NALL

The Research Network on
New Approaches to Lifelong Learning

CSEWWALL

   
Home Groups Mambers Partners Project Resources Links News

   

 

NALL Working Paper #44-2001

 
LEARNING THROUGH STRUGGLE:
How the Alberta Teahers' Association maintains an even keel

Nina Bascia


 

    Teachers' organizations (associations, federations, unions) have been part of the fabric of public educational life in Canada for many decades. While local ad-hoc groups sprang up at various times in response to the particular occupational needs of their members, their presence was formalized by the major provincial Education Acts passed during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s (Young & Levin, 1998) which established their right to legal representation of teachers. While their purview varies from province to province, most have been able to claim the compulsory membership of all public educators (and sometimes school administrators); to play some part in shaping provincial educational policy and negotiating the conditions of educators' work locally; and to have a role in educators' career development by providing formal and informal opportunities for leadership and professional development.
    At the same time, teachers' organizations often have not fit easily in the educational landscape. Their engagement in educational decision-making is to a large degree determined by provincial governments, which possess formal constitutional authority over educational policy; their involvement in local and provincial decision-making can be legislatively redefined at any time. In many provinces, their purview is restricted to an advisory role with respect to substantive policy issues; the concerns in which they could claim some involvement have been salary, benefits and working conditions, but their ability to negotiate even in these areas can be and are restricted both by available monies and by provincial legislation to a shrinking range of issues (Bascia, 1994, 1998a). Teachers and administrators are largely ignorant about their potential value; only a small minority are engaged in teachers' organization activities and their work is largely invisible to others (Bascia, 1997). In many places, the news media and public hold images of teachers' organizations as militant, unprofessional, simplistic and selfish in their priorities (Bascia, 1998b).
    The tensions surrounding teachers' organizations are particularly significant now. Recent changes in educational policy across Canada have sharply reduced their ability to represent educators as well as having a serious impact on educators' working conditions, opportunities for system leadership, and access to educational decision-making more broadly. Teachers' organizations face massive challenges both to their own viability and with respect to the magnitude of stress their members are facing: setbacks in terms of public support and the support of their membership, as well as a reduction in actual claims they can make on their membership when recent provincial legislation makes it voluntary rather than compulsory, or removes the option of legal representation for administrators entirely. Fighting to improve conditions for educators who have little official power within the educational system has always been one of teachers' organizations' major purposes, but for many organizations this is a time of particular difficulty.
    This chapter considers how one Canadian teachers' organization, the Alberta Teachers' Association, has managed to maintain and even enhance its viability and vitality under particularly challenging political conditions, and perhaps even as a result of these challenging conditions. When teachers as a body or their organizations have been challenged, many teachers' associations become defensive and unable to develop effective countering strategies, but the ATA has been able to "struggle against oppression . . . make sense of what [was] happening" and "work out ways of dong something about it" (Foley, 1999, pp. 2-3). In the process, it has become a more vital organization both internally and in relation to its membership, created a series of opportunities for educators to mobilize and take some control of their practice, and redirected the public discourse about education to include at least some consideration of the relationship between educational quality and teachers' working conditions.
    In discussing the particular learning strategies employed by the ATA, the chapter draws upon over ten years of research on North American teachers' organizations (Bascia, 1990, 1994a, 1994b, 1997, 1998a, 1998b, 1998c, 1998d, 2000; Bascia, Stiegelbauer, Watson, Jacka & Fullan, 1987; Lieberman & Bascia, 1990), as well as referencing studies on the impact of recent policy directions on teachers' work worldwide (Ball, 1990; Bascia & Hargreaves, 2000; Blackmore, 1999; Earl, Bascia & Hargreaves, 1998; Harrison & Kachur, 1999; Robinson & Smaller, 1996; Portelli & Solomon, 2001; Whitty, Powers & Halpin, 1998) in order to contextualize the Alberta case. It draws from published analyses of Alberta educational politics (Harrison, 1999; Kachur, 1999) and on the ATA's recent work (Flower & Booi, 1999; Soucek & Pannu, 1996). Its major data source is original research conducted within the ATA during the 1998-99 school year. This research was initially conceptualized as an analysis of teachers' organizations as sites for teachers' professional learning. Interviews with a dozen organizational staff members in a range of different positions focused on how the ATA carried out its professional development mandate, especially how professional development priorities were identified and the role and location of professional development in the larger organization. The interviews revealed an organization deeply engaged with and attempting to influence a complex and volatile environment and even more significant, an organization that conceptualized teacher learning and political action as fundamentally linked rather than distinct organizational activities. Because of the way ATA staff articulated and enacted this linkage, the original research focus on teacher learning in rather conventional terms was broadened to allow for a more complex notion of learning that considered aspects of individual but also organizational, sectorial, and social learning.
    Much of the published research on teachers' organizations views them as explicitly or implicitly caught up in models, paradigms, and structures that are outdated, simplistic and counterproductive. They are seen by many observers as too single-mindedly intent upon the "game" of adversarial relations (Carlson, 1992) or partisan politics (Lieberman, 1997), operating on a "labour" rather than "professional" paradigm (Mitchell & Kerchner, 1983), and shortsighted rather than visionary (Lawton, Bedard, MacLellan & Li, 1999; Little, 1993; McDonnell & Pascal, 1988). In "choosing" to operate according to such values, they are seen as having made the "wrong choice." The ATA case is useful because it describes the dynamic process of the organization's active engagement in this contested political terrain.
    The sections that follow describe recent trends in Alberta educational policy making and practice; identify both the typical and uncommon features of the ATA as a teachers' organization; and describe the organizational strategies that encourage an ongoing process of active learning at multiple levels.


