Bring Back Specialist Teachers

Back in the day (I always feel so old whenever I say that) I remember we used to have a full-time librarian, an in-school nurse, a guidance counsellor, as well as design/technology and family study teachers. Nowadays, some of these teachers are so rare to see in elementary schools; there seems to be a huge decline in specialist teachers across the province. Instead of eliminating these specialist teachers in elementary schools, students should be having access to more of these specialist educators. By this, I also mean specialists in various subject areas such as the arts (music, visual art, drama, dance) and in core subjects (literacy, numeracy, science and social studies). Under the current provincial funding formula, the majority of Ontario schools don’t have access to these specialist educators and, to me, that is a huge detriment to the education system in our province.

 

What are specialist teachers?

While there is a formal definition by the Ontario College of Teachers, the day-to-day definition of a specialist teacher might change depending on one’s professional perspective and philosophy. Specialist teachers bring a wide range of both formal qualifications as well as informal learning and experiences to their classrooms. They are specifically trained (often through additional qualification courses) in the subject matter to which they teach. Funding for schools also plays a role in the way schools and school boards access and utilise specialist teachers. There continues to be a disparity between urban and rural schools in relation to the availability of, and access to, specialist teachers in a variety of settings and subjects. As the number of specialist teachers continues to decline across the province, it will affect the administration and organization of the education system and the allocation of resources. This will undoubtedly have a huge impact on student choices, student mental health and student success.

 

What does the literature say about specialist teachers? 

The literature seems to say that as the curriculum goes through revisions, year after year, and students move into higher grades, the subject matter increases in complexity and therefore the skills, content and expertise required by educators also increase. Specialist teachers are additionally trained to understand, interpret and deliver curriculum to students with more effective pedagogical strategies to reach all learners with diverse needs and to improve student overall success and achievement. These teachers themselves report feeling more confident in their understanding of the curriculum and more prepared to teach in their specialist field compared to other teachers. However, it is important to note that the magnitude of a well prepared, effective and confident teacher in the classroom cannot always be measured in a tangible way. The focus here is really on the overall success, achievement and wellbeing of students. 

 

What does the literature say about the relationship between specialist teachers and student achievement? 

Bring back specialist teachers to elementary education! Specialist teachers are able to deliver a high quality and rigorous program for all students. However, the evidence on whether such instruction leads directly to improved student achievement remains inconclusive. More research is needed in this area to make any substantive claims on the effectiveness of specialist teachers. I think that more specialist teachers in elementary schools, however, would likely serve to support students positively and contribute to their social, emotional and intellectual development. I think that specialist teachers are an important aspect to ensuring high quality education for all students and therefore should be a consideration for any successful education system. 

ETFO completed a literature review of research that examines the effectiveness of specialist teachers to the quality of education in elementary schools. The 2015 review reveals that, “Overall, the literature surrounding specialist teachers in a range of content areas appears to support the claim that specialist teachers can positively impact student achievement and contribute to student success at the elementary level.” You can find more information on the following ETFO website: 

The Importance of Specialist Teachers

if you are not learning…

Fill in the blank.
As an educator there is always something to______________:

  • do
  • feel
  • learn
  • repeat
  • unlearn
  • lean into
  • chase after
  • reflect upon
  • run away from
  • learn more from
  • do better next time
  • experience differently

Each of the above resonate with me as a reflective practioner/teacher and as I look back, my thoughts keep returning to whether I see myself learning alongside my students or not?

It isn’t the first time I’ve tossed this thought around. Believing I was on the verge of an intellectual breakthrough to explain it all, this time I wrote, “If you are not learning, then you are not teaching” in an earlier draft of this post. A rhetorical call to action if you will.

Knowing that there is nothing new under the sun (Proverbs), I wanted to check if this brilliant quote was mine or would it be attributed to someone else unbeknownst to me? Enter American economist Vernon L Smith*. Well it was fun while it lasted, but that did not take away from the quote’s truth in my mind. If I wasn’t learning then I was not teaching. So I asked myself,
“Self?”
“Yes.”
“Are you learning?”
“Yup.”
“How do you know?”
“I’ll get back to you.”

It is within this meditative metacognitive space where I frequently find myself dwelling this year. Maybe it’s because the season we’re enduring makes things seem bleak. Or maybe the extended time indoors during global pandemic allows time to make some sense out of things that exist within and beyond our control. Cue the next quote from Smith.

