In Ontario, we are three weeks into the school year. Those who work in elementary schools are glad to be with students and colleagues, but there is a weariness too. We have a feeling it is going to be a long year.
It’s been several long years in a row already. There are two main reasons this year may be a struggle for educators:
One reason is that it has now been over a year since our contract expired, and we don’t seem much closer to getting a new one. There have been many bargaining dates, but so far, the provincial government hasn’t taken negotiations seriously. This means there will be more dates, possible job action, and lots of random people vilifying educators in public forums. It’s frankly tiring for the entire educational sector.
The other reason is: our schools need help, and we can’t get it.
Even “easy” schools are in tough times.
My school has been known for decades as a “soft school.” It’s a relatively low-needs workplace, because most of the kids are well-fed, well-clothed, and have loving, non-abusive parents.
Still, as a teacher who works with many classes in any given year, I have seen the behavioural and academic needs of our students increase dramatically over the 16 years since I started there. There are many more IEPs (Individual Education Plans) required, much more dysregulated behaviour in our students, and an overall drop in the capacity of kids to work independently. There are also a lot more safety plans, for kids who have difficulty engaging safely with others.
As behavioural needs increase, so does violence in classrooms. It’s really common with children who have not yet acquired the tools and strategies to work through difficult feelings – be they neurodiverse, carrying trauma, or both.
The first time I encountered a classroom evacuation was at my first permanent job, almost twenty years ago, where we had a kindergartner with a backstory that would break your heart. This child would become triggered sometimes and start attacking others. The protocol was, and still is, to take the rest of the students out of the room, while the child in question stays in the room and does the damage or makes the mess that they feel they must.
Up until a few years ago, I had only witnessed a handful of evacuations at my current school. The last few years have been very different. There are children who need constant one-on-one EA (Educational Assistant) supervision to prevent them from hurting others or running off.
One extreme case sometimes required two-on-one supervision or more, with admin or SERTs (Special Education Resource Teachers) involved. There were hours of blood-curdling screams and obscenities, usually directed at staff. They often had to wear PPE and sometimes use shields to prevent injury (though injuries to staff did still happen). Occasionally, situations arose that necessitated locking interior doors and admin saying code words over the PA so that people knew which parts of the school were safe. Sometimes even classrooms had to be closed off for a time.
Although we do our best to minimize the impact of this on other students, they are not unaware. Hearing the screams is upsetting for them; sharing classrooms with volatile kids can be outright traumatic.
The most tragic part is seeing these same children in their good moments – sweet, bright, friendly, happy – and understanding that they have been through really hard things that caused this dysregulation.
Here’s why the struggle is Ontario’s problem.
Last year, I became my school’s union steward. Before attending steward meetings, I did not realize that most schools in our Board are dealing with similar types of violence – and worse. I talked to many people who described evacuations multiple times a day, in multiple classrooms. This was upsetting, to say the least.
Then, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) conducted a province-wide survey about violence in schools. The results affirm that violence is increasing.
These stats are pretty compelling. But then again, only 25,000 ETFO members responded out of 83,000. So there was still room to wonder whether violence like this really affects the whole province.
Then, in August, I attended ETFO’s Annual General Meeting in Toronto. There were delegates there from every school board in the province – almost 700 educators gathered together. And our discussions were confirmation for all of us: violence in schools has grown shockingly in recent times, especially the last few years.
Everyone was talking about it. There were many stories of disturbingly unsafe conditions – threats, destruction of property, verbal abuse, injuries – scratches, bites, bruises from punches and kicks and flying objects. Sometimes broken glass. Sometimes children having to hide until they can be properly evacuated. At least one pregnant teachers having to deal with kicks to the belly. Just last week, I heard the story of a teacher who left school in an ambulance due to bleeding lacerations after a violent student outburst. The school setting makes it very difficult for educators to protect themselves, since protecting the children has to come first.
During the AGM, many teachers were dreading going back to workplaces where they don’t feel safe. Because they aren’t safe. Under those circumstances, how can they create a calm, comforting classroom atmosphere that facilitates learning and helps kids heal?
Learning is hard when people don’t feel safe.
In many ways, it is a tough time to be a kid in elementary school.
All the usual worries apply: learning lots of new stuff, adjusting to changing routines, making and keeping friends, avoiding bullies, figuring out to how to handle growing up and gaining responsibility and independence.
Since 1996, there are standardized EQAO tests as well, which is stressful for lots of kids (and beneficial to no one).
