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B.C. teachers return to work emotionally bruised

A teachers writes "welcome Back Students" on the chalkboard at Cameron Elementary school in Burnaby September 19, 2014.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

After hanging up the letters of the alphabet and making sure they have enough desks in their classrooms, B.C.'s public school teachers say they face the difficult task of returning to work after an emotionally bruising five weeks on the picket line.

The experience was disheartening for many teachers, and some say they were exposed to heated rhetoric and public scorn daily. To add to the challenge, many of the province's 41,000 teachers face the test of doing weeks of preparatory work in the few hours available before classes start Monday.

Nick Smith says he and many of his colleagues feel exhausted and publicly humiliated after the way they were treated by elected officials.

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"We were in a boxing ring and they pulled out a knife. Then we saw our opponents on TV smiling and saying everything was great," said Mr. Smith, a teacher on the Sunshine Coast.

"There were times it was hard to go out on the lines and wave, only to get the finger or to have someone yell at you to go back to work."

At a time when negotiations were stalled between the B.C. Teachers' Federation and the government, an unhappy Premier Christy Clark took aim at the labour unrest and asserted that teachers were striking for "unlimited massages."

The inaccurate remark stung many teachers who remain suspicious of Ms. Clark and fear that she was trying to break the union during the strike. The BCTF has long been considered one of the most militant and most powerful labour associations on Canada's West Coast.

Far from the politics, the strike left many young teachers without a paycheque for months. Ms. Clark's language also hurt teachers who have spent decades in the province's schools.

"I said to my girlfriend, if we had picked other careers 30 years ago, we wouldn't be making the salary we're making today," said teacher-librarian Frances Renzullo with a laugh.

"We never thought about money. We were very passionate about kids and teaching; that's why we chose the jobs we did. But today, being knocked down like this, I feel pretty disillusioned. I don't even feel passionate about my job any more. We cried a lot, and have been depressed a lot in the last few weeks. [Teaching is] not appreciated. It's not valued, I don't think, at all."

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The deal reached last week is the longest yet in a decades-long struggle that has seen B.C. teachers strike and be legislated back to work a number of times.

Despite voting overwhelmingly to approve the six-year contract, teachers and administrators warn it may take the entire school year for extracurricular activities, sports and morale to recover.

"It's going to be a challenging start up. When you combine the abrupt end of the school year and now being a few weeks late to start, teachers who would have cleaned up and come back in August to get ready are going to have no time," said Patti Bacchus, chair of the Vancouver School Board.

The return to classes will be particularly challenging in newly built schools where teachers had been blocked from accessing their classrooms before Friday.

School supplies have been sitting in the corner of Mr. Smith's living room all summer since the chaotic end of classes in June. Both he and his wife are teachers. He warns that many of his teaching colleagues are thinking about leaving the profession.

"If they had known they would need to put up with all this crap, they would have never done it," he said. "There are also people who don't want to do extracurricular activities any more. 'After I was treated like this, why should I.' It'll take a while for people to recover and feel appreciated."

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About the Author
Ontario legislative reporter

Based in Toronto, Justin Giovannetti is The Globe and Mail’s Ontario legislative reporter. He previously worked out of the newspaper’s Edmonton, Toronto and B.C. bureaus. He is a graduate of Montreal’s Concordia University and has also worked for CTV in Quebec. More

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