Giving Doug Ford the Anti-Bullying Treatment

Dear Doug Ford,

As you know, today is Anti-Bullying Day, otherwise known as Pink Shirt Day. I saw your video on Twitter with you in your pink shirt, talking about how we need to stand up against bullies. (I apologize, your speech was so platitudinous that my mind wandered halfway through, both times I tried to listen to it.) Most of the people who joined in the subsequent thread have come to the same conclusion I have: we have diagnosed you, the premier of Ontario, as a bully. To honour Anti-Bullying Day, whose focus this year is “Lift each other up”, I’ve decided to treat this issue as I would a similar situation at school, and look beyond the surface. I’m gonna try to lift you up.

Photo by Peter Biesterfeld via

First, let’s establish why we’ve given you this diagnosis.

What is bullying?

Bullying is defined as “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.”  School age aside, the power imbalance is obviously there, since you’re the premier. And I think you’d agree – even feel proud – that the behaviour is aggressive. And large numbers of Ontarians would also agree that it’s unwanted. And we know that it’s going to go on for as long as you are in office. Lots of time for significant repetitive and/or permanent damage to your victims.

Are you really a bully?

Let’s look at the behaviours. There’s your tendency toward nepotism – you want to put as many of your pals as possible into positions of power near you. It’s always easier and safer to torment others when you have your gang with you.

The same could be said of your attempts to brand the province as yours, with the gang colours of your signage and your license plates – even though, as we know, that last thing turned out to be kind of embarrassing for you because the license plates can’t be read properly. (Sometimes even bullies, surrounded by their friends, can have plans that backfire.)

Most importantly, Doug, bullies exploit the power imbalance by focusing on differences that can become insecurities. In this case, you’ve chosen social differences. And you are definitely making life less secure for lots of Ontarians. When one looks at the people you’ve chosen to victimize, the phrase “pick on someone your own size” comes to mind. Your cuts, made from the height of your throne of privilege, have negatively affected some of the most already-marginalized people in the province.

And so on and so forth. Even before you became Premier, while you were still a Toronto councillor, you opposed a home for developmentally disabled youth in you ward, saying the home had “ruined the community”, throwing in some racist language while you were at it. Honestly, what disadvantaged population have you NOT persecuted in some way? Even when you’ve backtracked on certain cuts, you’ve left more damage than repair.

This is not even getting into the ways in which you’ve harmed environmental policy and set our province back in terms of the climate emergency. Clearly, you’re not thinking about the future – not that of your children or potential grandchildren or anyone else.

The biggest thing that makes me think you’re a bully, though, is how your political career is not… politic. Now that you’ve achieved the governing of Ontario, you don’t seem to give a crap about the things that politicians ostensibly prioritize. You seem unconcerned with optics, ingratiating yourself to the public, or building a legacy of any kind. You haven’t even put true effort into improving Ontario’s budget situation – your budget is actually worse off than the Liberals’. Those are important things when it comes to reelection, so what are you trying to accomplish here? If you don’t want to improve the lives of Ontarians, and you don’t want to get reelected, what’s left?

Just damage. Just you and your posse, tearing down people and the systems that support them. The sad accomplishments of a seasoned bully.

Lots of people think this is about revenge, possibly for the way your brother Rob was treated while in the Toronto mayoral office. Whatever the reason for your behaviour, there’s widespread agreement out there that it looks petty, small-minded, and spiteful.

Whenever I interact with kids who tend to prey on kids weaker than they are, I try to find out more about them. The tougher the student, the more difficult the personality, the more crucial it is to understand who they are. As all good teachers know, the best way to give your students the care they need – and bullies, like victims, need care – is to be able to see their best sides… or at least find some empathy for them. Most of the time, it’s easy to find that empathy. It comes down to what or who has influenced the bully in question.

Why do people bully others?

Aggressive and mean behaviours in kids usually correlate with lived experiences that damaged their self-esteem. Trauma in the family is often a factor. These kids may have dealt with hostile family splits, addictions, violence, loss, food insecurity, and so on. They have, in many cases, been bullied themselves at some point. It’s widely agreed upon that bullies tend to have deep insecurities themselves, which they mask by picking on others. Oftentimes, they are imitating the actions of someone who hurt them.