Also, it’s many years now that we don’t just have fire drills. We also have severe weather drills, evacuation drills, and lockdown drills. Staff try to make these events as calm and matter-of-fact as possible, but most kids glean that we’re preparing for the possibility of tornadoes, gas leaks, and armed attackers.
That’s not counting the extra tension kids often carry when they and/or their families have identities connected to the margins: queer, non-white, still learning English, suffering from food insecurity, etc. Educators work hard to practice equity and inclusion, but tragically – and especially obviously this past week – hate is on the rise. And we can’t fix the world all at once.
And obviously, kids already know that dangerous diseases exist that can spread rapidly and change everything.
I guess it is not surprising that anxiety and depression are extremely common in children (as in adults) right now. As you can surely imagine, this makes education work very challenging.
What do schools need?
It’s simple: schools need investment. Many, many kids’ needs cannot be fully met by existing educational funding structures in Ontario, and haven’t been for years. In the 1990s, the Harris government severely damaged our sector by the deliberately manufacturing a crisis and the subsequently “overhauling” education, cutting hundreds of millions of dollars from Ontario school budgets.
I started teaching in Ontario schools in 2004, shortly after the McGuinty Liberal government took over. They handily broke the Special Ed funding formula, not to mention any semblance of good faith. For the last three decades (at least), every provincial government has looked for ways to save money on education. As if education were a grocery list, rather than the foundation of our children’s future.
The crux is this: when student needs go up, funding must go up, or kids lose out.
Long gone are the days when EAs were there to help kids with academics. Instead, EAs have been spending their time helping kids regulate their behaviour with body breaks and special activities. SERTs have been there to help kids with their academic needs – dividing their time into progressively smaller slices, to help more kids in the same amount of time.
Then we had the societal hurricane of Covid-19. It’s common knowledge that the pandemic has been tough on students. (And teachers, and people in general.) Online learning, whatever its advantages during the height of Covid, exacerbated the struggles of many children. In most cases, kids who were doing well continued to do well enough, but kids who were struggling fell further behind. Learning gaps got wider.
So those needs that were already growing have all been amplified. At my school for example, body breaks for kids all but disappeared last year, because EAs (and sometimes SERTs too, not to mention admin) were busy with our most urgent cases: violence and flight risks. Those dangers trump body breaks every time.
Has staffing been amplified? Are classes smaller? Is there more money for mental health programs? Of course not. Educators are just asked to do more. (With significantly less, thanks to inflation and funding freezes.) We had an EA who was literally taking care of two kindergartners who each needed a full-time EA – by herself, while pregnant. This fantastic educator had to go on maternity leave early because she was burning out.
That’s what cutting corners in education leads to: educators who end up with nothing left to give.
Where does this leave Ontario elementary schools?
Doug Ford and Stephen Lecce claim that they want to improve the literacy and numeracy of Ontario students. This is not a novel idea. It’s what everyone wants, a worthy goal that educators have been pursuing forever.
With this goal, you’d think the Ministry of Education would have leapt at the chance to invest, as soon as we were back to relatively stable in-person school attendance during Covid. You’d think they would have said, “Okay! Let’s keep those kids from falling through the cracks! Let’s get our schools back on course!”
In that scenario, since our SERTs and EAs have been stretched way too thin for way too long, they would have made sure we had lots of people in those roles. They would have hired more teaching staff so as to decrease class size – and burnout. They would have brought in plenty of literacy coaches and child/youth workers and counselors, so that we could tackle each of the issues that were making learning harder for children.
Had they done this, morale in schools would have gone up instead of down. For the first time in forever, educators would have known that the Ministry of Education was actually trying to improve education, instead of scapegoating teachers to save money.
Had they done this, we might actually have been closing learning gaps by now. We might have been seeing kids’ (and teachers’, and parents’) mental health improving. We might have felt hopeful, and found new energy for making school the best it’s ever been.
What’s happening now?
As it is, we are getting the opposite.
This government has no idea how schools work. Stephen Lecce is barely even acquainted with public schools, or children for that matter. Their idea is to step in and take control from educators, as though mandating more testing is going to solve our problems. Yes, identifying which students need help is important… and then you need to get them that help.
At my school, instead of increased SERT hours, we lost a half-day’s worth of Resource time. Instead of having the chance to focus on closing learning gaps after online learning, teachers received a new Math curriculum last year and a new English curriculum this year. New curriculum can be a good thing, but this timing is either thoughtless or malicious.
When Conservative MPPs claim to be “putting money into education” (and I know they do, because I mistakenly received a newsletter from such an MPP), don’t be fooled. They are claiming credit for things that teachers have already been doing for ages (like literacy screening and foundational reading instruction). They also say they are funding 700 additional literacy experts and educators, which is… a cute li’l drop in the bucket. (Ontario has 3,900 elementary schools that serve over 1.4 million children.)
