Matthew Miller, who became the new president of the Northwest Territories Teachers Association on July 1, admits there are many challenges in the era of Covid-19.
“The new reality of Covid-19 has adjusted our current focus and the unknowns of what the 2020-2021 school year will bring is our biggest challenge. Information (about the pandemic) over the past few months has been ever-changing,” said Miller, a longtime vice-principal and teacher at East Three Secondary School in Inuvik, who officially took the reins of the union from Fraser Oliver.
Miller said that teachers and staff do have questions about when schools will be reopened in the new year.
“There are times when we have to tell members that we don’t have the answers right now and everyone is working toward those answers.”
Miller noted that every region and school had to submit plans to the Chief Public Health Officer (CPHO) on how they would reopen their schools as part of a recovery effort from the Covid-19 closures.
Those plans are still being reviewed by the CPHO, Miller said.
Classroom violence and retention
Last September, NNSL Media spoke with Oliver, who became union president after a longtime career with St. Patrick High School in Yellowknife. At the time, Oliver said the two biggest challenges facing the union include incidents of violence in the classroom and teacher retention.
Although Miller said “the new reality of Covid-19 has adjusted our current focus,” he acknowledged that teacher retention and violence in schools remain among the priorities as he sees them. He said it’s important to view violence in the classroom as as part of a national trend, not a problem specific to the NWT.
In June 2019, the union completed a survey of members regarding violence and bullying.
“This provided the baseline data we needed to move forward in tracking incidents of violence our members face,” Miller said. “No survey was completed this year but (those statistics) would have undoubtedly been impacted by Covid-19.”
Miller said the union wants to continue work on the survey to get a better sense of how prevalent the issue is in the North.
“We know members do not always report incidents of violence to the NWTTA, but we are working to change that,” he stated. “We also need to get to the root of the problem by providing the proper supports our students deserve.”
The need for full-time counsellors exists in many educational facilities across the territory, he added.
“Many of our schools do not have full-time counsellors and those that do have a heavy workload,” he said. “We can say there are supports in the community for students, but, in my experience, students want a consistent person in the school to feel comfortable sharing what they are thinking and feeling.”
Miller pointed out that the union’s three collective agreements will be expiring by the end of the summer. In all cases, the teachers’ union is “looking for an increase in salary/benefits. We are also looking to improve our working environments which impact student learning environments,” he said.
The existing collective agreement with the GNWT for teachers outside of Yellowknife will expire on July 31. The parties have reached an agreement-in-principle on the terms of a new deal.
“The timing of the GNWT agreement means we will hold a town hall meeting with those members in September in preparation to ratify,” Miller stated. “Both the negotiation team and NWTTA central executive fully support the new agreement.”
The collective agreements for employees with the Yellowknife Catholic Schools and Yellowknife Education District 1 will both expire on Aug. 31. Negotiations for those will also begin in the fall.
Recruitment, retention and housing
Miller said recruiting and retaining teachers across the NWT remains a challenge every year with an annual turnover of 100 teachers. He said that figure may change with Covid-19 pandemic but it still remains an issue and “ties directly” to factors like housing.
“Prior to Covid-19, I asked the association to invite the minister of housing to meet with us,” Miller said. “I was pleased Minister (Paulie) Chinna as well as Tom Williams (president and CEO of the Northwest Territories Housing Corporation) accepted our invitation,” Miller stated. “The meeting ended with the intent to meet more regularly to work together on this important topic. There is no quick fix to housing, but this meeting was one step forward.”
The NWTTA is the largest teachers union in the Northwest Territories, representing 815 members comprising not only teachers but also education assistants, consultants, and administrators.
Union president terms last for two years with an option to run once more – for a total of four years of leadership.