And Justice for All

The Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association’s commitment to teacher empowerment, social justice and lifelong learning makes it an intrinsic part of the province’s social fabric.

On a chilly Saturday morning in March, at the time of day most business leaders reserve for coffee and a newspaper, James Ryan, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA), is standing before a crowd of approximately 700 teachers.

His voice is strong and his deportment earnest as he addresses those gathered for the annual general meeting (AGM) of OECTA, the union representing the almost 50,000 people who teach in Ontario’s publicly funded English Catholic schools.

At this particular moment, he is expounding upon something that is top of mind for the AGM delegates: a new collective agreement for teachers proposed by the employer side at the bargaining table (the provincial government and the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association). Those in attendance are eager to find out what’s at stake.

Step by step, Ryan clarifies which of the hard earned rights teachers could see stripped away. He asks for their support. He solicits their engagement. And he stresses the importance of solidarity, wrapping up his speech with: “We are all OECTA. We must stand together.”

Applause erupts, flags wave, people stand and clap – and an unmistakable feeling of unity fills what only moments before felt like a very large room.

It’s a noteworthy kick-off to three days of the AGM, which plays out as democracy at its best: new officers are elected; resolutions are passed; and educational and political issues are debated (sometimes fiercely). But since OECTA’s activities are guided by its members, who are represented by the many voting delegates at this yearly meeting, this is definitely the place to get things done.

“I’ve been involved in this union long enough to have seen complaints turn into ideas, which turn into bargaining proposals, and then into actual working conditions for teachers,” says Ryan, who is serving his second two-year term as president (he also served from 2009 to 2011).

Ryan has long been involved with OECTA: as a teacher for 19 years, as a member of several provincial committees, and as a full-time first vice-president and president at OECTA’s Toronto-based provincial office.

He’s a man with an intense interest in social justice, labour rights and spiritual matters, making him a natural fit for his job. And his interests are shared by the vast majority of OECTA members and staff. Everyone works toward a common set of goals: promoting the professional and contractual welfare of members; upholding the principles of Catholic education; and engaging members to work towards the common good.

Protecting the Contract

When people hear the word “union” they often think of negotiations and contracts. And rightly so; collective bargaining for members’ rights and welfare has been at the heart of OECTA since it was established in 1944.

OECTA’s Collective Bargaining team works to negotiate members’ collective agreements, and ensure the government and school boards respect those agreements. The Bargaining and Contract Services department also deals with member grievances and ensures employers respect and implement the provisions of the agreement that govern members’ salary, benefits and working conditions. And its Counselling and Member Services department ensures members benefit from the protection to which they are entitled under the law.

All of these services are crucial to protecting the rights of members. And they make OECTA a great facilitator in enhancing the vitality and effectiveness of Ontario’s Catholic elementary and secondary schools.

But what many people don’t consider when they think “union” is the other side of the equation: the work OECTA does for the greater good – through professional development and working to better both the educational system and society at large.

“In addition to working to provide for and ensure that our members’ financial needs are taken care of adequately and appropriately, we offer teachers a range of opportunities to get involved and make a contribution on a level outside of their classrooms,” says Cheryl Fullerton, a staff officer in OECTA’s Government Relations department. “Not every profession or every type of employee gets that type of support – the support that allows them to grow and learn and be all they can be.”

Supporting Professional Growth

Part of the support OECTA provides is through its Professional Development (PD) department, which works to support members in their ongoing pursuit of professional learning. And that runs the gamut – from creating and distributing support documents to holding conferences to offering courses.

“OECTA prepares teachers for their entire journey,” says Susan Perry, who heads up the Professional Development department. “We are always there to support them. They identify needs and then we create professional development opportunities for them.”

One of the important ways OECTA helps teachers who are starting out is through a Beginning Teachers conference, which is held annually for occasional and permanent teachers in their first five years of the profession. OECTA also offers a Leadership Training program, which exists to help turn already engaged members into stronger teacher activists.

Mike Colle, MPP for Eglinton-Lawrence, who was a member of OECTA for 18 years, says OECTA “gives teachers a professional career focus that allows them to understand larger macro-educational issues.”

