Reality check

To the Government of Ontario, and Minister of Education Liz Sandals specifically:

Here we are again – the government and the education sector, butting up against one another and about to get into a media frenzy where those working in education will be made out as money grabbing and you, our elected representatives, will not only feed that frenzy, but you will try to come out as good leaders, trying to hold the fiscal spending line. I am writing to firstly call BS on that line and secondly to provide a bit of a reality check.

When it comes to fiscal restraint, I can assure you that my peers, educational assistants/child and youth workers/early childhood educators, we ARE experts. We have been living on salaries that make it an absolute necessity to be good at fiscal restraint. After 12 years as an educational assistant, I am at the top of my pay scale, where I have been for 7 years, where I will remain as long as I stay in the field. Other than a few cost of living increases over the years, I have not moved up in my pay. I take home under $30,000 a year. So, yup, fiscal restraint is a well-worn path for those of us in this line of work. On that salary, I still have been able to find money to purchase supplies for students that are not available within my school. I am not talking crafts supplies or reward stickers: I have purchased books at the appropriate reading and interest level; I have purchased manipulatives – hands on activities to encourage students to learn and grow and change. Every early childhood educator, behavioural or special needs teaching assistant I know have done the same thing. We have done that with a much smaller personal budget than anyone working in the government. We have done that for our students. We need you to start doing more for our students too.

You, on the other hand, my Liberal friends, have not actually been practicing what you preach. This is where I call BS on you constantly saying that cuts in education are needed for fiscal restraint. The people in Ontario have been and will continue to pay for some ridiculous situations that showed anything but fiscal restraint. Air Ornge – $1 billion; cancelled gas plants – $1.1+ billion; money misspending on e-Health ($1 billion spent, much of that unaccounted for)….no need to go on.

And then there are the salaries of Ministers – in 2009, Minister of Education Liz Sandals had a salary of $133,000 + taxable benefits. I appreciate that’s not a take home pay amount, but I am very confident it is more than the $29,333 I took home in 2013.

Imagine that, $29,333. No, I mean it – imagine that.

The billions of dollars misspent would make an incredible difference in the lives of students in Ontario. They would allow for more speech and language support, autism intervenors, equipment within schools. They would allow the early learning programs to remain fully staffed and fully supported with supplies and space to run the programs that you, the government, insisted were needed. That had hundreds and thousands of early childhood educators leave jobs in the private sector to come and be a part of a strong government initiative – and now you are talking about how cuts need to be made to those programs that you insisted were critical to the education of young children. I have worked with some of the most gifted educators in my 12 years in education and in the past few years, I have been fortunate to see the strong impact early childhood educators have made to our kindergarten programs. To pull the funding out from under these programs, these educators, these students – that would be detrimental to the foundations these programs are creating.

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? Their programs have been cut and their support diminished because you have underfunded special education for years. And years. And years. These students are capable and want to contribute whatever they can 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 have worked in special needs and behaviour since 2003. I value the work of all the members of our education system, but special needs is what I know and therefore the reality of that work is what I can best impress upon you. My peers and I work with the most vulnerable members of the system and of society – children with physical, intellectual and mental health issues. We 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. Everyday, members of my employee group are faced with unimaginable stress and incredible types of successes.

Let me focus on the stress aspects: We feed students who cannot do it themselves. We change diapers, clothing and sanitary pads, often lifting students the size of grown men and women. We can be kicked, pinched, punched, scratched, spit on, urinated on, have feces or furniture or pretty much anything thrown at us. I 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. Personally, I have had all of these things happen to me, including being 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 for myself, in addition to accompanying students with seizures and other medical conditions.

When I get hurt DUE TO DOING MY JOB, I think it is reasonable that I will be allowed an appropriate amount of time to heal, according to doctor’s recommendations, should that injury include being away from work. In order to ensure that I can do that without jeopardizing my financial health, I banked my sick days. You took away those sick days in 2012. I was injured at work in 2014 and once my WSIB and benefits ran out, I paid for my own physio. I used up all my sick days for appointments and had to take reduced pay sick days. Even though I had saved up six months of sick days prior to the last contract negotiations, they were not available to me. Once again, I paid out of my pocket to do my job. So, when you make claims in the media that it’s about the money, you are right. It’s about being compensated for the work I do and for the injuries I sustain doing that work. If I were trying to raise a family on that salary alone, or even living on my salary alone, unpaid sick days DUE TO AN INJURY AT WORK would devastate me.

