Friday, January 21, 2011

Super Sunday Research...

So, Super Bowl 45 is around the corner, a little more than two weeks away. We normally host a party for the big game, and our tradition is to put on a spread that features food indigenous to the cities represented by the teams playing in the big game.

This is no joke. There is some SERIOUS research that goes into this, which often involves a week or so of active dialogue on message boards for the teams (no easy thing- posting as a non-fan and asking kindly for help to put on a great party) to discover authentic dishes, and then locating recipes to make them.

We usually start conducting preliminary research once the final four are determined after the conference semi-finals.

We are WICKED thrilled that our team, the Green Bay Packers, remain in the hunt for the title, not only because they're our team, but also because the food for the Packers kicks ass. Beer Broiled Brats on a bun with mustard and brine kraut, chicken booyah and some type of super rich bread pudding with rum sauce. That's a far better alternative to the Chicago slate from the NFC, although we will make it work if we have to.

So this is me, reaching out to the internet, asking for denizens of New York City, Pittsburgh, Green Bay and Chicago to post ideas for food that one would find at legit tailgating spots at home games as comments.

Thanks all- looking forward to your ideas!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Not the only one...

Yep, I love allusions to pop culture.

Now onto the main idea. I have often opined about the dinosaur-era public awareness strategy employed by the NSTU since I moved back to Halifax from Montreal in 2001.

As a newly permanent teacher with the English Montreal School Board, I felt like our union was militaristic- nothing happened that they didn't monitor or report in terms of respect our collective agreement. In some respects I felt like the tactics used by the MTA contributed to a relationship with administration (who were represented in collective bargaining by an entity complete other than the MTA, which is a whole other can of worms for another post), but then I discovered the joy of working in Nova Scotia under the popular myth that the Nova Scotia Teachers Union was the most powerful and feared union in the province (or so Brian Forbes and Mary Lou Donnelly, the two most recent past presidents, repeatedly told our membership).

Here, NO ONE monitored violations of the collective agreement. Principals wanted to have multiple, two hour staff meetings per month? Not a peep. Sure, we won an article in the last contract that stated that staff meetings had to conclude 90 minutes after the end of the instructional day. And then NSTU executive staff officer Gerard Cormier, whose office in the ivory tower one would assume meant proximity to intimate knowledge of recent wins, came as a guest and blew away that statute in a presentation that went 45 minutes past our agreement. Who needs admin to violate the contract when our own executive staff members, paid six figures to represent our interests in collective bargaining, are willing to do it for them?

And NO ONE talked to the press, pretty much ever, unless in reaction to an overnight controversy- no proactive presence, no strategy to leverage the power of local radio, TV or print media on a regular basis to get the issues facing education in our province into the public head space consistently through informed presentation and debate of teacher perspectives. In ten years, I can count on one hand the number of times I have heard our president on local talk radio, and those times have been limited to responding to requests by the host rather than the president reaching out and requesting air time, as other leaders have done (Peter Kelly, Darrell Dexter and assorted federal MPs, to name a few).

BUT, do we do smarmy nondescript holiday ads! Mary Lou and Alexis have perfected the 30 second, smiling president with babies and young children spots in the past five years. If any media presence is better than none, then I guess this one step would count as quantum improvement. However, as part of the first always on media-steeped generation, any coverage is NOT better coverage.

Yesterday, the Chignecto Regional School Board held a public meeting to outline their proposal to cut 21% of their budget over the next three years, as per the request of the Minister of Education. In TV coverage, Joan Jessome (head of the union that represents educational program assistants) was asked why the NSTU has maintained near radio silence with catastrophic cuts being bandied about rather than go on the offensive and make it clear to Nova Scotians what cuts of this magnitude would mean about the quality of education in our public schools.

Jessome, in what can only be described as a non-answer, essentially said that she can't fathom a 21% cut and what it would do.

It's disturbing that the NSTU can't recognize how feeble it has becoming in advocating for quality in education. Nova Scotia has languished near the very bottom of per capita funding for education for well over a decade, and until we launched a campaign called Save Grade 2 last year, you'd never know funding was an issue based on the the non-communication of the crisis to the public by the NSTU over that same period. When the Dexter government was elected, the NSTU collectively jumped for joy, fully expecting that an NDP government would finally give education its due. Then Community College faculty got a 1% pay raise in the first year of their new collected agreement and nothing for the remainder. Friendly indeed!

Now, with the same NDP government rumbling about cutting 21% (aside: I'm just waiting for someone to utter the phrase "read my lips" after hearing how this whole thing is just about getting information... Where there's smoke, I think the saying goes...), the best our president, earning 150% of her normal teaching/administrative salary to herald the cause of teachers to the public and government, can do is to talk about how stressed we are.

