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.