Alberta

Language is perhaps the fundamental medium for the social construction of meaning. The struggle for power, the assertion of dominance, and the maintenance of power structures often occur through the use of language. Powerful norms and structures that organize social life have resulted from rhetorical devices: "God is on our side," "it's the most efficient way," and other compelling phrases have been powerful ideas that have established and perpetuated powerful social institutions. The Christian Church, nation states, mass education, and bureaucratic organizations, to name some obvious examples, have changed society profoundly around the globe (Thomas, Meyer, Ramirez & Boli, 1987). The stories told about the emergence of these institutions infer that they were established swiftly and transformed everything in their paths in relatively predictable and uniform ways. We are left with a sense of the inevitability and uniformity of social transformation because many of the most widely promoted histories are those ere written from the perspective of dominant groups, and because historical and comparative methodologies tend to emphasize a long and distant view. Available records further shape our understanding of the past: we often must rely on the analysis of remaining documents (account books, priests' records, written laws) rather than personal reports, on counting (how many?) rather than qualifying (what was it like?), and thus can only compare static states (before and after) rather be able to chart the process of change. These factors encourage a view of participants of history as helpless victims unwittingly overwhelmed by mass events.
    In our own lifetimes, personally experienced events take on a heightened resonance when others seem to be experiencing them and responding in similar ways. Mass education and mass media make it increasingly likely that we learn of events occurring beyond our own local communities. "Globalization" is both a contemporary social phenomenon we experience and a rhetorical concept that organizes our sense of what is currently happening to us on a mass level. Here, rhetoric is an important part of the package; and here, true to form, we struggle to understand whether social events are beyond or within our control. In the past several years, changes brought about by expanding, interlocking political, economic and technological infrastructures world-wide have been driven in part by the rhetorical rightness of local attempts to "maintain economic competitiveness in a newly global economy." Invoking the rhetoric of globalization, many governments have cut public spending and jobs, reduced economic regulation and privatized government services, impacting educational systems profoundly (Harrison, 1999). The ideas promoted by such governments emphasize the adoption of "idealized" private sector models in the public sector. In education as in other public sector institutions, "globalization" promotes the emergence of quasi-markets.
    "Political narratives" are important political strategies in their own right. David Corson suggests that such narratives "take on a power of their own . . . structural relations of domination become represented as 'legitimate' through the stories that are told to justify the exercise of power by agents who hold it" (1995, p. 5). The employment of particular discourses can result in broader changes than merely policy setting and enforcement. In recent decades, political leaders have increased have increased their use of the "bully pulpit," persuading others of the logic and inevitability of certain ideas in order to shift educational practice ahead of and beyond the limits of the actual introduction of specific legislation by (Jung & Kirst, 1986). (Such discursive logic is active at many levels beyond policy making: other researchers have described how the actual names assigned to certain practices and actions within educational organizations shape participants' understandings of their legitimacy -- see for example Metz, 1989; Meyer & Rowan, 1977; Wodak, 1995). Thus has the Progressive Conservative administration of Ralph Klein in Alberta, like many other contemporary western governments, adopted a rhetoric of "global competitiveness."? Jerrold Kachur writes,

