Tag Archives: public education

Widening Circles

Adrienne Clarkson and me

Dear Ms Clarkson,

The photo above was taken on 19th November 1999 during a conversation we had  in the library at Queen Elizabeth secondary in Surrey, B.C. That morning you had given a speech about the promise and possibilities of our multicultural society.

At this moment, we are talking about teaching. We are not talking about the reason you chose to visit our school.

A month before this picture was taken, in October 1999, we had heard that you wanted to come to our school after you had read about the racial tension amongst our student population being played out in frequent fights between our Indo-Canadian and Euro-Canadian students. This tension had been sparked by events during a court case that had resulted from the murder of Nirmal Singh Gill who had been a caretaker at a local gurdwara until he was killed by members of a White Supremacist group.  Our school had been mentioned in the legal defence of the accused who said that being teased for their Polish names and accents while attending our school was the reason for their actions.

As the Governor-General, you wanted to see for yourself if what you had read about our school in national and local newspaper articles was true.

Do you remember being greeted in 42 different languages by students who represented each of the ethnicities in our school population?

Your visit came three days after the accused were found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced. But in this photo you and I are talking about students’ responses to  Shakespeare’s Macbeth which was what my students were studying then

I can’t remember all the details of our conversation beyond that, but I do remember that you did not ask me where I was from.

I have been told that I have an accent (I can’t hear it of course!) and so am frequently asked that question. But you didn’t ask. You just assumed I belonged here.

I thought about our encounter quite a bit while I listened to (and read) your Massey Lectures on Belonging: The Paradox of Citizenship.

massey-2014-book

Over the many years since your visit I have replayed our encounter over and over again in my mind and each time have found another layer of significance.

Five years after our encounter, while I was working on a graduate paper about racialized identities, I realized the irony of this moment when you had  come to the school to find out  about the racial tension while I was in a state of complete denial of it all.

You had only recently become the Governor-General, I had only that September begun working in my first permanent teaching position in Canada.  As you can imagine, that was quite challenging and perhaps that is why I blocked out completely the images I had seen weeks before your visit.  Images of my Indo-Canadian student with blood streaming down his face after he had been hit by a Euro-Canadian student. Images of police officers opening a car trunk filled with baseball bats, not intended for a game, just meters from my classroom door.  Police wiretaps had revealed that an attack on a school had been planned. I only remembered all this in vivid detail, five years after your visit.

Perhaps the reason I had blocked out the images was because somehow my mind could not accept that the scenes I was witnessing were happening in Canada, so far away from my birthplace of South Africa, where racial violence had been legalized and was orchestrated by the Apartheid state.

Part of the reason the court case had garnered so much attention was because it was the first major case in which the Crown used subparagraph 718.2(a)(i) of the Criminal Code to argue that the accused should get life sentences because their crime was motivated by hate.

Laws against hate were the antithesis of what I had known growing up in South Africa. It was loving that was the crime.

Under a law called the Immorality Act, it was a criminal offence for people who were classified as White to make love to people who were otherwise racially classified.  The act of loving was seen as such a threat to the state that  special police resources were expended to catch people in the act. There were many news reports of people being caught making love by police who spied at them through holes in walls.

The government could not of course stop people making love, but they did ensure that children who resulted from unions between Whites and members of other ethnic groups were classified “Coloured”, a racial category on the second rung from the bottom on South Africa’s race ladder.

As a person officially classified “Coloured”  I was a member of a community rejected by the White community as inferior and resented by the Black community because of the relative privilege of my in-between position.

Though racial segregation existed in various forms throughout the era of colonialism in South Africa, when the National Party formed the government in 1948,  a systematic process began to separate the population into ‘races’ that had different rights and varying degrees of access to national resources.  It’s widely believed that this separation of parts of the population from others was inspired by Jan Smuts’ visit to Canada where he learned about the Aboriginal reserve system but some scholars dispute the connection. 

A few days after my birth, a ‘race classifier’, having noted my parents’ ‘habits, education and speech, deportment and demeanour in general’ and having also looked at the curl of my hair, shape of my nose and colour of my skin especially around my fingernails, designated me as ‘Coloured’, as required by the Population Registration Act of 1950.

This meant that under the law I was “a person who [was] not a white person or a native”, the latter category reserved for the “racially pure” aboriginal races of Africa and the former for those who “in appearance [were] generally accepted as a white person.” The language of the Act specifically stated that, though a person may appear to be White, they could not be so designated if they were “generally accepted as a coloured person”. This “general acceptance” depended, according to the Minister of the Interior, on the “judgement of society – conventions which had grown up during the hundreds of years [of occupation by the Dutch and English colonizers]”.

Having “Coloured” entered in the space for ‘race’ on my birth certificate meant a circumscription of my choices in life, but not as many as I would have experienced had I been classified ‘Native/Bantu,’ a term used to refer to aboriginal Africans.

Apartheid Durban Beach

Politically, it meant that I would not have any access to power structures within the government, since only White people could vote in parliamentary elections.

