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Archive for January, 2020

I have never liked reading the comments sections of online newspaper articles when there were issues in education in Ontario when I was teaching. They were without thought, or care, full of horrid trolls, and mostly written without much knowledge of what it’s actually like to work and learn inside schools today. Right now, I’m taking time away from classroom teaching, so that I can work on my own writing. I know I’m privileged to be able to do this. I’m thankful to take time to breathe again because, when you teach, you breathe, but sometimes you forget to breathe deeply. Days rush into one another without warning in a way that I can’t imagine they do in other professions. Part of this is because–since I started in education in 2000–the amount of paper work related to reporting, standardized testing, and data collection has skyrocketed. Being more and more connected by the internet was helpful, of course, because it meant you could spend weekends at home doing report cards online, rather than going into an empty school to sit on a Sunday, but it also meant that there was a further disconnect between ‘work’ and ‘home/life’ balance. And, to be honest, if you were a single woman, the unspoken suggestion has always been that you might have less to do in your free time because you don’t have a husband or children to care for. In many ways, that has always bothered me. Some people will likely scoff, but if you were to ask the single women teachers on a school staff if they have ever felt this, I’d venture a guess that they have, but haven’t felt safe enough to say so out loud. Sometimes, the single women teachers are the canaries in the educational coal mine, and they might be the most easily sacrificed and least supported…

Of course, every profession is tied to gathering information and reporting on it, in some way. This is, I suppose, part of how we build knowledge. But…and this is a worry…it is not the only way we should build knowledge for ourselves, or–more importantly–how we ought to build knowledge for our children. It’s the worst thing, to see a child who struggles with anxiety, have to worry about passing a standardized test, and who equates that one day’s writing of a test to their well-being and sense of self-confidence. I can easily say, too, that I’ve seen many young writers not pass the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test (OSSLT) because of anxiety rather than because of their lack of literacy skills. And, to be honest, I’ve seen students pass that same test when I’ve wondered how that’s happened because they’ve struggled with literacy over four years in a classroom. Mostly, though, I’ve always wondered why kids wouldn’t be considered literate after being in our Ontario school system for twelve years of formal lessons. What’s forgotten is that children–even in their teens–are still just kids. (I’m still uncertain and awkward at 49 and, though I don’t have kids of my own, I’ve known enough over the years to know that they are wonderful and vulnerable and so full of potential. I have always hated the day when they get their results, to see faces crumble and to know what that does to a person’s heart, from the inside out. After all, anyone’s who has felt bullied or a bit of an outcast in high school will tell you that those things are memories that linger into adulthood…)

Although it may seem too cliche to those who don’t teach, it’s actually very true that teachers see the children they teach (from kindergarten up to Grade 12) as ‘their kids.’ After a long period of time in the classroom, I’m lucky to have stayed in touch with many of my previous students. Now, the ones that I taught in my first few years in the classroom are adults, in their late 30s, with families and children of their own. That they want to stay in touch makes me feel honoured to have been with them for some part of their youth. They only ever taught me so many important lessons. For me, as a teacher, the knowledge of English literature that I have shared in my classroom–and especially my love of poetry–has been such a small part of my own learning as a human being. My greatest teachers have only ever been my students. (And I’ll always love and miss two students of mine who died much too young…Jordan and Deidre…because they are with me in my heart and mind always.)

Here’s what I know.

Since I started in education back in 2000, things have changed. Teachers and kids are more connected with technology. This is both good and bad. Assistive technology has made classrooms accessible for kids, and this is definitely good. Wireless internet hubs have helped educators connect in ways that just weren’t possible when I was a high school student in the early 80s. That you can link up with a teacher in another part of the country, or the world, or that you can stream in a university professor or a published author for part of a lesson, is magic. Cell phones…have changed the game of teaching forever. That’s a whole other blog post, and someone else can take up that challenge. It only ever exhausted me. That children’s attention spans have shortened changes the way you work in a classroom, and changes the way you teach, and changes the way kids learn, and–in turn–how they read and process information. It’s also changed the way they perceive themselves in terms of their identity because of how they consume and process mass media (body image and notions of ‘beauty’, for instance, is a big one for girls), and in terms of how their minds work. The cell phones that might have initially seemed to have been a help in a classroom have now become a real addiction both inside and outside of schools. Of course, I’ve witnessed amazing things with technology in the classroom, so I’m not against its advancement, but I’m always wondering what’s been lost as one fad in society or education gathers precedence over another.

