The trouble with trouble

On New Year’s Eve, during a quiet dinner with friends, the topic of workplace injuries came up. One of our guests asked if I’d ever been hurt at work. As I listed the injuries and their causes, the guest was shocked.

“Kids did that to you?”

“No,” I answered. “The system did that to me and to them.”

That’s the trouble with trouble – the wrong people often get blamed.

In April, 2015, I wrote a post about the realities of working in special education. The post was in response to the Ontario provincial government’s tactics of vilifying education workers by implying we were only after money. Given that there was not – and still is not – enough money in the system to properly support education workers hurt while doing their jobs, I was angry at being portrayed as ‘only in it for the money’. Literally thousands of people connected and could relate to the content of the post. And yet, here we are in 2018, and nothing good has changed for education workers. In fact, things are worse and less safe than ever.

The special education system in Ontario, and across the country, is in trouble. In the fall, there was a large number of stories coming out about teachers and educational assistants being injured. These stories prompted the CBC’s Cross Country Checkup to dedicate a show to hearing stories from across the country of educators facing violence on the job. Although the show asked the question “Are teachers facing too much violence in schools?”, there was an outpouring of responses from educational assistants.

Stories about violence in the classroom have been featured for the last several years across the country:

  • an Ottawa teacher attacked by a student;
  • educational assistants in Nova Scotia supporting teachers demands for better work conditions to reduce injuries;
  • New Brunswick reports about the violence facing educational assistants in that province;
  • a teacher shortage in BC – brought on by years of labour disputes largely centred on funding – has created a crisis for special education students receiving support; and the list goes on.

Funding in all sectors of education across all provinces is lacking foresight; the educational system is being run on a business model that does not account for the workers or the clients (the students).

Someone recently asked me, what is the solution?

I don’t know enough about education systems or political systems or funding models to say.

I do know this: you cannot fix the system unless you talk to the people who are working in it and find out what they know and experience. The benefits of doing that are two fold: those workers who are front line and spend their days with the most vulnerable students in the system will be listened to, some of them for the first time in their careers; and, secondly, the people responsible for making changes will be working with actual data and information rather than what they THINK is wrong with the system.

Yes, that takes time. What does not take time is to reinstate some of the fundamental needs in the system, more resources:

  • frontline workers (educational assistants, special education teachers and specialists) – paid fairly and appropriately for the work they do;
  • other specialized resources, like mental health workers, psychologists, speech and language therapists, occupational and physical therapists;
  • spaces that meet the needs of students – alternative learning environments that can meet the sensory needs of students;
  • and, adequate and appropriate sick leave that allows education workers to properly heal mentally and physically from injuries sustained on the job.

The trouble with trouble in education is that it is not going to get better without a major effort on the part of governments – the public and media need to demand accountability for the erosions of funding. Without that, the outcomes for students and education workers will be more (and more and more) of the violence occurring daily in schools across the country.