The Saanich school strikes are finally over — thousands of students, teachers, and staff in School District 63 are finishing up their terms, with one notable exception: 22 teacher candidates on placement from the University of Victoria’s Faculty of Education will not return to Saanich’s classrooms, having relocated mid-practicum to the neighbouring School District 61 of Victoria.
CUPE 441 went on strike over the 45-year wage gap for education support employees from Oct. 28 to Nov. 16, seeking wage parity with neighboring districts to address chronic understaffing in Saanich schools. The B.C. Teachers’ Federation, the teachers’ union for the province, decided to stand in solidarity with their support workers and chose not to cross picket lines. As a result, schools were shuttered for three weeks as the district and the union came to a conflict.
Student teacher candidates are expected to abide by the BCTF code of ethics while on their practica. As a result, all of the practica — the final requirement for graduation — were put on hold for the students affected until they were relocated. According to UVic Dean of Education Ralf St. Clair, “there wasn’t a lot of warning for the strike … so it was kind of a surprise to everybody that the strike happened.”
Magen Winterburn, teacher candidate and prospective English teacher said that she was only informed of the strike 72 hours before it happened — the minimum time required for a strike notice.
“I had an assignment for a different class … but the due date was a week into the strike,” recalls Winterburn.
She ended up spending three weeks mostly at home and going to other schools in neighboring districts to visit her friends on teacher placement, who were unaffected by the strikes in Saanich.
While it might sound like a relief to have a three-week break in the middle of the semester, Winterburn said the uncertainty was a nightmare for teacher candidates.
“When I was sitting, waiting to go back , [School District 63 would] update at 7 p.m. every night whether or not they have school the next day,” she said. “Every night, just refreshing that [web] page.”
In an email to the practicum students, UVic stated that the strike was “out of our control and we need to let the bargaining process unfold,” and recommended students to use the time to update their resumes and look at job postings around the province.
However, if Winterburn and her peers hadn’t managed to complete their practica at other schools, it could’ve delayed their future careers for up to a year, updated resumes or not. There are provincial government-mandated lengths for practica, and the students needed this last placement to graduate.
“Finding the slots for students takes an awful long time. If we hadn’t managed … it would have just been really hard for the students,” said St. Clair.
During the strike, the UVic Faculty of Education was looking into options for the students affected.
This was not the first time that St. Clair has had to deal with strikes in his position as the Dean of Education. He assumed the position in 2014, when a province-wide teacher strike rocked B.C. This time though, it would only be in a single district, but one that would have a disproportionate effect for students trying to complete their degree.
“The 2014 [strikes], the timing was such that we were able to deal with it, and there was no ambiguity about it. There was no negotiation with BCTF [regarding placements]. Everybody was out … so we just had to wait for people to come back,” said St. Clair. He added that “there was just time for students to do their practicum [in 2014].”
“The Teacher’s Education office were watching the clock and working out how many days of practicum were actually left before the end of the school year,” he continued.
A decision to relocate was made about 10 days into the strike — reassigning teacher candidates from nine schools in Saanich to seven new schools in Victoria and extending the practicum end date by three weeks for the 22 students based in Saanich.
“There was no indication of what was going to happen with the strike,” said St. Clair. “The only option that was available was to go with [placing the teacher candidates in new schools in Victoria].”
But the Monday before all the Education students were to start their practica again in Victoria district schools, the strike ended. UVic was at a crossroads, and in the end they decided to make the switch.
“At this point, there was just enough time for people to have gone back to [School District] 63 and complete it there,” said St. Clair. However, UVic ultimately decided to stick with the relocation.
“We decided that we had to go ahead with what we had already arranged,” St. Clair said. “So many people had done so much work in helping us set it up that it seemed really dodgy to then go ‘well, thanks anyway, but everyone’s going back to [School District 63].’”
St. Clair said that the decision was made with agreement from teachers, superintendents, and union representatives. “I’m really genuinely appreciative — this sounds like dean-speak, but it’s actually true — I really appreciate the work that everyone put into working something out.”
However, when the Martlet asked Dean Coates, president of CUPE 441 about the details of the agreement, he said,“ I wasn’t aware of that … it wasn’t communicated to me at all.”
Some teaching candidates also said that they were not consulted on the decision. Winterburn describes the communication between UVic and the students as minimal but satisfactory and that “most of it was [along the lines of] ‘hang tight, we’re doing what we can, we’re looking into other options, and these are the things that [teacher candidates] could be doing.”
Frances, a teaching candidate who requested anonymity due to concerns with the administration of the Education faculty, said that they only received emails and weren’t “really communicated with [about] what UVic was doing until the strike looked like it was going to go into its third week and then we got a cryptic message to come up to the school.”