Economically, it meant that I could only consider work and careers designated for me under laws that controlled access to employment, but it also meant that I had more choices than those occupying a lower rung on the ‘race’ ladder. It also meant that I could own land, a privilege denied ‘Natives/Bantu.’

Socially, it meant that I could only visit certain beaches, attend certain cinemas, ride on certain buses, eat in certain restaurants, enter post offices at certain entrances and sit on certain park benches, restrictions shared by all non-Whites.

Living on the border between Whiteness and Blackness in South Africa meant that my enculturation was distinctly European, and I grew up learning the culture of the people who designated me as a second-class citizen. I did not learn the languages or the culture of the majority aboriginal African population with whom I shared characteristic physical features.

As a consequence of my early experiences in South Africa and my experiences as a new Canadian, the concepts of belonging and citizenship are ones I grapple with when I try to articulate what they mean to me. I’m not even sure I’m succeeding in expressing what they mean to me here. But please bear with me.

At the time this photo was taken, I had not yet begun teaching the Humanities Co-op, a program that continues to feed my soul in the face of the ongoing assault against public education by our BC Liberal government.

Strike photo

The Humanities Co-op provides a way for me to offer students experiences that I hope will lead them to a realization of the many ideas about belonging and citizenship that you mention in your Massey lectures, ideas that I wish I could express as well as you do.

In a Humanities Co-op, Grade 11 students have all their courses for one semester with the same teacher who is responsible for teaching the academic courses and for monitoring the students when they are out of school for six weeks of work experience.

The model was first designed in the 1970s as a pre-employment program consistent with the ‘education for human capital’ goal for education but I have interpreted the structure of the program to be a powerful vehicle for social transformation instead.

Originally intended as a ‘co-operation’ between the fields of education and business, the model was supposed to prepare students for the world of work with its characteristic competitive, alienating and hierarchical structures. Whether or not a teacher actively tries to create collaboration and connectedness in the classroom, a sense of community arises naturally from the day to day interactions between students who share the same space for six hours each school day.

Because QE’s student population is comprised of 46 ethnicities, our classrooms are like a microcosm of the global village with a range of cultures and beliefs. This is fertile ground for seeds of transformative ideas about belonging and citizenship.

For the past fifteen  years,  I have seen my teaching role as not only covering learning outcomes in academic courses, but also nurturing collaboration within a caring classroom community. While I prepare students for their work experience placements, the main focus of my program is not the world of work so much as the work of social transformation. In other words, my work is the exploration of what it means to belong and to be a citizen.

Students’ exploration of the concept of citizenship is facilitated by an online simulation (created by a brilliant friend and colleague) the Civic Mirror, which turns our classroom into a country with a government and an economy.

The Civic Mirror

Through online and face-to-face interactions, the simulation provides a space for students to grapple with political, economic and social issues.  Students “live” in a simulated country in which they elect a government, trade goods and services and perform many roles of citizens in the real world. 

The brilliance of the simulation’s structure is that unless citizens co-operate, their country will disintegrate into chaos with catastrophic consequences for everyone. They learn fairly quickly that citizenship is not something that is simply acquired like a badge but that it involves a careful balancing of individual and group needs.

But before students are ready for this exploration, they engage in activities aimed at breaking down the barriers between them, built up as a consequence of the structured separation and competition in schools.

From the moment they enter my classroom, students are in situations that provide opportunities for them to check and change what they think they know about themselves and about each other. They are challenged to learn something about themselves that may surprise them, to discover something about others that they did not know even though they have “known” that person since elementary school. Through experiences and discussions, they slowly learn to see each other quite differently.

This student’s year-end reflection is typical of the kinds of transformation in attitudes that I am always hoping for:

Before going into [this class] I saw people very differently. I never wanted to talk to people who were classified as the “freaks” or even the “geeks”. I always thought they were different than me and I didn’t want to interact with them. The first month of school was an introduction to a new perspective. Seeing how the “freaks” and “geeks” were didn’t bother me… Just because they didn’t do the girlie things that I do, I thought that they were different. On the field trip I got to interact with a lot of my peers that I most likely would have never talked to in such depth with when I was in school. I learnt a lot more about who they were and how they saw aspects differently from me, and to my surprise they weren’t any different than me. Some girls on the field trip couldn’t eat beef because their religion so I asked them questions on it and learnt a lot more about their religion. Before the field trip I would have thought that was stupid, but since I took the time out to ask and learnt how to listen to other people’s views, I learnt the respect that they have for themselves and their background.

Reading  these kinds of reflections each year feels like a healing to me. There is something about watching my students learning about each other (“bonding” in teenspeak) and working together in new ways that gives me hope for the future of our civilization.

I could share many other stories, stories that had not yet happened when we met all those years ago. I have a sense you would be interested in them, given your work during your tenure as Governor-General and since.

