The Radical Left Needs to Call into Question Existing Social Institutions at Every Opportunity, Part Two

Before I obtained a so-called permanent teaching position (I will explain in a much later post why I use the word “so-called”), I worked for a number of years as a substitute teacher (with short periods of term teaching positions). I became an executive member of the Winnipeg Teachers’ Association (WTA) (in the province of Manitoba, Canada), representing substitute teachers.

I used this situation as an opportunity to criticize the limitations of the educational experience.

Of course, representatives should not limit themselves to such criticism but rather perform their representative function in order to enhance the democratic nature of the union or association to which they belong. To that end, I referred to issues and clauses in the collective agreement that were relevant to substitute teachers as well as to the Substitute Teachers’ Committee.

I and others on the Substitute Teachers’ Committee created a survey for substitute teachers and used the results of such a survey to criticize the policy of the WTA of permitting only permanent teachers the right to apply for permanent positions (substitute teachers paid association dues and consisted of usually 700-900 paying members of around 4000 members, but they did not have the right to apply for permanent positions).

 

For October 2007 newsletter

In the last letter to the editor, it was pointed out that education unites the end (as an ideal) with the means, and the means with the end (as actual result). The question that needs to be posed is what the implications for such a view of the nature of education are. Human beings are, by nature, more concerned with the ends as final result than with the means required to reach the end. This assertion has its basis in the biological nature of humans as living beings. Unlike inanimate beings, all living beings, as living beings, require to maintain their existence through action on the environment. Their own nature is to seek to maintain themselves as living beings through such action. The end of their action is the maintenance of life, and in that sense human nature, as a part of the living process, is no different.

If human beings naturally focus more on ends than means, then the education process must shift children’s focus to the means required to achieve ends as well as providing conditions for children to learn how to coordinate the ends and means in conjugate relation with each other. The education process should begin with the ends of children, but should end with the children being capable of coordinating ends and means in an increasingly broader and more profound manner. The question that must be asked

In elementary schools, does the learning process begin with the ends of children and gradually shift focus to the means necessary to achieve specific ends? Is the curriculum designed to achieve the harmony between, on the one hand, the nature of children as beings who focus mainly on the ends of activities and the requirements of the subject matter, which are primarily means?

In secondary schools, with a greater focus on specialized studies, have the curriculum designers consciously incorporated into the structure of the curriculum provisions for enabling children, for a time, to consider consciously and willingly the study of specialized studies as ends in themselves? Do children, subsequently, learn to coordinate the learning of the specialized studies (which are refined forms of the experiences of human beings and constitute more generalized means for the achievement of diverse ends) with their own ends?

Can teachers, who are responsible for pedagogical execution, engage in education effectively if the curriculum structure prevents a shift from ends to means and then to their coordination? In other words, are pedagogical methods (such as differentiated instruction) sufficiently powerful to compensate for a curriculum structure that fails to address the necessary connection between means and ends?

Fred Harris, substitute teacher

The following appeared in the Winnipeg Teachers’ Association newsletter to explain how the survey of the substitute teachers was constructed:

Draft Results of Survey Held at General Meeting of Substitute Teachers, October 11 General Meeting and Survey

On October 11 a general meeting of substitute teachers was held to elect representatives to the Council. At the time of elections, there were 33 eligible voters, including myself.

At the meeting, the substitute teachers present were asked to fill out a survey proposed by the Substitute Teachers Committee and approved by the executive; 91 percent of those who could vote did fill out the survey—an excellent response rate.

Structure of the Survey

The survey was divided into four sections, with the fourth section asking whether the substitute teacher is retired or not. I therefore will present the general results in two ways: percentages in terms of those substitute teachers who are not retired for the first three sections and percentages in terms of those who are retired for the final section. I will begin with substitute teachers who are not retired.

First Section of Survey: How Long Substitutes Have Been Substituting

The first section refers to the period of time for substitute teaching. Forty-six percent of substitute teachers are short-term (0-3 years); 19 percent are mid-term (4-9 years); and 35 percent are long-term substitute teachers (10+ years).

This last statistic should give us pause for thought. Substitute teaching may have become a career for one-third of substitute teachers.

It may be said that these statistics are skewed. They undoubtedly are. To overcome such bias, it would be necessary to have a list of all substitute teachers in the WTA, either to survey them all or to survey substitute teachers on a random basis.

