Your Professional Life is Declining and It’s About Time

I have been rummaging around for something to write about for a few weeks now. Our trek around Mt. Blanc starts later this week, so soon, there will be lots to write about soon. Then, a friend sent me this great essay by Arthur Brooks entitled Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think. This is a great essay and if you are over the age of 20, I suggest that you read it.

There is lots of wisdom here and a fair amount of positive self-talk. Arthur Brooks is 51 and very accomplished. The essay reads a little like a therapy session for someone approaching the inevitable mid-life crisis. But it is the crisis of the accomplished written from the perspective of one who knows that they have done great things.

I don’t know if I can totally relate to what he is writing here, but he is a wonderful writer and I do think anyone can benefit from his perspective on growing older and going through transitions.

It is interesting that we live in a society that demographically, is growing older. The baby boom bulge still moves through the fair outdistancing in numbers the young generations that follow. Funny, in advertising, movies and media, in general, it is the young who triumph, but this is not a reflection of reality.

But, I digress. Brooks focusses in the essay on an encounter on an airplane with a man who enjoyed glory and recognition but now languishes in relative obscurity. He listens in as the man despairs of his life and the loss of fame and importance:

I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but couldn’t help it. I listened with morbid fascination, forming an image of the man in my head as they talked. I imagined someone who had worked hard all his life in relative obscurity, someone with unfulfilled dreams—perhaps of the degree he never attained, the career he never pursued, the company he never started.

He is shocked later to realize that the man is not labouring in obscurity, but is world famous! Here’s the rub – those who achieve great things in life are doomed to suffer later obscurity – unless, and this is the theme of the essay – they avoid the trap of not seeing their way into some new version of themselves.

In the essay, he writes about two people who have come down to us as great thinkers and creators – Charles Darwin and J.S. Bach. One Darwin grew increasingly unhappy and dissatisfied with his life the older he got. The other Bach transformed himself from a performer to a teacher. His later years were happy and he continued to work right to the end.

Depressed in his later years, he wrote to a close friend, “I have not the heart or strength at my age to begin any investigation lasting years, which is the only thing which I enjoy.”

The difference between the two was how they dealt with transition in life. Many of the most innovative and creative thinkers actually experience decline relatively early in life. Brooks writes that as a young performer, he was a gifted French-horn player. Early on, he had visions of being a great, famous player. This was not to be. By the age of 20, he already saw evidence that his performing skills were in decline:

But then, in my early 20s, a strange thing happened: I started getting worse. To this day, I have no idea why. My technique began to suffer, and I had no explanation for it. Nothing helped. I visited great teachers and practiced more, but I couldn’t get back to where I had been. Pieces that had been easy to play became hard; pieces that had been hard became impossible.

While he continued to play professionally for another 10 years, he never recovered the lustre of his early playing days. At the age of 30, he abandoned his musical career and returned to school.

From this time on he started learning a really valuable lesson. Sometimes it is truly wise to leave before you really think you are ready, before you think your time is up. To be able to transition on to the next stage in life, you have to move on, you can’t linger.

This is a really hard thing to do. For so many of us, we are defined by what we do. Our profession can define our lives, our status gives us our value. To move beyond this can mean a loss of self and a loss of status.

I understand this. Maybe this article was written for me. Leaving education at the top of my game has often made me wonder if I did the right thing. There is certainly some status that comes with being a principal. People pay attention to you. You are sought after because you are seen as a leader in the education system. When you leave, that status quickly dissipates.

This is OK if you realize you need to make a transition to another stage of life. You can’t be like the man on the plane or Charles Darwin lamenting that your best years are behind you. You have to remake yourself.

Brooks writes about the four stages in life or ashramas in the Hindu tradition. The key is to move through the stages and not get stuck in the middle. It is the second stage – Grihastha where people can get overly attached to power, fame, status and all that comes with it. In Brooks’ analysis, Darwin got stuck in the second stage and never grew from there.

What I want to learn more about is the third phase – Vanaprastha, meaning retirement or ‘into the forest. Vanaprastha calls for a shift in focus away from the status that defines us earlier in life towards a focus on spirituality, service and wisdom. We can’t make it to this important stage unless we let go, possibly at the height of our status. To hang on only leads to stagnation:

But the wisdom of Hindu philosophy—and indeed the wisdom of many philosophical traditions—suggests that you should be prepared to walk away from these rewards before you feel ready. Even if you’re at the height of your professional prestige, you probably need to scale back your career ambitions in order to scale up your metaphysical ones.

