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By Sunjum Jhaj, editor, Teacher magazine

Every teacher knows the key to a successful lesson is engagement. When students are engaged, the learning takes on new meaning. The classroom feels full of energy and excitement. The same goes for unions. Members are at the heart of all union work, and member engagement brings that work to life.

For the past few years, boosting member engagement has been an important goal for the Burnaby Teachers’ Association (BTA). “We want to make sure teachers feel they have a home in the union. Their involvement is important and goes a long way,” said Daniel Tétrault, BTA President.

The BTA took a multifaceted approach to get members more involved in the union. They work to get new members engaged early on, but teacher workload is an obstacle.

“Asking people to volunteer time outside of their busy schedules is a hard ask, especially for new teachers who are just getting their feet wet. It’s important they know they can start out small. You can join a committee or volunteer to work on something you are passionate about,” said Daniel.

The BTA has over 10 committees working on a wide variety of issues affecting education. They also tackle issues in the broader community, for example, affordable housing. Housing inevitably affects the school system. “Families have to leave Burnaby because of affordability, and teachers who work here can’t afford to live here,” said Daniel.

The BTA recently participated in a task force on affordable housing in Burnaby. The task force produced a report and recommendations with some of the most progressive tenant protection policies in Canada. The report is just the first step on a long road to make Burnaby more affordable for the people who live and work there.

Making the union accessible to all members is also an important part of boosting member engagement. For Shanee Prasad, BTA First Vice-President, fighting for equity and challenging oppression have been part of her identity long before she became a union leader.

“Usually unions try to get younger members involved, but Shanee is a young member who is getting older members re-engaged. She advocates for changes that are antiracist and anti-oppressive,” said Sabha Ghani, BIPOC Committee Chair.

These changes include working with members to create spaces where BIPOC members can feel heard and respected.

“As an equity-seeking woman, the system told me who I was and where I belonged because of my identity. Antiracism gave me my story and allowed me to tell the world who I am. I want to help other people experience that,” said Shanee. “Hope-fully, brown and Black teachers are seeing this and saying I can do this too.”

Fighting for equity: The BTA BIPOC Educators Committee
If you look around the room (or virtual space) at most union meetings, it’s easy to see that the diversity represented at the meeting does not correlate with the diversity of our membership. BIPOC members are often underrepresented at all levels of union engagement. Burnaby’s newest committee, the BIPOC committee, aims to change that.

This committee got its start after a handful of members came together to advocate for racialized seats on the BTA Executive Committee. Ultimately, they were unsuccessful in securing seats for racialized members; however, their fight for equity is not over.

“I disengaged when we lost the vote. I was disappointed when I heard some colleagues dismiss and deny that racism is a problem. I didn’t have the stamina to educate my colleagues on this, and at that time, there wasn’t a space for BIPOC colleagues to support each other,” said Sabha.

Shanee saw that BIPOC members needed a safe space to fight racism together, so she mobilized members to start a new BIPOC committee in 2020. The committee quickly grew from the newest and smallest committee to the largest committee in the BTA. They tackle a wide variety of issues using an equity lens and an antiracism framework.

“We need new strategies to tackle old problems. If you have been navigating racism your whole life, you know how to navigate a challenge,” said Shanee. “We used to deal with racism in isolation and now we have a safe space where we can share our experiences and put our heads together to find solutions, all without having to justify our feelings or face denial.”

The committee also serves as a supportive place for members to learn how to navigate the structures and processes of a union. Last year, the committee passed a motion through the BTA annual general meeting to have the school district revisit their relationship with the RCMP.

“Many of our committee members are new to union activism and have never spoken at an annual general meeting. But, when someone spoke against the motion, their names all popped up on the screen, ready to speak, one after the other. They were willing to get up there and speak to this motion even when they were nervous,” said Sabha. “This was the proudest moment for me as committee chair.”

Another big success from the BIPOC committee’s inaugural year is the Black Futures Forum. This moderated panel, including Black high school students and Black educator and activist Markiel Simpson, addressed the racism that exists in our school system and the changes we need to make so students feel heard.

This school year, the BIPOC committee is looking forward to collaborating with colleagues from other committees in the BTA to decolonize the union and work to create a more just society for students and teachers.

“It gives me hope to see folks saying despite the odds, despite the dominant narrative, I’m going to try to make things better,” said Shanee.

Sharing learning: A collaborative PD event
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed a lot of our usual practices; professional development is one area where the changes created an opportunity to try something new. Last school year, Burnaby and Coquitlam happened to have their district professional development days scheduled for the same date. For Holly Loyd, BTA Second Vice-President and last year’s PD Chair, and Meggan Crawford, the Coquitlam Teachers’ Association (CTA) PD Chair, it was the perfect opportunity to collaborate.