Second Section: Priorities of Substitute Teachers and Possible Problems

The second section of the survey looks at possible areas of concern to substitute teachers, and each has a rating of 1 for least important and 10 for most important. In this report, I will focus only on what the substitute teachers considered to be the three most important concerns, with the distribution as follows:

The number one concern of substitute teachers is the lack of a right to apply for posted positions, followed by salary and benefits.

Given that the lack of a right to apply for posted positions is the number one concern of substitute teachers, and given that the policy of the WTA is to uphold the Division’s policy of prohibiting substitute teachers and term teachers from being considered for permanent hire on the grounds that permitting substitute teachers access to job postings would decrease mobility among permanent contract teachers, then there is a potential conflict between the interests of substitute teachers and permanent contract teachers within the WTA. Some may say that such a view that recognizes a possible conflict of interest between two different sets of members is divisive. However, as the philosopher of education, John Dewey, pointed out, it is necessary to make explicit conflicts if we are to solve them. Human beings in this society are commodities, things to be bought and sold. There is competition among workers in such a situation. To the extent that there are a limited number of permanent contract positions relative to the supply of teachers, then there will be competition, and that competition may lead to conflict among workers, unless there is a mechanism that regulates and reduces that competition in some fashion.

If substitute teachers want to have access to job postings, and the WTA policy is to exclude them from such access, is there not a conflict? If there is a conflict, what is to be done about it?

Third Section: Economic Importance of Substitute Teaching for Substitutes

The third and last section refers to the extent to which substitute teaching is economically important to the substitute teachers. Fifty percent of them rely primarily on substitute teaching within the Division for their economic livelihood. Sixty-five percent of the substitute teachers primarily rely on substitute teaching, term teaching or a combination of the two within the WSD. In other words, about two-thirds mainly rely economically on employment with WSD.

Fourth Section: Retired Teachers as Substitute Teachers

For retired teachers, there is no pattern for sections one and three, perhaps due to the very small sample size. For section two, their top priority is benefits, followed by the lack of a right to apply for positions (with the qualification that 50 percent of the retired substitute teachers indicated their solidarity with non-retired substitute teachers and not for themselves).

In addition, I drafted the substitute teachers’ concerns to the Council (a monthly meeting of school representatives and the executive of the WTA):

Draft Report of Fred Harris, Chair, Substitute Teachers’ Committee, to Council, October 16 [2007]

On October 11, last Thursday, a general meeting of substitute teachers was held to elect representatives to this Council. At the time of elections, there were 33 eligible voters, including myself. Dave provided an overview of how Council works before the elections. Two people were elected to Council, Linda Kirkwood and Fred Standil. After the elections, Dave addressed some of the possible concerns that I had raised, and Henry followed by some of my other concerns. The question period that followed was very lively, especially around the issue of why the Division has implemented a policy of forcing substitute teachers to provide a reason why they are refusing jobs and stopping the computer system from calling them after three or four refusals.

At the meeting, the substitute teachers present were asked to fill out a survey proposed by the Substitute Teachers Committee and approved by the executive; 91 percent of those who could vote did fill out the survey.

I will divide my report of the survey in two: firstly, I will provide an overview of the results of the survey using descriptive statistics, not inferential statistics. Inferential statistics might be useful, but the sample size may be too small. Secondly, I will comment on the number of substitute teachers who attended.

The survey was divided into four sections, with the fourth section asking whether the substitute teacher is retired or not. I therefore will present the general results in two ways: those substitute teachers who are not retired and those who are retired. I will begin with substitute teachers who are not retired.

The first section refers to the period of time for substitute teaching. The percentage of non-retired substitute teachers who have substituted without a permanent contract for 0 to 3 years is 43 percent, for 4-6 years, 17 percent, for 7-9 years, 3 percent, for 10-12 years, 17 percent and 13 years or more, 17 percent. We can streamline this a bit by providing three categories: 43 percent of substitute teachers are short-term (0-3 years); 20 percent are mid-term (4-9 years); and 34 percent are long-term substitute teachers (10+ years).

This last statistic should give us pause for thought. Substitute teaching may have become a career for one-third of substitute teachers.

It may be said that these statistics are skewed. They undoubtedly are. To overcome such bias, it would be necessary to have a list of all substitute teachers in the WTA, either to survey them all or to survey substitute teachers on a random basis, with a smaller sample size than the total number of substitute teachers but with a larger sample size than the 30 responses that we obtained.