And guess what? When I am dealing with out of control students, or otherwise doing my job, you know who is standing right next to me? The teaching staff. Early childhood educators. Other teaching assistants. My principal. We all are at risk every day and need to know that we can do our job and have support to help us if we get hurt DOING OUR JOB.

Walk a mile in my shoes. You would love aspects of your job. And you would be devastated that your government undermines you on a personal level and 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.

And that, no matter how you spin it, is the reality. Your 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 bird’s-eye view of education. Don’t stop by for a photo-op, or read a quick story with a bunch of students. 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 your 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. You are robbing the future to pay for the past.

Paula Turner

45 thoughts on “Reality check

  1. It is like you are working in my classroom….a special class for students with ASD. Thank you for writing this accurate and truthful piece. Many people will always think that it is “all about the money”. Until they have spent some time in your shoes, they have no idea what your job entails. As a spec Ed teacher, I couldn’t survive without my two EAs….

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    1. It’s truly a team effort. I have had the opportunity to work with some amazing DECEs, teachers and other EAs and have always believed we were there for the same reasons. And money was not it. Thanks for your support.

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  2. Well said! As a fellow EA I thank you from the bottom of my heart and on the behalf of the 55000 education workers represented by CUPE. You put our reality into words and breathed life into our struggles! Solidarity with you sister! Ms Wynne, Ms Sandals, this is one of the many hard working, ethical women and men who consistently put our students first. It is unfortunate that the government and trustee groups can’t do the same!

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  3. Well said Paula, I am also a child and youth worker in the education system and your comments strike home with not only myself but every other education support worker in our field. The higher ups and the politicians have NO IDEA what our jobs entail. We care for and often provide basic necessities such as food and clothing to some of our more unfortunate students. Our jobs often transcend the typical education process to include counselling and nurturing students in crisis. We provide an invaluable service to these young people that deserves to be not only recognized but celebrated and in a perfect scenario compensated for. Compensation is not why we ultimately do the work we do as our bottom line clearly indicates. We care about people, children and see the benefit that our intervention can make in their lives. Thank you for calling attention to our situation, I hope that it will allow those very people the politicians would like to turn against us to see us in a different, kinder light.

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    1. It is challenging to do the work but more so when that work is misunderstood and undervalued in every sense of the word. Thank you for your comments and for the work you do everyday.

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  4. Well said! If only the minister of education does the right thing!! I am also an Educational Assistant working with ASD students. Your description of our daily struggles is right on. We go above and beyond every day and make a world of difference in these most vulnerable students lives. Its time we were paid for all we do!

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    1. Thanks. Hoping against hope that what we don’t see in the days ahead is a vilification of education workers but rather understanding from the public that unions have to take a stand.

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  5. I am a classroom teacher (grade 7/8), and although my class of 30 includes many students with special needs, I do not receive any EA time, due to the cost. Much of my time is spent with those students, who need constant support to succeed. Several are currently working 5 grades below their age group. This requirement leaves my other students with substantially less teacher time than was previously the norm. My colleague (grade 5/6) has 11 students with special needs (Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorder, etc.) plus 15 regular needs students, and receives EA support only until 10:30 am. The difference in her class during that 100 minute block tells the tale. EAs are vital to the learning of both the special needs students and their peers with regular needs (who receive more teacher time if an EA is present in the room). If the powers that make the decisions want all children to be included in regular classes, they need to include EAs, as well. They also need to pay them according to their expertise and work load, which is certainly far from the truth right now.

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    1. Thank you for acknowledging our (EA’s) relevance in all classrooms, and how we are grossly underpaid. Our expertise is not respected as it should be. I have personally added to my repertoire, but rather than being compensated for my higher education, I get used and abused for the boards benefit. I still have no contract, and make less than $20/hour. I hope now is the time that we finally get the attention from our fellow Ontarian’s, and they finally realize the devastating effects our government is having on our children’s education.