This really speaks to me and maybe this will be a guidepost for the future. I can’t hold on to the past and clinging to what I did before in education results in the frustration of diminishing returns. Education is not my life anymore and I need to progress and focus more on what challenges exist in developing wisdom and learning how to serve better.

Brooks finishes off with four goals that he is going to work on. I think I will borrow these and see where it takes me. First, – Jump – walk away on your own terms. In other words, don’t wait to be pushed out!

Next – Serve – I think I am getting this one figured out. There is no question (as we pack our bags) that there is a true richness to the work we are doing in developing the Climb for Kids project. We leave in a day for 14 days of trekking around Mont Blanc and our group is getting close to the $35,000 mark in funds raised for recreational programming for inner city kids here in Ottawa.

The next two – Worship and Connect – are a work in progress, but I see the wisdom in both of these goals. I really see the need to connect better with people. Not necessarily more people, but connect more deeply with family and some friends. I do need to work on Worship – one of the institutions I have left behind as I transition is the traditional church – here is a goal that needs more attention and thought on my part.

I am writing this post mainly for myself. Like Brooks, I think I am engaging in some positive self-talk. Life is a wonderful journey, but you have to keep moving and continually grow. The sticky point has been reached and I am slowly moving to new ground.

Lots to think about as I saunter through the mountains in the next two weeks.

 

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The Importance of Preparing: Christie Lake Climb for Kids Goes Back to the Mountains

We are leaving in 20 days.

For seven months our group of trekkers have been training, fundraising and learning together to get ready for an epic journey around Mont Blanc. Three countries, 170 km. With only 20 days before we leave my attention is turning towards the mental preparation necessary to do this trek well.

Just like last year in Peru, everything changes when you make it to the mountain. All the planning and preparation comes down to the 14 days we are in the mountains. The word that resonates with me right now is preparation. Educators all know about how to prep, it is what makes all the difference for a successful school year. Getting ready for the Tour de Mont Blanc is like one long prep. We certainly have had the time, now we are moving to the front of the room.

The prep takes place on several levels but I am not going to catalogue it here. That is not interesting at all. But there are elements that are good to write about.

First, training the body is an essential part of the voyage and it is really liberating.

Focussing on your body and seeing it as your vehicle for success is not something we normally do. We usually take our bodies and our physical health for granted. Cars take us to work and even if we work out we seldom see ourselves as the vehicle. I really like the Chase Mountains series of Youtube videos because he is all about prepping for the climb.

The video above is really helpful as he breaks down the type of physical preparation you need to do to be successful on the mountain. Take a look at this video – it is pretty short. The one big thing, the one thing that takes a really long time is mobility – up to 3-6 months! My mobility is terrible, but I have been working at it for months. Recently (too late for sure) I have started doing more yoga. My 61-year old body simply isn’t as mobile as it used to be.

Mobility training, certainly a work in progress

One other person who I follow who really speaks to preparation is Elia Saikaly. I have followed him for years and he has spoken to students in three schools I have worked in. He has lots to say to kids, especially those who struggle to fit in. As a young person, Elia lived on the streets, got kicked out of several schools and rebelled against all authority. His story of turning things around is compelling.

The Unclimbed Series featuring Elia and fellow climber Gabriel Filippi is really interesting. In episode 3, Elia focusses on preparation. This is really worth watching if you plan to take on any really challenging task. You don’t have to be planning for the summit of an 8000m mountain. Your challenge is unique to yourself. The preparation, however, has to be done. It is partly physical, mental and I would say spiritual as well.

It is a comfort to be focussing on the physical. The trip planning and the fundraising are just about done. We are on track to raise $35,000 for Christie Lake Kids and with last year’s campaign, we have raised over $60,000 for inner city kids in Ottawa. One program – STEM education for girls actually started because of the fundraising we are doing.

Preparation allows for transformation. Physical prepping transforms your body and mind. Good program prepping is transforming the lives of low-income kids in Ottawa.

