It is about the students

Déjà vu all over again – the government and the education sector, butting up against one another and the government whipping anger with a media frenzy (and way too many standing ovations). People working in education will be made out as money grabbing and our elected representatives will not only feed that negativity and misinformation, but they will do everything possible to come out as good leaders, stating it’s all for the greater economic good.

What a load of propaganda.

I know about fiscal restraint. I worked in special education for 15 years and was at the top of my pay grid and took home less than $35,000 a year. 

Yup. You read that right. 

Right now, RIGHT NOW, there is no talk about more/less money because we are not negotiating yet. 

Right now, RIGHT NOW, the protests are about the cuts, about the threats of cuts, about the pile of damage being created by decisions being made by the government. 

The government started on the wrong foot by cutting out curriculum development which would have increased Indigenous content – curriculum changes set out by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 

The debacle that is, was, and continues to be funding for children with autism is part of the protests. 

Increasing class sizes, having students take e-learning courses – and don’t even get me started about the health curriculum. 

The government says teachers are promoting dissention with students and using classroom bulletin boards as places of anti-government information sharing. 

If the term ‘fake news’ was not so overused, I’d use it here. 

There are so many issues to protest, but RIGHT NOW, salaries is not one of them. 

When it comes to fiscal restraint, the Ford government has not actually been practicing what they preach. 

Buck a beer? License plate redos? “Open for business” signage? Stickers to agitate against carbon tax?

And then there are the salaries of friends and associates in jobs that either didn’t previously exist or were at lower salaries previously: $348,000 to a health care advisor; $140,000 for a formerly part-time position as EQAO chair; $350,000 for a trade representative. And then there are folks who are in senior positions after being part of the Ford team in various capacities: Ontario Energy Board appointee, $197,000 and chair of Public Accountants Council for $166,666.

These inflated “dollars for supporters of Ford” would make an incredible difference in the lives of students in Ontario. Money that would allow for more speech and language support, autism intervenors (cause given new policies and money shuffling, we are definitely going to need more specialists), and specialized equipment within schools.

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 special education has been underfunded for years. And years. And years, first by the Liberals, now by the current government.

Another way in which this government is failing is that they keep announcing funding as if it’s new – slapping a ‘new and improved’ label on already existing, lower than needed, funding. And people are being fooled into believing it, because they want to believe their vote for this government was the right one. 

Wrong. 

Special education students are capable and want to contribute in whatever way 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 worked in special needs and behaviour from 2003 until 2018. 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 speak to. Special education means working 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 that 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. 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 you pull money out of the system, more of these tasks are put onto fewer workers. People think their child will have one on one support. 

Those days are long gone. Student supports are prioritized by categories such as safety and personal care, not by educational needs. 

The more money pulled out of the system, the less time front line workers and teachers have to teach students the skills which allow them to be successful, to not have levels of frustration that can cause them to act out in aggressive and violent ways – skills that allow ALL students to be included in schools and their communities in meaningful ways.

And that violence? It is experienced by all students and staff who are present when it occurs.

Appropriate funding needs to be in place in order to make school a place where students can learn and grow; it should not be about warehousing children and youth with special needs.

That is my greatest fear when I think about their future. 

And guess what? When I was dealing with out of control students, or otherwise doing my job, you know who was standing right next to me? The teaching staff. Early childhood educators. Other teaching assistants. My principal. All are at risk every day and they need to know that their government is behind them.

When the government make claims in the media that it’s about the money, they are right.

There is a component about being compensated for the work we do and for the injuries we sustain doing that work. 

That is not the issue RIGHT NOW. 

The bigger, RIGHT NOW issue is that people (students, staff, parents, Boards) are angry about the government not properly funding the education system.

I want to tell this government, as I tried to tell the last one, walk a mile in the shoes of those teachers and education workers you talk about in such negative ways. You would love aspects of your job. You would be exhausted and inspired.

And you would be devastated that your government undermines you both on a personal and on a professional level.

You would be more than devastated to see amazing students not get the chance to succeed because your government felt it was important to support personally motivated projects over supporting students. 

No matter how you spin it, this is the reality: the government has chosen other priorities in front of the future of Ontario. That future includes the children and the people who are educating and shaping them every single day.

For education workers, teachers, administrators, communities and families, RIGHT NOW AND ALWAYS  

IT IS ABOUT THE STUDENTS. 

 

 

Undermining resiliency

Every day, it’s something new and, most often, detrimental coming from the Ontario Education Minister. It’s hard to keep up with what’s happening in education in Ontario, but to date, I cannot think of anything that’s been done in the true interests of students. I understand that education is a heavy draw on the financial makeup of a province. That being said, it does not even make good business sense to make cuts which will end up crippling the system. This is a poor business model and an even worse social program model. (I cannot even touch the issues around funding for autism programs. It will have absolutely devastating effects on children and families.)

The Education Minister yesterday, on a CBC morning program, stated that making high school classrooms bigger would make students more resilient.