This Nov. 12 meeting — which included the affected students and their supervisors — finally informed the students on practicum that they were going to be reassigned to different schools in SD61 for the remainder of their practica.
A follow-up email to students from the Teacher Education Office, who are responsible for managing student practica, was sent out after this meeting.
“Due to the ongoing job action, [teacher candidates] will be completing their practica in SD 61 from November 18 to December 20. This will allow them to complete on schedule with you and be eligible for certification prior to the new year,” reads the email. “This has required them to be incredibly patient and flexible — please support them however you can!”
Winterburn is now finishing her practicum at Esquimalt Secondary School instead of returning to her school in Saanich.
“It’s really weird for us, because we’re halfway through a practicum and we’re being switched to a new school,” she said. “We’re not done with anything and we didn’t do the normal wrap-up, because we had no idea we were going to be displaced.”
Frances expressed frustration over the change, as they had built up a relationship with their students over the three weeks of teaching — relationships they now have to build all over again from the ground up.
Laura Rand, who received her teacher’s certification through UVic and is now currently teaching at North Saanich Middle School, likens practicum teaching to “being planted in an organism of a class that’s already functioning.”
She sympathises with education students affected by the relocation. Practica are already stressful for students, Rand says, even without surprise relocations.
“On practicum, there’s this big thing where you’ve got to be prepared, you’ve got to be ready, you’ve got to go,” she said. “There’s a fluidness about my teaching now that I don’t need to prepare like I did on practicum. I’d almost write a script, and I’d have all my points listed out that I wanted to say, and I’d have a sticky note in front of me to make sure I was hitting all my key points.”
The extra three weeks that Saanich practicum students are now undertaking have also financially affected them. Practicum work is unpaid, unlike other mandatory placement positions for undergraduate students in programs such as engineering or business.
“It does affect time where I was hoping to work and those work hours where I can actually get paid — I don’t have that income now,” said Frances. “Those additional three weeks, it definitely puts a financial pinch on things.”
Winterburn said this has been stressful, as a few candidates had trips planned and some had to cancel non-refundable tickets for trips to visit home.
Financial stress is an experience Rand recalls from her own practicum.
“[There was the] expectation that you present yourself professionally… so there you are with this standard of professionalism but you have zero dollars, especially at the end of you university degree,” she said. “You have zero money.”
Despite the personal stakes involved, Winterburn and Rand both continue to support the strikes, as they feel it has a valuable impact on those who are working in the district full time.
Rand said that she knows a family of six whose sole income came in from someone teaching in the Saanich district.
“It’s stressful — by the end, people were quite bitter on the picket lines, angry,” she said. “There was some violence.”
St. Clair said that strikes must be thoughtfully navigated, especially by members of the education system.
“[We have] responsibility to a wide variety of stakeholders within that system … while remembering that our primary responsibilities are to our students and making sure that they have a successful experience,” he said.
On the other side
The students say that they have been well-supported by their peers, district school administrations, and candidate supervisors. Winterburn thinks that the administration at her original placement school handled the process well.
“[Stelly’s Secondary School] was pretty good … meeting before the strike went off. They had a few meetings talking about what that would look like, urging everybody to bring materials out of the school and to bring any plants or pets or anything to the office so that they could be taken care of,” she said.
Frances was particularly effusive about their supervisor’s support throughout the strike.
“He’s been ultra-supportive, doing his best to make us feel that someone’s looking out for us and supporting us and having our back. As we’ve transitioned into our new school, my supervisor specifically has just been really wonderful,” they said. “That’s been one light definitely in the course of all of this.”
The Faculty of Education says that they are aware of the disruption that the strikes and the subsequent relocation have had on its students, and St. Clair says that some of the faculty’s hardship funds have been used to help out with some of the extra costs.
“It’s not our fault that they’re in this position, but at the same time we feel some responsibility to ease the burden a little bit if we can,” he said, pledging that they will attempt to help the students who have been financially impacted by the issues.
Winterburn says that she is looking at the disrupted practicum as a learning experience.
“It’s more of a real life circumstance that a lot of these practicums are,” she said. “It’s a lot more true to how [teaching] work will be — getting thrown into a new environment with very little preparation.”
The experience may come to serve her well. Strikes have become a regular part of teaching in B.C., as unions engage in a constant — and sometimes tense — state of negotiations over working conditions and pay.
Ongoing contract negotiations between BCTF and the province, which began in February and have now stalled since November, raise the upcoming possibility of a general strike.
“It taught me very quickly about the political landscape of teaching,” said Winterburn. “There’s a lot going on there, I don’t pretend to understand half of it.”