I’ve been doing some research on you, Doug, to find some empathy for you. Sadly, when I looked up “good things Doug Ford has done,” the page that came up was full of articles about your cuts to important programs. Even the one called “The Top Ten Reasons – no, 115 – Doug Ford is our best premier ever!” was actually satirical. But I did find some things that allow me to see you as a person. That’s the first step.

Here’s what I came up with, mostly from Wikipedia.

  • You grew up in a four-child household, the third in line, between two brothers. That probably wasn’t easy. There may have been a lot of noogies or wedgies or wrestling or whatever – or it may have been worse. (I was also the third of four kids, but between two sisters. There’s a lot less potential for toxic masculinity between sisters, so I’m sure I had it easier.) You probably had to work hard to be you. And based on what the media saw of you and your brother Rob interacting, you were sometimes each other’s best support, and sometimes at each other’s throats. Totally normal for brothers.
  • Your dad would have had to be a special kind of role model to help his sons grow to be good men. Your parents were together, but that doesn’t tell me much. Doug Ford Sr. co-founded the business you’re now in charge of, and later on also became a politician in the provincial legislature, so I have a feeling he was very busy. Maybe not home a lot. (Which, you say, is what makes a “healthy marriage” for you and your wife.) Was he affectionate? Distant? Violent? No idea. But he was a backbench supporter of Mike Harris, so there’s evidence of a certain “screw you” philosophy.
  • When you were a teenager, you worked at a meatpacking plant, and subsequently became an ethical vegetarian. Honestly, you have all my sympathy there. Working at such a place is trauma in itself, since “meatpacking” generally means slaughterhouse, and few people emerge from such a place un-haunted. And Wikipedia says you still don’t eat red meat; good for you.
  • You finished high school, then attended Humber College for two months before dropping out. Well, there’s a big clue. Whatever your reasons were for dropping out, it now makes sense that you have such a hate on for teachers – they all have at least two post-secondary degrees! That must make your insecurities go haywire. No wonder you have to pay yourself and your staff so much, so that you can feel less inadequate.
  • You also, as a young person, asserted your power beyond your family in spite of your middle-child situation. I’ll bet it felt like quite an achievement when you managed to position yourself at the top of the neighbourhood drug-dealing hierarchy in your affluent childhood neighbourhood of Etobicoke North.
  • You’ve been bullied yourself in the media – especially fat-shaming, which is not cool. When you and Rob did your public weight-loss challenge, I’m sure that took courage. Everybody knows that losing weight is a struggle, and that eating healthfully is much easier said than done. And however anti-climactic the result, you raised a decent sum of money. Way to go.
  • There was that time you said you would donate your city councillor salary back to the community, which showed magnanimous intentions and an awareness of the needs in Toronto. I have to say, though, that it would be easier to get excited about this if there were any evidence that the donation had actually happened.
  • Your family also donated 90K to Humber River Hospital while Rob was receiving treatment there for cancer – personally motivated, but generous nonetheless.
  • You have had to grieve the deaths of both of your parents and your brother – your mom’s death particularly recently. My condolences; that’s really hard. I hope you’ve felt supported and had time to process these losses. (If you want, you can really up your cancer-avoidance game by reading The China Study. Also it couldn’t hurt to use your power to make Ontario less polluted. Just a thought.)
  • There was that time you took a bike ride in downtown Toronto with Jagmeet Singh and were a good sport about it – Singh said you were “very warm and friendly” and a “gentleman.”

So, what does all this really tell me? What can I surmise about the source of your personality and political agenda?

It’s nice to see that you’re a person. Despite all the comparisons people make between you and Donald Trump, I don’t think you’re a sociopath or a narcissist. I appreciate that your Twitter feed is much more professional and mature (and on-topic) than Donald’s. I’ll bet that if you weren’t the premier and I met you on a train abroad somewhere, we could have a very pleasant (superficial) conversation as fellow Canadians.

It seems likely to me that, as is so often the case, a lot of your behaviour is learned. I also think that you are angry, and possibly afraid. You are probably pretty stressed, given your job and especially the numbers of people dead-set against you right now.

The big question I ask my students when they are bullying others is: “Are you a mean kid?” Most of them say no. They really don’t think of themselves as such. When I say, “Do you want to hurt people?”, most of them say no. Then I have to tell them, “If you do mean things, it’s the same as being a mean person. If you don’t want to be a mean person, you have to show it with your actions.”

So, Doug, I ask you the same question. Are you a bad guy? Do you want to hurt people? Do you want that to be the legacy of your time in office? Because if not, you’re going to need to do things differently.