The second section of the survey looks at possible areas of concern to substitute teachers, and each has a rating of 1 for least important and 10 for most important. In this report, I will focus only on what the substitute teachers considered to be the most important concerns in five cases, with the distribution as follows:

The number one concern of substitute teachers is the lack of a right to apply for posted positions, followed by salary and benefits, and two further priorities: firstly, cancellation of a position when arriving at school and, secondly, the extent to which there is a lack of information, clarity or support concerning disciplinary procedures within schools for disruptive student behaviour.

Given that the lack of a right to apply for posted positions is the number one concern of substitute teachers, and given that the policy of the WTA is to uphold the Division’s policy of prohibiting substitute teachers and term teachers from being considered for permanent hire on the grounds that permitting substitute teachers access to job postings would decrease mobility among permanent contract teachers, then there is a potential conflict between the interests of substitute teachers and permanent contract teachers within the WTA. Some may say that such a view that recognizes a possible conflict of interest between two different sets of members is divisive. However, as the philosopher of education, John Dewey, pointed out, it is necessary to make explicit conflicts if we are to solve them. Human beings in this society are commodities, things to be bought and sold. There is competition among workers in such a situation. To the extent that there are a limited number of permanent contract positions relative to the supply of teachers, then there will be competition, and that competition may lead to conflict among workers, unless there is a mechanism that regulates and reduces that competition in some fashion.

If substitute teachers want to have access to job postings, and the WTA policy is to exclude them from such access, is there not a conflict? If there is a conflict, what is to be done about it?

The third and last section, which refers to the extent to which substitute teaching is economically important to the substitute teachers, presented a few problems. My intent was to have the substitute teachers check off one, and only one, choice. Six of the replies contain more than one check mark. Rather than excluding them, I have attempted to categorize them into only one of the categories, according to my interpretation of the intent of their answer.

Sixty-five percent of the substitute teachers primarily rely on substitute teaching, term teaching or a combination of the two within the WSD. In other words, about two-thirds mainly rely economically on employment with WSD. Furthermore, fifty percent of them rely primarily on substitute teaching for their economic livelihood.

For retired teachers, there is no pattern for sections one and three, perhaps due to the very small sample size. For section two, their top priority is benefits, followed by the lack of a right to apply for positions (with the qualification that 50 percent of the retired substitute teachers indicated their solidarity with non-retired substitute teachers and not for themselves) and, finally, the extent to which there is a lack of information, clarity or support concerning disciplinary procedures within schools for disruptive student behaviour

Turning now to the number of substitute teachers who attended the meeting, as I said, there were 33 eligible voters, but this number is about five percent of the substitute teachers on the substitute list in the Division.

One undoubted factor in limiting the number of substitute teachers who attended was a lack of a list of substitute teachers. Last year, however, at about this time, about 80 substitute teachers attended the general meeting. A drop of about 100 percent in the attendance of substitute teachers cannot be explained by a lack of a list of substitute teachers since there was no list available to the Substitute Teachers’ Committee last year either. Furthermore, in other organizations—such as unions—where there exists a current list of all members, attendance at union meetings frequently is only 10 percent of the number of members.

It may be said that the substitute teachers—or other union members—freely chose to not attend. They individually chose to not attend. Ultimately, it is an individual decision, for it is not an abstraction called an organization or society that decides, but a group of individuals.

I use the word “ultimately,” however. It is individuals who decide, but their decision ought to be made on the basis of an informed understanding of their situation.

My hypothesis of why many substitute teachers would not attend even if they knew about the gen4eral meeting is that they see little point in it: it does not, from their point of view, contribute to their control over their own lives. They lack hope in changing their lives.

Let me explain by way of illustration. I am writing my doctoral dissertation on a comparison of John Dewey’s philosophy of education and Paulo Freire’s philosophy of education. Freire was a Brazilian educator of adults, and he wrote, among works, Pedagogy of the Oppressed and A Pedagogy of Hope. In those works, he noted how adults would blame themselves for their poverty, including the literal starvation to death of their children, rather than the extreme concentration of the ownership of land, machinery, buildings and so forth among around two percent of the population.

Freire too argues that, ultimately, it is individuals who decide, but decisions that exclude a consideration of the social and economic context within which the individuals live are not free decisions. The educational task, for Freire, is to have people understand their own social situation so that they can make informed decisions. In other words, education is to develop their own capacities to be self-determining human beings.

Relating this now to a lack of turnout among substitute teachers, it is a defeatist attitude to use the lack of participation by adults in an organization as an excuse to do nothing about such a lack of participation. The reality is indeed that there is a lack of participation by substitute teachers in this organization. But present reality has two sides to it: the actualization of the potentialities of the past, and the potentialities of the present which may actualized in the future. To restrict reality to merely the actualization of past potentialities limits what human beings can do and limits the educational task. To expand reality to include the potentialities of the present opens up what Freire called the untested feasibility, or a pedagogy of hope.

