ATA boss still teaching lessons: Larry Booi

March 7th, 2002
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Larry Booi is living proof there is no correlation between education spending and quality. The president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association was my high school social studies teacher for two years.

From Day 1, it was clear Booi was a leftist. At 16, I was already a staunch anti-Communist, a riskier position than it sounds in retrospect. The Cold War was on, the United States was at the nadir of its postwar power and, in Canada, the doctrine of Soviet-U.S. moral equivalence infected much of the news media, academe–and teaching.

Booi and I argued constantly. But he always marked fairly, and his views mostly provoked harder study, the better that I might outwit him the next day, or feel I had. Perhaps that was his objective. Nor were my classmates immune to Booi’s wit and love of knowledge. Booi regularly sparked flashes of insight, or at least enthusiasm, from the dimmest bulbs.

More than 22 years later, I vividly recall Booi’s shtick, worthy of a Robin Williams, to explain the repeated coups in Afghanistan around the time of the Soviet invasion. It was simple, Booi deadpanned: None of the earlier rulers had enough A’s in their name. Afghanistan contains three A’s, and to succeed in Afghan politics, you yourself needed at least four. Mohamed Daoud? Obviously destined to fail, Booi assured us, and indeed soon bumped off by Hafizullah Amin. With three A’s, Amin was a better prospect, but still not quite worthy. Amin’s replacement? Babrak Karmal. Now there, Booi concluded, was a thug with staying power.

What was Booi’s secret? Was he teaching a tiny class, a glorified tutorial where he was able to give every student personal attention and a customized curriculum? Well, no. As I recall, there were 25-30 of us. Was education spending vastly higher in 1979? Nope. Was there a computer on every desk, daily videos, field trips and a parade of special guests? No on all four counts. How about platoons of psychologists, counsellors and other resources available to the troubled? No again.

Booi wielded a blackboard, some chalk, textbooks of various vintages, his brain and his mouth. Everyone gained some understanding of history and politics–and had no trouble reeling off those Afghan dictators on the exam. Those were names I never forgot, which came in rather handy when Afghanistan was once again pushed onto the world stage.

I think of those times whenever I see Booi’s picture in the newspaper or read about the latest move in the ATA’s never-ending campaign for more money and influence.

Recalling Booi and other excellent teachers from my school years, I simply don’t accept that what ails education today is primarily a lack of money. Today’s problems in education appear to me the result of a series of ideologically motivated changes instigated for the most part by the political left.

One example is today’s lack of classroom discipline. Booi may have been funny, but he was in control, and was backed up by a tough female principal. Another example is the dumbing-down of the curriculum. Note to 23-year-old education graduates: Booi marked for spelling, punctuation and grammar even when these weren’t “relevant” to our analysis of Afghan politics. Oh, and that big self-esteem thing? Booi didn’t ladle it out like Jell-O; we earned it from him–or not, as the case might be.

Perhaps the biggest one of all, classroom size. In Booi’s day, one-third of teachers had not been transformed yet into social workers and bureaucrats performing marginal tasks outside the classroom.

Were he teaching today, Booi would face a sea of 40 or 50 kids while a dozen or so colleagues spent their days outside class counselling, soothing and building self-esteem.

When and why Booi transformed himself from a great teacher into a union boss obsessed with extracting more money from the pockets of taxpayers–including his former students–I likely will never know. But he’s not alone in this.

The Ralph Klein government has played a big part. It has done a grave disservice to Albertans by accepting the underlying premise of the ATA and its friends on the left–that there is a crisis of education funding, a crisis with only one remedy, more spending. The only argument is over how much more is needed. The government should be attacking the premise itself. But that would require politicians taught by the likes of Larry Booi.

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