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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 3, November/December 2004

Do teachers need a college?

by Ken Novakowski

Teachers in B.C. walked out in protest on April 28, 1987, shutting down every school in the province. They were united in protesting government legislation that introduced a college of teachers: they hadn’t asked for a college of teachers, and they didn’t want one.

The BC College of Teachers was an idea introduced by the Social Credit government of the day. At that time there was only one other college of teachers in the world: in Scotland. The BC College of teachers was the first, and remains the only, professional regulatory body in British Columbia that was imposed upon a profession rather than introduced at the request of, and in consultation with, the profession.

The government had a clear political objective in mind when it introduced the college: it wanted an end to the professional leadership the B.C. Teachers’ Federation played in the lives of B.C. teachers. Here’s what happened.

The government introduced legislation that on the one hand granted teachers collective bargaining rights they had long been denied, but, on the other hand, with a college of teachers, attempted to split the professional aspects of teachers from the BCTF. The headline in the BCTF Newsletter of April 9, 1987, stated GOV’T ATTACKS BCTF. "Never in the 71 year history of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation have the collective professional interests of teachers been as seriously threatened as they are today" went the story. What the government attempted to do with the introduction of a college of teachers was threefold:

1. To split off the professional elements of the BCTF (professional development services, provincial specialist associations, lesson aids, etc.) into a separate organization with mandatory membership, i.e., the college of teachers, and make the BCTF solely a bargaining organization with compulsory membership previously granted by statute removed. This was intended to divide teachers and seriously weaken the BCTF.

2. To download the costs of teacher certification from government to teachers.

3. To submit teachers to yet another level of discipline, creating for them double or even triple jeopardy. Unlike most other professionals who have colleges, teachers are employed professionals. They always have been and continue to be subject to discipline from their employer over matters of conduct and competence.

While teacher protests to stop the imposition of a college were unsuccessful, the BCTF had tremendous success on another front. They voluntarily signed up 98% of the teachers in the province to membership in the BCTF, a sign-up success rate unparalleled in Canadian trade union history.

After debating the merits of boycotting the college or participating in the college to neutralize it and limit its scope of activity, the BCTF decided on the latter. Over the 15-year history of the college, teachers, and sometimes administrators, made up the 15 elected members of the 20-member governing college board. The BCTF attempted to mitigate the negative aspects of an imposed structure by supporting teacher candidates for the council, with a modicum of success. But even with teacher leaders on the college council committed to a limited mandate for the college, teachers facing possible discipline by their school boards also faced the prospect of college hearings on the same matter. And teachers continued to pay to operate a structure they never asked for or wanted.

So why did we fight so hard to regain democratic control of a college we never wanted? When the current Liberal government, in the spring of 2003, fired the 15 elected college councillors and put in place 20 political appointees to strip teachers of their professional autonomy and other professional rights, it insulted every teacher in the province. Teachers could not accept and pay for a regulatory body they did not democratically control. The solidarity we demonstrated against the punitive actions of a government with 75 seats out of 79 in the legislature was awesome. We actually got the government to change its position and its legislation. There are very few instances in the history of this country or any of its provinces where that has been done. Through our struggle for a democratic college, we learned the power of solidarity.

Our professional lives are demanding enough in the current context of funding cuts and reductions in support and services to students. We didn’t need an appointed college imposing yet more demands upon us. As long as we have elected representatives in the majority on the college, there exists the potential for influencing its direction and operations.

B.C. teachers are members of one of only three teacher colleges in the world: Scotland had one before we had it introduced here in 1987, and since then the Ontario government introduced a college in that province, also against the wishes and will of that province’s teachers. The current minister of education in B.C., Tom Christensen, in a meeting with BCTF officers on October 12, 2004, opined that his government "is really indifferent as to whether or not a college of teachers should even exist."

Soon after the college of teachers became a reality in B.C., the BCTF adopted a position that favoured a limited role for the college, namely to deal with certification and decertification matters as well as to provide teacher input into teacher-education programs for pre-service teachers. Both these goals can be accomplished without a college of teachers. If we again challenge the need for a college, we’ll need to ensure that we do not have the government create new or different structures that we don’t need or want.

Ken Novakowski is the BCTF’s executive director.