In the Odyssey, Homer writes of the fear that Greek mariners felt as they attempted to cross the narrow channel of water flanked by Scylla, the six-headed monster on one side, and Charybdis, the violent whirlpool, on the other. My circumstances were not as dire, but I can empathize with the pressure these ancient sailors felt. My dilemma between the proverbial “rock and a hard place” occurred during the heated 2014 contractual dispute between the B.C. Ministry of Education and the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, during which I walked an ethical tightrope between my responsibilities as teacher to my inner-city school, and as a representative of the Federation.
The educational landscape of British Columbia in 2014 was marked by extreme tension, with heated contract negotiations that escalated into a full-scale strike and lockout. The union ordered members to discontinue participation in extracurricular programs. At the time, I had taken on many extracurricular duties at my school, which was situated within one of the poorest socio-economic pockets of the Lower Mainland. Many of our families found themselves in a constant state of crisis as a result of chronic poverty. Many of our children were in and out of the revolving doors of foster care. Some families were refugees who had fled civil and political strife in their home countries. Opportunities were sparse for the children of this community. This is not to say that the parents did not care for their children – some worked two or even three low-paying jobs to provide as many opportunities as were accessible to them. As a professional, I found it gut-wrenching to balance my response to these competing claims on my loyalty.
On the one hand, I had a legal and professional responsibility to my union. Issues of key importance to me, such as benefits, working conditions, salary, student funding, and the overall integrity of public education had all been secured as a result of the tireless effort of the union. At a critical time when the union was engaged in negotiations, I recognized the importance of teachers presenting a united front. If the union needed us to withdraw extra-curricular activities and strike to pressure the government, I felt compelled to support their decisions. It was also clear to me that to maintain productive relationships with my colleagues, I needed to show the same level of commitment to the union as they did.
On the other hand, I also felt a strong sense of obligation to my students and the community. I was acutely aware that many of the children at my school were already marginalized. I thought their extracurricular opportunities helped to address the lack in their lives and provided these children, who were at constant risk of becoming statistics themselves, with rare opportunities to engage in enriching and constructive activities. My conscience told me that I needed to exercise compassion for those less fortunate. The care of one’s fellow humans is a responsibility that I feel we are born with and should not abdicate, and this lay at the heart of my dilemma.
I wrestled with finding a balance between the opposing claims. I believed in both! Was it possible to serve two masters when they were locked in conflict? This situation led me to a paralytic state of inaction. I was unable to make a move in either direction. The more I tried to find a way forward, the more paralyzed I became. Was it even possible to reconcile this ethical duality when the solutions were so mutually exclusive? How could I choose one side over the other, and how could I look at myself in the mirror after doing so? To choose one side would betray the other side and my ethical principles as well. These were unanswerable questions that preyed on my mind and put me in conflict with myself.
But ultimately my story had a happier ending. Like the mariners who found the narrow channel between Scylla and Charybdis, I finally found a middle path through my dilemma. I was able to connect our underprivileged students with a non-profit agency that would provide extracurricular activities during the strike, which allowed me to withdraw my own extracurricular services in better conscience.
Looking back, this dilemma did more good than harm for my practice, because it enabled me to clarify why I choose to teach and how I choose to do so.
First published in Education Canada, September 2020