“I believe that all learning is ultimately a form of self-education. That formal schooling is simply a way of introducing you to how to learn. And I think, at some point in my own education, I realized that the most important thing I was learning was that I was learning to learn. It became a lifelong endeavor.”  Vernon L. Smith

After ruminating on this quote, I started wondering whether the conditions created in my class each day genuinely allowed learning to learn to occur? Was it possible to continue being “the guide on the side”(Garfield Gini-Newman) or did I need to model learning how to learn more for them? Were the resources I was curating and creating providing a rigourous, but not spirit crushing challenge or was I underestimating their abilities as learners? Did my students have time to develop their own curiosities rather than those prescribed in the curriculum, and if so were they inspired and empowered to do so?

I wish there was an absolutely definite yes here, but it is not that simple. At least not yet.

Here’s the tricky part, I think that this is happening in some ways in my classroom, but now find myself with a new challenge to learn how to really know it. Suddenly, I feel that some of the pressure around this has been removed. Maybe the reflection had to happen in order to organize my perspective here? As the lead learner in the classroom there is always more to learn. As the guide on the side, I can always “bend, blend, or break” (David Eagleman)  what we are learning to help students go further than in days before.

Like most classrooms, what worked before is not guaranteed to work again or like it did. This in itself  has been an incredible thing to learn. Perhaps acceptance is a more apt term? How often do teachers find themselves holding on to something that worked in the past, but is not working now yet hoping it will miraculously work again in the future? Teachers need to accept that everything we do is done at the speed of education. Whether a day lags on the tarmac waiting for takeoff or jets off at the speed of sound each can lead us to discover and develop some profoundly creative skills if we approach it as pilots and not as passengers.

One final thought.

Remember earlier when I asked myself “are you learning?” I asked again. This time the reply came back as, “As I learn so will I teach.” Thank you for reading. Feel free to share this post and to leave a comment to continue the conversation.

*There is comfort in the knowledge that the quote above is attributed to a Nobel Prize winning thinker because before checking, I thought the words above were mined straight out of my mind. Needless to say, I am happy to share a common thought in esteemed company. Searching out the source of the quote also allowed me to discover some of Smith’s other vast body of work in economics.

what i could’t learn in teacher’s college

12 months in a faculty of education prepared me for a lot of things, but not everything. How could it? Pedagogy, planning, pragmatism, and patience were all part of a very practical preparation and positive preview of what was to come for me as an educator .

Yet, even with rigorous academic, practicum, and professional development poured into the program, a paucity existed due to the finite amount of time for the program to cover the vast scope and variables that are the job. In defence of faculties, it would take several years to cover them and even then, only partially. Perhaps not being prepared for every eventuality was a good thing for me as a teacher because it allowed me to find solutions that did not have their origins in a textbook, but rather ones which were created for each specific moment and context?

I think that there has to be room included in formation of teaching candidates that focuses on situational problem solving. This is where life experience(s) can help out. As a teacher candidate in my forties, I found it interesting to compare worldviews and perspectives, with colleagues who were half my age. It was the times over coffee and in between lectures where some ageless bonds were formed that continue to this day. I also learned that wisdom was ageless as my younger peers so often shared when it came to our discussions about educators having to teach far beyond the curriculum in order to support their students. By beyond, I mean that we had to navigate how we were going to bring humanity into the classroom too.

Outside of lesson planning, curriculum, philosophy of education, and the Education Act there was a lot to cover. I really appreciated the time spent in equity and special education training where we were given numerous real life situations from the classroom to consider and receive coaching on how to best respond. Some of this was really helpful because I at least had a set of tools, but even then there was room for so much more in the kit.

I especially liked the book Beyond Heroes and Holidays and highly recommend giving it a read as a way of sparking staff conversations around racism and equity or as a supportive guide to deeper personal growth. And then came the day when I realized I needed more than that.

Although the seeds were planted in teacher’s college, they did not break through until I was in the classroom where I had to confront a student using racist slurs.

I can still almost feel the time slow down as the blood rushed through my body when it happened. Did I really just hear a student say that? I am pretty sure that my surprise and disappointment were visceral. This was an eye opener for me because that moment did not come with a lesson. Once again, experience became the teacher. What was surprising in that situation was how emotional it all felt. I struggled to process my own responses.

