NALL Working Paper
How the Alberta Teahers'
Association maintains an even keel
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.
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).
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.
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'
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.
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.
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.
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
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).
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,
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).
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
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).
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).
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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,
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).
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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