Next week I will greet my 2015 Humanities Co-op class. One of our activities for the first week of the semester, synchronistically the start of Black History Month,  will be to read and discuss your second lecture, the one you presented in Halifax, the one that references the destruction of Africville.

I should confess that I listened to your lectures out of sequence. I was first drawn to fourth one, on ubuntu, mesmerized by your images of Madiba’s memorial, comparing them with my own memories of the broadcast. As the lecture continued I was riveted by your argument about a kind of ubuntu existing in Canada.  I found myself agreeing with you until my mind recalled all that has happened in Canada during the Harper years.

I suspect that if we met today we’d have much to talk about beyond the violence in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.  We could talk about my “two degrees of separation” from Madiba. We could talk about why I believe adopting an ubuntu philosophy is the only way we will have any hope of surviving climate change. Or we could talk about my amazing students who, every day, fill my heart with hope and love.

Yours sincerely,

Lizanne

Can Teachers Save Civilization?

Road

(An updated version of this post is published by Huffington Post BC)

[T]he task is to articulate…an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis – embedded in interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy. …Because in the hot and stormy future we have already made inevitable through our past emissions, an unshakeable belief in the equal rights of all people and a capacity for deep compassion will be the only things standing between civilization and barbarism. (This Changes Everything, page 462)

Naomi Klein may not have had our public education system in mind when she made this call to action in the final chapter of her book This Changes Everything  but let’s consider the possibility that our public schools could provide a place for the exploration and practice of an an alternative worldview, one that could save civilization.

What if, to prepare our children for the complete restructuring of our political, economic and social systems necessitated by the climate change crisis, the dominant paradigm in schools was not competition for grades but instead collaboration to solve real problems?

What if, instead of preparing students to be careerists and consumers in an extractivist economy, schools focused instead on preparing our children to be global citizens, aware of how their choices and actions impacted the lives of all other global citizens?

What if, instead of teaching our children the traditional literacies – reading, writing, numeracy – we also taught them ecological literacy, social literacy and emotional literacy, and other ways of “reading the world“?

And what if we did all this within the framework of ubuntu, the African philosophy that suggests that I am because we are, that my ongoing existence depends on the existence of others?

Could adopting the  ubuntu worldview save us from  the slide toward a state of barbarism that will inevitably exist should the climate change predictions of the Pentagon and the Intergovernmental Committee on Climate Change (IPCC) be allowed to come to fruition?

Imagine a school where students are competent not only in reading, writing and arithmetic, but are also able to “read” the land around the school, noticing when there are changes in the natural environment and what those changes mean.

Imagine schools where diverse groups of students, guided by teacher-mentors, worked collaboratively on projects that solved actual problems, gaining valuable experiences while doing meaningful work.

Imagine schools where project-based learning and place-based education were not the exceptions that they are now but instead were part of a seamless connection between classrooms and the communities surrounding schools.

These innovative teaching practices are just a few of many that teachers have developed while simultaneously having to contend with multiple challenges in public schools brought about by a neoconservatist assault on public education everywhere.

Teachers are always keenly aware that they are midwives for their students’ futures. Now, more than ever, they need to be supported in the work that they do to prepare students for a chaotic and challenging future.

Instead of defunding public schools and bashing teachers, wise politicians, guided by an enlightened public,  should realize that teachers, not corporations,  are critically important to our future.

There is no economy without an environment.

Our children’s future lives depend first on there being a livable environment. In contrast, corporate profits depend on the denuding of our land, the pollution of our water and of our air.

The kind of world we will all live in by the time our kindergarteners graduate will depend on who and what we as a society choose to support on the road to the future.

The choice we collectively make will change everything.

We Are All Connected…

http:::www.imcreator.com:free:nature:sunrise-3
http:::www.imcreator.com:free:nature:sunrise-3

 Anyone who spends time with children or teens knows that they sometimes say the most profound things, perhaps without actually meaning to. It’s as though their eyes can see the world in ways no longer possible for those of us who have fully conformed to conventional ways of thinking, those of us who no longer see the ordinary magic that surrounds us.

Each year I am reminded of this ordinary magic when I take my students on a three-day camping field trip. Even though it’s the most exhausting and stressful thing I do – imagine being responsible for 30 teens for 72 hours – I know that their experiences at camp will be what they remember for the rest of their lives. They come back to school each year to tell me so.

There is nothing extraordinary about the camping field trip. They canoe, complete a high ropes course and engage in various teamwork challenges. But it’s what happens to them in between these activities that they remember most of all.

In teenspeak it’s called bonding. And, as in all words that teens repurpose, its meaning goes beyond what may conventionally come to mind, of two or more things being fused together.

When I first heard the term I had to ask a lot of questions before I fully understood what it meant. Teens don’t always articulate clearly the full meaning of what they’re trying to express.

Bonding, I learned, is what happens when they stay up all night (despite my best efforts to discourage this)  talking to each other. The topics of these talks range from the silly to the sublime but no matter where they begin, they end in a deeper understanding of each other. They get to this place of understanding when they learn how much they have in common with each other; how so many of them have similar struggles, the same concerns and worries. They learn that they’re more alike than not, that their families and circumstances are similar despite cultural divides.  It’s this deep understanding of each other that leads them to experience what they call bonding.

