Dear Ontario students,
We are in the midst of a big week for your schools and your educators. Whether you’re in high school or elementary school, public or Catholic, French or English, your teachers have already begun job action. This week is especially important because the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (of which I’m a member) has begun holding rotating one-day walk-off-the-job strikes – which means lots of little kids need someplace to be and someone to care for them during those days.
Why is this happening?
The Doug Ford government is trying to get you – and all Ontarians – to believe that we’re walking off the job because we’re greedy and want more money for ourselves. They are telling everyone who will listen that we are selfish and that we don’t care about you.
This is what governments say every time they want to make cuts to education. Frankly, the line is tired… but demonizing and undervaluing teachers is a longstanding tradition. It dates back to when teachers were only allowed to be women (and principals were only men) and they were – as all women were – treated as lesser, servile beings.
You already know this, because you (unlike the government officials) spend lots of time at school, but just in case you have any doubt in your mind: YOUR TEACHERS CARE ABOUT YOU. We care a lot, and that’s why we are at school with you. That’s why we became educators. That’s why we ask for things from the government – why we fight for them, when we have to.
The government is not wrong when they say that it’s about money. That’s because public schools are funded by public money (supplemented by individual school fundraising), and everything that exists or happens in schools costs money.
You have probably already heard about the big money issues of this round of contract negotiations. If you’ve heard Education Minister Stephen Lecce talk about it, he likes to insist that it’s about salary. That teacher pay is the reason negotiations are at a standstill. He says this because he knows it sounds better to the public… so he lies. The truth, which is that we are fighting to get back crucial things his government has already cut, doesn’t sound as good for the Conservatives. (He also brazenly lied about the average teacher’s salary in Ontario, and many other things, to make us look even worse.)
It also wouldn’t sound good to admit that negotiations are at a standstill because the government is not negotiating. That is to say, they either don’t show up to negotiations, or they send people who are not authorized to negotiate.
What the government IS doing is treating this whole thing like a game. They’re not thinking about education, they are calculating their next move. They just want to win, even if it means their legacy is a broken school system. They are the ones toying with your education, your wellbeing, your lives. You are the future of Ontario. It’s not okay.
Sadly, you can’t even believe Doug Ford when he says they’re trying to save money. If they were, he wouldn’t have given his Deputy Ministers – who were already making 2-6 times what teachers make in this province – a 14% retroactive raise in October. And they say we’re the ones who are overpaid.
If you’ve heard educators talking about the bargaining issues, you probably know that our actual priorities right now have to do with class sizes and support for your needs and goals. These things have always been very important to us, but never more so than right now. Yes, cost-of-living salary increases are important – decent labour standards benefit all workers – but that’s not the main reason we’re picketing in the cold.
We want class sizes to be reasonable. You know as well as we do what a difference class size makes. The effect of a few more kids – even kids who aren’t struggling academically or behaviourally – just means that the educator in the room is stretched thinner, the noise level is higher, and it can be much harder for you to get your questions answered, or to get the help you need.
We want kindergarten to be taught by teacher-ECE teams, because it is a program that works and that parents asked for. Anyone who doubts its value should spend a day volunteering in a kindergarten classroom, and see the kind of patient, caring, skilled, energetic, and knowledgeable educators who choose kindergarten, and how much they have to do to care for and teach things to 25-30 tiny people with wildly varying needs.
We want high school classes to be taught in person, by teachers, instead of online, because e-learning is that much more difficult for those of you already struggling. It is a format that requires independence, motivation, organization, and self-direction… so if that’s what you struggle with – and so many do – where is the teacher to help you through? (I just finished an online course myself, and even as an educated, motivated adult, I found it hard to stay on top of the work.) And also – online learning is just not the same. The life-changing moments I had in my own high school classes all centred around great teachers.
Finally, we want more staff on the ground. We needed, and still need, ALL the staff we had before the cuts, and more.
We need the teachers who teach specialized subjects Arts, Phys Ed, Auto Shop, and so on – because these are the active, innovative, hands-on, hearts-in subjects that inspire passion, and that give students who are tempted to drop out a reason to stay. There are already high schools in my Board that have had to dismantle Music and other “expendable” programs because of teacher cuts. This is a tragedy. Mark my words, the result of this treatment will be higher drop-out rates. How can any government want this?
We also need the staff who work to protect and assist those of you with high needs. We need the SERTs, ECEs, the EAs, CYCs, and so on, because these are the people who are there for you when your life as a student is at its hardest. (Don’t even get me started about how undervalued support staff are – they should be paid double for what they do.) School is so much more than math and literacy scores – it’s about learning to be a well-rounded and functional person, which is a hard journey. When the going gets rough, you don’t need something to read online – you need someone to talk to, someone you can trust to be on your side. People to be there for you. THAT’S why we need more staff, not less.
Is it really that bad? Is it worth striking for?
The short answer is, YES. A thousand times yes.
None of us wants to go on strike. We’d much rather be in class, with you. But the government is forcing our hand. (I’m sure they’re laughing about it, too, because they save lots of money every day we strike.) We have to do everything in our power to express how wrong all this is.
When Mike Harris’s Conservatives were in power in Ontario in the late 1990s, they did incredible damage to the education system – some elements of which we still haven’t recovered from. They had many things in common with the Doug Ford Conservatives, the most relevant being A) their desire to denigrate educators, and B) their absolute ignorance of, and disregard for, what life at school is actually like.
