We need a hero

Volunteering during a Halloween walk with students from the local school reminded me what a community of excited learners looks like: happy and engaged.

I asked one of the students why he chose Superman as his costume. “He’s a hero. He helps people.”

Special education students and educators need a hero.

Or at the very least a champion for the cause.

Although special education has been in the news lately, the media has a short attention span and seems to prefer the sensationalized aspects.

Yes, Educational Assistants and other spec ed educators get hurt doing their jobs. That’s the day-to-day reality.

Yes, parents have a right to address their concerns and advocate for their children. They deserve the platform to speak out.

These issues are not new nor are they the only important aspects that media should be investigating.

Those are the consequences not the antecedent.

We need a media outlet to care enough to look past the outcomes of a neglected system and look for the root causes.

We need a politician who cares about some of the most vulnerable members of society, students with special needs.

We need a public who demands more from the government than misguided economic belt-tightening and a whole lot less finger-pointing.

We need a hero.

Educational perspectives

Over the past few days, Metro Morning (CBC) has hosted discussions about special education in Ontario. Each of the segments have brought in different perspectives; the common theme is the recognition of the untenable situation for students within the special education sector, the province’s most vulnerable students.

The first segment which aired on October 27th had Christine Levesque, mother of a student on the autism spectrum. She also is on the Board of Directors of the Ontario Autism Coalition. Her family’s experience within the educational system is symptomatic of the larger problem of insufficient funding for special education services.

Following Levesque’s description of her son’s experience, Mitzi Hunter, the Minister of Education, spoke to some of Levesque’s points. Hunter focused on how the Ontario government has announced a new pilot program for bringing ABA (Applied Behaviour Analysis) specialists and training into schools. The three main points (as described on the Ontario Government’s website) are:

The pilot program will: 

  • Provide dedicated spaces for external practitioners of Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) to deliver on-site autism services.
  • Provide education assistants with access to voluntary 40-hour online targeted training and professional learning sessions.
  • Provide funding to hire an ABA expertise professional with Board Certified Behaviour Analyst (BCBA) certification/qualification or equivalent qualification.

Has this project been set up correctly? Where are the long term goals? Is this one more thing that schools need to integrate into the day-to-day work of curriculum delivery without a proper framework for implementation? How will the voluntary training for Educational Assistants (EA) be carried out? When the ABA specialists come into the schools, will there be release time for training? How will teachers and EAs have time to do the therapy when they are already stretched?

In a recent CBC article, a survey conducted by Ontario Autism Coalition (OAC) found that 72% of parents of children with autism feel their children are not receiving the support they require to be successful in school. The need for more supports is evident – 60% of the parents surveyed were told by autism professionals that their child needed one-on-one support; only 17% of the children received that form of support.

The new pilot project does not solve this problem. It may, in fact, exacerbate the already challenging work of educational assistants.

Today on Metro Morning, two Ontario educational assistants were able to respond to some of the points raised by Levesque and Minister Hunter last week. This was critical as much of Levesque’s concerns were related to negative experiences with her son’s EAs.

Christina Pinto and Laura Walton tried, in their short time on the program, to explain the reality of the work of EAs in the province. Both of these women explained that they love their work but that it is a challenge for them to do that work effectively. They highlighted their professionalism while shedding light on their daily challenges.

“We never know what’s going to happen.”

“I split my day between three different classrooms.”

“No one is there to support them when I leave.”

“We don’t have near enough support.”

We need the reality of the work of educational assistants to be understood. We need the government and the public to know that getting hurt is not a sometimes event, that it is not recent news. It is a daily reality.

The autism pilot project may be, as Levesque and others have stated, a step in the right direction but it is not enough.

Not even close – students and staff deserve more effective support, more properly allocated funding and more respect for the importance of having students with special educational needs within our school communities.

 

What is the (educational) tipping point? It might be here. 

There are some significant issues in education in Ontario – and many other jurisdictions – that are alarming and make me wonder – what is the tipping point? When does the whole thing fall off the rails?

Some people feel we have surpassed that point and now educate their children in privately funded institutions. I understand that motivation: we withdrew one of our children from the public system for two years back in the mid 1990s. I believed then, as I do now, in public education; I had a second child remain within the system. I was concerned solely about the specialized program my son was in and felt unsure that it was meeting his educational needs at that time.

So, yeah, I get it. I understand the motivation to do what you think is best for your children. The difference is where the blame lies. 

For many people, especially over the past 5 to 7 years, the blame has sat on the shoulders of the educators. Not the Boards, not the government, but the educators. I disagreed then and I continue to disagree now.

