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Gerry ChidiacBritish Columbia’s educational system is one of the best in the world, according to documents published by the Conference Board of Canada and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). A BBC article referred to Canada as “An Educational Superpower” and British Columbia even ranks ahead of all other Canadian provinces.

Yet B.C. schools are facing a crisis.

How did this happen? What can we do about it?

According to author Stephen Covey, the best attitude to take into any kind of negotiation is to think win/win. Create a situation where everyone benefits, like when a consumer gets a quality product and a producer gets a fair price.

Other paradigms include win/lose and lose/win, where one person wins and the other loses, and lose/lose which, like a typical war, is mutually destructive.

Negotiations between the provincial government and the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation have clearly been win/lose since the turn of the century. Teachers saw their constitutional rights taken away, their wages shrink far below the rate of inflation and many even found themselves unemployed.

In the short run, remaining teachers accepted their new working conditions and dedicated themselves to the well-being of their students. Despite increased class sizes and shrinking resources, teachers simply found a way to make things work.

During this time, however, fewer students enrolled in university education programs, few teachers were hired and the teachers in the system grew older.

Covey’s warning that “An interdependent win/lose is really lose/lose in the long run,” was indeed proving prophetic.

In 2016, the Supreme Court of Canada took 20 minutes to deliberate before requiring that the provincial government reinstate the language that it stripped from the teachers’ collective agreement in 2002. This resulted in a mass hiring of teachers in 2017, with many districts still unable to find enough staff. This is most acutely felt in French immersion and other specialized programs.

In addition, there are simply not enough new teachers graduating from our universities. B.C. wages are so much lower than those in comparative provinces that sufficient numbers of teachers are unlikely to move here. Add to this the number of teachers reaching optional retirement age. Will they be enticed to continue in the profession?

During the 2014 teachers’ strike, I wrote the following:

“I woke up for picket duty at 5 a.m. singing We Shall Overcome. As I rode my bike on a beautiful June morning, I continued to sing, “Deep in my heart, I do believe, that we shall overcome someday.” This brought me in touch with the civil rights movement, led by Martin Luther King in the United States, which brought to mind Gandhi, the man who inspired King. I realized at that moment that I am a part of something that is very big and very powerful. This is about more than a wage increase and classroom composition, this is about the progression of humanity. Canada has a public education system that’s the envy of much of the world. It’s no coincidence Canadian public school teachers are unionized.”

We need to treat B.C. teachers as the incredible professionals they are and look honestly at the situation. We are indeed part of something much bigger than ourselves. We can be a model not only for excellence in education, but for just wages and gender equality (remember, the majority of B.C. teachers are women).

I maintain my idealism as the teachers’ federation and the provincial government begin negotiating for a new contract in 2019. Yes, we face the consequences of a win/lose attitudes of the past but we don’t have to continue in a lose/lose spiral. If we can adopt a win/win paradigm, everyone benefits, especially our children and the future of our province.

Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students. 

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