It’s this kind of problem that made a friend of mine (who is not a teacher, but a parent and caregiver for young kids) comment, “I don’t know why the government is even allowed to touch education. Education and health care should be sacred. Why is it considered okay to make these cuts?”
What a great question.
Here is the truth. The needs of students have only gone up over the past fifteen years that I’ve been a teacher. More of you have learning issues, anxiety, depression, attention deficit, and disruptive and/or violent tendencies than ever. And it’s all understandable, given the hectic-but-often-sedentary pace our lives can take, the additives and toxins in our food, the brutality of social media, the apocalyptic state of the world, and the terrible adult role models who keep rising to power on the global stage. This is already hard for adults to manage – especially parents, worrying about their children’s future. Children should not have to deal with this crap at all… but it’s so hard to avoid. It obviously affects your lives and your learning.
We really want to be able to help you through all this – help you to follow your curiosity, develop your strengths, bounce back from failures, and thrive. The thinner we are stretched on the job, the more difficult this becomes. We won’t stop caring, but there does come a point where we won’t be able to keep up. In some schools, that point has already been reached, because we are always working with the smallest number of staff that the government can give us based on population.
I once wrote a blog post about teaching that was viewed by a lot of people. (I say “viewed” because many of those viewers read it… and then there were some who clicked on it, saw it was written by a teacher, and felt the need to comment negatively without reading.) Some of the trolls made it clear that they imagine school as this place where everyone sits quietly all the time, and the teachers just recite information to you, and you simply absorb it, first try. Boom, done. Easiest job in the world.
Isn’t that hilarious? You, the students, know that’s not what school is. Learning is different for everyone, and it takes a lot of angles and techniques to make it happen. You can tell that your teacher cares about you when you get to create and express yourself at school, when you participate in discussion, when your classroom is full of helpful resources, and when the lessons are interesting. All of that takes work that teachers do because they care.
We are all aware that there are bad teachers out there, teachers who don’t have the energy or motivation or talent to make lessons effective. (I can remember one Grade 10 Geography class I suffered through as a student in which basically all we did was colour maps and copy key terms from the textbook. It sucked. Even as a 14-year-old, I could tell that this teacher had checked out.) To be honest, I don’t know why those people are teachers. Personally, if I didn’t care about kids or learning, there is no way the pay and vacation time would make up for the emptiness and irritation that would fill a school day. To be a teacher who hates teaching is an insult to students, their parents, and all other teachers.
That being said, the vast majority of teachers I know are serious about the profession, and work to improve their practice every year. (Even the most experienced of them have those days where they ask themselves, “Why did I choose this job again??”, but the answer always shows up soon enough.)
Have you ever heard the pearl of wisdom that goes, “Do something that scares you every day”? For many years, that thing, for me, was my job. Every day. I’m a borderline introvert, and I’m not naturally a disciplinarian or even very bossy. Every time the bell would ring for class to resume, I’d feel the swoop of anxiety in my stomach. People say you know by the end of your first five years whether teaching is for you, but for me it took a decade to be sure that I wanted to stay. It was, to put it mildly, not an easy road. I eventually developed my own strategies to go with my own teaching personality, and now I really can say, without hesitation, that I love my job – because of you. (But it’s still not easy.)
And in case you’re wondering how far the care extends, I can speak for myself only on that, but it’s pretty far. Back in November, our school had to go into lockdown unexpectedly. I was in my portable with a Grade 2 class. We had not been warned about it, so I had to assume it was real (while calmly treating it as a drill for the sake of the kids). For teachers, it’s hard not to picture the worst. It’s hard not to picture Newtown. My portable only locks from the outside, so as I stepped out, I hoped fervently that I wouldn’t be shot – how would I protect my students? How would they ever get over witnessing such a thing? As I huddled underneath the windows with all those 7-year-olds, the same age as my daughter, all being as quiet as we could possibly manage, I could absolutely understand how teachers have used their own bodies to shield their students from danger. Especially in elementary school, the Mama Bear instinct applies to all children in our care. As it turned out, the lockdown was due to an unknown person in the building who was not a danger at all – but it has never been clearer how much my students matter to me.
You, the students, are what makes teaching hard. You are also what makes teaching worthwhile.
You all come to school with needs, some of which we can meet at school and some of which we can’t. Some of you need quiet, and some of you need to process verbally. Some of you learn through movement, and some of you really need to write to understand. Academics aside, some of you need a lot of help just to get through a day surrounded by peers. Some of you don’t get enough to eat. Some of you deal with a really rough time at home. Some of you have undergone trauma we wouldn’t wish on anybody. Many of you are anxious, about school or life in general. You each bring your own distinct set of challenges, and it is our job to help you learn along with those.
You also bring your quirky personality, your unique sense of humour, your individual perspective, your extraordinary talents, your deep thoughts, your limitless breakthrough potential, your beauty that is yours alone. Sometimes you bring kindness or insight that makes our hearts want to burst. Sometimes simply witnessing your journeys makes us cry.
This is why we’re fighting. We just want to do right by you.
Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, to you and to your families who support this effort, for all the different ways you express it. It means so much to know that we are in this together. Every little bit helps.
And P.S.: Thanks, fellow educators, for the solidarity… and for caring. These times are no fun, but we can still be great at what we do – for the kids.
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