Colle, who was a history teacher at Michael Power-St. Joseph Catholic Secondary School in Etobicoke, says: “better teachers equate to better schools and educational outcomes.”

What OECTA offers teachers via professional development is very different from what school boards provide. Claire Laughlin, Provincial Coordinator of OECTA Additional Qualification (AQ) courses, says the boards’ professional development is done on a large scale. OECTA offers AQ courses that can be broken down into modules to meet teachers’ needs. It’s all rooted in the philosophy of “for teachers, by teachers. The department gets OECTA teachers to create the workshops and then deliver them to other teachers.

“We use the moniker ‘Just in time and just right’ for what we can deliver,” says Laughlin.  “We are always asking ourselves the question, ‘What do teachers need to know now?’”

For example, in 2010 when full-day Kindergarten was introduced, no whole-scale development was offered to teachers. OECTA brought together its members who were going to teach full-day Kindergarten and prepared them for what was to come.

“As a professional association, we can anticipate and respond to teachers’ needs, because they are our only stakeholder,” says Laughlin. “Our teachers are our number one priority.”

“I did benefit,” says Dave Levac, MPP for Brant, who was a teacher in the Catholic system and a very involved member of OECTA from 1977 for 1997. He says he benefitted from OECTA’s professional development, as well as group support, collegiality and professional pride.

In addition to teaching the teachers, the PD department also works toward empowering teachers to use their professional judgement in things like diagnostic assessment, and assessment and evaluation in reporting to parents.

“The teachers get to set their own parameters and make their own decisions – and that is very empowering,” says Perry. “We give people a safe place to try things out and take risks.”

That empowerment translates into what is always top on the minds of those on the PD team: the students.

“Everything we do translates into members becoming better teachers,” says Perry, “which translates into students understanding more about the current initiatives and contexts in today’s society.”

Upholding Catholic Values

Part of the way OECTA enhances student achievement is through the Catholic system’s holistic approach to education, which sets it apart from other publicly funded school systems. Catholic schools have been an integral and successful part of the success of Ontario’s education system for 170+ years, and OECTA has a responsibility to see it into the future.

“Every OECTA member is a religious education teacher,” says Ryan. “Our faith isn’t just limited to religion classes – it is taught in math, in special education, in guidance.

We view everything through the Catholic lens.”

Ryan notes that the association provides religious education to its membership though its AQ courses, in association with the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association and the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Ontario

“We help provide all of our members with a foundation in religion, which all teachers are required to teach, no matter what subject area or what grade level they are teaching – and further optional education for those who want to deepen their faith and understanding,” says Ryan.

OECTA also holds a biennial “Educating for the Common Good” conference, which gives members the necessary tools to infuse Catholicism and social justice into school curriculum.

“We are part of the communion that is the Catholic Church,” says Ryan. “We believe that our work as an association is our ministry. We do that service by serving each other and by serving the greater good.”

Focusing on the Greater Good

OECTA is focused on infusing social justice values into its teachers. For when advocacy flourishes within the teaching profession, the impact is widespread.

“It’s what Catholic education is all about,” says Ann Hawkins, first vice-president, and president elect. “It goes beyond the basics. It speaks to values. It speaks to why we need to care, why our actions have repercussions – not just for your neighbour but for someone halfway around the world.”

Hawkins says this component of the union goes hand in hand with the collective bargaining side.

“The collective agreement takes care of one side of the teacher, but we also as a union need to address the other aspects,” she says. “We need to ensure teachers have the skills and the tools to be the best teachers that they can be. But we also need to make sure we support their spiritual needs.”

OECTA encourages members to be engaged in the fight for unions and the common good. “If we can keep our members engaged and active in terms of the democratic process, then they can carry that through to their students. When teachers take to the classroom the importance of democratic engagement and involvement, it goes beyond a civics lesson,” says Fullerton.

To this end, OECTA played an instrumental role in helping to launch “Student Vote,” a parallel election for students under the voting age that coincides with official election periods. The purpose is to provide young Canadians with an opportunity to experience the democratic process and practice the habits of informed and engaged citizenship.

OECTA also initiated a campaign called “When You Speak for Children.” The belief behind it is that prioritizing the needs of children must be central to government decision-making and that Ontario’s economy will flourish when we graduate informed, engaged and caring citizens.