As a teacher, I’ve been struggling with a distinct feeling that you don’t give a crap about children, or about the people who work every day to help them grow up to be good humans. So my last question is, DO you give a crap about the future of Ontario? If you do, you have to show it with your actions. Show us that your pink shirt means something, and that it’s not just a white shirt that went in the wrong laundry pile.



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Why Teacher Incentive Pay and Standardized Tests Don’t Help Kids


Climb-that-TreeThe Fraser Institute, a Canadian public-policy think tank, has just released a study recommending something called “teacher incentive pay”, based on student achievement. The idea is, teachers would be paid bonuses based on high scores in their students’ standardized test results. This, they say, is key to Canada staying competitive on the world stage.

I always have to laugh – without humour – when the Fraser Institute comes up with something to say about public education. I’m sure they work very hard and do lots of thinking and research to come up with their Studies and Findings and Recommendations; what they lack is a real grasp on the reality of the public school world – dynamics between students, parents, educators, and knowledge.

Here’s what I agree with from the study:

  • We teachers need to help students excel.
  • We need especially to help students with difficulties do the best learning they can.
  • Raising children with solid knowledge and skills is good for Canadian society.
  • Literacy and numeracy are vital skills for all children.
  • It is not ideal that mediocre or bad teachers are paid on the same scale as good or fantastic teachers.

Here’s what I don’t agree with:

  • That standardized test results are an accurate reflection of student abilities and learning, and
  • That standardized test results have anything to do with teacher excellence.

Let’s first look at what’s wrong with standardized tests.

In Ontario, standardized tests were introduced by the Harris government in 1996. Since then, students are tested in math and literacy in Grade 3 and Grade 6, in math only in Grade 9, and in literacy only in Grade 10. Students must pass the Grade 10 literacy test to graduate from high school.

I get why EQAO (Education Quality and Accountability Office) testing seems desirable. The school system is publicly funded; naturally, parents and other taxpayers want to know that their dollars are going to the best use possible.

It also looks good for the government to be able to point to rising test scores and say “Look! We are doing things right! WE ARE ACCOUNTABLE.”

It’s a nice thought, that student abilities and learning could be monitored in such a neat, encapsulated way.

The issue here, as with all standardized tests, is that they are purported to measure “student achievement” – and they don’t. They measure only how those students performed on that particular test on those particular days.

Standardized tests do not reflect what students really know or can really do.

This is partly because, when you administer a standardized test, the setting is unnatural. The first time I scribed part of an EQAO literacy test for a Grade 3 student with an IEP (Individual Education Plan), and was taken aback to read the rules. I was to write down what the student said, including whatever punctuation he remembered to ask me to put in. For the writing section, I was allowed to read him the questions, but I was not allowed to say anything else. Not even small talk to help him feel at ease. If he forgot something, I couldn’t remind him by re-reading. I could not answer any questions he asked me for clarification. I could not even silently turn a page for him if he was looking at the wrong question.

Sure, for students who do well on EQAO, it demonstrates that they can answer those questions. That’s great for them.

But for students who are naturally nervous about being tested, it’s the perfect situation to send their anxiety skyrocketing – whatever their skill level. For students whose minds go blank when the pressure is highest, it’s a nightmare. The fight-or-flight response kicks in so they literally can’t think.

And for those students who struggle with math, reading, and writing, it’s a good way to invalidate the gifts they DO have.

It doesn’t feel anything like the kind of learning we work hard to foster in classrooms every day.

That’s the weirdest part about EQAO. It comes from the provincial government, the same body that provides teachers with the regulation curriculum documents spelling out the knowledge and skills at the provincial standard for each grade level. But the two enterprises – curriculum and EQAO testing – reflect completely different philosophies about education.

The curriculum documents are regularly reviewed and revised, by educators in the system, based on new knowledge about the ways kids learn best, and new perspectives on evolving subject matter. They have changed hugely over the decades, and classrooms have changed with them. The expectation for learning today is much more inclusive, hands-on, exploratory, and real-life-based than it once was.

Most teachers are happy to use and endorse the curriculum documents. The approaches that are set out – and expected, by the government, to be used – are all about finding the different teaching and learning techniques that will eventually engage every child. And helping students remember what their strengths are.