The [Alberta] government promoted "doing more with less" as if it were a natural need. . . . With a crisis management plan in hand, the spin-doctors complained -- contrary to fact -- that the education system was falling apart. Alberta students, they said, were not exiting the system prepared for the new world order and the system was too costly, with teachers paid too much for doing a lousy job. Alberta's schools needed market-discipline. The business model would offer up a good spanking to those who wouldn't sit up straight and listen to the music. . . (1999, p. 62).
    Many current educational theorists characterize the changes brought about by claims of globalization as "unprecedented" in their magnitude, intensity, and invasiveness. Jill Blackmore ascribes recent changes in Australian educational practices to a "frenzy of policy-borrowing of educational solutions across western nation states to what appear to be common social and economic problems" (1999, p. 9). Andy Hargreaves suggests that the boundaries around public schooling that gave it at least an appearance of autonomy have been weakened by the "willful intrusions" of commercial and market forces, and that schooling is more politicized and therefore transparent than in the past. And as a result, he suggests, rather than conceptualizing teaching and learning as "nested" within a bureaucratic structure with clear organizational boundaries, it is more useful to view them as the product of relationships between what is inside and what is outside of schools (Hargreaves & Fullan, 1998), to look at the forces that shape education as "flows rather than states, focusing on networks and the layered connections that know them together rather than simpler linear histories of circumscribed events or settings" (Nespor, 1997, p. xiv, cited in Bascia & Hargreaves, 2000, p. 16).
    Globalization takes specific forms and has particular effects, but education has been caught up in international relations for over a century (e.g., colonization, imperialism). What is unique about the globalization phenomenon may simply be that it the current manifestation of such relations, and that we are therefore able to catch glimpses of the struggle for domination which it represents. Alberta is a useful case to study because it has been caught up in the discourse of globalization in ways that parallel in a particularly exaggerated way what has recently occurred in other Canadian provinces (Earl, et al., 1998) and indeed other parts of the world (Whitty,et al., 1998). An export economy, in recent decades driven by fluctuations in petroleum prices, has fostered Alberta's sensitivity to global market trends (Harrison, 1999). Flower and Booi (1999, p. 125) suggest that educational expenditures began to decline in real dollars in the early 1980s after the "oil bust" (see also Soucek & Pannu,1996), even when every other Canadian province saw increases, often significant, in funding for education. The episodic opportunities for educational innovation and growth possible in other provinces (e.g., Manitoba, British Columbia and Ontario) have not ccurred in Alberta since the late 1980s; instead, Alberta educators experienced a combination of "rising expectations and hrinking resources:" shifting social conditions and greater expectations of schools in general and teachers in particular to be "social workers, psychologists and nurses," integrating students with "special needs" into most classrooms, and providing individualized instruction and complex assessment (Flower & Booi, 1999, p. 124).
    The Progressive Conservative government headed by Ralph Klein argued that the province's economy required a reduction not only in government spending but also in government itself (Harrison, 1999). Health, social services and education budgets all shrank in the early 1990s. Many public employees lost their jobs; teachers saw their salaries reduced by 5 percent. Alberta Education, the province's ministry of education, was reduced in size and restructured. Like other provinces, where changes in Education Acts tightened the province's hold on educational administrators, Alberta Education tinkered with governance issues, taking unto itself, for example, the appointment of school district superintendents. The intensified corporate agenda and the accompanying new rhetoric transformed educators' roles and relationships: what Alberta educators characterized as a "business style of management" encouraged principals to "become managers instead of educators" and switched both the rhetorical and lived emphasis from learning to "accountability and outcomes." According to government statements, the devolution of some decisions to the local level was accomplished, to ensure that money reached classrooms more efficiently but, like in other jurisdictions where site-based decision-making and budget restrictions have occurred simultaneously (see Bascia, 1996), practitioners reported that "power hasn't shifted down, but problems have."
    Educators experienced reduced opportunities for interaction, communication, and feedback to provincial policy making. Alberta Education suspended a long standing tradition of participating in teachers' subject councils. There were several attempts in the provincial legislature to diminish the authority of the ATA by abolishing administrators' rights to representation, though none of these efforts was successful. The province considered dissolving school districts entirely, as New Brunswick had, to reduce infrastructure costs; like Nova Scotia, British Columbia and Ontario in recent years, however, Alberta ended up merely reducing the number of districts through amalgamation, a shift which resulted in reduced support for teaching. District consultants who had provided professional development and support for teachers lost their positions; regional professional development consortia were set up for a three-year period and then disbanded; teachers saw their professional development funds reduced to $2 per student and then lost them entirely. Monies for education were reduced and reallocated; Alberta educators reported that "We spend more money on testing than on curriculum development" (Earl, et al., 1998, p. 11). "We've gotten very good at assessing for special needs but we have no money to serve them" (p. 19). Alberta educators reported having to "find money in alternative ways" including teachers' own pocketbooks, donations from parents, private sector involvement through activities such as advertising on school buses and computer screen savers, and "user fees for students, even for regular classes like science" (p. 12). Reduced time for learning and preparing for new mandated practices accompanied the reduction of funding: "You're on your own for implementation. There is no teacher preparation for the changes" (p. 15).
    The rhetoric of globalization and the logic of reduced public spending; the expansion of achievement tests, the "manipulation of results," "negative media reports"; the introduction of charter schools - these governmental actions were met by and matched with eroding public support for the educational system. "Privatization is the goal. Parents are making choices other than pubic education" (Earl, et al., 1998, p. 11). Educators reported that "the government is constantly bashing education and quoting old statistics" (p. 7). "The respect for the teaching profession has declined. I used to feel trusted as a professional, that we were doing the best we could for the kids. Now it's been twisted and what we're doing is never good enough" (p. 22).


The ATA

    "Globalization" indeed has strong effects, but care must be taken not to over-inflate and therefore reify its rhetorical power. Because globalization is occurring now and because of more widespread awareness of the strategic importance of accounts that challenge the dominant paradigm (e.g., Ball, 1990; Bascia & Hargreaves, 2000; Blackmore, 2000; Harrison & Kachur, 1999; Portelli & Solomon, 2001; Robinson & Smaller, 1996; Whitty, et al., 1998), it is possible to chart the process of change and to identify challenges to the dominant discourse. Specifically, we can document how the Alberta Teachers' Association struggled to make sense of what was happening and developed strategies to challenge the forces of globalization.
    The ATA emerged initially in 1918, from an earlier organization that first met in Edmonton with a membership of 700. Alberta's Teaching Profession Act of 1935 established the ATA as the legal representative for elementary and secondary, public and Catholic teachers and school administrators. Today, there are approximately 70,000 members. The ATA, typical of many teachers' associations worldwide (Fraser, 1998; Young & Levin, 1998), provides a broad and complex range of services: professional development activities; member welfare supports such as counseling, legal and professional advice; lobbying and consultation activities with governments and other educational stakeholders; and collective bargaining. The ATA's stated objectives are