High school classrooms – all classrooms – are not the place to download the mental health skill development for resiliency while also making significant cuts in both supports and funding.

What parents, teachers, industry specialists or university educators specifically said, increase teacher to student ratios so students are better prepared for university and the world? Is it like the ‘sex ed’ consultations where in reality a small number of people were opposed to concepts like consent, but the Government said the majority wanted it out?

Maybe people who believe in 1960s education models – where kids come to school, learn by rote and had significantly fewer pressures, distractions, and expectations than today’s students – also believe that schools should be solving all the woes of the world while providing exemplary education using limited resources. (That was a time when teachers gave the strap regularly – hopefully that’s not part of the next announcement.)

Again, I encourage the Minister (and anyone else making these decisions) to spend time in a classroom. Work in it. Spend a week, a month, a year.

Teachers do everything they can to create environments which nurture independence and build resiliency in students.  Classrooms are currently dealing with huge differentials: in learning abilities and disabilities; mental health strengths and areas for development; family dynamics; economic variability and instability; and a host of other impactful factors.

Ask any school social worker, teacher or counsellor and there are a significant amount of circumstances which can thwart the growth of resiliency. As parents, we are instrumental in the growth of resiliency and we also need to accept that being a helicopter/snowplow parent (guilty) is counterproductive to this concept.

The Government has a responsiblity in the mental health of all citizens. They need to lead, not chase after savings in the budget without fully understanding the trickle down impacts. They need to stop speaking off the cuff and making statements that are unfounded or based on facts. When children are surrounded by a 24 hour news cycle in which the elected leaders are not leading with any conviction or substance, this negatively impacts resiliency.

We all play a part in building environments to set up student success and the place where students spend the bulk of their waking hours – schools – should be supported and funded. The decision to increase classroom sizes will have the opposite effect to building resiliency and coping skills. And, if history is any indication, the blame will be also be downloaded onto teachers and schools.

Time to get LOUD

June 7, 2018 is the date for Ontario’s provincial election.

It is time for front line education workers to be heard. We have a lot to contribute to the conversation and we should be recognized for our contributions to the education of the most vulnerable individuals in the education system:

  • Students with mental health issues/concerns/diagnosis
  • First time students (kindergarten, new to the Boards)
  • Students with physical/cognitive disabilities, identified and non-identified
  • Students whose life circumstances place them in a precarious status for learning
  • Students who lash out and harm/injure/permanently disable their educators

That last point is critical – violence in schools has been bubbling to the top of media feeds since last fall. There’s been a lot of finger pointing – bad parenting, bad children, bad educational assistants/teachers, bad programs (specifically integrated classrooms).

I disagree with those in the media and public playing the blame game.

Parents, especially those of children with individualized learning or life skill needs, are by and large doing the best they can.

Students who act out in a violent manner are frequently doing so in response to being in an environment that does not meet their needs.

EAs and teachers are swamped with requirements of the curriculum and the immediacy of the needs of their students. They work incredibly hard within a system that is not conducive to special education success.

Integrated classrooms are in the sights of people looking to deflect blame but the undercurrent is that the educators and special needs students within the programs are the real cause.

The deflection of focus onto these various actors in the education sector takes away from an important issue for this election – inadequate funding for programs and supports that are supposed to meet the education and social development needs of students with individualized learning requirements.

The Ontario government has imposed negotiating frameworks which have made the public believe educators only care about their salaries.

Money is how society values people. So, yes, educators want to be adequately compensated for their work. We will never stop fighting for that.

This election though is not a negotiation. The focus will be about speaking up for students and their learning conditions – which happen to be educators’ working conditions.

Students deserve the supports they need to be successful meeting their unique goals:

  • enough front line staff to support their learning
  • staff with enough time to observe each student with individual needs in a variety of environments
  • physical resources and staff with enough time to take those observations forward to create programs that work for each student and each environment they move through in the day.

Right now, educators are spread so thin – educational assistants with 3, 4, or 5 students who are in multiple classes – meaning they cannot consistently provide the breadth and depth of support students need.

There are many teachers with multiple special education students without any other resource people within their classroom to support and enrich the environment.

Schools have limited access to social workers, speech and language or other specialists.

It is time to get LOUD, to demand that any politician looking to be elected talk to people on the front lines. It is time to demand that those politicians take up the cause of students who are paying too steep a price for insufficient resources in education.

It is time to get LOUD about the consequences for educators – the violence and the injuries – which are a symptom of the current model for special education systems and the lack of adequate funding.

My vote will only be given to someone who takes the time to learn about the realities of life in special education from the people doing the work every day.

Be heard.

The real bottom line – students

I recently re-tweeted a news article about how the Premier of our province, Kathleen Wynne, criticized Tim Horton’s franchisees for taking away benefits from employees as a cost cutting measure to meet the new minimum wage requirements; she called the owners ‘bullies’. I pointed out that Kathleen Wynne’s government has systematically cut benefits from education and other workers in the province over the last several years. My question was: who is the bully in that situation?

