Teachers, students anxious to get back to class as unions reach tentative agreements

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When Montreal English teacher Reuben Ramsey read the news that the teachers’ strike was over, he almost cried tears of joy.

Ramsey had been out of class since Nov. 21, and is itching to go back to teaching literature to high school students. But he says he’ll have to drop some of his more fun projects from the curriculum as his students need to catch up on missed courses and prepare for ministerial exams.

“I don’t think it will be dire for at least my students, and I hope for students in general,” he said.

The Fédération autonome de l’enseignement (FAE), which had been on unlimited strike, and the common front of unions known in French as the Front commun both reached tentative agreements with the government this week. The FAE ended its strike Thursday.

The strike has been tough on Ramsey, like most teachers, as the FAE didn’t have a strike fund. But the working conditions were difficult, and he’s hoping the new deal — which hasn’t been presented to members yet — will ease that. Teachers had been negotiating collective agreements for almost a year.

“I still love teaching. I love the connection I have with kids, especially high school kids. I love hearing their ideas and seeing how these kids could potentially change the world,” he said.

The main issues for teachers throughout the negotiations have been class sizes and salaries.

“If you have hundreds of students, the classes are overloaded. Can you really give each student the attention you want?” said Ramsey.

“You could burn out or fall under intense stress.”

Carl Ouellet, president of the Association québécoise du personnel de direction des écoles (AQPDE), which represents school principals, said schools are already planning for students’ return.

He said they are waiting for directives from the ministry but will do everything they can to make sure the year “goes smoothly for our students.”

“We’ve been looking at what needs to be caught up, extra budgets for that catching up, hiring support staff. We also talked about exams — everything is on the table,” said Ouellet.

More meetings are scheduled next week, he said.

Phillipa Parks, an assistant professor in the department of pedagogy at Université de Sherbrooke, says the best-case scenario would be for the government to cancel exams this year — one that is unlikely to play out.

FEA members pack one side of multi-lane street in Montreal on Dec. 12, 2023.
Teachers with the FAE were on unlimited strike for over a month before an agreement in principle was reached Thursday. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Teachers and students were already playing a sort of catch-up game after having to do school from home for two years during the pandemic, she said. Now, they will have to fit materials from the missed weeks of school within the time they already have.

Parks says it’s unrealistic that students will perform well on standardized tests this year, all things considered, and the two weeks usually dedicated to them could be used for lessons. She pointed out that the school year started with an acute shortage of qualified teachers and staff, and says the government drew out negotiations for too long.

“This government hasn’t shown a lot of sympathy for teachers and it hasn’t shown a lot of concern for the quality of education in Quebec,” said Parks.

“It’s important to keep in mind that we need to consult the teachers and see what is even possible. A lot of them are burned out, and people are considering leaving the profession.”

But parents like Natalie St-Laurent will do everything they can to make sure their kids have a quality education in the public school system.

Her son Nathan has dyslexia and has been working overtime to make sure he doesn’t fall behind this year. She says she has been paying for weekly tutoring sessions, and increased them to two sessions a week when the strikes started.

“What stresses me the most is the fact that he’s going to have, again, to step it up another notch to keep up,” said St-Laurent.

She said Nathan will start seeing his tutor three times a week when classes resume.

“I’m very eager for him to get back to class because we’re very worried about the impact of the strike on children, although we totally support the movement,” said St-Laurent.

St-Laurent says she understands the teachers’ frustration and she’s seen first-hand how little resources are available for students with special needs in public schools. She says she hopes the latest agreement will sweeten the deal for everyone.

“The teachers in school, we see them being very tired and overworked,” she said.

“The services are lacking and the support is lacking for families and hopefully the government will finally hear what’s going on and be reactive and step it up and help the kids.”

As for Nathan, he can’t wait to see his friends and get back to crunching numbers in math class.

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Teachers, students anxious to get back to class as unions reach tentative agreements

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