I know that I learned a lot from that event, but knew that my rosy perceptions of innocent school aged children now included a few storm clouds. Hearing from experienced mentor educators added to my comfort and discomfort level all the while building up confidence in the aftermath. It was here where my own experiences and beliefs were transformed into actionable responses rather than reactions in a moment. #learnbeyondthetextbook

Recent news of teachers experiencing anti-Semitic hate perpetuated by students in elementary/middle schools reminds us all that even though we are prepared for some things, we are not prepared for all, especially when it comes to hatred, assault, bigotry or racism. After events like these, it is crucial to have a trusted person to speak with about them. This could be a mentor teacher or administrator who can help process what happened and debrief with you. They can also be there to support you as you overcome. No educator should go through it by themselves

For teachers looking to find or become a mentor, check out the Mentoree website. After years of waiting, I recently joined myself.

I really believe that there are two key elements that need to accompany a B.Ed degree – mentorship and life experience. The absence of one or both will send new teachers out for many challenging days ahead filled with many tests, but few lessons beforehand. And maybe that’s how it is meant to be. A journey of discovery, cutting your path through new spaces. Solving problems as they happen while gathering the tools, surviving the experiences, and keep trying to move forward.

It is so important that educators, regardless of experience, connect with each other whether formally or informally. The days of teachers needing to feel like siloed lone wolves solving every problem that comes their way or its failure thinking are gone. They may or may not be in your building, but there are caring educators willing to offer support, lend an ear, or give advice when asked. Feel free to reach out anytime.

Possible future blog post content below

Since I recommended getting a copy of Beyond Heroes and Holidays, here seems like a good place to suggest some other important must reads for anti-racist educators;

  1. We Want to Do More than Survive – by Bettina L Love
  2. All our Relations – by Tanya Talaga
  3. The Skin We’re In – by Desmond Cole
  4. Black in School – by Habiba Cooper Diallo
  5. Biased – by Jennifer Eberhardt
  6. Caste – by Isabel Wilkerson
  7. 21 Things  You May Not Know About the Indian Act – by Bob Joseph

Feel free to share some of the texts that have pushed you beyond your comfort zones in the comments below. I am always open for book recommendations.

Compassion Fatigue and Teacher Burnout

It is no secret to educators that teaching is an occupation of high stress.  A Johns Hopkins University study ranked teaching as the 4th most stressful job of all occupations.  Educators know that the job is stressful, but sometimes it helps to put a name to something in order to help us cope.  Sometimes, it is enough to know that others are going through what we are going through in order to come to terms with our own feelings. Recently during a webinar workshop from “Right to Play,” the facilitators referred to what some educators are experiencing right now as “compassion fatigue.”  I had heard of this phenomenon relating to emergency response occupations, but I had never really thought about it in terms of education.  What we may consider “stress” in the teaching profession may be explained in better detail by examining compassion fatigue.

According to Joanna Krop, author of  “Caring without Tiring: Dealing with Compassion Fatigue Burnout in Teaching,” compassion fatigue “is a form of burnout characterized by extreme mental, emotional and spiritual exhaustion, and it’s an occupational hazard in the caring professions.”

Teacher burnout is not something new.  Recently, however, there have been a number of articles written on the topic of teacher burnout.  A few days ago, the CBC released and article with the results of a survey completed by 2,000 teachers about the pressures in education. One third of the respondents are thinking about retiring or seeking a new career.  One third.  Some educators cite that the pressure and stress is coming from trying to maintain the best educational experiences possible for students while also trying to adhere to pandemic rules and guidelines.  Teachers hold themselves to a high level of integrity and service in their work, in addition to wanting to help their students and their families.  Then add a global pandemic on top of the regular burnout reasons.  As if that wasn’t enough, there are so few teachers available for daily occasional work that teachers feel more guilty than ever when they need to take time for their health.  For many educators, teaching isn’t the only thing that is leading to that compassion fatigue as many teachers have the added pressures of taking care of children and/or aging parents. The most challenging aspect of burnout is that what seems to be the biggest factor in burnout is dedication to the job.  The more dedicated the teacher, the more apt they are to experience burnout. Teachers are burning out because they care.  Hardly seems fair.