Scientists would have a different way of describing these “bonds”, the ties that bind us to each other.

Neil deGrasse Tyson says it’s the most astounding fact – that we are all not only “bonded” to each other but indeed that we are “bonded” to the whole universe:

“Recognize that the very molecules that make up your body, the atoms that construct the molecules, are traceable to the crucibles that were once the centers of high mass stars that exploded their chemically rich guts into the galaxy, enriching pristine gas clouds with the chemistry of life. So that we are all connected to each other biologically, to the earth chemically and to the rest of the universe atomically. That’s kinda cool! That makes me smile and I actually feel quite large at the end of that. It’s not that we are better than the universe, we are part of the universe. We are in the universe and the universe is in us.”

Christmas is a perfect time to consider this most astounding fact about our existence.

Consider that our biological connection to each other extends far beyond the family with whom we share the Christmas meal. It can be traced all the way back, through thousands of generations, to our first home in Africa. The food we eat during this time of feasting connects us to the earth chemically and those chemicals themselves are the result of the atoms spewed by stars into the universe.

Science has long provided the evidence for this most astounding fact. Why then do we live each day oblivious of it?

If we walked through our days acting on this fact, we would not still be engaged in debates about whether we should protect our environment or not. Engaging in such debates is akin to wondering whether we should protect our bodies from the cold or whether we should breathe air free of smoke.

If the education of our children was based on this fact, we would radically change what we call school and would do all that we could to prepare our children to survive through the age of climate change.

If we shaped our economic activities based on this fact, any action that could lead to the poisoning of waterways, the pollution of airsheds and the extinction of species would not only be rejected but not conceived of in the first place.

If our individual and collective decisions, whether political, social or economic were based on this fact, we would be living in a far different world, one where consumption was not cancerous,  one without poverty or pollution, one where peace was more than a pipe dream.

We would be living in the kind of world we wish for each other in the greeting cards we exchange at this time of year.

At this time of celebration of family and of joyful feasting, I hope we will pause to consider this most astounding fact and that we then resolve to act on it in the new year.

The Reasons we are Fighting for Public Education

boy reaching for stars
http://www.gratisography.com/

 

This is a reposting of my friend Cecelia Griffiths’s  post on her blog, Especially About Students. This is a long read but after you read it, you will have a comprehensive understanding  of why we teachers are willing to forgo salary for this fight we are in with a government that does not seem to care about our most precious “resource” – our children.

As everyone probably knows, when doctors become qualified physicians, they take the Hippocratic Oath, in which they are required to vow never to do any harm. But doctors are always having to do harm. They have to cut into people’s bodies to repair what lies within, or they have to poke needles into their arms to get information to help the person. Sometimes, in horrible circumstances, usually with mass casualties, they have to choose between patients, knowing they can save only one of two or more. These are the life and death situations that face doctors routinely, and nobody expects that they would do other than what they do: their very best to help people to survive to continue their lives.

Nobody will ever confuse teachers with doctors. Nobody will ever see teachers as performing a life or death service (except, of course, when they’re shielding children with their bodies in mass shootings and things), and nor should they. Teachers don’t maintain life; they contribute to its quality. At their best, they give their students broadened horizons, wider ranges of thought, and deeper compassion. But they don’t, by and large save lives. Not in a measurable way, anyway.

But teachers do have to make choices, and some of those choices feel very, very important. For me, as a special education teacher, although I probably do not singlehandedly keep anyone alive, I do indeed make choices that have the power to truly affect kids and their parents. About fifteen years ago, when I taught a tiny class of five students with profound disabilities, and had three Educational Assistants (EAs), I made a whole lot of choices. I experimented with different communication strategies for the nonverbal teens (all but one had no speech). I, together with my EAs, used sophisticated technology to work out how much they did and did not understand. We thought carefully about ways to teach them to cope in public places, which they often found frightening or uninteresting. We dug deep and explored the ranges of their capabilities, and as we worked, we learned. It was a wonderful time. One of the EAs in that class told me, a while back, that another had remarked to him that it was the best job he’d ever had.

It was exhilarating to see the kids learn, and grow. We wanted to teach some of them how to take control over their environment, because their disabilities were so severe they’d had no way of making anything happen independently. So we brought in a whole lot of green fabric of all sorts: green whole cloth, green jeans, green tshirts, anything green that we could get, and we wove a jungle. We hung long braided cords of green from the ceiling to simulate jungle vines. We made draping leaves and created a fantastic jungle world in our classroom. Then I went out and bought a bunch of battery operated toys; parrots, and monkeys, and snakes, which we hung strategically amidst our fabric foliage. We ran wires from the battery cases, carefully hidden, to a bank of large, colourful, switches. If you went up to a switch and hit it, something happened in the jungle: a parrot cawed, or a monkey chuckled and spun, or a snake hissed, or whatever. Soon we were wheeling the kids up to the switches, and they would hit one and watch the result, and one would smile, and another would laugh, and laugh. They could make things happen!

