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.

 

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.

Between friends

This is not an actual letter I sent to Kathleen Wynne. I believe that we need to put our most professional selves on paper in hopes that we will be heard as I would like to have her hear the reality of our work. Let’s just call this a “not based in reality” blog (except the reality of the state of Ontario education is as stated). 

Premier Wynne:

Your website implies that we should be more casual with you, call you Kathleen and feel comfortable sharing our concerns and views with you. Like a friend.
Well, pour yourself a big cup of tea. This is going to be an honest conversation. Between friends.
I am an Educational Resource Facilitator. You might be more familiar with the name Teaching Assistant or Educational Assistant. It doesn’t matter the name. There is no title that can possibly encapsulate all that the job entails. I think you know that. I think you know that we work with the most vulnerable students in the school system. You know that others in our union, Designated Early Childhood Educators, work with the youngest and therefore also vulnerable students. Many of our students have mental health issues. Many others are marginalized for their economic status, their family situations, their sexual orientation or gender identity. Their learning issues, whether they are just entering the system or they’ve been in it for a while, are a big part of our focus. But there is much more that we deal with every day.
You, my friend, have been a member of the party that put DECEs in every kindergarten classroom some years ago. The Liberals said that Early Learning was important, would change the ways our students would learn and succeed. You enticed hundreds and hundreds of DECEs into the school systems, away from jobs that they loved to be a part of an initiative that was going to revolutionize education in Ontario.
And then, you pulled the financial plug and changed the plan. You forgot the promises made and the ways in which those educators were told they would be treated within the system.
You, my friend, have been at the head of the party that now has systematically pulled funding out of every sector of the education system – speech and language, social workers, teaching assistants – the list goes on. I know, you will say that the Boards are given the funding and they determine where it goes. Come on, between us friends, we can be honest. The money isn’t flowing the way it should and you are blaming the Boards and the unions.
The truth is simple: your government mismanaged funds and contracts and you misrepresented that economic reality to the people of Ontario.
But, my friend, I am here to give you some tough love.
Our member group will be receiving their lump sum payments this week. Those contracts your negotiators hammered out over those many, many, many months is 1% of earnings when it came to the bottom line (which after tax is closer to .5%). No one argues that there are people in far worse states. No one argues that this is better than nothing.
The problem is that the members of ALL the unions were made out to be money grubbing, selfish, non-caring individuals.
I’ll be honest – it is about money. That’s the way it works in a society where your value is determined by the value of your pay cheque. It costs more to live in Ontario, but wages are going down or staying stagnant. With less money to hire staff, people are doing more with less. Students are getting the best that our members have to give, but it’s not enough. We need more supports for our students and for ourselves. We need your help.
Friend, we need you to rethink the way that education is funded in this province. The unions and their members are not the bad guys. We could actually be great confidantes. We could tell you what’s really happening on the front lines. It would make your concern for the bottom line become less easy to justify.
Please listen to the people in education before you decide to gut the system any further. We want to do a good job. We want to do what’s right for our students. I hope you do too.

I don’t think you get it. Still.

Dear Kathleen Wynne:

It’s been a while since last I wrote to you. I know you probably never see my letters. I get responses, but they are always form letters. Yet, I cannot stop trying. One day I hope you will see the frustration and the disappointment and think deeply about the subject I am trying to share with you. But really, I don’t think you get it. Still.

I spent today with a large group of hardworking (over-worked really) educators. These people work with the most vulnerable students in our schools – the very young and the marginalized. The students who have disabilities, mental health issues, some with life situations that would make you cry, and learning challenges – these important people are our life’s work.

Today, we had professional development training. Some people worked on creating activities for their students, others had training on health and safety, back care and lifting, or Non-violent Crisis Intervention. During my session, we learned a lot. We laughed a lot. We heard about people’s challenges. And to a person, everyone knew that things are getting harder. We are doing more with less. We are being expected to support students while also picking up more duty minutes that take us away from those students. People are being hurt regularly – and by that I mean for some, it is hourly. Not once in a blue moon. Hourly. You think the tension of having the media watch your every move is a hard way to spend your day – try spending it with your shoulders tight and your mind always alert to the next punch or spit or projectile.

It is a hard way to work. People say, you chose this field, suck it up.

Yes we chose this field. We did not chose to do it in the conditions that the education system in Ontario has become in the last few years. Money is coming out of the system at a pace that is not sustainable. Supports for our students and for us as workers on the front lines are disappearing. People are being asked to spread themselves too thin. This is not acceptable. Our students mean more than that. We mean more than that.

We know where we stand in your mind. Our groups were the last ones to be at the bargaining table, waiting for the other employee groups to wade through the maze that is the negotiating framework in Ontario. That speaks volumes. But we are being squeezed from the top and the bottom – you are not reducing what we pay for goods and services, we are not getting any significant increases and you are stripping the supports for our students to the bare bones.

I know, I know. There’s no money in the pot to pay workers more. There is no money to have more psychologists and speech and language specialists. There is no money.

Whose fault is that?

Why is the education system paying for mistakes of the government? Why are education workers paying for the mistakes of the government?

Why are students paying for the mistakes of the government?

Nope. You don’t get it. Still.