If the reality which we experience does not accord with what we would like, then we need to look at the potentialities of that reality to see whether we can change reality by actualizing other potentialities and by eliminating those aspects of reality which cause us problems.

I suspect—and it is only an hypothesis—but an hypothesis based on my conversations with a number of substitute teachers and others over the years—that one of the main—though by no means the only—reasons why substitute teachers and others do not participate is their lack of hope for any real change to occur as a result of their participation. They see no point in it. They have lost hope of gaining control over their own lives.

To change that situation, as a start, I would strongly urge all Council representatives here present to ensure that substitute teachers have access, on a monthly basis, to the WTA newsletter as far as possible, whether via mailbox, posting on the bulletin board in the staff lounge or by some other method. It is my understanding that an extra copy of the newsletter is provided to each Council representative, so what I am requesting is feasible. Admittedly, this is a small step, but any change requires initial steps. The newsletter could become a more important means by which to enlist the participation of substitute teachers—and indeed permanent contract teachers—in this Association.

Apparently, there was some controversy whether the above report was going to be censored or not (I did not remember this when I searched for my work as the chair of the Substitute Teachers’ Committee of the WTA):

There may be several aspects of the article to which the Public Relations Committee and this executive find objectionable. I will try to address what I think might raise concerns.

I will justify the article in my own way and not on conventional grounds. I would like to hear others’ grounds for objecting to the article.

At the general meeting of substitute teachers, on October 11, what I heard gave me the distinct impression that the WTA supports the WSD policy of excluding substitute teachers from the right to apply for the blue sheets because such exclusion enables permanent contract teachers to have greater mobility within the Division. If that impression is mistaken, then of course my references to such support need to be deleted, starting with “Given…” and ending with “about it.”

If, however, it is the position that the WTA supports the WSD policy, then I will defend my inclusion of the two paragraphs stated above. Before going on, then, it is necessary to ask whether my impression that the WTA supports the WSD policy of limiting those who can apply for the blue sheets to permanent contract teachers is valid. Is it?

Firstly, the issue is one of the importance of conflict. According to Dewey’s philosophy of education, indirectly found in his book (Experience and Nature),1 the life process is, by its very nature, conflictive.

Conflict involves the rhythm of being in balance with the world and falling out of balance (a rhythm which forms a basis for music and various forms of art, incidentally: Art as Experience. The great works of art include various contrasting and clashing elements that are organized to form a harmony or unified structure]. The life process involves dependence on something external to the live being but something which it requires or needs. The live being satisfies its needs, and is in harmony with its environment. But satisfaction is always only temporary because either the living being uses up what it needs or the environmental conditions change. There is then conflict between the living being and its environment.

In the case of human beings, what is unique is that they, unlike non-human animals, can share experiences, or engage in a unified action towards a common end. To share such experiences, they must be able to express their views, which may indeed and indeed probably does involve conflicting views since different individuals have different experiences in life.

Variation of views, and hence conflicting views, should not only be permitted but is necessary if progress is to occur.

This conflict, in the case of humans, enables them to grow or to learn through the incorporation of conflicting elements in a larger whole. Education, then, is a process of learning how to deal with conflicting situations and how to create a wider situation that incorporates the conflicting elements in that larger whole.

If we hide conflicts, we will not be able to grow nor educate ourselves, both as living beings and as human beings.

The form in which the growth or education of human beings best occurs is through the democratic form. That form is a means by which human beings can develop and grow.

This view borrows from the Darwinian theory of evolution, about which Dewey wrote extensively.

Or perhaps reference to the idea that human beings are commodities, things to be bought or sold is inappropriate. Empirically, it can be shown that human beings are indeed commodities in many countries, including Canada. I had my daughter take a picture of the following on a sign just a block from the Museum of Manitoba: “Need Workers? We will deliver them.” Admittedly, this is an extreme example of treating human beings as commodities, but it is only an extreme of a common-day occurrence in our lives: the purchase of human beings on the market for workers.

In Canada, that market began to form around 1826, when the British government ended land grants, obliging Irish immigrants in what was then Upper Canada to sell their skills (or lack of skills) to others to construct the canals. (I have a book in my office, I believe, that refers to that fact). In the United States, a market for workers began to form rapidly near the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century when the push toward the West ended with no more free land.