“I’m pretty sure this wouldn’t have happened in normal times. When we realized we’re going virtual, we didn’t have to worry about space,” said Holly.

This joint professional development day grew bigger and bigger as more people got on board with the new, collaborative approach.

“The collaborative piece makes my heart swell,” said Holly. “It wasn’t just the PD committees from Coquitlam and Burnaby locals, but also so many other teachers and district staff who wanted this event to be a success.”

Ultimately, the virtual event grew to include seven different keynote speakers and over 100 presenters. With so many learning opportunities, attendance skyrocketed. Over 4,000 people attended this virtual professional development day—by far the most well-attended district PD day Burnaby and Coquitlam have ever seen. With no constraints on space, educational assistants and school administrators were invited to join their teacher colleagues for more collaborative professional development opportunities.

The feedback forms that participants filled out were overwhelmingly positive. The virtual nature of the event, diverse keynote speakers, and wide variety of workshops to choose from all contributed to the event’s success.

Talks between the BTA and CTA PD committees led to other opportunities as well. Through Meggan, Holly learned about new BCTF grant opportunities. After applying and receiving grant funds, Holly pulled in a few other BTA members to help revive the annual trivia night for Burnaby teachers to raise money for the Burnaby Children’s Fund. They moved the trivia night online, and added an art night with the help of the Burnaby Art Gallery.

Holly and Meggan have also started a Facebook group with all the PD chairs from locals in the metro west zone.

“I hope this leads to more collaboration. With things happening online, there are more opportunities to collaborate. We can share ideas, bring in keynote speakers together, plan other events, and collaborate on future district PD days,” said Holly.

While there are no definite plans for the next district PD day yet, the committee has certainly begun thinking of ways to get more members interested. If it’s safe to do so, they are considering a hybrid model. This would allow for a large event that includes members from different locals, but also gives those who are comfortable with it an opportunity to connect in-person.

“Being virtual opened the door for us to try something this large,” said Holly. “It was a great opportunity and a great success.”

Growing together: A cohort model for mentorship
Supporting a mentorship program has been part of Heather Skuse’s role in the BTA for several years, first as elementary rep on the BTA Executive Committee, then as BTA Vice-President for the last three years. In recent years, the mentorship committee has gone through some major remodelling to better serve the needs of mentors and mentees.

“There was always a problem in getting release time for mentors and mentees to connect,” said Heather. “With a one-on-one program, if a mentor and mentee don’t connect, so much learning is lost.”

This inspired the shift to a cohort model for mentorship. Now, three mentee teachers are paired with one mentor teacher. Mentees not only learn from their mentor, but also from their fellow mentees. Mentors also learn from their mentees. It creates a learning community that facilitates more shared conversations and collaborative learning.

Throughout the year, the BTA and the Burnaby district host seven after school sessions. The sessions include guest speakers and ample time for mentors and mentees to talk.

The goal of this mentorship program is to foster career-long relationships so mentors and mentees have a professional network they can connect with for years to come. One big change the mentorship committee introduced is to transition from a one-year program to a two-year program, with the goal of adding an additional third year.

The creation of a two-year mentorship program was made possible during the last round of bargaining. The BCTF successfully bargained for additional funds to support mentorship around the province. When deciding how to spend the additional funds, the mentorship committee focused on the five guiding principles of the program:

  • Relationships and learning
  • Non-evaluative support
  • Responsive and evolving
  • Building capacity
  • Sustainable.

“Going forward, we’ll have opportunities for mentors and mentees to connect in the second year so they can continue to build those relationships and grow together,” said Heather.

New voices on the mentorship committee have also helped the committee look at ways to be more inclusive and antiracist. The committee raised questions such as, how can we better support BIPOC teachers? How can we incorporate antiracism in our mentorship program? How can we help white teachers understand BIPOC perspectives and experiences?

Next year’s mentorship cohort will be the first to participate in new antiracism training sessions, have access to antiracism resources, additional mentor training time, additional release time for antiracism learning, and days for BIPOC teachers to meet and connect.

“Antiracism is connected to all of our guiding principles, so it’s important we embed it into the program,” said Heather.

Because of COVID-19, participants in the mentorship program may miss out on some of the in-person learning, such as visiting mentor or mentee classrooms to observe or attending a mentorship retreat at Loon Lake Resort. However, despite the virtual nature of last year’s program, both mentors and mentees appreciated the support of colleagues, the new ideas and learning opportunities they experienced, and the sense of community they were able to create even over Zoom.

“Our goal is to support a program where we walk alongside each other, acknowledging the importance of collaboration, evolving needs, reciprocal relationships, and lifelong learning,” said Heather. “We want to empower our teachers to change the system.”

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