To advance and promote the cause of education in Alberta; to improve the teaching profession; to arouse and increase public interest in the importance of education and public knowledge of the aims of education, financial support for education, and other education matters; and to cooperate with other organizations and bodies in Canada and elsewhere having the same of like aims or objectives (Flower & Booi, 1999, pp. 134-135).
These intentions are not atypical for North American teachers' organizations, but they suggest particular nuanced understandings, including an expectation that the organization will work alongside and in cooperation with other educational agencies and play a major role in shaping and supporting public education.
    Like many other teachers' organizations, the ATA plays a sort of insider-outsider role relative to other educational players, sometimes taking advantage of its status as teachers' legal representative and other times emphasizing its distinction from the formal educational hierarchy. ATA staff boasts that the government "doesn't like us but appreciates the good things we do . . . it would not think of not consulting with us regarding [certain domains of educational policy]." This statement reflects a tension between government's lack of trust in but also reliance on the ATA - again, a not unusual response of government to teachers' organizations. Part of the ATA's legitimacy rests in longstanding relationships with other educational organizations. For example, in the 1940s the ATA led the fight to transfer responsibility for teacher education from normal schools to universities and in 1970 worked for legislation to require teachers to complete a 4-year Bachelor of Education. Today, ATA staff work with University of Alberta administrators and faculty to help develop, oversee and deliver academic programs in preservice teacher education, administrative preparation, and graduate studies. The ATA also works increasingly with Alberta's Home & School Association and with several school districts on a range of projects that are described in later sections of this paper. While such collaborative ventures are increasingly common across North America (Bascia, 1994, 1998d), what is unusual is the long history of such involvement in Alberta.
    Unlike many other North American teachers' organizations, however, the ATA does not affiliate with provincial labour groups. Its mandate proscribes overtly "political" action -- that is, partisan politics that, given Alberta's "hostile political culture" vis-ŕ-vis organized labour and the "essentially conservative" nature of its teachers, would "most certainly produce a pernicious backlash from the public" (Soucek & Pannu, 1996, p. 40). Further, in this "essentially conservative political culture" (p. 37), and given Alberta teachers' reluctance to strike, the ATA has been unwilling to overtly antagonize the government as some other provincial organizations have done; instead, ATA staff say, the organization has had to focus on "the issues." Some critics view this stance as problematic because it leaves teachers defenseless between "the imperative of professional conduct and a top-down push toward further reduction in their professional autonomy and a lower skill level . . . and a simultaneous degradation of their working conditions" (Soucek & Pannu, pp. 41-42). The right to collective bargaining and to strike in Alberta was legislated in 1942, relatively early in its existence, a victory which, on the one hand, has placed the organization in a strategically strong position for many years but, according to ATA staff, has meant that teachers currently in the system have not had to fight for better working conditions and as a result are complacent and ignorant about the value of union representation.
    The ATA's initial response to the government's "powerful, fast-moving, determined and aggressive" action (Flower & Booi, p. 128) in the early 1990s was cautious and reactive (Soucek & Pannu, p. 54). But as ATA staff claimed in their interviews, "We don't like other people telling us what to do." More than this, the ATA case suggests that particularly acute crises can provide the catalyst for learning, social engagement and action not evident in times of relative social stability. But how did the ATA revitalize itself, find ways to encourage educators to mobilize and take some control of their practice, and redirect the pubic discourse about education? While luck and strong leadership were clearly factors, something more seemed to have been operating as well: This revitalization appears to be based on the organization's conscious and explicit recognition of the imperative for ongoing learning at multiple levels and in multiple locations: among individual staff members, within organizational sub-units, and across the organization as a whole; in its relationships with its members; in the ATA's relationships with other educational organizations; and for individual teachers, school staffs, school councils and other working groups, for school board and regional configurations, across the entire province including urban, suburban, rural contexts in various regions. Rather than working from generic assumptions about educators' occupational needs, the ATA was able to recognize the diversity of its membership -- as both novices and veteran practitioners; simultaneously as workers with concerns about working conditions, policy implementers, and subject specialists with varied expertise; and as community members in various contexts across the province.
    Processes of struggle and contestation engender social change. Powerful learning can result from such struggles with adversity as well as from the ensuing action. The sections that follow consider strategies employed by the ATA that have been effective in engendering and sustaining ongoing learning. These strategies are described both in terms specific to teachers' organizations in broad terms, and as they might be applied to many types of groups and organizations. A final section considers the multi-level nature of social learning -- for individuals and collectivities, for Alberta generally and in the ATA specifically.


