Across Canada, issues related to education are regularly making headlines. Ontario teachers have been on rotating strikes, B.C. teachers have been without a contract since last June and both Manitoba and Alberta are reviewing their education systems.
In our research, we are examining the language, stories and messages that are being generated by governments, the media and the public at large about public education. In doing so, we have been documenting governments’ efforts to shift the responsibilities for education as a public good to that of an industry that needs to be more efficiently managed.
This shifting of responsibility relies on rhetoric aimed at demeaning teachers and the teaching profession in an attempt to distract the public from the defunding of public education.
Many Canadians may be unaware that public education in many provinces is no longer fully publicly funded, and that as a result, school boards have been forced to form public-private partnerships, operate as for-profit businesses and raise money through exporting curriculum and importing students. Alberta has even removed the word public from local school boards.
To justify reducing public funding, provincial governments criticize teachers, teachers’ unions and the teaching profession. This persistent campaign against teachers relies on gendered projections that show “patriarchal ideologies of surveillance and control,” as argued by sociology of education scholar Heidi Pitzer.
Teaching as women’s work
Many researchers argue that teaching has long been considered women’s work. Diana D'Amico, a historian of education reform and policy, explains that teaching was a passable way to allow women into the workforce as it was seen as a “natural” extension of the “nurturing female.”
The teaching profession reflects these historic and societal perceptions, and teaching is still largely populated by women.
Today, policy makers are exploiting these long-standing cultural resonances of teaching as an extension of unpaid motherly nurturing to devalue teaching.
Discrediting teachers’ ethical concerns
The British Columbia Teachers’ Federation, reliant on financial contributions from teacher members, funded and fought a 15-year court battle ending in 2016 to ensure better learning environments for students.
Throughout the court battle, the government perpetuated the narrative that the teachers were disrupting students’ education for higher wages.
After the Supreme Court sided with the union, many mainstream news sources positioned the decision as a “win” for teachers.
While such language recognizes that the court ruling did favour the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation, the win was for students, for their learning conditions and for public education as a whole. The “win” did not translate into higher salaries for teachers.
This “feminization of teaching impacts the ability of teachers’ moral concerns to be heard as ethical claims, rather than simply self-interested forms of resistance,” as education scholar Doris Santoro explains.
Because teaching is considered women’s work, teachers’ concerns and political engagement are more easily ignored, dismissed or labelled as self-serving.
In Ontario, the provincial government is relying on the same distraction strategy.
Despite the Ontario Teachers’ Federation repeatedly expressing concern about cuts to education, manifesting in increased class sizes and moves towards mandatory e-learning, the minister of education claims that the contract disputes are an issue of teachers’ compensation.
Minister Stephen Lecce has used his platform to remind the public just how much of the education budget is spent on compensation: He tweeted that “with 80 cents on every dollar spent on compensation in education, it’s about time we stand up for investment in our students.”
Lecce’s statement may obscure the fact that what the province spends on “compensation” covers not only teachers but also educational and teachers’ assistants, principals, vice principals, co-ordinators or consultants and technical or paraprofessional staff.
Particularly coupled with the hashtag “#strikeshurtkids,” Lecce’s potentially misleading statistic directs the public’s attention to teachers who he positions as self-interested. He relies on an underlying gendered implication that when teachers expect appropriate remuneration, they are guilty of so-called “low standards of womanhood” insofar as they betray what should be a selfless devotion to children’s welfare. Governments employ this logic to fuel acceptance of defunding public education.
Undermine and underfund
The provincial education reviews in Alberta and Manitoba also rely on regressive gendered ideas about teachers in order to undermine and underfund public education.
In Manitoba, our analysis of the language and narrative strategies used by the education review commission reveals that the province positions itself as a manager overseeing technicians whose output is inefficient. For example, the review document describes the work of teaching as being about “achievement” and “accountability,” requiring “improvement.”
Constructing teachers as technicians conveniently negates teachers’ professionalism and in turn, their concerns about these managerial impositions on education.
In keeping with this managerial and patriarchal view, rather than turning to current educators for input, the governments in both provinces disregard current teachers’ perspectives by excluding them from the review teams.
Alberta seeks business input
The Alberta government is similarly disregarding teachers in turning to the business community for input on education, advocating for “opportunities to bring the needs of Alberta’s employers into the curriculum-development process.”
The review process and subsequent recommendations reveal a distrust in the professionalism of teachers, their educational expertise and their experiences.
This distrust was echoed in a highly publicized tweet from Alberta’s minister of education in which she posted a segment of a teacher’s test, declared the test questions inappropriate, and vowed to “get politics out of the classroom.”
The implication of the minister’s comments was that teachers are irresponsible and cannot be trusted. Such an attack epitomizes the distraction formula: label teachers as irresponsible and partisan, while suggesting that economic interests are neutral.
By peddling disrespect for educators and casting doubt on current educational research, governments justify a return to “basics,” increased standardization and the corporatization of education.
Dangerous for democracy
In the current political context, provincial governments are relying on this teacher-as-mother construction in order to silence critique and justify cuts to public education.
Strong democracies need strong systems of public education. For public education to remain public, it must be publicly funded, equally accessible and premised on values of active citizenship.
Amidst anti-teacher rhetoric and the perpetuation of economic interests over public interests, a largely female teaching force is standing up for public education and the common good across Canada.