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.

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? 

Educational workers being harmed: not a news flash but a daily reality

Although there have been recent alarming news articles in the GTA, it is not a recent occurrence that educational assistants (EA) are being harmed in their day to day work. Unions who support these workers have been speaking out for years and years on this issue. Since legislation was put in place in Ontario in the early 1980s to integrate students with disabilities into mainstream schools, education frontline workers have been hurt. The funding to properly support students and those workers continues to be abysmally insufficient and the problem deepens every year. That is why the frequency and severity of educational assistants being injured is rising and doing so at an alarming rate. 

It is important to stress: students with special needs are not to blame. Certain disabilities have a component in which the cognitive abilities of students are impaired or affected and therefore the idea of ‘blame’ or ‘ability to understand the consequence’ is not appropriately placed on those students. There are mainstream and special education students who do purposefully and with full understanding harm staff and/or other students; that is a whole different situation and not part of this discussion.

The students I am referencing may not know how to deal with and express their frustrations/anger/pain/needs in a way that is understood by even the most caring of individuals in the role of educational assistant. 

Here’s an oversimplified explanation: The student has a request made or expectation placed on them – perhaps putting on their outdoor shoes for recess. This is the antecedent, the expectation that causes that frustration/anger/pain/need in the student.

The student is unable to meet the request: they don’t understand what is being asked; their shoes bother them; the shoes are not lined up the way they like them – whatever is the roadblock for the student to meet the request. As the student cannot express or perhaps does not understand the reason they cannot meet that expectation or request, they ‘act out’ – they throw themselves on the floor, throw something, or lash out. This is the behaviour. 

The consequence is what comes next: if the request/expectation is dropped (the EA is injured and now is not requesting the student put on their shoes), then the student is no longer frustrated/in pain/angry/in need of escape from the request they cannot meet. Therefore, harming the people charged with supporting them is one possible route to meeting the need to escape the situation. 

In a perfect world, educational assistants have the time to observe students, find out their triggers – what causes frustrations and how to teach the student effective coping techniques. With time and dedicated energy to that one student, a skilled educational assistant can discern what is the best way to support the student and teach them the skills needed to function in school and society. 

This is not a perfect world. 

The ‘blame’ is not the students. Nor is it the person working to support them. 

Educational assistants have multiple students, often over multiple classrooms and they are expected to work with them concurrently. This is on top of duties like school wide supervision; bus duty; toileting; lifting; feeding – the list goes on.

In this imperfect world, these same educational assistants are frequently made out as the villains. They are “not doing their jobs” because they are not ‘managing’ their students.

The people on the front lines taking this abuse are some of the lowest paid people in provincially funded sectors. And yet, they show up and take the abuse that few other professionals would ever be expected to endure. 

Is special education underfunded? You bet. And there are a slew of other unaddressed factors. But money is a big part of it and not just in special education: take money out of the education system anywhere and it’s going to put pressure downward onto the most vulnerable students and staff. 

When did educating students become a business model?

Oh right; when educational funding became a bottom line item and not based in the reality of the classroom.

So, news reports are coming out about educational assistants being injured at work yet again. Will that bubble up the chain and land in the hearts and minds of Ontario politicians? 

I’m an educational realist. The only way things will change is if the voting public gets behind the issue of underfunding and takes care of the most vulnerable people in society. 

Day of Pink

In the Peel District School Board tomorrow, April 12th, is the Day of Pink. Peel has taken a safe stance of posing this as a day against bullying in general, which is not a bad message to send to students. The Day of Pink, though, has a broader focus which institutions tend to drop from their discussions.

“The Day of Pink is the International Day against Bullying, Discrimination, Homophobia, Transphobia, and Transmisogyny across the world. We invite everyone to celebrate diversity by wearing a pink shirt and by organizing activities in their workplaces, schools and communities.” (taken from the Day of Pink website).

Here’s a video that was generated by students who are not shying away from the issues they understand to be a key focus tomorrow.

A great video about humans, for humans, by humans.

 

Take responsibility for education workers Ms. Sandals

According to news reports, education workers are milking the system. Again. Well, that’s what Liz Sandals, Minister of Education, would have you believe.

Before I go on, I need to muse for a moment about how it is that the Minister of Education hates education workers? Of course I want someone to advocate for students. Of course I want someone who is fiscally responsible in the position.

Where is the advocacy for the entire system? If you want what’s best for students, why would you denigrate the people who educate those students, who are front line and also want what’s best for students? Just something to ponder.

So, it’s been reported that teachers and education workers are taking more sick days. I have not seen the stats so I cannot say whether or not that is true. What I will say is this: the education system in Ontario is an accident (and sick day) waiting to happen.

When I began in the system 13 years ago, I was one on one with a student with severe physical and mental disabilities. The teacher in the class and I were able to manage his needs, even though I was half time and she had no support in the classroom for half the day. I had time to work with him, including providing physical therapy exercises and speech therapy exercises (both taught to me by specialist early in the school  year) and usually enough time to create activities that the teacher could give to him to work on in the afternoon when he had no additional support.

Fast forward 10-12 years and I was working with up to 6 students, spread throughout the school. It was a little like being a firefighter in a town with an arsonist on the loose – running from here to there and doing what I could in the 20-30 minutes at a time with each student. This meant that the teachers were left with additional students (on top of the classroom size that had already increased due to budget cuts) who had physical and/or intellectual disabilities. Any teacher can tell you that without students with identified differentiated learning needs in their classroom there are already 5 (or more) levels of ability within a classroom. When you add in a few unsupported students, for any amount of time in a day, you are now asking a teaching to differentiate their teaching even further. You have not added time to their day, you have not added resources to their complement of supports – you have taken that away while upping their class sizes.

Physical therapy? Speech therapy? I cannot remember the last time I had time to do any types of exercises with a student except perhaps for a few minutes while I had them on a change table – and if I did, due to budget cuts, there were fewer and fewer specialists to teach me exercises, explain the specifics of the disabilities – and often times I finally met the specialists in April or May – not September when it would have been helpful. Students need to trust you in order to do something that is hard or physically uncomfortable. You cannot gain that trust in 30 minutes chunks every other day or so.

The government brought in full day kindergarten which brought many wonderful students and educators into the schools. It also brought to light the number of students of a very young age who had learning issues. The over-burdened system of identification for disabilities and learning differences did not test children in kindergarten as a regular practice. There simply was not enough money or manpower to do this. And yet, children with needs – some with very high needs – were coming to school all day now. The additional educators in the classroom were not brought in to deal with special needs; they were there due to the higher numbers allowed within the kindergarten rooms. When a student has significant needs, whether physical, intellectual or behavioural, it does not help to have more educators in the room – there needs to be dedicated support for the students with differentiated needs in the classroom.

Throughout the system, educators are being squeezed from all sides. Educators have not lowered their own standards of what they expect of themselves. Educators want to deliver the best education to their students. The Ministry has increased curriculum demands on educators while pulling services. The influx of students with higher needs – including mental health care issues like anxiety, depression – is increasing.

Every educator I know has come to work sick because they did not want their students to have anything less than a successful and productive day. If you put in an absence and no one picks it up, you worry about your students. All day.

You never know MAYBE EDUCATORS REALLY ARE SICKER due to the underfunded system in which they work. If educators are taking more sick days, perhaps the Minister of Education should look at the reasons why. That’s what a responsible person who heads up a responsibly managed enterprise does when there is an increase in sick days. Keep an open mind, Ms. Sandals. Do not go searching for evidence to support your hypothesis.