problem going back to work this fall. And many other teachers feel the same way. These teachers might not be vocal on social media, but that’s because they are focused on doing their job rather than making political statements.
This is far from the only time when teachers’ unions have taken hardline positions that fail to reflect the diversity in opinions among their membership.
For example, most teachers’ unions are unapologetic defenders of progressive education policies. They promote the alleged merits of discovery/inquiry methods, student-centred classrooms, and individual learning styles. As a case in point, the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) was an enthusiastic supporter of the previous NDP government’s wholesale adoption of the 21st Century Skills fad, which prioritized so-called generic critical thinking skills and de-emphasized content knowledge.
Now, Premier Jason Kenney’s government is moving forward with curriculum changes that place more emphasis on academic content, and the ATA has positioned itself as its foremost critic. It should come as no surprise that much of the professional development unions provide for teachers reinforces the progressive approach teachers learned about in their university education courses.
However, there are many teachers across the country who take a more traditional approach to teaching. These teachers recognize the importance of teacher-led classrooms, rich curriculum content, and direct instruction. In many cases, these teachers receive little support from their respective unions. The unfortunate reality is that teachers who think differently often find themselves under enormous pressure to toe the party line on these and other issues.
The same is true when it comes to standardized testing. Teachers’ unions across Canada are implacably opposed to standardized testing, no matter how well-designed these tests are. According to the unions, standardized testing interferes with the professional autonomy of teachers by forcing them to teach to the test. Hence, the unions frequently launch public relations campaigns against all forms of standardized testing.
But this does not reflect the views of all teachers. Many teachers recognize that standardized tests are a helpful tool in identifying student academic progress. In addition, properly designed standardized tests are based on the provincial curriculum. Thus, any teacher who properly teaches the curriculum is already “teaching to the test.” Just as optometrists use standard eye charts to measure eyesight and doctors rely on standard blood pressure monitors to check blood pressure, teachers should be fine with using standardized assessment tools.
Sadly, this one-sidedness often extends to political issues as well. For example, earlier this year the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) issued a statement of support for the protesters who were blocking railroad lines in solidarity with the hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation. This action gave the distinct impression that teachers were united in opposition to the Coastal GasLink pipeline.
However, not only was this statement contrary to what many teachers believed, it ran contrary to the wishes of the elected representatives of the Wet’suwet’en themselves. Given that many of the chiefs were elected on the basis of their support for the natural gas pipeline, and the jobs it would provide for their members, it was arrogant, to say the least, for BCTF to take a one-sided stance on this issue. It’s also highly unlikely that northern teachers in resource-based communities that depend on this pipeline appreciated their union’s dogmatic intervention on the opposite side.
Fortunately, grassroots teachers are far more thoughtful and diverse in their opinions than their union leaders. Teachers can be found expressing views that range across the political spectrum and teachers are involved in all major political parties. The same is true when it comes to their approaches to classroom instruction. Some teachers take a more traditional approach while others prefer more progressive methods.
Regardless of their political or pedagogical ideology, all teachers deserve to be respected and represented by their unions. That is what true diversity looks like. Unfortunately, teachers’ unions often take stands on issues that leave many teachers wondering why their opinions are being undermined.
Not all teachers are afraid to go back to work because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The teachers’ unions should reflect the diversity of views that teachers hold and not just the views of those on one side of the political spectrum.
Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher, a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and author of A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.