“The objective of every single teacher is not just that their students get an ‘A’ on their tests – the objective is that they are adjusted, that they reach their potential, that they will be active participants in the democracy when they get older,” says Victoria Hunt, who heads OECTA’s Government Relations Department. “What a waste when we don’t get our students to reach their full potential. The economy suffers. Society suffers. And I think every teacher understands that.”

Beyond the Classroom

The quest for international economic justice, development and peace and the rights of all workers is an ongoing focus of OECTA.

“Because we are a Catholic union, we believe that we have a calling to care about the common good,” says Ryan. “We believe that we are called upon to make the world a better place, to better the condition of all of our sisters and brothers whether inside or outside of Canada.”

But this isn’t something that OECTA merely imposes on its members. “This is something which has come from our membership,” says “Ryan. “The executive didn’t just decide to go off and do this on its own.”

That is why each year $300,000 of members’ dues go to OECTA’s Educational Aid Committee, which allocates funds and provides grants to teachers and community organizers around the world. Established more than 40 years ago, the committee funds groups that are focused on the common good, particularly groups with an education or youth focus.

Some of the projects funded include: Habitat for Humanity, which builds, rehabilitates and repairs houses to provide safe and affordable shelter for people around the world; and the Ontario Association of Food Banks, a network of food banks and hunger-relief programs and agencies, including breakfast clubs, emergency shelters and seniors’ centres.

OECTA is also a committed partner of Education International, which seeks to protect workers’ rights worldwide. And since 1962, hundreds of members have participated in the Project Overseas program by visiting developing nations to offer their professional assistance and learn from their colleagues.

Closer to home, OECTA supports Campaign 2000 (which aims to end poverty in Canada), the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Healthy Minds Canada and Free the Children, to name just a few.

One project that was launched with funds from OECTA is the Onigaming First Nations reserve Aboriginal Summer Literacy Camp, which has been running since 2008.

Canadian Aboriginal communities face great challenges to literacy due to isolation, underfunding and poverty. The camp, which is organized by Frontier College, offers literacy games and activities that emphasize the fun of reading and writing. Teachers always report significantly improved literacy rates among the students, as well as their readiness to learn, when school reopens in the fall.

Maintaining Relationships

Of course, it’s not just about providing funds, but establishing meaningful relationships. OECTA works with a variety of non-profit groups that share the Association’s values and promote the common good – groups like the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF), Free the Children and Egale Canada.

“[OECTA adds] deep commitment to the well-being of all citizens, especially children and the less fortunate,” says Levac.

The Association consistently lobbies for greater income equality, poverty reduction, higher minimum wages, affordable housing, stronger health and safety measures and an end to bullying.

As part and parcel of this, OECTA was a vocal supporter of Gay-Straight Alliances in its schools during the Bill 13 debate (the Accepting Schools Act) and supported World Pride 2014.

“OECTA has done good things around social justice and helping others in our communities – and also in the world,” says Brian Evoy, president of the Ontario Association of Parents in Catholic Education (OAPCE), a group that works hand in hand with OECTA.

Evoy says the work of OECTA demonstrates “that there are no boundaries, that teachers are expanding their horizons. They are not just looking at their own school community – they are looking beyond that.” He believes it sets a great example for students “to know that their school is a much bigger place than just the boundaries that surround their schools.”

Moving Forward

While OECTA will be busy in the months to come, negotiating a new collective agreement and continuing its professional development and advocacy work, Ryan will be winding down in his role as president at the end of June.

He will likely return to the classroom, and he will pass the presidential torch to Ann Hawkins. But he will still be involved in union matters, and he leaves office pleased with the work he and others have accomplished.

“I’ve learned that the union can actually make the classrooms in the province better places to teach and better learning environments for students,” he says, adding that during his career he’s seen teacher preparation time double, class sizes decrease and the qualifications of members improve.

So, while Ryan won’t be the one to rouse the AGM delegates in 2016, he says he is proud of his union and what it has accomplished over the years.

“I know that our classrooms are better places, that our teachers have never had more rights than they do today, and that we have been part of ensuring that this province and this country are better places for those who are less advantaged than us.”