We went on to experiment with a whole bunch of fancy technology. We tried galvanic skin switching, with which a severely disabled person can use biofeedback to change the switch by controlling the surface of their skin. We tried mercury switching, where the slightest movement changes the position of the mercury and closes the switch. Always, the switches were attached to things the kids loved: recorded music, or special toys, or a visual treat.

Those kids thrived. They were happy, and we knew it, because they laughed, and smiled, and lit up when they saw us. Their parents were happy because their children were happy. It was a wonderful time in my life, and although those kids were never going to be elected to office, or granted degrees, or even live independently, we knew that we were making a difference, and they knew they could, too. I only left that job because an amazing opportunity arose for me to go off to Australia to get my Masters degree in Special Education.

When I resumed teaching in British Columbia, it was 2002. That was the year that the current run of attacks on our public education system began. I had a lovely little class of primary aged children (5-9 years old) with significant special needs. We did some good things with that group, and many have gone on to do very nicely. But there were clouds gathering on the horizon.

Since that time, year, after year, after year, the cuts have come. Relentlessly, the services we could provide became fewer. Wait times for evaluation became longer. I went to work for an online school, thinking it could help kids who has been medically excluded because of their severe behaviour. These were children and teens with acting out, due to disabilities, so severe, that they could not be housed in the education system, and they had been offered hospital home bound services instead. But for these children, mostly with autism, hospital home bound was a poor fit, so we tried something innovative, called blended learning. It involved some carefully chosen work in a centre with behaviour management staff, and a lot of online study and interaction. It showed real promise for children who had huge trouble attending to human faces, but who did well with computer screens.

When the focus of that online program changed in the direction of catering for paying foreign students, and more ‘typical’ students looking to pick up some coursework at home, I went to work as a Learning Support Teacher in an inner city school. What I saw there was devastating. In the online school, we had had a good budget, which I now realize was partly because various people were looking to commercialize it. But this little elementary school had very, very little. The children were mostly immigrants, and many, immigrant or not, were living well below the poverty line. It was routine for most of us to keep healthy snacks at hand, because so many came without breakfast or lunch. Many of the children spoke little or no English. Some had no winter coats. School supplies? That wasn’t on anyone’s radar, so a lot of us bought them ourselves. One year, we ran out of white photocopy paper in March. A friend of mine taught her class to garden so they could grow their own food.

Things were getting worse. It was taking longer to get kids evaluated by the school psychologists, and the wait list was growing. In a given year, we might have up to twenty five names to propose for urgent assessment, but we could get maybe three or four completed at best. The psychologists, you see, were being spread thinner and thinner, covering more and more different schools. One little girl whom I knew for sure would qualify as learning disabled, never did get assessed while I was there, and I know there were many others.

At that point, the commute was killing me, as it was an hour and a half each way, as long as there were no road accidents. I chose, therefore, to switch to a semi-rural high school. By now, so much damage had been done due to underfunding, that the job I took would have been two and a half people’s work, fifteen years previously.

Now, there are three counsellors for fifteen hundred students. Three. And they do all of the necessary timetabling and juggling of courses for all fifteen hundred, so that everyone will be assured of taking what they need to graduate. This means, that if a student is suicidal, or if a student is grieving, or if they have a very serious illness, or depression, or bipolar, or an addictions issue, or teen pregnancy, or any of the myriad issues that can befall teens, that they must wait to get in to see a counsellor who is tasked with four hundred and ninety nine other kids. When they do get in – and the counsellors do their utmost best, working crazy hours day after day – they mostly get triaged, and referred. There isn’t much counselling anyone can do with those caseloads. But of course, the same cuts that are literally destroying the public education system, are also attacking other social services. The social safety net is very, very thin, and many young people are falling through the holes.

Now, there is one consistent Learning Assistance Teacher, to support the needs of a school of fifteen hundred. There is a little more time allotted, so the rest is filled by various teachers who have a block in their schedule for working with the kids with learning disabilities. That teacher, an extraordinarily passionate and dedicated person, is often in the building after six o’clock PM, because in addition to her teaching load, she has a massive case management load.

Now, we have no sensory room to help our student, who is so easily overstimulated, soothe himself and calm into a state where he can learn. The building is just too full. I actually bought a tent this year from Canadian Tire to try to give him his own comfortable space. We lined it with foam padding on the floor and put in bean bag chairs, but it didn’t block out noise so it wasn’t really what he needed.

Now, students with learning disabilities receive no funding at all. Neither do students with mild intellectual disabilities (what used to be called “mild mental retardation”), or those with mild to moderate behaviour or mental health concerns. These children are supposed to be ‘managed’ without funding for EA support, specialist teacher support, or any extra mental health services. So children with anxiety attacks, for example, or depression, are left without any funding for services at all. Teachers and counsellors, who know and care about these kids, move heaven and earth to try to ‘fit them in’ as best they can.