Let’s look at one recent example: the Education Minister for 2013-2016, Liz Sandals, did not appear to respect educators and she made this clear time and time again in the media. Sandals portrayed herself as a politician who was ‘fiscally responsible’ and interested in ‘advocating for children’. By hitting those two talking points again and again for those three years, Sandals framed her actions as stewardship and those who opposed her, those “greedy educators”, as fiscally irresponsible and opposed to doing what’s best for students. 

In reality, the provincial government had made significant and costly financial errors (think: AirOrnge, cancelled gas plants, and e-Health for starters).

Many in the public soaked up Sandals diversionary tactic and educators became the cause of woes beyond the educational system – they were responsible for the entire provincial deficit. It was a good tactic only because it worked not because there was any truth to it. 

Educators have not lowered their standards of what they expect of themselves when it comes to being front line advocates for students. Educators want to deliver the best education to their students. The Ministry has increased curriculum demands while pulling services. The influx of students with higher needs – including mental health care issues like anxiety or depression – is increasing. The money is not.

Yes, in each negotiation educators ask for more money for salaries; just like every other working person, educators need to keep at or ahead of inflationary costs of items in order to actively contribute to the economy.

More telling, though, is the fact educators are asking for funding for their students. School Board trustees and administrators are asking for more funding. The government says that Boards are given adequate funding and they (the Boards) determine where the money goes. 

Again, the Ministey is playing “divert the focus”. Boards cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear or create funding for programs with inadequate funds. 

Funding to school boards has increased over the years. That does not mean, as the Fraser Institute implies in an 2016 article, that the money is wasted; it means that the system was historically underfunded and the government is playing catch up and not nearly fast enough.

If the adequate money is in the system, where is it? Why is it that in that same period of increased spending, special needs teaching assistants are assigned more students with more significant needs? 

Why is there not enough itinerant teachers in the system to support teachers and other educators to deliver education to the students with special needs? 

Why is the wait list for psychoeducational testing (the testing that helps to create the road map for educators and families to support people with specialized learning needs) getting longer and longer every year?

Every single corner of the system is cutting back – every employee group is being pinched. 

What is the factor will completely hobble education? And why do we need to careen over the edge before real action is taken? 

Freedom to create

Lately I have been reading works by people who are finding the courage and the space in their lives to follow their interests, passions and dreams.

The other day a piece popped into my inbox from Jon Chiang, a freelance film maker. In addition to his film work, Jon creates a weekly newsletter with links to interesting content and musings on his freelance journey. This week, Jon’s newsletter talked about chasing freedom.

What struck me is that Jon never talks about making money; instead he prioritizes spending time fully engaged in his life and relationships, then making work decisions based on those priorities. His work, the outcome of his work/life balance philosophy, is exceptional.  

I have spent time with Jon; he is a thoughtful and kind human. He is present and humble and sincere. His intentionality around his move into freelancing is part and parcel of who he is. 

What stuck with me as I finished the article was that Jon’s vision is where my head space is or at least where it is headed.  I too am deeply breathing in this moment, where I actively control the act of prioritizing. 

It is an unfamiliar state of being. 

I have turned my focus inward of late in hopes that it will help me be more effective when I am facing and acting ‘outward’ – in the volunteer and work roles that I am engaging in. I am re-evaluating long held values and beliefs, a process that began as my children were growing up and questioning our world. That process has now become second nature after my university adventure caused my brain to explode daily due to the fracturing and destruction of many past ways of thinking. 

I am fully cognizant of the gift of time I have been afforded to ‘work on myself’. This privilege was striking the other night. 

I was at an event with former co-workers, exceptional women working in special education. I spoke to people who have spent the fall being kicked and bitten, who have more students to support and educate than ever and who sometimes feel incapable of doing what is expected and needed from them daily in the way that they want to. 

There are no moments for themselves, self reflection or choosing daily priorities. 

••••••••••

Yesterday on CBC I was listening to Out in the Open. The episode was called Double-Edged and was an exploration of why people find it difficult to feel happy in a sustained way: why it feels so bad to feel good. I thought about my exchanges with my former coworkers and the concept of owning my happiness; where does guilt fit in? 

The tight wire act of drinking in joy without drowning others. 

•••••••••••

Going to university taught me to be open to the world and ideas; drawing all the threads together is the purpose of this blog. 

Thanks for wandering through the process with me. 

One last note: Jon Chiang has an exceptional short film, Lion, which is a both a Short Film Festival Selection and Best Canadian Short Award nominee at the Vancouver Asian Film Festival for 2017. Check it out along with other films by Jon  (available on his blog). 

Choosing your hashtag. Or not. 

There are once again several high profile sexual assault cases grabbing headlines these past few weeks. For some people, it is a “watershed moment” – a time of hope that in this #metoo moment, opening up a dialogue will give affected women strength and others the knowledge to support all women.