I wondered if this was only distressing to me, but the response from the meeting held by the Chignecto Regional School Board shows that not only are union members within the NSTU questioning the sanity of paying around $700 annually for such ineffective leadership and representation, but the public, fellow labour partners, school boards and others who have heard the NSTU spout longstanding rhetoric about being the stewards and leaders of public education are following suit too.

Perhaps I will come off as ageist, but I have said it before and I'll say it again. The fact that so many of our executive staff officers have spent a decade or more at the palace on Joe Howe DriveScotia since the Savage Liberals gutted education with cuts in the 90's that schools, students and teachers have never recovered from.

If I take any comfort in our present bumbling, it's that I finally have company on the wagon that recognizes that the NSTU stopped being relevant or effective a long time ago and is now a laughingstock without credibility to all the stakeholders we need support from to make our schools truly effective. To all the newcomers onboard? It's a disheartening ride with no end in sight. Wanna share a seat cushion?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Snow days don't just bring snow...

...every year when we start to get snow and people postulate whether school will or won't be cancelled, there's the inevitable bevy of media banter about how too much time for learning is lost due to inclement weather in Nova Scotia and an ill ignored factor in low student performance overall in terms of academic basics (and, yes, I'm talking about the thankfully departed Andrew Krystal and the perpetually teacher-dogging Rick Howe).

I get that these guys are paid to get people riled up as a means to generate listenership and revenue, so, to a degree, their annual anti-school cancellation due to inclement weather campaign isn't that big a deal.

BUT, their everlasting griping about how teachers get days off at student expense goes uncontested by the highly overpaid president and executive directorship of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union. Because it's uncontested, it festers in the public mind as incontrovertible fact, and it makes doing a job that's already perceived as a glorified country club gig in modern media even tougher.

It's getting harder and harder to accept that Ms. Allen and company earn well over six figures to remain silent on this issue and fail to call the public and media to account on this, in addition to inaction and apathy on far more important issues in education besides snow days.

It's really tough to know that teachers agreed, knowing that school days lost to cancellations for inclement weather impact student learning negatively, to a longer instructional year in the 1990's to compensate for the days that might be lost within a year.

It's even harder to take when I know that Nova Scotia's teachers already teach more minutes per year than any other teachers in the country.

The arguments for banning school cancellation are idiotic- parents need their kids at schools so they can work. So let's put legal minors on buses on roads that no lesser authorities than the police and RCMP advise all drivers to stay off of for risk of severe injury or death to get to schools potentially hours late so Mom and Dad can go or not go to work that day? The fact that a student may not work on academic items for a day imperils their long term academic success and competence?

In Halifax Metro, we've had two or less days lost to inclement weather per year over the past five years, but we still have people complaining about the year we suffered more than two weeks of time lost due to Hurricane Juan and White Juan in the space of four months, and using that as justification for needing to ban school cancellations.

I appreciate that the debate is different in areas of Nova Scotia that are more rural and more days are lost annually because of road conditions, but it's disturbing that the people who rant about how this problem is crippling students so quickly forget that schools in rural areas are almost universally not located within the communities their students reside in and require students to be bused long distances each way daily- sometimes commutes are nearly an hour each way. How long would those commutes be in terrible winter conditions? Twenty years ago, schools were in communities with kids around the corner. The population has shifted dramatically in that time- fewer and fewer young families remain in rural communities, which makes consolidating rural schools a financial necessity in providing public education. However, this also means that busing becomes a logistical obstacle at times, and especially during winter months.

Most frustrating are those who posture that teachers decide to cancel school, as if the board higher ups that make the call to cancel or not cancel school survey teachers on their feeling about going or not going to work the next day as part of their decision. WE HAVE NO SAY IN THE MATTER, ONE WAY OR THE OTHER!

The decision is made by someone against the backdrop of whether it's safe to require children to walk or travel on roads to and from school. These same people have, in the past, requested that teachers able to get to school do so anyway, provided they are not risking life and safety to do so. I've done it, but I can tell you that more often than not I'm at home marking and preparing for classes for as much time as I would at school anyway. It's like people think teachers are downing hot toddies at 8 am and getting sauced and coming in hung over and late the day after a school closure... Seriously...

Anyway, here's to another winter season of complete and total radio silence on the NSTU's part while they figure out a way to pay for prime time ad space to air TV commercials where Alexis Allen kisses babies with the head of the nurses union that do NOTHING to show the public what teachers do to contribute to the health and vitality of our province. I guess NSTU members, who can't call these shows themselves because they happen to be WORKING while they're on, will just have to send emails the day after that Rick Howe won't read because it doesn't support his agenda.

And yes, I pay almost $700 per year for this quality of leadership and public representation. Think of all the snow that could clear!