Organizational strategies

Continuous learning. Many organizations profess a commitment to "organizational learning" in order to suggest that they recognize a need for and can claim an actual adaptation to changing social conditions (see Laiken and her colleagues' chapter in this volume). While the ATA does not make this rhetorical claim, it nonetheless demonstrates this commitment in a variety of ways: by seeking information and ideas vociferously and from multiple sources, by deliberate attempts to minimize internal organizational fragmentation and balkanization, and by minimizing boundaries between the organization and the field. In this sense, an ATA staff member's assertion that "professional development drives the organization" should be understood not as the domination of the professional development unit over other units but rather as a commitment to learning that has permeated and made coherent many organizational activities. The ATA works both explicitly and implicitly on an understanding of the relationships between learning, values, structure, power and action.
    The ATA works actively to understand what is occurring in the field of education. While it is all too easy for teachers' organization staff, like any administrators or educational bureaucrats, to quickly lose touch with classroom and school practice (and to be viewed by educators as out of touch), the ATA surveys its members frequently; beyond this, ATA staff spend approximately half of their time every week in the field. Each staff member travels around the province to get a feel for what is occurring across diverse educational contexts, and also to ensure that they are visible and that ATA programs do not look like "Edmonton" initiatives ("Edmonton," where the ATA head office is located, not generally being considered representative of the rest of the province just as "Toronto" is not in the rest of Canada). The ATA also has developed pilot projects such as professional development schools and a mentoring program for new teachers in several cities in the province. While other teachers' organizations also support such projects, the ATA takes the notion of piloting seriously: rather than merely "first" or "only," it treats such experiments as opportunities to learn about new practices that subsequently can be applied more broadly.
    Perhaps even more significantly, careful attention is paid to distributing field knowledge across the association through a range of organizational processes. While many teachers' organizations are constitutionally required to seek direction from their members through member surveys and the decisions made in representative assemblies and, most associations do a better job of representing some groups of educators than others. Often organizational priorities are driven by the needs and interests of educators from certain schools or school districts, subject areas (e.g., science or other high status disciplines vs. special education and other marginalized programs), levels (elementary vs. secondary), gender, age cohort, role (teachers or administrators), or parts of the province (large urban areas vs. smaller rural jurisdictions). This privileging of certain points of view over others, if unquestioned, often become more pronounced over time and can lead to the perception that "the union is a 'cabal'" driven by "special interests" and inaccessible and unresponsive to anyone else (Bascia, 1998b, 2000).
    Further, teachers' organizations are often characterized by internal structures that in some ways resemble departmentalized, "balkanized" secondary schools (Hargreaves, 1994; Siskin, 1994). Staff who are associated with professional development, collective bargaining and other organizational priorities tend to interact with distinctly different people (government officials, administrators, "teacher leaders," teachers in trouble) and maintain distinctly different views of the world. Differences in worldview can result in a rich program of organizational "products," but they can also lead to organizational sub-units acting in ways that actually undermine the efforts of the others, and specific projects rendered ineffective and invisible by actions and publicized statements that reflect other organizational priorities. Within many contemporary teachers' associations, some organizational priorities, such as professional development, are less valued than others, such as political action.
    The ATA actively works against these tendencies to privilege certain groups of educators and certain organizational sub-units over others by carefully attending to intra- and inter-organizational dynamics: by supporting and encouraging a range of special interest caucuses (in this case, subject specialist councils) which act as lobby groups within the organization and interact with the provincial government around curriculum change; by ensuring that staff from different sub-units such as teacher welfare and professional development are always on the leadership team simultaneously; by actively recruiting staff from across the province, who have divergent views, orientations and skills; by creating complex portfolios so that individual staff members work across organizational sub-units; by involving staff members from several units in the development of most initiatives and programs; and by fostering mutually respectful working relationships between elected officials and professional staff.

Finding and creating spaces (making lemonade). Seeking support for its members and political advantage for itself, the ATA has capitalized on the ideas of others and worked in whatever arenas that are available. The ATA attended government-initiated regional meetings in 1993 even though it was clear that "the government has already made up its own mind" and consultation was merely a "charade" (Flower & Booi, 1999, p. 126); other teachers' organizations might have refused. Then, when the government released a position paper, "Meeting the Challenge," which presumably reported on the results of the consultations, the ATA sponsored its own roundtables throughout the province, and made them accessible to the public and then released its own report, "Challenging the View." In rebuttal to negative reports on the sorry quality of teaching released by Alberta Education, the ATA initiated an ongoing, multi-level media campaign. More significantly, it established a Public Education Action Centre in 1995 to develop an ongoing, proactive campaign that would mobilize teachers in grassroots activities, promote positive changes in education, build effective coalitions, employ ATA members in schools and locals to promote public education in their own settings (Flower & Booi, p. 127, 129).
    In addition to these public and political activities, the ATA attempted to fill many of the substantive gaps in educational practice resulting from the "decimated" educational infrastructure, particularly in the area of professional development. While other teachers' organizations have argued that it is the school system's responsibility to support teachers' work, the ATA has perceived such gaps as opportunities to challenge the government by asserting its own orientation to teaching and schooling. For example, supporting the government's interest in site-based decision-making but finding neither models nor technical assistance forthcoming from Alberta Education, the ATA developed information packets and professional development strategies for school staffs. When the government mandated individual growth plans (annual plans developed by teachers that commit them to particular professional development strategies and teaching achievements, and which are part of the formal assessment process employed by administrators), it was the ATA that "became the official source of information endorsed by the government" by seeking and winning the contract to develop workbooks and train administrators on their use, essentially defining their purpose and content ("they emphasize professional judgement, they're not just a check list"). Similarly, when the government legislated school councils in 1995, the ATA chose to support the plan and, with the assistance of other stakeholders, including the Alberta Home and School Councils' Association, it developed the official resource manual and provided "meaningful rather than trivial" training for school council participants, essentially managing to determine the shape of this reform (Flower & Booi, p. 130).

