Teaching in Quebec:
Why Teachers Have Had Enough
By: Julie Jacques and Jessica Gearey
Managing Editor & News Editor
Photo Via lacsq.org
The Numbers and Collective Agreement
It may shock you to know that, despite our province’s heavy tax burden, Quebecois teachers are among the worst paid in Canada. A quick look at Statistics Canada shows that in 2014, Quebec’s average elementary school teacher salary, after ten years of experience, was over ten thousand dollars lower than the next province. Between Quebec and Ontario, the disparity was over thirty thousand dollars. Even if you consider Ontario’s higher living cost, this discrepancy is extraordinary. Nova Scotia, the province with the lowest average annual income in the country (at $50 200), still boasts an average salary of $21 000 over Quebec’s in this same category.
The Quebec teachers’ collective agreement consists of 300+ pages which outline the entirety of their rights and responsibilities. This form of contract is common in many sectors, like nursing, but they are not automatically renewed when the contract expires. In fact, the Quebec teachers’ collective agreement has been expired for almost a year now, and negotiations are at a standstill. The union, which is responsible for negotiations on behalf of teachers, claims that the government refuses to negotiate in good faith. Most recently, in a “négo update” the Dawson Teacher Union said that the CAQ simply didn’t give its negotiators the required money to meet union demands. But what might those be? And why are teachers unhappy?
You can pull out all the arguments about teachers you’d like – making government pension, having health-care, not working in the summer (although it’s important to note that elementary and secondary school teachers’ salaries only take into consideration their contracted 180 days) – even if you think our teachers are paid enough, they definitely don’t have it easy.
Teacher Burnout & Pandemic Situation
A 2014 study found that within 25% to 30% of teachers quit their profession in their first year, and that this number rises up to 50% after the first five years of work. On April 14 teachers went on strike to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the government's lack of concern for teachers. With more strikes set to take place in the future, teachers are using social media to spread the message that they’re not only unhappy with their wages, but also with their teaching conditions.
A viral social media post states that teachers are not only striking for “better pay” but also for “class sizes, lack of staffing, impossible expectations, working conditions, and lack of support and respect.”
With teachers at already incredibly low satisfaction levels, the COVID-19 pandemic only worsens their situation. The pandemic places teachers on the frontline as essential workers while Quebec schools stay open despite rising COVID cases.
Patricia Dann, who has been teaching full-time at Howard S. Billings (HSB) Regional High School since 1999, recalls the stress and pressure added to her job due to the pandemic.
The grade 10 and 11 classes at HSB are divided roughly in half and alternate days, meaning each day, 15 students participate in online learning, while the remaining 15 students are in-person. Although the students stay in one class the entire day, Dann does not. In every class she teaches in, she wipes down her workstation and anything that she may touch.
Dann then logs into Microsoft Teams, so that she can teach students at home simultaneously with those in person, which can be a lengthy process if there are technical difficulties. Due to the hybrid learning, Dann is “trying to teach the class and help [online students] at the same time.” She recognizes that her job description has changed: “I’ve had to become IT support for my students,” she says. While she tries, she doesn’t know how Teams works on all the different hardware her students use. Sometimes her students get stressed and overwhelmed when technical difficulties occur. “I feel horribly for those students when this happens,” she states.
There has been an increasing amount of long term leaves throughout the pandemic, and it becomes more and more difficult to find replacements that have not yet succumbed to burnout or illness. The pandemic also means that if teachers come into close contact with a positive case, they’re then forced to take either short or long term leave. Dann explains that the amount of substitutes available has decreased, meaning that teachers who are available are “called to substitute during their spare periods.” Consequently, teachers no longer even have free periods to catch up on their workloads.
“That means I’m having to do additional work out of class time, on top of what I was already unable to complete,” Dann continues. The lack of replacements reflects the entire province, not just HSB, and is a heavy contributor to the already skyrocketing rates of teacher burnout.
Legault, the CAQ, and Campaign Promises
During his 2018 campaign, Francois Legault made seven promises regarding education, two of which have been completed. Legault’s lack of consistency regarding educational progress transfers into contract negotiations.
Since the expiration of the agreement Dann says that “the government has repeatedly said that education is a priority, but their actions seem very contradictory to those claims.” Conditions have gotten worse and there has been no sign of practical negotiations. Dann explains that currently the government is focused on mask wearing and air quality in schools.
Teacher-student relationships are very important to every teacher. For Dann, the relationships she forms with students are an essential part of her practice. In order to touch base with her students she now uses the chat feature on Teams, “to make up for the distance.” Dann also shared how her students have been coping with the current hybrid system. “Students have shared with me their frustrations and their feelings about trying to focus and learn in this current framework,” she explains. Dann has had to loosen up on deadlines in order to help out her students and respond to the challenges they encounter.
However, the difficulties of a hybrid system aren't just affecting students but also teacher preparedness. When transitioning to online learning Dann says that the services she received from the government are ineffective. “I had to teach myself,” she says. In a normal year, getting through the curriculum was already tough, so in a pandemic, Dann says she still finds completing the course tasking because of insufficient time.
Dawson’s Involvement & the Disparity Between Day and Night teachers
The fight for fair wages and teaching conditions is not only focused in the elementary and secondary sectors. Closer to home, Dawson teachers are also fighting. Just a few weeks ago, we saw the school’s support staff go on strike on March 31.
Something else you may have been hearing about in the past couple of years is the fight for continuing education professors at Dawson. Dawson teacher Adam Bright kindly agreed to speak on the matter.
“The wage disparity between day and night teachers,” he explains, “is crazy.” He points out that this disparity isn’t necessarily between colleagues; often, one person will be teaching both day and night classes at once, but living “two different experiences.” He explains that that’s the most complicated thing about the Continuing Education movement: “you’re the same person, doing effectively the same job, in the same schoolroom, but your salary is different.”
“Also, as a continuing education teacher, you don’t get the same benefits,” Adam explains. So, for some teachers who may have day status one semester but night status the next, things like health-care status fluctuate drastically.
He describes this feeling of uncertainty as the worst part of the situation, worse even than the heavy workload some may take on to make ends meet. Your scheduling, finances, and insurance are all in the air -- there’s no way to “know what the next six months of your life will look like.”
The continuing education movement isn’t specifically tied to the recent strikes happening all over the province. However, a renegotiation of the collective agreement, as is happening now, allows for a reconsideration of how the full-time continuing education staff is being paid.
How can students help?
What’s most important to remember is that, as Dann reiterates, “teaching conditions are learning conditions.”
Bright believes that teachers and students have common interests, and that understanding this fact is the first step to improving our respective, inherently linked conditions.
“To an extent, your teachers are struggling,” he says. “No teacher wants to make the classroom political – that’s not our job.” He continues, however, to say that this is ultimately part of a larger political question: how much is Quebec willing to invest in our education?
Bright, in a rather ‘rally up the people’ tone, explains that that funding for education shouldn't reflect the political whims of a particular administration or a particular minister. It should reflect the will of the people.
“Students,” Bright says, “have a huge vested interest in what the future of education looks like.” We, as Bright says, have “lots of agency” when it comes to the topic of education, and certainly “a loud voice.” The worst thing to do is allow the strikes to pass us by and not speak up, not help out. Inaction would only elongate the already year-long collective agreement battle, leaving our teachers out in the cold.