The question becomes then, how do we counteract compassion fatigue and burnout? From what I’ve researched, it is all of the things that we know are good for our mental health:

  • figure out what you can control and what you can’t and focus on what you can control
  • temper your expectations of yourself and your work (remember that we are in the middle of a global pandemic and the circumstances are different)
  • small steps towards getting outside, eating betting, exercising and doing creative things
  • surround yourself with supportive people and trusted colleagues
  • be aware of toxic positivity or the rabbit hole of complaining about things
  • show your true self to your students, be authentic so that your students have permission to be authentic too
  • quiet time for yourself and for being mindful

All of that sounds wonderful.  All of it sounds like common sense.  However, it isn’t as easy to put into practice as all of the research makes it sound.  This can appear of just another long list of things to do added to an already long list of things to do. Sometimes burnout can get to a point where you feel immobilized or you may even be at the point that just getting through the next breath is all that you can plan.  As someone who generally plans the menu of meals for our family a week in advance so that we can do our groceries, I know the chaos I feel with uncertainty.  Right now my plan is to try to be patient and gentle with myself.  Everything is going a hundred miles an hour and I keep thinking that I have to keep up or somehow I’ll miss the bus.  However, I also know that if I get to the point of exhaustion, I become less self aware and I’ll end up getting run over by the bus and won’t be good to anyone.

It feels like an impossible task to willingly accept less of myself than I normally expect.  I feel like I will let others down.  However, if I don’t temper the expectations that I have of myself and my work I’m going to have tire tracks on my back and that won’t be good for anyone.

Seniority Matters

Seniority in teaching matters because there is much documented research showing that teachers must practice up to eight years before they develop efficacy in their practice. In the British VITAE study of 300 teachers in 100 schools, authors Day, Sammons, Stobart, Kingston, and Gu (2007) showed that teachers’ levels of confidence and self-efficacy continue to grow until around the 7 to 8 year mark. After 8 years, teachers reached a significant turning point in their professional development (Day et al., 2007).

The 7th year of teaching is significant as it marks about 10,000 hours of teaching practice. Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, states that in order to master any skill it takes “to a large extent, a matter of practicing … for a total of around 10,000 hours” (Gladwell, 2008). This make sense because teaching is a complex and challenging profession and as a result it takes over 7 years to develop high levels of professional efficacy. Further to this, as teachers’ professional knowledge grows, so does their professional judgement.

In the early years of teaching, there is a great deal of trial and error in developing practices that work with students. I content that this process, while occurring less often, is an ongoing part of teachers’ practices as teachers must meet the needs of many students. This results in developing a myriad of strategies implemented in tandem with many students’ needs.

I personally know that if I need collegial advice, I approach the most senior teachers in my school, as they have the depth of experience and knowledge to guide me. Further, teachers with extensive experience know that the work of teaching is complex, and it is naïve to believe that simple solutions will address complex challenges with students’ learning.

To imply that older teachers should not be teaching because of declining efficacy is to imply that other professionals such as older doctors, lawyers, and politicians should do the same.

I dedicate this blog to courageous teachers who strive to work with their colleagues and do the best for their students day after day.

I believe that when working collaboratively, teachers are better together.

Collaboratively Yours,

Deb Weston, PhD

References

Day, C., Sammons, P., Stobart, G., Kingston, A., & Gu, Q. (2007). Teachers matter: Connecting lives, work and effectiveness. Maidenhead, UK: Open University

Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The story of success. Hachette UK.

 

Celebrating us

We did it.

We brought another amazing decade of learning to a succesful close with passion, creativity, and purpose. For ETFO it has been 21 impactful years in the service of public education, students, and educators.

It’s my 11th year as an ETFO member, and I am looking back at the past decade with some mixed feelings. Perhaps it is a function of the time of year when all of the best and worst lists are being shared in the media? Regardless, I am thankful to be an educator who works with wonderful students and amazing staff at a great school.

On the other hand, I am also intrepid about what is continuing to widening gap between student needs and the resources with which to support them. What will the future look like if government cuts and policies changes go unchallenged? This got me thinking about how instrumental the work of ETFO is to supporting us and I found myself browsing through pages of resources, messages, and initiatives via etfo.ca

Whether you are newer to the profession or a veteran educator, I thought it would be a good idea to look back at the positive impacts made by our union that have helped us get us here, and as we prepare to for 2020.

Let’s take a moment to break down some of the numbers from 21 years of ETFO:

  1. Membership ~ Let’s use 75 000 as the mean number of teachers from past to present.
  2. Days of Instruction ~ 21 years x 190 days = 3990 days
  3. Minutes (days x 300 minutes of instructional time x membership) ~ 8.9775 x 10 ^10 minutes

For the sake of my own brain, I am going to say a lot of learning has occured as a direct result of tens of thousands of past and present caring ETFO educators. Millions of moments curated that have culminated and contributed to millions of positive impacts in and out of classrooms. Millions of moments where struggles turned into opportunities and hard work paid off. Millions of students who have gone on to do amazing things. Millions of lessons learned with millions more still to come.

