Dreamers find new worlds, old problems

Nicholas Woolley

We don't talk about soccer or the coffee fund. For now, staff- room chat is stuck on the g-word. Science teacher Colin reckons globalisation will help developing countries get a bigger piece of the economic pie. I disagree. We argue.

But if we forget trade, neither of us can complain about the relaxing of borders. We're both Brits working in Ontario, Canada. We pay tax here, have health benefits and job security, and can stay for as long as we like. If we get bored or nostalgic, we can return to the good old European Union. It helps that we're teachers. The shortage in England makes me feel wanted. Regular advertisements in the Canadian press try to lure me home, promising a tidy wage in a "major English centre". Occasionally, I'm tempted.

In Canada school boards and employment agencies busily recruit from the UK as they worry about a similarly desperate lack of teachers. The United States has weighed in, staffing schools with Brits and Canadians while losing its own teachers to Britain and Canada. One apparent result of this scrabble for staff is tax-free salaries in California.

This is the kind of globalisation that unites our staff-room in enthusiasm: teacher as (almost) barrier-free commodity. With a few phone calls and a bit of paperwork, Joe Smith from Birmingham could be teaching in South Carolina by September. His replacement? Joe Smith from Toronto. Or me, perhaps. This range of opportunities makes us dance around the pigeon holes.

Another tea-break topic is my current quest for professional development. I'm mulling over postgraduate courses in Canada, Scotland and Australia, all of which officially recognised by Ontario's Ministry of Education. None requires me to leave my computer screen.

So forget the corporate sponsorship of textbooks and the branding of the classroom: the lasting effect of globalisation will be cross-pollinated teachers and, inevitably, closer international ties in terms of curriculum and policy.

But this romantic notion ignores a serious downside to the teaching melting pot. Recently, I was talking to a new graduate from teachers' college here in Shortageville, Ontario. Rather than signing up for a local job start in September Gill is about to join the global bandwagon and head to England as a supply teacher.

Part of this plan stems from her love of travel, but it's also because Gill refuses to teach in Ontario. Teacher-bashing by the provincial Tory government (and its suburban sycophants who monopolise radio phone-in shows with their teachers-don't-work-hard enough nonsense) is extremely disheartening. But increased workloads, slashed funding, reduced teacher autonomy and big question marks over the profession's future are very concrete reasons to leave. Will Gill find a better teaching life in the UK? Not unless things have changed dramatically since I left in 1998. It's unlikely that her new world will be any better than mine, politically speaking.

She'll deal with oversized classes, mountains of paperwork and a professional climate that's almost as charged as the one she's leaving behind. Her money won't go far (after living in Canada, Britain seems hideously expensive). And she won't have the security that comes with regular teaching.

Nor will she do the British or Ontarian teaching professions any favours, because she - like me - is benefiting from a shortage that's there for good reason. She's flying to London because of high attrition rates, poor morale, silly legislation, mediocre pay, and teaching's shoddy public image on both sides of the pond. Bringing in romantic travellers is a quick-fix solution to a serious crisis. It's a crisis that intensifies every time someone decides to up and leave. Running away weakens the professional culture we leave behind and the one we turn to. It makes it easy for governments, like the teacher-bashers in Ontario, to buy in cheap and naively keen labour, and to staff schools in a stop-gap fashion.

The message to teachers is clear: if you won't do the job, some one else will for less money and security. It's exactly what corporations say to developing countries that, in return for labour, demand a greater slice of the economic pie. And this is why I disagree with Colin.

Things could be different. Imagine a united international profession that uses globalisation to its advantage. Imagine the shared knowledge, respect and bargaining power it could have. With that kind of solidarity, I could even justify moving to San Francisco.

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Nicholas Woolley

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