The arts in schools, something I’m a passionate supporter of, has been–quite simply–decimated since 2000. Music, visual arts, creative writing, and drama classes have all been cut in Ontario schools in recent years. If you look to the province, you’ll see this echoed in the non-profit arts organizations, including the recent cuts to the Ontario Arts Council (OAC). Here’s the thing, though: cuts ripple. They aren’t always obvious to those who live and work outside of a system. A cut will happen in one place and then ripple down over the next two years. So, for example, a cut at the OAC will result in a great place like the Inkwell Workshops in Toronto not being able to offer as many free creative writing workshops to people struggling with mental health issues. That same cut will mean that Inkwell will need to petition writers from across Canada to donate money to publish a journal full of beautiful and powerful pieces of writing written by mental health survivors. In the same way, cuts to the arts in education mean fewer arts-based classes and teachers. These are the classes where kids can really sort out who they are, exploring how to express themselves in truly creative ways. Why, in God’s name, would you ever want to cut them? But…they are being cut in the most drastic of ways.

Who cares? I do. The teachers who work in the humanities streams do. And here’s why. Those classes are so key to mental health and well-being for our children. They offer places where kids can find and express themselves in thoughtful, creative, and artistic ways. They help them build people skills and compassion for themselves and others. The universities know this, and so leaders there are thankfully championing STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Arts and Mathematics) programming that will then reach down into the secondary and elementary education systems to encourage that cross-curricular weaving of ideas. This sort of programming encourages experiential learning, collaboration, and working through the creative process. It’s meta-cognitive and higher level thinking. And it’s creative. But, still, the arts are being cut in Ontario’s schools. The classes that used to be full of kids blowing into French horns and dressing up in costumes and splattering paint around are less and less sacred, and those teachers have to fight more and more vocally to defend the worth of their programs. They have to fight for their jobs, and they have to fight for the kids who are in classrooms now, and for those who aren’t even there yet. Teachers, you see, teach the kids in front of them, but are always thinking of those who are yet to arrive. Education evolves, and teachers evolve and adapt, but sometimes the government doesn’t know what it means to be a teacher, or a student for that matter.

Since I began in 2000, there has been a sharp increase in children with mental health issues. Somewhere along the way, there were more children having panic attacks, self-harming by cutting their arms and legs, and dealing with depression. There were more children struggling with eating disorders and their own sense of identity. There was, to be honest, a greater sense of kids being under great pressure both at home and at school. (Make no mistake: perceived pressure is real pressure to any human being, so it affects kids in an even more intense way than it does adults). It is, I think, a reflection of our society. People live fast and fragmented lives. People are less likely to get outside and be in the natural world. Families are more dynamic, and are more apt to shift and change. People don’t stay married. Divorce is more common, and a lot of people would say kids are stressed because of that. To be honest, I’ve also seen kids, though, who do better after a divorce, who are calmer being outside of a too-tense home environment, so it’s hard to say if that old stereotype is even true anymore. And, too, I’ve seen kids in the most stable of homes crumble and fall apart in the most heart wrenching of ways. Each child is different, and each case is different. Now, we have social workers in schools to help students. The work of Guidance counsellors has burgeoned, and classroom teachers are called upon to sometimes be more like social workers than teachers–even if they don’t have that same training. My worst fear was always that I would say something, do something, that might actually cause a student harm because I didn’t have the background training if they were dealing with childhood trauma issues or mental health issues. Sometimes…you can try to help and do harm without meaning to…with words.

Since I began in 2000, the stresses, demands, and expectations placed on teachers themselves have changed. There has been a rising awareness of how to support kids with mental health issues, but teacher burn-out is also an area that no one really wants to talk about. You can put up posters to raise awareness of mental health for students, but the ones who care for them every day in a classroom also need to be supported. I don’t think school boards in this province do that very well, but I don’t think society deals with mental health issues very well either, so this doesn’t surprise me at all. The stigma of mental health will always be present in certain places, and the people who say it doesn’t exist probably haven’t had to deal with mental health challenges, and likely don’t really want to…if we’re all honest about it.