Without becoming too nostalgic, I think it’s a great time to take stock of all the amazing things that have happened that have ensured the voices of elementary educators will be heard. 21 years on the shoulders of giants who have stood tall in the face of adversity to prepare a way for future teachers to succeed. To all of those who have taught before and alongside me, I am grateful.

Grateful for:

21 years of lessons learned in and out of the classroom.
21 years of remaining on the cutting edge of technology and ongoing teacher training
21 years of inclusivity and equity
21 years of looking out for the safety, mental health, and wellbeing of our membership
21 years of dispelling myths with facts
21 years of commitment to something bigger than themselves
21 years of standing up for students, their families, and to make public education better/stronger 
21 years of fighting against the malicious mandates of socially and fiscally tyrannical governments
21 years of solidarity

Such success is something to celebrate. Especially, with a strike mandate of 98% in favour this past Fall. Our collective voices and our profoundly positive professional impact will not be dismissed or ignored.

While certain media factions seek to villify our profession, we know that we possess the power to light the way for public education well into the coming decades. When elected officials undermine our collective good in the short term, we remain focused on the future by standing together now. Side by side, ours are the shoulders to stand on.

As I shared earlier in this post, the numbers show that the possibilities grow everyday an ETFO educators enters a classroom. Bring on 2020!

Cheering you on everyday and looking forward to celebrating an even better future in education. Thank you for reading.

Shoulders of giants.

There is a wonderful quote from Sir Isaac Newton that goes, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” To me, this is nothing less than a gigantic nod to everyone who “tried and paved the way” before him, and a reminder of his then obligation to do the same for the generations to follow-including you and me.

I think Newton was right to pay tribute to his predecessors, but he did so implying that he was focused on the future. He knew that the past played an important part in his understanding of all things Math and Physics(Natural Law), but he was also keanly aware that there was still much work to do during his life in order to prepare for something far beyond his time, work, failures, and accomplishments. This was Newton’s way to say to his successors, “My shoulders are ready for you to stand upon and see further”. Like all teachers, Newton created the conditions where his lessons would go far into the future to a time, space, and place where he himself would never visit.

And now to the classroom

Imagine this repeating itself around the world everyday where a class is in session? We see the future everyday as we prepare students to stand on our shoulders to see further. In some ways, teachers are like conduits of time that possess the ability to bridge the past and present in service of the future. In the process, we continually build and strengthen the foundations on which we all stand and seek to see further than before.

To me, this is one of the coolest places to be as an educator because we have the ability to see through multiple states of time. This is a gift from the past, and it is important for us all to take a moment to enjoy the 360 view atop the shoulders of giants on which we now stand.*

Think about the beauty of looking back at where we’ve been a.k.a hindsight. In education it’s better known as ongoing professional reflection. In itself, reflection will always be an important tool in our collective kit. However, if we’re not careful, we can dwell too much on the past, which could then mire us in the present, and ultimately cause us to lose focus on the future – our students. That’s why we need to keep our eyes looking forward and further as we stand together to protect education from fundamentalist firestarters trying to burn its foundations with fiscal forest fires in order to fleece the future.

Despite the acrimonious arson taking place, we stand firm and united in the fight against cuts to education. Our solidarity, current WTR focus on government, and willingness to wait at the negotiating table are clear indicators to families that ETFO members are rallying around our learners even as the government burns bridges to benefit a bogus budget dilemma. Our shoulders are squared and strong.

It’s time we douse the doubt and the doubters by continuing our amazing and impactful work in education which has placed Ontario among the best in the world. Imagine what heights our students will reach when each one has equitable access to learning at all phases of their educational evolution from JK to post-secondary? Imagine underserved and under-performing students who will never fall through the cracks because there are shoulders for them to stand on too?

Stand strong. Stand together.

*This is never more meaningful when I think about the educators who stood up for teachers in the past to fight for the benefits, pay, and working conditions we have now. There is no doubt that things are better for educators in some areas, but have deteriorated in other areas. It is now our turn to clear the way and make new roads for those to come in the future. I am so thankful for those who fought for me. Even though I may never meet them in person, I am here standing on their shoulders.

