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B.C. teachers' union unwise to pit kids against politics

When the B.C. Teachers' Federation instituted a ban on extracurricular activities in protest of Bill 22, South Delta Secondary teacher Stephen Burns had a decision to make.

Did he comply with the order from his union or defy it in a gesture of solidarity to the hard-working athletes on his senior girls' soccer team? For Mr. Burns it wasn't a difficult choice – even in the face of possible sanction from his union.

"These girls worked too hard for me to just let the season evaporate on them," Mr. Burns said. "I couldn't do that to them. Many of the girls are in Grade 12 – and they have a chance to do something big here and finish high school on a terrific note.

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"I just don't believe they should pay the price because of a fight between the union and the government."

It takes guts to make that call. Teachers have been ostracized in the lunch room for far less. The BCTF has also been known to get nasty with teachers who don't toe the union line. They can make sure all teachers are aware of any among them who break ranks.

For Mr. Burns, it isn't an anti-union statement at all, and he wants people to understand that. While he doesn't agree with everything the BCTF does, he also doesn't blame it entirely for the continual wars with the provincial government. The other side has also contributed to the broken relationship.

But he disagrees with any tactic that is ultimately going to hurt kids. It's hard to disagree with that stand.

As strategies go, I'm not sure the BCTF has a winning one here. If the idea is to build support for their cause, preventing teachers from coaching teams as part of a wider prohibition on extracurricular activities is actually costing the teachers backing from the public – not fostering it. Everything from concerts to year-end camping trips has been cancelled. Sports teams have folded.

I'm not sure teachers themselves wholeheartedly endorse the move.

When it was put to a province-wide vote on April 17, just over 21,000 of the province's 41,000 teachers voted in favour of the boycott – about 52 per cent. That means thousands of teachers either voted against the idea or didn't bother voting at all.

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The whole matter is before the B.C. Labour Relations Board as we speak.

The B.C. Public School Employers' Association maintains that the union's latest protest amounts to an illegal strike given the wide range of activities the BCTF has deemed to be extracurricular.

That would include such onerous tasks as putting report cards in envelopes and photocopying those same report cards to put in a student's file. The BCTF even considers distributing report cards to kids an extracurricular activity. There are more serious matters they are refusing to do under the ban, including attending parent-teacher interviews and refusing to complete a wide-range of reports that can be requested by an administrator. Those reports could be about everything from ESL to district-based student assessments.

It's hard to imagine how the BCTF defines any of those assignments as extracurricular. They all seem pretty fundamental to the job. I can't imagine a young teacher just starting out in her career not accepting that putting a report card into an envelope is part of the job description – even if it is done after class.

We don't know how the LRB will rule. But it's safe to assume whatever is decided will not end the acrimony between the BCTF and the government. It seems inevitable that the government is going to have to bring in some kind of back-to-work legislation to ensure teachers are in the classroom in September.

Stephen Burns has already decided that he'll be coaching next fall – regardless of where things stand. In a choice between politics and the kids on his soccer field or in his classroom, he'll side with the kids every time. And if some of his colleagues don't like it, well, that's their problem not his.

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Many schools have cancelled their soccer programs for the spring. But many have not. And many of the teachers who were standing on the sidelines at the start of the season have decided to stay there through to the end of it.

"This is something we're doing on our own time," Mr. Burns said. "And I really don't think anyone has the right to tell us what we can and cannot do on our own time."

And if he wants to coach his girls' soccer team on his own time, no one is going to tell him he can't.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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