Multiple strategies. Research that has evaluated teachers' organizations' reform initiatives has consistently demonstrated that no single initiative or strategy will be attractive, meaningful, and effective for a teaching staff or population of any diversity (Bascia, 1994, 1998b, 2000). But because of the costs involved in mounting any project and the intellectual challenge of articulating a complex yet coherent vision of educational practice, teacher organization staff often work with generic notions of teachers' occupational needs and interests, either choosing a strategy they hope will appeal to a majority of educators (for example, in some locales in recent years, when the median teacher was in her mid- to late-career, retirement-related issues often took precedence over supports for new teachers) or selecting a splashy initiative based on its potential to attract media and public attention. The ATA's professional development offerings and other contacts with educators, however, are based on a recognition of members' diversity with respect to developmental needs, learning preferences, personal obligations (and therefore time for extra-classroom activities), social status (and therefore opportunities for organizational participation), program and subject affiliation (and therefore goals or interests) as well as school, community and school board contexts (and therefore policy pressures and workplace conditions) (Bascia, 1998c; Earl,et al., 1998). Rather than attempting to mount the one best program, the ATA attempts to fill a variety of needs. This strategy is exemplified in the ATA's wide array of professional development offerings. The association continues to support local and regional annual "conventions," which have occurred since the 1920s and are formally written into Alberta's Education Act. Developed by local committees and based on the results of educator surveys, conventions often include a wide range of workshops, usually of the traditional staff development, technically oriented, skills-based, transmission-adoption variety. But at the same time, the ATA also makes affordable workshops available to school staffs, presented by a cadre of trained workshop leaders on a range of current issues and concerns. Popular workshops include site-based decision-making, classroom strategies such as conflict resolution, classroom management, inclusivity, pedagogy and student assessment, professional wellness and professional growth plans. The ATA supports the professional activities of a range of subject specialist councils (over 60% of the province's teachers are members) which sponsor their own subject-based professional development. ATA staff also pays particular attention to the needs of the growing number of new teachers, mounting an annual new teacher conference in every provincial region and working on a pilot for mentoring new teachers. Beyond these, the ATA is working with several school districts to develop an understanding of how to mount collaborative professional development programs; working with regional consortia to develop curriculum-based, classroom-focused professional development that occur over several days across a several month period, based on constructivist understandings about teacher and student learning. Teachers try out new practices in their classrooms and report back in ensuing sessions. These sessions, and subject council work and increasingly occur during annual convention sessions since the provincial government has reduced paid professional development days for teachers to one per year.
    Where many contemporary educational policies appear to assume simplistic, technical views of teaching and unrealistic assumptions about how to bring about improvement in teaching practice, many of the ATA's professional development offerings involve processes and conceptual structures that build teachers' individual and collective capacities to work effectively in and across classroom, school and community settings. Many are based on sophisticated understandings of learning: rather than focusing on simple skills development, they are intended to increase teachers' capacity to develop intellectually, socially and politically as well as technically, often all at once. For example, curriculum-based professional development helps educators develop a shared language about practice and get a taste of what it is like to work collaboratively (see Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1992) -- skills and relationships that may serve them well in a range of unanticipated ways beyond the scope and time period of the specific reform. School council training helps participants learn group process and leadership skills. The ATA's public education campaign encourages educators at all levels to develop promotional skills and increase their visibility and contacts with larger groups of people within their communities and organizations.

Reframing the discourse. Language plays a significant role in framing the basic terms of social engagement: "what can be said and thought, but also . . . who can speak, when, and with what authority" is defined and maintained through discourse (Ball, 1990, cited in Foley, 1999, p. 15). People participate in their own subordination when they unconsciously adopt and use discourses that contain a logic of unequal power relations. When dominant discourses are used in alternative ways, social relations can be negotiated and redefined. And dominant ideologies can be fundamentally challenged when people who struggle to overcome their subordination come to new conscious understandings and introduce a counter-discourse.
    Many teachers' organizations, particularly those accustomed to a one-down position relative to other educational players, have been slow to recognize their power to contribute to the public discourse about teaching and schooling. Certainly they inform the discourse about teachers and teaching by negotiating many conditions of teaching through collective bargaining, by attempting to influence educational policy, and through statements they make in the press; they may reinforce or assert images of teachers as victims or heroes, technicians, intellectual workers, political activists, and/or professionals (Bascia, 2000; Mitchell & Kerchner, 1983). In recent years, as the dominant discourse has become increasingly anti-education, however, many teachers' organizations have become convinced (or, if you like, have adopted the discourse that prevails in national and international meetings of teacher union staff) that they are uniquely situated to persuade the public to greater respect and support for education. Organization staff are increasingly self-conscious about their direct communication with teachers and administrators and statements they make in the press. Public relations (or "communications") is a common and increasingly active organizational function in teachers' organizations of any size.
    The ATA's research and communication teams have collaborated on "Trying to Teach" and "A Report Card on Education," which reported on conditions of teaching and learning across the province; a Globe & Mail reporter called "Trying to Teach" "passionate and disturbing" and said, "if politicians and business people read only one educational document this year, . . . [this] should be it" (Flower & Booi, p. 125). Beyond this, ATA staff members read educational literature, attend educational conferences, meet with teachers' organization staff from other parts of Canada and internationally and may borrow ideas liberally from any of these sources. Because of many teachers' lack of familiarity with educational research (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1992; Hargreaves, 1982) and their negative experiences with the wholesale adoption of policies and programs developed elsewhere (Bailey, 2000), many teachers' organizations are cautious about importing ideas for innovation from out of province and especially internationally. ATA staff are not afraid to look outside Alberta for new ideas and concepts even though they are careful to couch their examples in Albertan descriptions (for example, using quotations by teachers about their practice from documents like "Trying to Teach"). For example, the ATA has adopted the notion of training a cadre of professional development leaders from the British Columbia Teachers' Federation and adapted the National (U.S.) Education Association's strategy of mounting a multi-level public relations campaign.
    The ATA has supported a range of public forums and published reports, including Challenging the View, Trying to Teach, and A Framework for Educational Change in Alberta in direct rebuttal to the Klein government's attempts to justify the reduction of funding for education and the "reinventing" of the educational system. A Committee on Public Education and Professional Practice was established in 1992 to look into factors which are "imposing unsound practices on teachers and creating conflicting and unreasonable expectations of public education" (Flower & Booi, 1996, p. 125). A media campaign based on the theme, "Don't cut my future," including news ads, billboards, public transit signs, and radio advertising, and the Public Education Action Centre developed in early 1995 and has been funded on "emergency" monies for the past seven years to mobilize teachers in grassroots activities, make clear the threat to education, promote positive changes in education, build effective coalitions, and make use of assistance from public relations professionals; as a result, forty of the province's fifty-one local teachers' associations have started promotional programs. Beyond these public promotion efforts, the ATA works to influence educators' professional discourse through a host of professional development strategies, directly challenging government rhetoric by providing technical assistance to shape how reform initiatives are actually implemented. A provincial rally organized in October, 1997, which included a staggering seventy-five percent of the province's teachers, is evidence of the ATA's success in this realm, especially given Alberta educators' historic unwillingness to take overt political action. Teachers at the rally were quoted as saying, "We are overworked and underpaid and children are suffering because of it." "I'm here for the kids. They are the ones losing out because of the cutting." "I'm here because I'm proud to be a teacher." "Many of us became teachers because we wanted to help students. Under current classroom conditions this is becoming more of a dream than a possibility." These and other quotes are both evidence of and further ammunition for the ATA's efforts to redirect public discourse about education.

