An Ontario educator knows what’s at stake in teachers’ strike

Teaching is like mountain climbing. It take preparation, hard work, and dedication to earn a good contract. It doesn’t just come with the job.

Jena Oxenham Montreal QC

Many articles about the Ontario teachers strike misrepresent teachers. I take issue with the statement that (seemingly all) teachers make over 90K per year, have paid summers off, a gold-plated pension and excellent benefits. I live a different reality. I’d like to share an inside perspective. It isn’t glamourous or sensational, but it’s special to me, and I hope knowing leaves you a little wiser. Just maybe, it even helps you feel a tiny bit better about things.

I’ve always wanted to teach. I love my job deeply and have made it my life’s work to study pedagogy and continually improve my practice. I’m an LTO (Long Term Occasional) teacher. My reality: closer to 50K, benefits only when working, every summer at other jobs, a bit towards my pension, but it’s still a long way from liveable. LTOs are fully qualified, often teach the full year, have all the same duties, but don’t yet have all the perks mentioned above… and that’s okay. I’m willing to work hard to get to that stage, but please don’t assume that these rewards are automatic, let alone apply to all of us. So summers and holidays off… technically yes, but paid, no. Just think – no money over Christmas, but I choose it, and I’m glad to serve. So it goes.

It’s a climb, similar to climbing a mountain, with necessary supplies, preparation, endurance, strength, and guts. I’m somewhere-ish in the middle of my ascent, but we’re all spread out along this big, winding path, carabiners clipped, climbing ropes threaded, carefully looking for the next foothold. Let’s just skip over the six years of Bachelor’s degree then teachers college. That’s preparation and training necessary before you even show up to base camp.

Most start out as emergency supply and volunteering. Maybe you have a helicopter and skip this step – I didn’t. The interview for daily supply teaching is very competitive. I failed the first time. I crushed it in teacher’s college and had many teaching-related jobs so I wondered, “How could this be?” Humbled, but not defeated, I stopped to regroup. I asked questions, sought mentorship, trained, improved, and was successful. “Congratulations!” I thought to myself, “You’ve reached base camp!”

I hung around base camp and supply taught for a while. I made it a personal goal to travel to every school in the board. Situation report: As of 2020, I’ve taught at all but one. I learned to think on my feet, always be prepared, test creative ideas and model consistency in responding to a plethora of classroom disruptions. It’s necessary to spend time here to acclimate, some more, others less. Work for supplies is sometimes precarious, without benefits, with minimal contribution to pension or experience, but if you are flexible, open to learning, and have a positive mindset – it’s valuable.

A little further along is the LTO list interview and it’s a big one. Here you prove you have what it takes to make it. I needed every year of my experience to draw from, every mentor to vouch for my capability, every resource from the hours poured into preparation. This one I got on the first try. I’m proud to say I’m teaching the full year, same class with all the responsibilities of the full-time teacher, but it’s still a long way from the top, and there’s lots to learn yet.

Fast forward to the present and things are on pause – I’m a new mom. When I go back, more LTOs of different lengths at different schools. Then hopefully on to the next camp: small percentage contracts while gradually working up to the big kahuna, the one-point-oh, the full-time, permanent contract. And even still, the path stretches on with many more years of working full-time. Then, just maybe then, those impressive stats might finally apply. It must be said – those who got to the top likely worked hard to get there and they work hard still.

To sum up, the very shortest path (the flashiest of sends) with no failed interviews, no setbacks, perfect timing/availability of full time LTOs, completing professional development while working, straight into a full time contract, certainly no babies, the very best gear and the finest Sherpas would still take about 12 years to top out.

Me, I’m probably looking at 20 plus. I’ve long since made my peace with this. I’ve been taking my time, I enjoy the climb and I believe myself fortunate to have been able to do so. It’s made me a stronger teacher with each step. I like to work hard. It’s competitive, and that’s a good thing. You get better teachers this way and we need good teachers for a thriving public education system. So yes, although hiring is based on seniority, you can see it is not without merit; there are so many checkpoints along the way that ensure teachers are capable, hardworking and genuinely talented. We need it to stay competitive – we need people wanting to be teachers.

Finally, I hope you can see that the concerns of teachers are not unfounded. That 1 percent wage cap for the next three years really does hurt. We must adapt to an increasing diversity of needs, weather violence, and serve more students per class with less support. The jobs lost through attrition were the next step for many teachers, and the path fell out from under us. Nevertheless, I will not give up. Public education gives opportunity to the vulnerable, strength to society, and hope for the future.

There’s more to the story than lazy, greedy teachers who have it good and want more. Please don’t discredit all of those who still strive to reach the summit, and those that maintain camp at the top. We all have our mountains to climb, and like anyone else, I just want to do good, perform my job well, and survive while doing it.

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