Now, it is much harder to get a ‘designation’ that will get funding for a child. The Ministry of Education requires that any child with special needs who will receive funding, be ‘designated’ according to the nature of their need. So a student can be designated ‘dependent handicapped’ or ‘chronic health’ or ‘severe behaviour/mental illness’. There are fixed amounts attached to these designations, no matter what the particulars of the circumstances actually look like. So, for example, a student designated ‘chronic health’ receives roughly the amount of money it would cost to hire a half time EA. What we do, then, is whenever we have a child who gets that kind of funding, we load his or her classes with other students who urgently need help, but are not funded. We try very hard to take into account how this will look for the classroom teacher, but essentially, because so many students have high needs but do not qualify for funding, we have to group these with kids who do qualify, to get them any help. This means that the students who have funding often share their EAs with those who do not. The EAs can be stretched pretty thin, and so can the classroom teachers.

There are a very great many more changes in the BC public education system that I have seen over the past twelve years, and none of them are good. Many, many teachers are genuinely exhausted. I have always been pretty healthy, but this year, towards the end of the year, just before the job action began, I got a bad cold. Not wanting to stay home, because my students are all intellectually disabled and the uncertainty of the situation needed a familiar face to provide support, I pushed through what became bronchitis, then laryngitis, and finally pneumonia. Long before the school year would have ended, had it ended normally, I was far too ill to work. Ultimately, I seem to have had pneumonia or its precursor illnesses for around two and a half months when I was finally hospitalised. I am not unusual; more and more teachers are getting physically ill. There is a great deal of stress in knowing you work with some of society’s most vulnerable people, and you cannot possibly meet their needs.

However, like physicians, we make the best choices we can. And after an enormous amount of distress, a great deal of pain and a lot of guilt because we see no other way, we chose to strike. Unlike other public sector workers, we are told that the cost of EAs is one of our ‘benefits’. Unlike other public sector workers, the conditions under which we work directly affects our ‘clientele’. You won’t see car salesmen on strike for bigger show rooms. You won’t see plumbers and pipe fitters striking to raise money for their clients to afford pipes. But we are on strike because we know that the kids, our kids, need books, and rooms, and smaller classes, and timely assessments, and specialist teaching, and libraries and so much more. And only we have a way to stand up, draw a line in the sand, and say, ‘Enough. This is enough. The children need your help.’

So we are on strike. And no matter how many people say that we are greedy, and we are lazy, we know the truth. We walk together, and we write signs, and we grieve. We grieve that children are hurt by our action, but that we know no other way to prevent continued ongoing harm. We grieve that we know how to help, but cannot. We talk to each other, and we hold each other up, and we take turns supporting our colleagues in their fear and sadness. But we strike, we make the hard choice, because it is the right thing to do. Even if it hurts.

Costs and Benefits…

helen and anne s 2
Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan

Did you know that the BC government now considers learning supports for students with special needs in public education a “wage benefit” for teachers that is “too expensive” for taxpayers to afford?

Better read that again… I know it’s a bit of a mindtwist.  It would make sense though if you remember that this is the same group of people who have redefined what “essential” means… but I digress.

Back to benefits. Now you and I may expect employee benefits to be about medical coverage or a dental plan or a car or travel expenses. We’d be wrong, according to Premier Christy Clark. Benefits now include having other workers around you to do the work that must be done. By this definition, a nurse is a salary benefit to a doctor; a secretary is a salary benefit to an executive, and a dental assistant is a salary benefit to a dentist.

So, according this framing of our proposals for a wage increase in an attempt to decrease the blow our salaries have taken over the past 8 years due to the increase in the cost of living, if an Education Assistant helps a student in our classrooms, or if our school has learning specialist teachers, their work in the school is costed as a benefit to our salaries.

I wonder if the Premier counts the cost of her assistants in the same way, or are they just considered the perks of the job like dining out and iTunes purchases?

But what if we looked at the whole concept of benefits in a different way. Who actually benefits when we support students whose brains work differently?

We all do…

In fact people who ‘think differently’ have completely changed the world in the past. They are also presently changing the world and, if we give the students in our classrooms now the support they need, they will change the world of the future.

Take Michael Faraday for example. As a child he stuttered and struggled in school at a time when the very concept of support for students with special needs was unheard of. Luckily for us, his mother took him out of school and provided what she could in spite of their poverty.  When he grew up, even with an incomplete formal education, he discovered electromagnetism.

Now I’m not a scientist, but this much I know thanks to the television series “Cosmos”, that without Faraday’s discovery the very act of reading this blog post via the internet would not be possible.

Just sit with that fact for a moment…

Imagine what more Faraday might have given us if he had had support at school?