It’s called differentiated instruction: knowing your students, knowing their learning styles, and getting them the tools they need to show you the best work they’re capable of. It’s recognizing that if little Liam has some extra time and less pressure, he’ll produce much better work. It’s noticing that when Sophie has her math manipulatives in front of her, she can do fractions with no problem.

Standardized testing is the antithesis of differentiated instruction.

It’s like saying to teachers, “Take all that work you did to personalize your approaches to different kids – and chuck it in the toilet.”

It’s like saying to kids, “What you’re actually capable of doesn’t matter. What matters is being good at tests.”

Yes, the stuff being tested is important. That’s why we’re already teaching it every day.

Let’s remind ourselves: tests are artificial situations. In life, testing itself is basically the only time you’re expected to produce large amounts of information or solve problems alone, with no chance to ask questions, check facts, collaborate, or research.

As standardized testing becomes more prevalent in Canada, it’s skewing things. Parents are starting to use EQAO scores to decide where to buy a house. Even better, the aforementioned Fraser Institute, in all its self-important wisdom, issues “report cards” ranking different schools, so parents can handily refer to those. The Institute is cagey about what the rankings are based on, but admits it relies heavily on test scores.

By the Institute’s own admission, rankings cannot include data on things like fine arts, trades training, and citizenship – because there is no data on those.

Because most of the things that make up the vitality of a school are not measurable.

Back to teacher incentive pay. Doesn’t it make sense to use financial rewards to motivate teachers to do their very best teaching? If kids do well on the tests, doesn’t that show that the teacher taught them well?

Yes – maybe. There’s a decent chance that children who get high test scores had a good teacher. But there’s just as high a chance that a low-scoring class had a good teacher. Perhaps even higher.

When you place so much value on an isolated piece of high-pressure output by students, you are failing to take into account the broader learning and teaching arcs of students and teachers. Teachers know well that student performance varies widely depending on the year, the month, even the day. And though the Fraser Institute would like to gloss over this, things like parental education levels, household income, and family work schedules do factor into test scores.

Let me put it this way: would you want your yearly bonus to be affected by whether someone else’s children had eaten well/slept enough/taken their meds? Should you forfeit pay because you teach kids who have a cold/whose parents were fighting that morning/who experience test anxiety/who are learning disabled/whose attention span is desperately short?

Actually, I’d say it’s the opposite. Ask any teacher: the years they work hardest, the years that most deeply plumb their reserves of creativity and patience, are the ones where they teach the most children with those high needs. It’s exhausting, overwhelming work. Especially in classes of thirty kids.

When you really think about it, in a society that supposedly values innovation, it’s bizarre that we put so much stock in standardized tests. As we know, the U.S. is obsessed with high-stakes testing, and many districts use teacher incentive pay. This has, indeed, raised test scores in certain areas. It has also encouraged teachers to “teach to the test” – i.e. gear classroom instruction to revolve around what they know of previous tests – which you’re not supposed to do. But if your job is to improve test scores, then… teaching to the test IS doing your job, isn’t it?

It’s no wonder that, as the authors of Freakonomics point out, teacher incentive pay has also resulted in many instances of teachers cheating, in many different ways. Obviously, this does NOT improve student learning – but it does improve test scores.

Here in Ontario, the bigger a deal people make about a school’s high ranking or test scores, the more those teachers feel obliged to make sure their test scores stay high. If they want to please the crowds, they naturally feel compelled to teach to the test.

So. Are we teaching according to the students we have, or the test we have to give them? Because they are not the same thing at all.

Time to recap. What’s the really big issue here? What are standardized tests and teacher incentive pay trying to accomplish?

Improved student achievement. (Reminder: test scores and actual student achievement are two completely different things.)

What changes could help us attain real improvement in student achievement?

If you were to ask the teachers who spend each day with the students, we would have no trouble telling you – because improving student achievement is our daily goal. You would hear: smaller class sizes and more professionals on the ground.

If you’re looking to use money to help kids learn, change the ratios of teachers to students. The bigger the group, the less likely it is that one teacher can give every child the help he or she needs.

If you especially want to help the students with the most difficulties, hire more EAs (Educational Assistants), CYCs (Child Youth Counselors), OTs (Occupational Therapists), Special Ed teachers, and ESL teachers, so that those professionals aren’t spread so thinly that they barely see each child they are supposed to help.

I’m absolutely confident that if I could poll teachers in Ontario, they’d say they would much rather have those changes than incentive pay.

And if your goal is to help every child learn… then standardized tests are a big old waste of money.



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