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    1. As a mother of two adults, I know the situation facing young people in the job market. It is a terrible situation to come out of school and not be able to find work. At the same time, I would not want my children or their peers to have to do a job where they are hurt doing their job, cannot work and are not paid while they recover. I would not want them to have to continue to struggle to pay their bills after years of working. The economy of Ontario is in trouble; the young, unemployed people are not to blame and they need the government to be cognizant of their needs as well. By pointing out the realities of work within the school systems I did not intend to negate the plight of people unable to find work. This piece was intended to try to bring some understanding to the realities faced by education workers.

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      1. And that is what I got out of reading this? Nothing about not being thankful to have a job!! All I say is that I hope Nikki’s kids or grandkids don’t need an EA some day!! Your article is 100% spot on. I have dealt with all your examples. I have been an EA for over 30 years and I have been at the top of my pay scale since year 4!!!!!!!!!!! Unbelievable. We need to get word out so the kids don’t lose out! They are the ones that will ultimately pay in the end!

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      2. Annette – thank you for holding fast in the field for 30+ years. Imagine all the lives you’ve impacted. I agree that we need people to understand our role so that they understand our fight.

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  6. Thank you for so eloquently expressing what many educational support workers continue to feel each and every day. I wish parents were required to spend time in their child’s classroom and witness what is happening to the “public” education system. I firmly believe we being asked to support students who’s needs cannot be met and are not being address adequately in the “education” system. We are doing a fantastic job of trying, within the confines of the Government’s mandate, but to the determent of all students. ALL students deserve to be respected and supported in their educational endeavours, not just those with identifiable disabilities. We need to take a long hard look at what support should “look” like and unfortunately I don’t feel that will happen until those utilizing the system, (parents and students) are willing to stand up and say, “Hey, what about ME?”
    A local business man in our community recently ask me why he can’t find students to work for him who are responsible, reliable, literate, can make proper change, can communicate appropriately with the public etc. Something is drastically wrong with our “public” education system.

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    1. One place to start looking would be funding formulas as they are not sufficient. I believe that students needs can be met and within the education system; they cannot be met with current funding levels and that does make the impact system wide.

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      1. Thanks for your reply, Paula. Perhaps I need to clarify… I’m referring to students who’s needs cannot be address adequately within the school system. Students who present with severe psychological issues, who exhibit major behavioural concerns and who physically endanger fellow students and staff are being placed within the public education sector, and as young as kindergarten! As an Educational Support professional with 38 years of experience, I do not feel that I have the expertise required to support some these students. I am not a Psychologist. I believe their needs would be better address in a different milieu, not within the public schools. Perhaps lobbying the Government to create and fund more services for children with mental illness would ensure their core needs are being addressed. Access to such services is limited, if not nonexistent in our geographical area and I feel quite discouraged that these children are being supported but not at a level they need.

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      2. Thanks for clarifying. I agree that mental health issues are not supported or addressed fully within the system. I, like you, have felt out of my depth in situations and wished for more resources for students, families and staff.

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  7. Thank you so very much for writing this! As an EA I come home exhausted and frustrated with the way special education is looked at. I too have been hurt, disrespected on the job and many times brushed it under the rug in fear of being “in trouble”.
    My friends and family have asked me “why do you stay”- we stay because of the kids. Education was NOT supposed to be like this!
    The pay is an absolute joke When you consider what we do and are subjected too!

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  8. I have another comment to add…..I have to wonder, the Director of Education makes over $250,000 a year, so I would think the Minister of Education would actually make more than $130.000??? All VP’s and Principals make over $110,000 a year.

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    1. Yes. I recently saw the Sunshine List and that prompted today’s post. I had to not focus on the numbers solely because it is hard to think about that in relation to the underfunded aspects of education and other social services.

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  9. I work as a secretary in an elementary school with no vice principal. I start at 7:30 and finish between 5 and 5:30..no break and have maybe 15 minutes for lunch. I am at the top of my pay grade and haven’t seen a raise in a while. I buy stuff out of my pocket every week and take work home. People do not understand the workload we deal with. The government doesn’t get 32 kids in full day kindergarten class is too crowded..they just see it as happy parents with free baby sitting. We should not be denied a salary increase due to fiscal mismanagement by the province. We are not even asking for a raise or benefits. We want adequate staffing to be able to do our jobs. .aka to stop the free unpaid overtime.

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