Considering learning: Some of the specific strategies employed by the ATA may be of interest to other teachers' associations concerned about the deteriorating quality of conditions for teaching and learning and about their own ability to participate in improving them. More generally applicable is what the ATA exemplifies as an organization, which has consciously, deliberately, and persistently worked over the past decade or so to foster individual, occupational and broader social learning. It seems likely that the ATA's vitality rests in its attempts to work both explicitly and implicitly to understand the relationships between learning, values, structure, power and action.
    Earlier sections of this chapter illustrated how the ATA promotes learning for educational change and reassertion of its own role as a political force in three domains. The first is within the organization itself. Beyond mere platitudes about "organizations as learning environments," the ATA has struggled to make sense of the government's dominance over educational policy-making, its vision of educational practice, and its own and its members' subordination by attending to internal organizational dynamics to ensure ongoing sharing of information and the application of divergent talents and perspectives to problem solving. Second, recognizing the multidimensional nature of the learning needs of Alberta educators, the ATA continues to develop and provide a wide range of professional learning opportunities that are less frequently restricted to narrow conceptions of classroom teaching and increasingly about accomplishing complex activities in a variety of locations with others. Through such learning experiences, educators can discover and develop their personal strengths and competence and also come to understand their positional power in the larger educational system and in society (Bascia, 2000; Foley, 1999). By engaging educators in practice-based, collaborative learning opportunities that focus on developing new skills and relationships, these activities increase educators' capacity to engage effectively in the educational enterprise. Third, the ATA has recognized the necessity of shaping public understanding about teachers and schooling, contributing actively to public discussions, developing an effective counter discourse that has challenged and re-formed public images of teachers, schools, and students.
    ATA staff members are the first to recognize that their organization's capacity for coherent, focused and effective action is context-specific and cannot readily or realistically be expected of other teachers' associations. They sympathize with other provincial organizations -- in British Columbia and Ontario, for example -- which have experienced "full-out external assaults" and have concentrated their efforts on fighting with their provincial governments and even fragmented under the strain. "I'm not sure we wouldn't respond similarly to an external attack," said a senior staff member. "But attacks [on us by the government] have been on certain things we do, not about challenging us fundamentally." At the same time, that adversity has been what has compelled the organization to learning and changing: "Ralph Klein has pulled the organization together." Complacency, whether collective or individual, rarely provides sufficient impetus for change; the need to struggle can. Individuals and organizations who assume the entitlement to participate, or who discover a need to participate because they have been shut out of decision making that affects their ability to thrive, will do what they can think of their marginalization (see for example Bascia, 1998b). When they discover opportunities, they will seize them; if and when spaces are unfilled, they will fill them; they will use any idea if it furthers their cause. The ATA is very careful to protect its ability to maneuver. "Unless we're attacked we'll be nonpolitical, we don't support any political party or announce that we're working to defeat the government, we'll be principled -- but we'll get nasty if necessary. We want to play."
    How these lessons are understood is crucial. For teachers' organizations, it would be a mistake to interpret this literally as whether or not to "get nasty." Rather, the goal is to gather and consider a range of options and to select those which seem likely to be successful in a particular place, time and dynamic; to understand that the overarching goal is to maintain organizational viability that will serve membership over the long term; and to maintain a stance of continuous and active learning that is intended for, depends on and is distributed across individuals and groups at every level.


REFERENCES

Bailey, B. (2000). The impact of mandated change on teachers. In N. Bascia & A. Hargreaves (Eds.), The sharp edge of educational change: Teaching, leading and the realities of reform, pp. 112-128. London: The Falmer Press.

Bascia, N. (1994). Unions in Teachers' Professional Lives: Practical, Social, and Intellectual Concerns. New York: Teachers College Press.