As could be expected, I received a couple of comments telling me that as a public servant, I was overpaid, didn’t know what life is like in the “real world” and had been coddled. I responded with examples of how I didn’t feel I was coddled (being injured, etc.) – and then I stopped.

First of all, getting into a war of words on Twitter is as useful as a bathing suit in a snowstorm, and secondly, I feel the discussions about education funding always devolves into the blame game: education workers, teachers and others are accused of being greedy.

Here’s the only thing that should matter to everyone when it comes to education (and my personal bottom line): the best interests of students.

When you take money out of the system, students are negatively impacted.

Governments and uninformed people in the public continually circle the issues around education funding back to it being about salaries and benefits. Yes, those are important. Society bases people’s value on income; people need decent wages to live and to contribute to the economy; and, people deserve to be compensated fairly for their contributions.

Good educators are ones who see the importance of a balanced set of priorities. Educators have taken pay cuts in one form or another – usually small or no increases in salaries along with benefit cuts.

And still, the students suffer. The governments are saving money on salaries, as they said they needed to. And yet, the cuts continue.

Fewer supports, high student to teacher and educational assistant ratios, closing schools and/or classrooms (meaning fewer places for students with specialized needs to receive appropriate care), less professional development opportunities, fewer mental and physical health care specialists – all of these directly impact students.

Yes; I got ticked that the Premier took away my benefits.

But, let’s be clear: my biggest priorities, and that of all good educators, are our students and their learning conditions. The fact that those are also our working conditions should not make the picture muddy.

The difficulties educators and students are facing ARE the real world and constitute the real learning enviroment for thousands of students everyday.

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.

Lack of funding = lack of safety in schools

On November 19, 2017, CBC Radio’s Cross Country Check Up discussed Violence in Schools.

There have been several media reports on this topic including a Ottawa teacher, Tony Lamonica, speaking out about his experience of violence on the job. Lamonica’s experience was horrendous and life changing. Violence is not something any person should have to deal with at their place of work.

As I listened to the CBC call in program, I was deeply troubled and I doubt I was alone. The show shed significant light on the consequences of insufficient funding in education. The calls and discussion focused on the issues facing educators, parents, students, and communities when it comes to aggression in schools.

It also highlighted the range of understandings about what constitutes aggression, what should be done about it, which students should/should not be held accountable, and what are the responsibilities of educators, Boards and the government when it comes to solutions.

It is a hot mess.

And, it is a situation that for many staff and students is a daily reality and not ‘new’ news. It is a system wide problem.

Many Educational Assistants have had multiple trips to Emergency rooms in a year; many have to go on sick leave; many have lasting injuries. I have had three trips to the Emergency Room and two other times when I probably should have gone.

I do not hold the students who harmed me responsible for my injuries. I have worked with students identified with special needs wherein aggressive behaviours are one way in which they cope when they have not yet learned the skills to self regulate, or they are unable to learn those skills. In order to teach those skills to a student, I need time to observe what triggers students and try different techniques to help them acquire those skills. That time is rarely available in the system as it is currently funded.

I am not naive: some students, like some people, have control of their behaviours and still harm others. That is one category of alarming behaviour within education systems across the country.

I am looking at this through the lens of special education and I worry that some people are lumping all students into one profile: a purposefully violent person.

Other types of violent incidents are happening on a daily basis for many educators and no one incident can be considered to be representative of the wide range of violence within any one system, or across a province, or certainly across the country.

One caller to the CBC show, Bonnie Dineen, was an Educational Assistant with 20 years of experience. She discussed the issue of not having enough information prior to walking into a classroom.

There is no funding for pre-planning meetings for teaching teams. The time needed to get to know the student, their needs and the appropriate supports is not funded in the current model.

A guest on the show, Shelley Hymel, a UBC Education faculty professor, stressed the importance of training and supports that meet the changing needs of students and staff. Hymel stated, “My feeling is that we’re running on an economic model as opposed to a child-focused model”.

Agreed.

This is also, sadly, not news. Education systems have been financially gutted over the past decades to pay for priorities (or errors) of the government. The result is that there are not enough experts or resources or trained professionals to deal with the needs (educational, social, emotional and physical) of students.

There are not enough hands on deck for the number of students with exceptional learning deficits and needs.

The lack of funding means there is a lack of safety in our schools; this has created the crisis for students, educators, families and communities.

We need to listen to people on the front lines and we need to give them the support to effectively do their job and be educators who can support student success, whatever success looks like for individual students. There is no one size fits all model for appropriate supports or ‘success’.

Society and governments owe it to students to create the system where professionals have the time and resources to listen and observe students and create education plans that work for their abilities and needs – not rush from one crisis to another, putting out fires without ever having time to discover the source.

Right now there is insufficient funding in education coupled with outcome expectations which are not meeting the needs of students.

We need to sufficiently fund education systems so that educators can go to work and be safe.

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.