And in terms of negotiations, most of ETFO’s proposals meet with no response. Except for those points where the government is tabling strips to our contract, as per f**king usual. That illegal stunt Ford pulled with PPM 168 – trying to strip our professional judgement – was right on-brand.
Funnily enough, with Ministries of Education, it’s never “How can we enhance education?” or even “How can we alleviate the current education crisis?” Instead, it’s “How can we make it look like we’re doing something productive while cutting funding?” At least that’s how it’s been for most of my 19-year career.
Cuts and negligence are for everyone (except the Premier’s buddies).
In terms of Doug Ford’s government, I don’t think any of us is shocked by his neglect or degradation of necessary services anymore. By now, it’s clear that Ford is not interested in how Ontario or Ontarians are doing. He sees a problem and methodically does what he can to make it worse.
For example, it was far beyond tone-deaf to sell off the Greenbelt while climate change is ruining people’s lives, but he didn’t care (until the RCMP started investigating). Our environmental future is not Doug’s problem, apparently. Neither are the elderly people and care workers in our long-term care facilities, who rightly feel abandoned. Nor Public Health units, nor families living with autism, nor any number of community members relying on programs Ford has cut.
Ontario’s health care system is also in full-on crisis, and Ford is fine with it. Let the health care professionals work themselves to exhaustion. Let Ontarians suffer and die in waiting rooms and hospital hallways. Let it all fall apart, because then we can privatize.
Evidence suggests that’s what he wants to do here: defund public education until it disintegrates. Then establish private schools that families pay for from their own pockets… while he finds fun ways to make his $22.6 billion surplus work for him.
It is incredibly demoralizing to have a Premier who appears to have lost even the semblance of ethics or compassion. It means that arguments about what the province needs are useless. We can’t even appeal to his pride in his legacy, because it seems to be absent. Not even his image is as important to him as money.
How do we retain people in jobs that are not valued?
This is why educators – like so many public service workers – are leaving their jobs. Covid education has been an awfully long few years, with massive efforts by educators to keep the kids learning. It has taken a toll. Unfortunately, other than some fake-nice words during the thick of online learning, there is no acknowledgement, much less appreciation, on the part of the government. And clearly, no intention of negotiating a fair contract. Between the Education Worker table and the Teacher/Occasional Teacher table, ETFO negotiators have met with the government 34 times since our contract expired, and as I mentioned, the government mostly refuses to discuss our proposals – or responds with strips to our contract.
My Ontario colleagues are retiring early, or simply leaving the profession, in record numbers. Many people considering a teaching career get a closer look and change their minds. There are never close to enough substitute teachers to cover all the jobs anymore. Even longer-term jobs go unfilled, sometimes for weeks, because educators have understandably decided to do something else with their lives. For them, the stresses (and health risks, teacher-bashing, ever-changing expectations, and sheer mental-physical-emotional output) are just not worth it anymore.
No wonder it feels like a long year ahead.
A word to the educators out there:
Colleagues… thank you.
I see you: your work, your pain, and your magic.
Congratulations on making it through the educational maelstrom of the last few years with – I hope – a few spoons left. (Maybe not in the staffroom drawer, but hopefully in your personal bucket. So to speak.)
I wish that every one of you could know what it’s like to be in a room with 700 of our colleagues, and feel how united we really are. Having witnessed our admirable ability to listen to each other, discuss issues wisely, and even disagree civilly and open-mindedly, I know we are doing this for the right reasons. We are incredibly diverse, but we have the same joys and frustrations in our schools. Our students want and need the same things. The outcomes we desire for them – and strive to help them achieve – are the same.
As we launch into strike votes across the province, I know that many of us are feeling some trepidation. We don’t want to halt extracurricular activities or walk the picket line, we just want to do our jobs – with proper resources and supports. It’s not too much to ask. We want to be in our schools, with our students. We want those kids to be okay. And we know that although the government claims (over and over) to want the same thing, it’s meaningless without serious bargaining… And without listening to the people who live education every day.
They know we have few options. They definitely know they are shortchanging education. And they are counting on the public to villainize us if we take job action… which of course some folks will, because they don’t spend time in schools. They don’t understand the stakes here, but we do. They are unacceptably high. The government needs to get its head in the game. ANY DISRUPTION TO LEARNING at this point IS ON THEM.
And never forget that this work, helping guide and lift up young humans, is of sacred importance.
Thanks for fighting the good fight.
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