In loco contractus

It has taken a lot of restraint to ignore the volumes of micro-aggressive, passive aggressive, aggressive, and macro-aggressive comments flying around the Twitterverse about education since our most recent contract with the government expired this past August.

And then there is the elected official du jour with the education portfolio.

I have tried not to focus on the orchards of low hanging fruit being grown by our current Education Minister at the behest of his leader and his agenda. Elected or not, it is imperative of this incumbent and every other MPP to serve the public better. This means, any disinegenous attempts to villify our profession through weak one-liners and scripted media apperances as a scare tactic have to end. Saying you want a deal and then not bargaining will never be deemed as negotiating.

Despite not having a contract, all educators continue their tireless work on behalf of students to educate, encourage, and move forward even though our government managed to cut teachers and course offerings, and then wrote themselves a nearly 5 month absence note with a retro-active pay raise for good measure. This is not a sustainable situation. It is however, a recipe for a toxic and uncertain future.

What the province’s students need now is a government that sees, supports, and serves them and not the interests of corporate bullies or privateers bent on profiting from manufactured crises in public education. Instead they are blasted with a daily dose of misinformation without consideration of the present or the future. Our youth deserve a future and the truth.

This is what they are getting.

In between not negotiating, there have been absolutely zero authentic moments when this elected official sat at the table, conducted meaningful dialogue with teachers, or made an unscripted appearance at a public school without a camera crew. Maybe he should read my Undercover Boss post.

Instead it’s a steady stream of steamy slurry being served to the public via social media and scripted segments. #somethingsmells

Ontario education minister deletes tweet after social media backlash

“Lecce’s office told Global News on Thursday that the location of the photos was chosen due to timing and convenience, saying the decision was not made in an effort to avoid going to one of the province’s public schools but instead so as not to create a disruption.”

https://news.ontario.ca/edu/en/2019/11/minister-of-education-statement-on-first-day-of-work-to-rule.html

“My negotiating team stands ready for meaningful, good-faith bargaining 24/7, to reach the deals Ontario students and families deserve. There is a path to a deal, and it requires all parties to be reasonable and fair and put the needs of our children first.”

https://news.ontario.ca/edu/en/2019/11/statement-from-education-minister-on-osstf-strike.html

“Strikes hurt kids. Our Government has been clear, we want deals that keep students in class. For teacher unions to leave the table, to turn their back on our children, and to escalate to the point of compromising their education, is deeply troubling for parents and our Government.”

Cue Dr Carol Campbell from OISE and a litany of very committed educators who, to no surprise, have provided the corrections and descriptive feedback. Follow the thread all the way through. I especially like the part where the OntGov will never leave the table and be available 24/7. The OSSTF is also working hard at fact checking the M.O.Ed’s claims. #onceateacheralwaysateacher

There is nothing helpful about using the hashtag #strikeshurtkids that could ever be considered conscionable compared to the budget cuts being inflicted in our province. For so many people concerned about the public purse, a vision prescription update may be forthcoming to help them see the red ink that will stain the ledgers of future generations of Ontarians. When the people are denied adequate and equitable access to the world class education system that already exists in Ontario, the costs will make the current deficit look like an OLG winfall. The shortsightedness of this will end up costing us all. #antithetical #malfeasance or #unethical #incompetance

Think of overburdened social service systems, the disenfranchisement of students who have had their course options stolen, or of the marginalized/at-risk youth who deserve more interactions with opportunities and adults who are equipped to support them. Think about the danger to the economy of an underprepared/underserved workforce. This is why we need to keep up the struggle and fight against the visionless economic tyranny of the day. #cutshurtkids

Cuts Hurt Us All

Not to be overlooked, our collective rights as a union are being threatened by a pack of budget wolves that is blind to all but the bottom line. Few if any, have ever dared to step foot into the very institutions they wish to “save” and witness the magic and miracles being performed by teachers and support staff everyday without a press conference or a contract. Now that’s putting students first. #ETFOStrong

Undercover Boss

Have you ever watched a show called Undercover Boss?

An average episode of the hour long program shows a CEO or top tier exec going incognito to better understand the work flow, flaws, and family of an organization. The show makes sure that the top dog is put alongside some pre-selected employees(often outspoken) who, fearlessly or not, walk the “newbie” through a day in the life at their job.

In most episodes, there comes a moment when a budget-line-watching-number-crunching-corner-office-seat-occupier realizes how their top down edicts are negatively impacting the organization until they see it from the perspective(s) of the workers. At this point in the show, regardless of profit and loss statements, the executive works to make things right, realizing that if things were better for the workers, the bottom line would benefit too. A win win outcome right?

