Why principals, teachers don’t belong in the same union

New legislation will allow Manitoba to follow the lead of Canada’s biggest provinces, creating clear lines between management and staff

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Michael ZwaagstraPrincipals and teachers shouldn’t be in the same union. That was a key recommendation of the Manitoba Commission on Kindergarten to Grade 12 Education report.

Clearly, the Manitoba government has taken this recommendation to heart. Bill 64, the Education Modernization Act, proposes to remove principals and vice-principals from teacher bargaining units. This is a significant reform.

Unsurprisingly, the Manitoba Teachers’ Society (MTS) is opposed to this change. Principals and vice-principals make up approximately seven per cent of MTS membership. Obviously, MTS isn’t pleased with the prospect of losing such a large number of members.

Critics argue that removing principals from MTS will lead to a much more adversarial relationship between teachers and principals. They also argue that principals are teachers first and should be represented by the same union.

However, there are several reasons why we should reject these arguments.

Although principals hold teaching certificates and begin their careers as teachers, the duties they perform clearly fall within the purview of school management. Principals create teacher timetables, participate in hiring new teachers, conduct performance reviews and provide leadership for their schools. These are all managerial responsibilities.

While principals in some smaller schools also have teaching responsibilities, they still make critical managerial decisions. Their primary identity is that of a principal, not a teacher. There are significant differences between the duties of principals and the duties of teachers. They are not interchangeable roles.

Because principals are responsible for evaluating teachers, they’re usually directly involved in decisions to hire, fire and transfer teachers. When MTS challenges the dismissal or transfer of a teacher, the interests of the principal and teacher clearly diverge. During arbitration hearings, MTS often takes a position contrary to that of the principal.

Critics have raised the spectre of schools being led by people with no teaching experience. However, Bill 64 doesn’t propose any changes to the qualifications for principals. Principals will still be required to hold Manitoba teaching certificates.

Another concern is that teachers and principals will lose the collegial relationship that exists. However, professionals can be collegial and collaborative regardless of whether they happen to be members of the same union. In fact, they might become even better colleagues because their roles are more clearly defined.

Removing principals and vice-principals from the teachers’ union is not unprecedented or unusual. Canada’s three largest provinces moved in this direction decades ago.

Principals and vice-principals in British Columbia have had their own association for more than 30 years. In 1998, the Ontario government removed principals from teachers’ unions and created the Ontario Principals’ Council. Principals and vice-principals in Quebec are also not teacher union members.

The Nova Scotia government removed principals and vice-principals from the Nova Scotia Teachers Union in 2018. They are now part of the Public School Administrators Association of Nova Scotia.

In each of these provinces, principals have professional associations that advocate for their interests, provide legal services and offer professional development opportunities. Because these associations are exclusively devoted to the interests of school administrators, they can provide the specialized support that’s tailored to their needs.

Principals and teachers have different roles and responsibilities. There’s nothing wrong with recognizing this fact and taking principals out of MTS.

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.

Michael is one of our Thought Leaders. For interview requests, click here.


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