Here’s another example.  I’d never heard of Dean Kamen, the inventor of the iBot wheelchair and the Segway, before I watched an interview with him.  In it he explained how he struggled in school because, he said, as soon as the teacher opened her mouth he felt like a fire hose was coming at him. His  mind would be still processing the first thing the teacher said while she kept moving on, and he felt flooded with information. I imagine that this is how the mind of an incredible inventor works – taking a tiny bit of information and seeing infinite possibilities.

Thomas Edison’s inventions provide another example of how much we have gained from creative thinkers. The way Edison learned in school was so different to what other students did that his teacher said his mind was “addled”.  Despite only three months of formal schooling, he gave us the light bulb, the phonograph and the moving picture camera.  All inventions that radically changed the world.

We are very lucky when people who think differently have mentors or people who support them.   How much poorer in ideas would our world have been without the mind of Helen Keller, who although deaf and blind contributed so much through her writing and talks.  Her success due in no small way to the support she received from her teacher, Anne Sullivan.

Temple Grandin is another example of someone who has contributed much to the world after having lots of support as a child for her autism and speech difficulties.  What she has done is so amazing, Hollywood made a movie of her life. In fact Hollywood seems to have more interest than politicians do in special thinkers, given movies such as Radio,  A Beautiful Mind, Little Man Tate, Rain Man….

In this century, when all our chickens are coming home to roost in the form of dramatic climate change sparking the rapid spread of diseases once limited to small areas of the planet, we are going to need out-of-the-box kinds of  thinking that students with special needs do naturally all the time.  We are going to need special solutions to the special challenges we all face. Students with special needs may grow up to be the very people who will help us solve our most intractable problems.

So I guess in some sense, the BC government is right when they say that support for students with special needs is a benefit.

The part they got wrong however is that it’s a benefit for us all, not just to teachers. Supporting students with special needs will benefit humankind in ways we can’t even imagine yet.

But what about the costs if we don’t support these students? Well, apart from never knowing what the inventions or discoveries of students with special needs could have been, we will also continue to spend billions of dollars on a population of incarcerated people, many of whom are illiterate or have learning disabilities.

Since 2002  the number of Learning Specialists in BC schools has been cut by 20% and the cuts will increase again in 2014/15, a direct result of chronic underfunding. I’m not sure how much our Premier believes she is saving and for what purpose when she continues to cut approximately $250 million per year from the education budget, but that money is not really a savings if it has to be spent dealing with the costs of the consequences of those cuts.

Supporting all our students in all ways possible is not a cost when seen in this light. It’s an investment in benefits that we will all share.

Dear Christy…

door into school

Dear Christy,

It must be so difficult being Premier of the province these days. What with having to deal with all the complaints about  oil sands pipelines, and worrying about the changes in the LNG market, putting all your plans for our economy in jeopardy.  It must give you many headaches to have to think about all that.

I can imagine also that you must be very busy and hardly getting any sleep as you fly around the province to the various fundraisers for your 2017 re-election campaign. It can never be too early to work on the next election campaign, can it?

But what I wanted to write to you about was this fight you’re having with the teachers and the BCTF.  See, I’m not a politician but you may want to re-think your strategy with the teachers. Something happened when you locked them out of their classrooms in June….

Usually during lunch time they are too busy photocopying and working with kids and they don’t have much time to talk to each other but when the lockout forced them to eat their lunch out on the sidewalk, they suddenly discovered that they had lots of time on their hands and that they could have conversations in a way that is not possible in a busy school day or even on a Pro-D or in a staff meeting.

You see, normally in a typical secondary school that has a teaching staff of about 80 teachers, most teachers only ever talk to about 5 teachers daily and then perhaps about 10 others on other occasions but during the lockout, that changed. There was lots more conversation and, I’m sorry to say, those conversations were mostly about you and what your real agenda is when it comes to public education. Teachers shared information and experiences and built up relationships that had not existed before.

The other thing the lockout did was that it freed up time on weekends that would normally be used for marking and preparation of lessons but because you forbad teachers from doing any of that, they found it very difficult to break old habits.  They were so used to the kinds of tasks they had done for years on weekends, they looked for outlets for all that pent-up energy and that’s how they discovered social media in a way that was unprecedented.

They started pages on Facebook, they joined pages on Facebook and they set up blogs and wrote and blogged and tweeted.  They wrote letters to the media, they wrote letters to MLA’s. They commented on each other’s posts on the various pages set up to support teachers. They shared blog posts so much, they were noticed by alternative media like Huffington Post and Rabble.ca. They started Twitter tags   like #thisismystrikepay that went viral across the world.  Bit by bit they built up this network of connections and information that is proving to be quite resilient and resistant to anything that BCPSEA says or does.

I’m afraid that your lockout, the one they tagged #Christyclarkslockout on Twitter, has been the catalyst for the creation of a network focused on resisting any attempts to privatize public education in BC. 

I’m sorry to have to tell you this but all the work you’ve been doing for the past 12 years to save taxpayers money by shifting money away from the education budget and toward other investments may be all for nought as this network continues to grow and strengthen.