I love TV. It creates narratives to suit itself. Moreover, despite a proliferation of reality TV programs, the medium remains irreal. Much like any Disney offering, TV has conditioned us to expect a happy ending that is far away from everyday experiences. If all goes accordingly, good always triumphs over evil, a hero will emerge, and on the show Undercover Boss, at least, some lucky employees will help their bosses to miraculously see the light and improve the company. This is not the current case between the government and public education in Ontario.

I would love it if our elected officials had the courage and conviction to do this for longer than the time it takes to convene a photo opp or craft a sound bite. I wonder why this is rarely, if ever, true when it comes to government and education. Other than clichés about how much the students come first and the importance of educators, hollow words do not mirror the devastating actions that senseless cuts are having on public education.

As such, we have seen neither the current Premier nor the Minister of Ed spending any meanigful amount of time with the people on the frontlines like an undercover boss. Since they are making decisions that affect everyone working in education, we all deserve to see and know that they are completely aware and informed.

I have never heard genuine words of understanding from elected officials that qualify them to make the decisions they are making which will ultimately impact our society for generations to come. In its wallet.

With so much attention placed on the bottom lines of provincial budgets, it becomes an easy target for outsiders to look across a spreadsheet and proclaim cuts can be made and no one will ever feel it without duty of care or context. This is not unique to education either.

This past year has revealed many glaring differences about how information is being (mis)used, bent, and or weaponized to suit political agendas. As such this misuse of information seems like systemic micro and macro-aggressions towards our profession, the public education system, and our students.

Which leads me to this question. How can a system of the people for the people be so myopic in its duty and dilligence? Isn’t the idea of education for all to actually provide education and therefore opportunity for all? With all of the time that governments and bureaucrats spend poring over the books, they have conveniently missed the direct cost implications of intentional systematic underfunding.

Here are some things to consider.

  1. Loss of education opportunities limits the number of skilled and quality workers contributing to the economy. That means more spending and tax dollars from higher wage earners.
  2. Economic cuts reduce opportunities for many people already living on the margins of society. That means cuts to education is a form of systemic discrimination towards many communities.
  3. Cuts to course offerings hurt the wrong people when those who can afford it can simply shift to a private school.Even my elementary students are shaking their heads about how traditional courses that lead to Post Secondary Science and Engineering courses are being limited or disappearing from local high schools. (see what is happening in my board @ YRDSB)
  4. Cuts to OSAP hurt the wrong people too. Rich kids will still go to post-secondary school, while marginalized students will have their futures moved further out of reach.
  5. Refusing to fund education to the fullest is a recipe for social disaster.  If we cannot agree on this, then we are agreeing to leave the next generation worse off than the last. When private schools are advertising that they have the courses that have been eliminated from our public schools, there is a problem.

None of the above are acceptable.

Our parents did not struggle and sacrifice for this. My mom and dad did not work full and part time for this. Neither did yours. Students and their families do not make sacrifices for this. No one would ever vote to limit the future of opportunity of its youth. Neither would a sensible and caring society allow anyone to slip through the cracks. Unless they had an agenda to undermine Canada as a civil society. The actions of our elected officials appear specious at best when it comes to education.

Our work brings value far beyond any budget lines could ever define because it brings human possibilities forward everyday. Reducing and removing opportunities also removes relationships that empower students into the future. Restricting or taking away someone’s access to education is simply an affront to all humanity. We are difference makers, miracle workers, and advocates for all of our students. We are working hard to change the narratives that have become a distraction in public education.

We are fighting to be heard and respected, let alone seen and understood, by politicians who prefer to take cover behind short sighted populist agendas that seek to serve the bosses rather than the people who work for them. It’s time for their eyes and minds to be opened.

What if every school could welcome an undercover boss(politician)? Maybe then, these decision makers would truly see the commitment, struggle, and value of our fight for students, their families, and this noble profession. My door is always open. No photographers please. It’ll disrupt the learning.

Fight on. #CutsHurtKids #ETFOStrong

Further reading

York board says bigger class sizes forced cancellation of 123 high school courses. 

What Exactly Is Happening To Ontario’s Education System? What You Need To Know

Financial facts on Canadian prisons

What is the Rand Formula and why it matters to teachers?

The Rand Formula provides legislation that all members of trade unions must pay union dues regardless of the worker’s status.