Bascia, N. (1996). Caught in the crossfire: Restructuring, collaboration, and the "problem" school. Urban Education 31(2).

Bascia, N. (1998a). Changing roles for teachers' federations. Orbit: From reform to renewal: Beyond Bill 160, 29(1), 37-40.

Bascia, N. (1998b). Women teachers, union affiliation, and the future of North American teacher unionism. Teaching and Teacher Education, 14(5), 551-563.

Bascia, N. (1998c). The next steps in teacher union research and reform. Contemporary Education, 69(4), 210-213.

Bascia, N. (1998a). Teacher unions and educational reform. In A. Hargreaves, A. Lieberman, M. Fullan, & D. Hopkins (Eds.), The International Handbook of Educational Change, 895-915. Dordrecht, the Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Bascia, N. (2000). The other side of the equation: Professional development and the organizational capacity of teachers' organizations. Education Policy, 14(3), 385-404.

Blackmore, J. (1999).Troubling Women: Feminism, Leadership and Educational Change. Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Carlson, D. (1992). Teachers and Crisis. Urban School Reform and Teachers' Work Culture. New York: Routledge
Chapman & Hall.

Corson, D. (1995). Discursive power in educational organizations: An introduction. In D. Corson (Ed.), Discourse and power in educational organizations, pp. 3-15. Toronto: OISE Press.

Earl, L., N. Bascia, A. Hargreaves & N. Jacka (1998). Teachers and teaching in changing times: A Glimpse of Canadian Teachers in 1998. Prepared for the Canadian Teachers' Federation. Toronto: International Centre for Educational Change, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT).

Flower, D. & H. Booi (1999). Challenging restructuring: The Alberta Teachers' Association. In T. Harrison & J. Kachur (Eds.), Contested classrooms: Education, globalization, and democracy in Alberta, pp. 123-135. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press.

Foley, G. (1999). Learning and social action: A contribution of understanding informal education. London, UK: Zed Books.

Fraser, C. (1998). Book review: Teacher Activism in the 1990s. Alberta Journal of Educational Research 44(4), 265-268.

Harrison, T. (1999). The "Alberta Advantage": For whom? In T. Harrison & J. Kachur (Eds.), Contested classrooms: Education, globalization, and democracy in Alberta, pp. 33-44. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press.

Jung, R. & M. Kirst (1986). Beyond mutual adaptaton, into the bully pulpit: Recent research on the federal role in education. Stanford, CA: Stanford Educational Policy Institute.

Kachur, J. (1999). Orchestrating delusions: Ideology and consent in Alberta. In T. Harrison & J. Kachur (Eds.), Contested classrooms: Education, globalization, and democracy in Alberta, pp. 59-75. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press.

Kerchner, C. T. & J. E. Koppich (1993). A Union of Professionals: Labor Relations and Educational Reform. New York: Teachers College Press.

Lawn, M. (Ed.) (1985). The Politics of Teacher Unionism: International Perspectives. Dover, N.H.: Croom Helm.

Lawton, S., G. Bedard, D. MacLellan, & X. Li (1999). Teachersí unions in Canada. Calgary: Detselig.

Lieberman, , M. (1997). The teacher unions: How the NEA and AFT sabotage reform and hold students, parents, teachers, and taxpayers hostage to bureaucracy. New York: The Free Press.

Metz, M. (1989). Real school: A universal drama amid disparate experience. In D. Mitchell & M. Goertz (Eds.), Education politics for the new century: The twentieth anniversary yearbook of the Politics of Education Association, 75-91. London: The Falmer Press.

Meyer, J. & B. Rowan (1977). Institutionalized organizations: Fomal structure as myth and ceremony. American Journal of Sociology 83(September), 340-363.

Ozga, J. (1993). Teacher de-professionalisation: Hard lessons from England. Paper presented to the Australian Association for Research in Education, Perth, November 24-28.

Portelli, J. & P. Solomon (Eds.) (2001). The erosion of the democratic tradition in education: From critique to possibilities. Calgary: Detselig.

Robertson, S. & H. Smaller (Eds.) (1996). Teacher activism in the 1990s. Toronto: James Lorimer & Company Ltd.

Soucek, V. & R. Pannu (1996). Globalizing education in Alberta: Teachers' work and the options to fight back. In S. Robertson & H. Smaller (Eds.), Teacher activism in the 1990s, pp. 35-69. Toronto: James Lorimer & Company Ltd.

Thomas, G., J. Meyer, F. Ramirez & J. Boli (Eds.) (1987). Institutional Structure: Constituting State, Society, and the Individual. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Whitty, G., Powers, S. & Halpin, D. (1998). Devolution and choice in education: the state, the school and the market. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Wodak, R. (1995). Power, discourse, and styles of female leadership in school committee meetings. In D. Corson (Ed)., Discourse and power in educational organizations ,31-54. Toronto: OISE Press.

Young, J. & B. Levin (1998). Understanding Canadian schools: An introduction to educational administration, 2nd edition. Toronto: Harcourt Brace & Co.

 

Link to NALL Working Papers

Home Groups Members Partners Projects Resources Links News

The Research Network on New Approaches to Lifelong Learning
Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)
252 Bloor Street W, #12-256, Toronto, ON, M5S 1V6, Canada
Tel (416) 923-6641 ext./poste 2392, Fax (416) 926-4751
E-mail: csew@oise.utoronto.ca

* Links to external sites will open in a new browser window.

OISE/UT