The previous month delivered discouraging signs for Ontario parents, students and educators. Public school educators have been out of contract since the summer of 2014, and it appears that negotiations aren’t going well.
In the first week of March, The English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA) asked all members to reject a contract proposal and “support a strike mandate as a public statement of our members’ resolve”. Two weeks later Paul Elliott, President of Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF) announced that “…unless we see positive movement at the bargaining table, there will be full withdrawal of services by the end of April”. Last week The Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario announced they are filing for conciliation in their bargaining for a new contract. Sabres are rattling.
Most educators want to do the work they love, educating students. The ups and downs of the negotiation process don’t interest them. They’ll sit back and await further developments, restricting their thoughts to conversations around the staff room. The feeling of powerlessness during bargaining is difficult to accept, especially for professionals who are used to being in charge.
However, there’s still a crucial role for them to play in shaping the public conversation about education. Educators can now effectively express their opinions, and shape the public discussion about education during bargaining through social media.
Last year’s teacher’s strike in British Columbia was prolonged and bitter. BC teachers believed the disputed issues were so fundamental to public education, that they continued to strike even though they weren’t receiving any strike pay.
As part of that activism striking teachers began tweeting about what justified this extraordinary action using the hashtag #ThisIsMyStrikePay.
They tweeted pictures of notes from students:
— Richard Lee (@ScrunchyEd) July 6, 2014
Messages of support from parents:
— liz byrne (@socialsgoddess) July 6, 2014
They made awful YouTube videos that expressed their ideas and passion for their profession in their own voice:
— Dey call me Mr Tin (@tincanman2010) June 30, 2014
BC teachers took their unfiltered message directly to the public through social media. Their pictures, videos and posts directly influenced public discussion about their strike, the work of teachers and the importance of public education in the province, and was contributing factor in bringing things to a resolution.
BC teachers weren’t the first group of educators to use social media to express their dissent. In 2013 Priscilla Sanstead and “Notorious PHD” Mark D. Naison formed “The Badass Teachers Association” (BATs), an education activist organization “created to give voice to every teacher who refuses to be blamed for the failure of our society to erase poverty and inequality through education”.
BATs uses social media extensively to communicate, inform and organize. They have a closed Facebook page with over 53,000 members, a Twitter feed with over 15,000 followers, a website, a blog and a Youtube Channel.
How effective have BATs been in shaping the public discussion on US education policy? Last July several hundred teachers showed up to a BATs demonstration outside the education department in Washington DC and then met with US Education Secretary Arne Duncan. In one year BATs effectively used social media to create a group that the highest education official in the US is listening to. That’s impressive.
It’s significant that the educators who formed BATs did so outside their teacher federation. Hundreds of thousands of educators engaging online could be a significant force in affecting public opinion, but social media also encourages the sharing of a diversity of opinions. Can teacher federations adapt and change so that members feel free to fully express their thoughts on the bargaining process? Are federation leaders prepared to open that pandora’s box and encourage their members to tweet and post their opinions, even if some of them are dissenting?
The best case scenario is that the recent moves by negotiators have the desired effect and educators will soon be working in schools under new, fair, contracts. If, however, that doesn’t happen, educators shouldn’t sit back and wait for updates. It’s time for them to start addressing the issues on social media. A few tweets today may help prevent a picket line in the fall.