You should see what they’re talking about on all the pages! They’ve dug up all kinds of facts and statistics and information that makes a compelling case for their assertion that a well-funded public education system is critical to a democracy.  They are now also attacking your economic policies and are referring to studies that show that government austerity measures actually kill economies. This is dangerous information when you’ve been trying so hard to focus on balancing the budget. Do you know that they have the audacity to suggest that the whole concept of a balanced budget is just a myth and that there is enough money for schools if there is enough money for investments in mills and pipelines?

I think the best thing for you to do is to get teachers back into classrooms as soon as possible. Start the year early to make up for all the time that was lost in June!  Get teachers busy with lesson preparation and teaching again so that they can stop talking to each other and to the public about public education.  It’s actually quite scary the number of parents that are now talking to teachers!

Some of these parents are really very angry that they are only now realizing what has been happening in schools for the past 12 years!  They have been talking about working on a recall campaign and they have started so many petitions!

Oh! I should not leave out the students! Have you seen the letters they’ve been writing in support of teachers? And all those videos on YouTube? Some of them are quite clever and funny. Sorry, but they are! And they’re getting lots of views too!

So you see, if you get teachers back into classrooms you may be able to  stop this network  from growing and getting stronger.

I don’t want to tell you how to do your job, I know it must be quite stressful, but I really do think that you poked a hornets’ nest when you attacked public school teachers and their union.

To save yourself and your party’s chances for re-election,  you should do whatever it takes to get those hornets back into the nest. Give them whatever they say they need for their working conditions because you know they’ve argued quite successfully that their working conditions are students’ learning conditions and now parents agree with them. I don’t think you’d want to have thousands of parents angry with you when you promised to put their families first during your last election campaign. Best to do what you promised last time before you work on your promises for 2017.

I hope this helps and that you have a good rest before your next fundraiser!

Sincerely,

Joan Swift

We know you can help

lifesaver

I cannot believe that everyone who voted for  Premier Christy Clark completely supports what she is doing to public education in British Columbia.

I cannot believe that there are no people of integrity and ethics within the BC Liberal party.

I cannot believe that all BC Liberals are ignorant followers of a leader whose views they do not question.

I cannot believe that all BC Liberals think it’s a good idea to consult with a corporation, Cisco Systems, instead of professional teachers, about what is best for children in schools.

But…

I can believe is that there are BC Liberals who are economic conservatives but social progressives, people who believe in the importance of access to a good public education as critical to the strength of a democracy.

I can believe that there are many BC Liberals who have had teachers in their lives who made a significant positive contribution to the adults they became.

I can imagine that there are BC Liberals who are wondering how they can support teachers without leaving their political party.

In any fight for social or economic justice, it is those on the “inside” who can make a huge difference when they reach out to those on the “other side”.

In South Africa it was White people who worked with other White people and also with Black people who were critical to ending Apartheid.

It is men who talk to other men who can end the scourge of violence against women.

In Rwanda it is the Hutu women working together with Tutsi women who are continuing to rebuild their country.

Even in the world of finance, these conversations happen, as when billionaires not only tell other billionaires that massive economic inequality is not good for anyone, but who do something about bridging that gap.

Those kinds of conversations can happen here too. We would love to have conversations with people who voted for the BC Liberals in the last election but who are feeling squeamish and uncomfortable with what is happening in the courts, in our public schools.

We are appealing to BC Liberals of conscience, BC Liberals who walk with integrity, who uphold Canadian values of fairness and equity, to speak to your peers in the party. Speak to them about what you feel is at stake if public education continues to be underfunded and your leader continues her crash and burn attack on the BCTF that started 12 years ago.

Are you truly okay with school districts having to close school libraries? Are you okay with students in distress not having access to a counsellor? Is it fair that students who need support for their learning do not have a learning specialist teacher?

Is it what you wanted when you voted for your leader?

Do you really want a two-tier education system in the province where only those who can afford $18 000 per year tuition have access to small classes and full learning support? Can all BC Liberal supporters afford to put their children into private schools?

We know that you are shocked when you realize that a beginning teacher, after 5 years of post-secondary education, only makes $48 000 per year and that it takes that teacher 10 years to get to their maximum salary.

We understand why you would not have known this. Given what you are told on the news, it’s understandable that there are many aspects about the labour dispute with the teachers that you do not know about.

We understand that it is often confusing and frustrating to sort out the truth from all the rhetoric and posturing and sound bites. But we know that you have been trying to do that, to listen to teachers tell about their experiences in classrooms, how they can’t help all the students who need help.

We are asking you to help to ensure that all businesses, not just the LNG industry, have well-educated, skilled workers.

We are asking you to remember that the investment that pays the biggest longterm return for a company and for a country is the investment in the education of children.

We are asking you to do what you can to protect all that made us feel so proud to be Canadian two weeks ago on Canada Day.

We are asking you to help to keep our democracy strong, to keep Canada as a beacon of hope in the world.

We hope that you will help.

We know that you can.