Opinion | The teacher lockout: Putting it in context

As I sit before my computer googling such topics as union busting and the US air traffic controllers’ strike of 1981, I am struck by the thought that there is very little of substance I can contribute to the present debate surrounding the government-initiated lockout of teachers we find ourselves embroiled in. I have no first-hand knowledge of secret meetings with the national government, have only a cursory understanding of the Finnish model, and am constrained by my limited Danish to following the arguments in the news at a very surface level. 


I can, from personal experience, note that teachers at my school are as likely to put in more hours than their contract calls for than not. But this is anecdotal, and I can’t quote statistics to back this up. There is only one thing that I feel I can add to this national conversation, and that is context.


I feel qualified to provide context because I have been on the other side of this table before. For the past seven years I have been teaching full-time at a private school in Hellerup. But prior to changing careers and my subsequent move to Denmark, I worked as a mid-level producer in the film industry. As such, I once found myself on the management side of a short-lived union dispute.


The dispute played out as follows. The film crew showed up at their requested 7:00am call time and set up dutifully for the day’s filming. At 9:00am they stopped work and gathered at a neutral point just outside of the location we were filming at. At 10:00am, they returned to work and we resumed filming.


During the hour of the work stoppage, the other producer I was working with was furious, virtually frothing at the mouth. But by that evening, he was having a pleasant social dinner with one of the crew members involved in the action. The reason this could happen was that each side easily understood the position of the other. Both I and my producing colleague had previously worked as crew ourselves. Many of the crew had served in producing or directing capacities on their own smaller projects. Because of this, it was relatively easy to act in good faith and assume that the other side was acting in good faith as well.


The website thefreedictionary.com defines ‘good faith’ as an honest and sincere intention to deal fairly with others in accordance with standards of trust and decency. In labour law, most national legal systems mandate good faith bargaining by unions and employers in order to reach agreement.


By this definition, the behaviour of KL (the national association of local councils) and Moderniseringsstyrelsen (the state agency responsible for modernising the state’s human resources practices) does not rise to the level of good faith. Even excluding the possibility that this conflict was planned and orchestrated over a year before the fact, their unwillingness to fully engage in negotiations is a clear violation of good faith. 


Here is another context in which to view this lockout. To this day, I often encounter people who, while arguing that their own business required years of time and serious effort to learn, consider themselves experts on film-making. And why? Because they have seen countless films. Of course they must know how to make them at least as well as this year’s Oscar winners, if not better.  


I believe a similar construct is at work here. Of course, the politicians who have contributed to the current proposal believe that they are capable of designing a comprehensive system of teaching reform. They are experts by dint of their experience of being taught themselves during their illustrious school careers. Being on the other side of the desk is immaterial. 


Prior to changing careers, I might have felt the same. The experience of teaching changes one’s perceptions. Teaching is substantially harder than it looks and, as in many occupations, is as much an art as learned knowledge. Even if one has a talent for it, the knowledge base for how children learn has expanded exponentially over the past two decades. Through a combination of continuing education and collaboration with colleagues, I can now both understand and apply in the classroom such concepts as co-operative learning, differentiated learning and formative assessment. I find myself wondering if the politicians who drafted the proposed working contract could say the same. 


There is one final area of context that stands scrutiny. Teachers are employed by either KL (public schools) or Moderniseringsstyrelsen (private schools), which is a part of the Finance Ministry. Both are subsidiary branches of the government. A democratic government is, by definition, employed by the people. By refusing to negotiate fairly with their employees, these agencies are in fact refusing to negotiate fairly with their employers. 


Of course, one can only take this metaphor so far. But as I understand it, the Board of KL is appointed every four years. The KL delegates who appoint this board consist of 98 elected mayors and 66 elected representatives-at-large. Moderniseringsstyrelsen is a part of the present nationally-elected government. Both local and national elections should, in theory, reflect the make-up of their respective electorates. Therefore, these politicians have been elected with the support of their communities – of whom some, at least, must be teachers. 


If we combine lack of good faith negotiations with the idea that a quality teaching model can be constructed without the benefit of input from teachers, we are left to arrive at only one possible conclusion. The local and national governments do not respect at least a portion of the electorate that put them in power. While this is not quite as damning a connection as Mitt Romney’s infamous “47 percent” comment, it is a clear declaration that elected officials consider a portion of their constituents unreasonable and not worthy of rational discussion. It is ironic that these constituents are the very people who they wish to educate their children.


This is the issue that should be at the top of the national government’s mind as it considers the next step in this sad process. The resolution of this conflict will certainly impact on perceptions come the next round of elections. My only hope is that all participants in this process will keep this firmly in mind, and that level heads will finally prevail.

At least, that’s the context that I see it in.


The author is an American currently teaching physics, chemistry and astronomy at Rygaards International School in Hellerup.