The Rand Formula was established by Supreme Court of Canada Justice Ivan Rand which was introduced in 1946 as a result of the Ford Strike of 1945 in Windsor, Canada. The Rand Formula is also referred to automatic check-off or compulsory check-off meaning that in provinces where the Rand Formula is not mandatory, an automatic check-off of union dues may become part of the collective bargaining agreement if the employer and the trade union agree.

Union dues to be deducted

This means that collective agreements include  “a provision requiring the employer to deduct from the wages of each employee in the unit affected by the collective agreement, whether or not the employee is a member of the union” and that this amount will be forwarded to the union.

Religious objections

If an employee has objections to this due to “their religious conviction or beliefs, objects to joining a trade union or to paying regular union dues to a trade union”the employee and/or their Board can, directly or through a deduction from their wages, send the equivalent funds to a registered charity.

Purpose of the Rand Formula

The purpose of the Rand Formula is to establish the legality of automatically collecting dues from trade union members covered by collective agreements. This means that workers in a trade union cannot benefit from the activities and protections of their union if they choose not to pay mandatory union dues. Even when members choose not to participate in their union or are not a registered member of their collective bargaining workforce, the worker still must pay union dues.

Why do teachers pay union dues?

In Canada unions are formed when the majority of workers in a workplace vote to become unionized. Once a union is established, members gain the benefits and wages negotiated by their union through the collective bargaining process, their professional advocacy for working conditions, and with professional representation.

Unions have a legal duty to represent their members and be accountable on how these member dues are dispersed. Union dues are democratically set by the members of the union who, in turn, receive the benefits of belonging to this union. Union dues are used to fund the cost of collective bargaining, to fund the cost of enforcing the collective agreement, and to fund the cost of campaigns union members instruct their union to support. Union dues are also used to defend workers in a workplace grievance as investigations and/or arbitration can be very costly. Further, if a union strike or lockout were to occur, members receive strike pay.

Can workers dispute paying union dues?

Legal Challenge: Freedom of Association (Lavigne vs Ontario Public Service Employees Union)

In 1991, Francis Lavigne, an Ontario community college teacher, complained that the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) was not using their union’s dues for purposes in which he agreed. Lavigne was not a member of OPSEU but was required to pay dues as per the Rand Formula and stated it violated his rights of freedom of expression in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (section 2b).

The Supreme Court ruled that there was no violation of Lavigne’s Charter rights (Lavigne, 1991) as the use of the union dues did have an expressive content but the payments of these union dues did not imply any support of union causes and did not prevent union members from expressing their own personal views. So there was no violation of the freedom of expression under the Charter and union dues were to be continued to be paid under the Rand Formula.

Connecting the Rand Formula to Teachers’ Real Lives

Teaching is a very public profession. Even when teachers are not teaching, they are held to high ethical standards. At or away from school, teachers’ choices and behaviour can impact their employment. Regardless of how professional teachers conduct themselves, they are always at risk of adverse complaints. When belonging to a union, teacher members receive the union support and resources they need to defend themselves in the case of an adverse allegation. Due to their professional and public vulnerability in their roles, teachers need this support in order to do their jobs. When political parties put pressure on governments to abstain from the Rand Formula, this puts teachers at great risk by impacting their collective bargaining rights and privileges.

Imagine being in fear of being fired when a student complains to a parent about an assessment or an adverse statement supposedly made in class. It’s happened to me many times and my administration and my union were there to back me up. My board respects the role of all their member unions, not just those belonging to the teachers’ unions (ETFO & OSSTF). It is in following the collective agreements that boards of education and their teachers can make student success a reality.

In solidarity and collaboration,

Dr. Deb Weston, PhD

 Why Collective Bargaining Matters to Teachers

CUPE Fact Sheet: Union dues and the Rand Formula

 Additional Resources

Advance Cutting & Coring (2001): The Supreme Court upheld mandatory union membership in the Quebec construction industry. R. v. Advance Cutting & Coring Ltd., 2001 SCC 70, (2001) 3 S.C.R. 209

B.C. Health Services (2007): The Supreme Court recognized collective bargaining as a constitutional right under the freedom of association guarantees. Health Services and Support – Facilities Subsector Bargaining Assn. v. British Columbia, (2007) 2 S.C.R. 391, 2007 SCC 27

Lavigne (1991): The Supreme Court upheld mandatory dues. Lavigne v. Ontario Public Service Employees Union, (1991) 2 S.C.R. 211