Tomorrow, schools in Ontario will be closed to students as unions representing teachers and staff hold the line around this round of negotiations. In 2015, in another round of education negotiations, I posted on this blog a letter to the Liberal Government about the reality of working in education. The following post has many parts of that original letter – because some of the issues are the same.
The Government says this fight is all about money. Teachers are greedy. The Government says everyone has to maintain fiscal restraint. When it comes to fiscal restraint, I can assure you that educational assistants/child and youth workers/early childhood educators, those people ARE experts. They have been living on salaries that make it an absolute necessity to be good at fiscal restraint. After 15 years as an educational assistant, I was at the top of my pay scale, where I had been for 10 years, where I would remain as long as I stayed in the field (2019). Other than a few cost of living increases over the years, I did not see significant gains in pay. I took home under $30,000 a year.
So, yup, fiscal restraint is a well-worn path for educational assistants and others. On that salary, I had to find money to purchase supplies for students that were not available within my school. I am not talking crafts supplies or reward stickers: I purchased books at the appropriate reading and interest level; I purchased manipulatives – hands on activities to encourage students to learn and grow and change. Every teacher, early childhood educator, behavioural or special needs teaching assistant I know have done the same thing. They do that with a much smaller personal budget than anyone sitting in the Legislature. They have done that for students.
The Ontario Government needs to start doing more for our students too.
The Government has not actually been practicing what they preach. The people in Ontario have been and will continue to pay for some ridiculous situations that showed anything but fiscal restraint. Buck a beer? Licence plates that are not visible in the dark? Fourteen percent increases? The cost to get out of contracts to shut down green projects?
The billions of dollars misspent would make an incredible difference in the lives of students in Ontario. That money would allow for more speech and language support, autism intervenors, equipment within schools. It would allow the early learning programs to remain fully staffed and fully supported with supplies and space to run the programs.
What about the senior students, those with learning needs who do not have the depth of programs they need to prepare them for the world beyond the education system? The same students that the Minister of Children, Community and Social Services today called a strain on supportive housing. Those students’ programs have been cut and cut and cut – their support diminished because Governments have underfunded special education for years. And years. And years. These students are capable and want to contribute to society – but they need the foundations to do that and they need those programs to last through the end of their final year of school (and beyond).
I worked in special needs and behaviour starting in 2003. I value the work of all the members of our education system, but special needs is what I know. I worked with the most vulnerable members of the system and of society – children with physical, intellectual and mental health issues. Educational/teaching assistants are the people who, along with the teaching teams, deliver education to students who need more – perhaps it’s personal care, or curriculum support or behaviour management. Every day, members of the educational/teaching assistant employee groups in the province are faced with unimaginable stress and incredible types of successes.
Let me focus on the stress aspects: They feed students who cannot do it themselves. They change diapers, clothing and sanitary pads, often lifting students the size of grown men and women. They can be kicked, pinched, punched, scratched, spit on, urinated on, have feces or furniture or pretty much anything thrown at us. Many have worn protective gear to minimize the chances of injury, which makes it harder to move around. In addition to this physical abuse, we also can be subjected to verbal abuse. Once, I was once hit so hard in the face that I fell to the ground, momentarily unconscious. I have visited the emergency department of my local hospital on more than one occasion, in addition to accompanying students with seizures and other medical conditions. I no longer do the work of an educational assistant in no small part due to the physical injuries that threatened my wellbeing. We should not have to leave our jobs to be safe.
And guess what? When educational/teaching assistants are dealing with out of control students, or otherwise doing their job, you know who was stands right next to them? The teaching staff. Early childhood educators. Other teaching assistants. Their principals. All those employee groups are at risk every day and need to know that they can do their job and have the support of their Government, their community and the educational system.
People in education know how education works best. The Government does not listen to them. Teachers know that class size matters in ways that do not show up on a spreadsheet or in a budget discussion.
Teachers knows that students should not be forced to do online courses. Some students do not have access to a computer or the internet. Students need a relationship to learn; learning is an interaction in which information is shared, discussions take place to assess whether true learning has occurred, and adjustments are made by a trained teacher to ensure that learning happens. None of that happens between a computer and a child.
All education staff know that funding matters – funding for programs that allow learning to happen for all students, at all levels. Presently, the Government only funds special education so that frontline workers – teaching/educational assistants – are present to do personal care and ensure safety, no curriculum support. Students with special needs do not have the intensive support needed for them to meaningfully and actively participate in the learning environment.
This is why the negotiations in education are not going well: the Government wants the public to think it is all about money, specifically compensation. Well, they’re half right: it’s about money and funding the system so all students can be successful.
Do people in the education sector want to receive fair compensation? You bet. Just like every other person in Ontario. But the Government has only focussed on the compensation issue. It’s time to focus on the bigger picture. That’s why education sector workers strike – for the biggest issue: students and their learning environment.
Walk a mile in the shoes of a teacher or an early childhood educator or a teaching assistant. You would love aspects of your job. And you would be devastated that your Government undermines you on a personal level and constantly on a professional level. You would be devastated to see amazing students not get the chance to succeed because your Government felt it was important to support projects that got votes over supporting students; a Government who feels that undermining people who work in education is the way to get negotiations done.
And that, no matter how you spin it, is the reality. The Ford Government has chosen other priorities in front of the future of Ontario: children and the people who are educating and shaping them every single day.
Stop taking a Government fed view of education. Really find out what is going on in education, how schools are still somehow succeeding to support students without sufficient funds, but also find out how much more could be done if the Government would focus on what really matters.
Get real. And think about the reality of the lives of education workers in Ontario.
Most importantly, think about the reality of the lives of students. It is about the students. The reality is that the Government has left people working in education no choice but to keep walking the picket line.