Open your mind to closed-shop smugness

25th July 2003 at 01:00
Feeling this smug did not take much work: I just filled in a form and faxed it off. But now, as my colleagues sprint through their frantic summers - painting the fence, building a swimming pool, losing five pounds, flying to the in-laws in Nova Scotia - I gloat because my summer break is much more relaxed. Why rush around when you have 14 months off?

Do you hate me yet? If you do, blame Ontario's strong teachers' unions.

More specifically, blame a professional culture that supports - and whisper this quietly - the closed shop.

When I first moved here I was not too happy about that. Back home in England, I felt that union membership was a part of the democratic process: if I did not agree with my organisation's position I could leave and find another one. So when I took my job here, a pagan in a Catholic school, I fully expected to find a tailor-made union - the Association of Ex-Pat Lapsed Methodists, for example, whose contingent huddled by the pigeon holes drinking Earl Grey and blaspheming. I had no such luck, however. It was the Catholic union or a different job. This was hard to take at first - I felt coerced and missed my freedom of choice. But I soon realised that the lifestyle I enjoyed here was neither serendipitous nor mandated by a generous government. Instead, a strong, united union had fought to make me happy.

And it is good at fighting. No placards required. Our status as a closed shop means we have access to collective bargaining at local-authority level. Every two years, union negotiators meet with our employer to hammer out a contract. They fight for wages related to the local cost of living (and do rather well, judging by the metal in the school car park); ensure that there is a healthy professional development budget; make it easy to transfer from school to school or switch between full- and part-time teaching jobs; and uphold the old-fashioned idea of seniority. Did I mention leave plans? Thank you, solidarity.

At my high school, at least 20 members of the 80-plus staff are off on sabbatical - some, like me, for a full school year, and others for a semester. Some of us will take teaching jobs overseas, some will go sailing, and some will take courses. I will be heading home to England and writing a few articles. I also have a huge stack of reading to catch up with.

We do not get paid for this leave time, but the LEA helps us out as best it can. The paymasters will happily hold back a portion of our salaries during the time we do work so that we get an income during our absence. Not that money seems to be lacking round here: lots of my colleagues own second homes and pick-up trucks the size of Croydon, thanks in part to closed-shop negotiation.

Our employers understand that it pays to retain good teachers and prevent burn-out. They realise that professional development courses are more valuable if taken in a focused block of time rather than on Tuesday nights between dinner and marking. And they see the value of healthy and refreshed employees who are far less likely to cost them money by succumbing to strep throat twice a term. Solidarity is about more than quality of life for teachers - we pass these benefits on to our students by being more enthusiastic, energetic and content.

As for me, I am sold on the closed shop - and I no longer wear rose-tinted specs when thinking of England. I have come to see the choice of unions back home as the sign of a divided and easily conquerable profession, one that readily succumbs to in-fighting. I remember arguments between union leaders in the media, and I often think back to my own school days in the 1980s when, on a given day, one union would strike and another would not; when I would have to go to music but not maths.

These are scary times for British teachers. From this side of the pond, tales of staff shortages going hand-in-hand with redundancies, of heads closing schools because they cannot afford supply, and of classrooms staffed by unqualified teachers, seem nightmarish indeed.

It would not happen here and it should not happen there. You need a break.

Try 14 months.

Nicholas Woolley teaches English and law at a school in Ontario, Canada

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