If someone chose to utilize the hashtag #metoo, they were making a brave personal choice. For those who chose not to utilize the hashtag, they were also making a brave personal choice; as some on social media have pointed out – no victim owes the world her story.

••••••••••

The question is surfacing, as always, about why women did not speak out before now. One part of the answer is the wider public: consider your social media networks and see possible weapons of revictimization – from those spaces can come opinions and comments and accusations. People commenting – on this latest round of sexualized power abuses or the hashtags or previous stories – may not be speaking directly to specific women but the words can affect all women.

This detracts from the perpetrators and focuses blame back on the victims. 

Deciding to talk about your experience is like standing on a cliff, with dark and unknown depths in the waters below.

Personally, I hate to swim without full knowledge of what’s in the water.

The seemingly inherent belief that everyone has a right to an opinion about other people’s lives is one of the reasons that a victim may not come forward. The details of your assault may lead people to know who you are. You fear you will be talked about. You fear you will be judged.

It’s like having an IED inside your mind, waiting for that thing, that trigger, knowing that an explosion of memories and pain will follow.

Given the volume of statements out there, it’s amazing it took this long but my tipping point was a comment (made by a woman): if the women didn’t want to come forward for themselves they should have done it to ensure that no one else was victimized.

Really?? You think that’s a helpful thing to say?

Okay. Lesson #2 – to become a victim sometimes means that everything else stands still. You go into survival mode.

And once other people are known to have become subsequent victims, the initial victims often do blame themselves. If you are questioning why they never came forward, you definitely will never be able to understand how the guilt of subsequent abuse preys on the minds and hearts of the first victims.

No one has the right to add to that guilt.

••••••••••

When I was finally able to stand up in court and tell my story, more than 20 years after the fact, I was relieved. I was proud of my strength.

As I left the courthouse, with three other victims, I was confronted on the steps of the courthouse by a man who had sat through my testimony. He asked: why didn’t you just tell someone?

I was 12 years old when the assaults started. But I am not certain that if I had been 22 or 52, I would have been any better prepared to step up and speak out.

I could barely breathe or eat or sleep; how could I do the thing you – some stranger – think I should have done.

#screwyou

••••••••••

It should be an inherent belief that, as a community of people who care for others, we not judge or second guess why people make specific choices about disclosure. The road from victim to survivor is a harrowing one and outsiders’ judgments further impede the healing process. 

One way to be an advocate is to support women’s choices – disclosure/non-disclosure/#metoo/silence – all are her choice. 

••••••••••

I withheld publishing this post for a long time.

“People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.” Thich Nhat Hahn. 

Shame and fear of judgment: #mystory.

 

The view from here 

I have never dreaded the “big” birthdays ending in a zero. The “big” 5s were my demons. 

At 25, I had thought I’d have my first child, a marker that would make me a “grown up”. The fact that I had a mortgage apparently didn’t seem sufficient proof of adulthood. 

At 35, my children were 8 and 5. I was wracked with self doubt and questions – Am I a good mom? Am I smart enough, active enough, patient enough to launch these humans into the world? I didn’t even know who I was – how could I help them figure out who they were? 

At 45, one child was in university and the other was deep into her high school life. Although they were healthy and kind humans, I felt like they had raised themselves. At that birthday, the question on my mind – and seemingly everyone else’s – was what would I do when my children were fully launched?

Each of those birthdays left me bereft. 

What a difference a decade makes. Fifty-five is not even a blip on the “how can I be that old” radar. Age is a number that has little meaning these days (except perhaps to drugstores where, as of today, I qualify for a senior’s discount). 

Perhaps this mental shift is due to the lesson most deeply learned from university: I have nothing to worry (or complain) about. I have everything I need: food, shelter, health, safety and family. 

“You’re only as old as you feel.” Yup. I’m living that cliche every day. 

Today I feel – all me. 

Listen. That is me.

Thirteen years ago today, I received news that my dad had died. His cancer, aggressive and painful, had been diagnosed the year before. I spent more time with him during his treatment phase and palliative care than in the 40 years prior. 

My dad shaped me in his lifetime, more by his absence than his presence. I did not really know him well before his diagnosis. Long phone conversations and visits during treatments helped me learn that he did his best. Does it matter in the end if it was enough? Their best is all anyone can give. 

He did leave me with something valuable; a secret weapon. “Whenever someone asks you about yourself, in an interview or any time, pretend I’m on your shoulder. What would I say about you?” It works every time. 

And when the wind whistles and the rain drops softly; when the leaves brush the ground and the snow softly blankets your world, listen. That is me. I am reminding you that, whatever lies ahead, you will be not just be okay; you will soar. 

I hear you.