The case of Guatemala is instructive in this regard. Before 1954, the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz distributed the unused land of the United Fruit Company to about 500,000 Guatemalan families. The CIA helped overthrow his government and install a military dictatorship. The best land was returned to the wealthy landowners, and the Guatemalan peasants had to eek out a living on small land plots in the unfertile lands of the mountainous regions. Having insufficient land to maintain their families, they had to migrate to the coastal plantations of the wealthy landowners to produce bananas, coffee, beef and other export commodities. In the 1970s, however, the Guatemalan peasants, who were largely Aboriginals, began to organize against the wealthy landowners. They objected to being treated as commodities and wanted sufficient land to maintain their families. The Guatemalan military, with the help of the American government, responded by systematically terrorizing and killing tens of thousands of Guatemalans and creating more than a million internal and external refugees.

This situation is interesting since it indicates that when human beings do object to being treated as commodities, the government will often be used to ensure that the market for workers will be maintained.

Once that market is created, of course, as it is in Canada, then the economic dependence of workers on the employers will generally suffice to maintain that relation without resort to physical violence.

It may be objected, however, that even if there is a market for workers, human beings freely enter into contractual relations with employers. However, at the end of the Second World War, about half the working population still were not employees. Many owned farms or had their own business. Today only 10 to 20 percent of those who work are not employees. Did anyone freely choose to become employees? Or did it just work out that way in the development of the economy?

Now, as I indicated in an article that was published by this Association, employees are extensions of the will of the employer—they are means to the ends defined by the employers. You may not agree with that proposition, but why not then respond to it in the newsletter by providing an alternative hypothesis?

Coming now to the issue of substitute teachers, Joan once said that she was tired of hearing that substitute teachers are badly treated or something to that effect. She indicated that we are all members of the same organization. That is true. As members of the same organization, we should be treated in the same way. However, that does not mean that substitute teachers should necessarily all have the same rights as permanent contract teachers. A basic principle of political philosophy is that all should be treated the same unless there are differential conditions for treating some differently from others. And there are differential conditions, at least in the case of substitute teachers who are relatively new. Would it be fair, for instance, that permanent contract teachers, who by definition generally expect to work for the same employer for years, be reduced to the same rights as a beginning substitute teacher? Attachment to a particular employer for an increasing length of time forms the basis for privileging permanent teachers over substitute teachers, just as the principle of seniority does in unions.

However, as substitute teachers are engaged in employment with the same employer for an increasing length of time, the grounds for differential treatment become less and less valid.

Of course, the reported statistics do indicate that there is a substantial percentage of substitute teachers who have been employed by the Division for a number of years. Their exclusion from any consideration of whether they can apply for positions is less valid than the exclusion of shorter term substitute teachers. Of course, the exact cut off line is not easy to define, but the issue is first of all whether all substitute teachers should be banned from applying for positions. Perhaps there are counterarguments which justify such exclusion, and I would like to hear such arguments.

A further consideration is the issue of formal democracy versus living democracy, or democracy through formal rules, policies and procedures and democracy as a way of life. Dewey provided two criteria for distinguishing between formal and living democracy in his masterpiece Democracy and Education: “How numerous and varied are the interests which are consciously shared? How full and free is the interplay with other forms of association?” The first criterion indicates that there should be many interests which tie the lives of individuals together and not just one. It also means that there are varied interests which, despite being varied, are integrated into the organization. It is difficult to see how consciously shared interests can occur if apparently conflicting interests cannot even be recognized. The basic condition for the harmony of conflicting interests to arise is recognition that a problem in fact exists. Indeed, Dewey, in his masterful Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, argues exactly that: that recognition that a problem exists is the first step in resolving the problem.

Without such recognition, no adequate solutions can arise. It is also hard to see how the second criterion can be fulfilled if we restrict the identification and solution to problems to standing committees, the executive and even to the Council. These are organizational bodies that are formal means to the end of living democracy, which is the active participation of all members, as far as possible, in this organization. Indeed, Dewey’s Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, implicitly contains a criticism of formal democracy by criticizing formal logic, which assumes that logical rules, procedures and policies emerge independently of the process of inquiry. Similarly, he criticizes formal democracy, which merely emphasizes procedural rules without recognizing that such rules are means to an end and not ends in themselves. Furthermore, such rules are rules of a process and not independent of that process. They emerge as regulative conditions of the process so that the process can function smoothly. Such rules and the organizational forms that emerge to enforce them do not have—or should not have—any substantive independence. They are functions of a process and not substitutes for it.

1 It is an excellent but difficult book.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.