These strikes in Ontario of late aren’t about money. People who don’t teach will always say that they are. They will always say that teachers complain too much, that they’re greedy, and that they have summers off, and that they leave work at 3pm every day. What they don’t know is that a twelve-month salary is spread out over a ten month period. What they don’t know is that teachers take home massive bags of marking every night and that weekends don’t really exist. What they don’t know is that teachers sometimes answer the phone at work to be sweared at and berated by an irate parent who thinks that an 85% grade on a senior essay is ‘shit’ and that you’re out to get their kid. What they don’t know is that teachers worry about their kids at night, and that teachers will sit at lunch in classrooms with kids who struggle and who just want a quiet place to feel safe and cared for. What they don’t know is that teachers didn’t choose to be teachers for money. They choose to teach because they love kids, and they love learning, and they really believe that children are the future of the world. You see, I think, to be honest, teachers are some of the most idealistic and hopeful people I’ve known and met in my time on the planet.

When I began, all of those years ago, in my early 30s, it seemed like people didn’t hate teachers. They didn’t vilify teachers. Now, that’s all changed. It really seems that people hate teachers, and are more and more apt to say that out loud. I often wonder why. Anyone who wants to be a teacher–who feels so called to be–can become a teacher. It means a four year undergraduate degree, with specializations if you want to teach at the secondary level. It means a fifth university year in a Bachelor of Education program, with time spent practicing teaching in schools in Ontario. It means spending money on ¬†Additional Qualification courses in areas where you want to improve and diversify your qualifications. It means continual professional development because you care to offer the best to your students. But, mostly, it means that you are blessed to be a ‘guide on the side’ to thousands of Ontario children in the span of a career, kids who end up teaching you more than you could ever teach them…about life and living.

These strikes aren’t about money or salary increases, despite what the public might think. They’re about people who love kids enough to take verbal harassment from the public in order to fight for kids now, and especially for those children who will come along later. Cuts to boards and teaching staffs made in a willy-nilly, thoughtless fashion, and cuts made that will ripple to affect the most vulnerable and marginalized children in Ontario, are cruel and detrimental to kids.

Cuts to autism programs, and cuts to arts program, and cuts to the very important support staff members in schools, and cuts to teachers…all of these cuts will ripple. If you cut teacher jobs to save money, you end up with fewer teachers in schools and you end up with bigger classes. These bigger classes mean that a teacher may not be able to spend as much time with each child in a 75-minute period at the secondary level. They mean that kids will be stuffed into rows of desks that really shouldn’t be stuffed into a classroom that was built in the 1950s. They mean that kids might need to share textbooks and other resources. They mean that kids might study out-of-date literature by dead white guys because there isn’t a lot of money to buy new books.

If you mandate e-learning classes and say it’s all about teaching kids how to use technology–but you’re really just doing it to save money on hiring three-dimensional teachers in actual classrooms–you neglect to consider the variety of ways in which children learn, and sometimes you make those same students feel even more isolated and frustrated because they aren’t in a classroom with a supportive teacher to encourage them along. And, then, logically, you cause those students undue anxiety. You also don’t help children learn how to communicate with other humans in the real world. You see, we have, I think, lost the ability to be compassionate in a three-dimensional and very human way. Children still need to learn how to speak to one another, how to listen, how to read, how to be comfortable with being silent inside themselves, how to be alone, and how to think and question things carefully. If they are so full of anxiety that they can’t interact with other people outside of technology, then there’s something going wrong inside the system, and adults are the only ones to blame.

I’m outside of teaching right now, while I’m working on my writing, so what’s struck me with this series of protests is how much more vocal people are about how horrible teachers are. The parents who are vocally supportive are grand, and the people who used to be teachers and have since left for a variety of reasons, are equally vocal in positive ways. But…mostly…it’s got me to thinking of how vilified the profession has become since 2000. The demands of the career have only grown and grown, and while teachers have become more and more mindful of their students’ well-being, I often worry for the teacher friends I have who struggle with their own well-being and work-life balance.

This blog entry could go on forever, and I’m sure I’ll get nasty comments and emails for having written it…but some things need to be said.

This province…isn’t the province I grew up in. This government lacks in thought and compassion. It’s harder and colder, more heartless than any other I can recall. These days, it makes the Harris era look like a tea party, which is farcical. I’m not sure what I hope, but I’ll keep hoping. I know we need to speak up for all of the things we love and care about, even if we’re slandered and harassed for it now or later. I know when you believe in something–like the arts, and education, and health care–that you need to fight for it…

…for what happens…if we stop fighting for what brings light in a darkening world? Apathy isn’t the answer…

peace, friends.

k

 

 

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