Transformative Recreation® is our unique way to engage kids in having fun, but also a powerful way to help them develop the values & skills that will help them to change the way they look at themselves, their relationships & the world around them.

CLK Website

Good preparation allows you to tell important stories – Elia has done this for years. The Climb for Albinism is a wonderful example of how this can all come together to produce something important and good.

These trips need careful prepping. Preparation can lead to something important. What is true for the classroom is equally true for adventures that raise awareness and support Transformative Recreation.

There is lots of video material to look at in this post. It all helps to explain why we prepare. Here is one more, a quick summary of what we have done this year to get ready for Climb for Kids II.

Soon we will have an inReach map up on the Christie Lake Kids website so you can follow us in the trek around Mont Blanc. Hope you follow us. Hope you contribute.

what our Inreach map will look like – it will be updated every day with new waypoints showing where we are going.

When we return, we still start to prep for Year III. Life is all about good prep.

To Be a Pilgrim

Who would true valour see, Let him come hither
One here will constant be, Come wind, come weather.
There’s no discouragement
Shall make him once relent His first avowed intent,
To be a pilgrim

John Bunyan

Pilgrim – person who journeys to a sacred place; a traveller or wanderer.

Lightfoot Companion to the Via Francigena

symbol for the Via Francigena

Retirement is a funny thing. After decades of defining oneself by an occupation, the time comes where your definition needs to come from somewhere else. It is a different journey with fewer signposts.

After two and a half years, I think I am putting some of the pieces together. While there is work from time to time, retirement for me is becoming defined by the sojourn. This was not the plan, but it seems to resonate.

Two years ago I climbed to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro and entered the world of thin air and extreme trekking. Later, I travelled the old military roads of the Scottish Highlands with my daughter Colleen. The following year, on our first Climb for Kids trek, we climbed the sacred ground around Ausangate in Peru.

Colleen finds the Braveheart Car Park on the West Highland Way

My son Liam and I followed this up by walking the Pathway of the Gods in Amalfi. We also traced ancient Roman ruins at Pompeii and Rome. Very soon, our second Climb for Kids group will be trekking 170 km around Mont Blanc.

Liam and I starting another trek on the Amalfi Coast

Now I am starting to plan for my longest journey, part of the Via Francigena next October. We are also actively planning for Year III of Climb for Kids. The next trek will be an epic climb, but we won’t announce this one until the end of the summer.

I think what is happening here is that in my retirement I am becoming a pilgrim. There is an ‘avowed intent’ that is linking all of these walks. I think the most important intent is to connect or reconnect with people. On my treks in Scotland and Italy, I had the wonderful privilege of travelling first with my daughter Colleen then with my son Liam.

There is a true beauty in reconnecting with your adult children. We all change as we grow older and we all need to take the time to make sure our relationships stay vital and fresh. You can do this really well by walking and talking or sometimes just travelling in silence.

Climb for Kids is a wonderful experience for all sorts of reasons. I wrote about Year II last week and you can see that post here – Communities Move Mountains. This trek is about connecting too. Most importantly I get to travel and plan with my wonderful partner Heather Swail. We did our first high-altitude trek together last year in Peru and we experienced the beauty of the mountain together. After so many years together, it is still possible to learn things about your partner, especially when you are trekking under conditions of high physical stress.

Heather reaches the high pass at 5200 m with her buddy Beth

We have a great group this year and we will learn a great deal about each other as we travel around the highest mountain in Europe. Mountains take you to another place. They help you to hold others who travel with you in higher regard. They help you to gain a greater respect for yourself and for what you are able to do. The mountains truly make you a pilgrim.

There is a really good story that John Muir told about trekking. He never used the word hike and neither do I. He liked the word saunter because of its connection to an ancient practice.

Do you know the origin of that word ‘saunter?’ It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, “A la sainte terre,’ ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.

John Muir

A Parable of Sauntering

So this is my saunter. It is defining much of what I do these days, although until now I didn’t know if I had put this together. I still have to start writing about the Via Francigena and I will either soon or after the TMB. There is so much to learn and a world to saunter in. Each journey takes me to another holy land and I guess that makes me a pilgrim.

Acclimatization camp on Mt. Kilimanjaro

Communities Move Mountains!

Incredible Friday night CLK Climb for Kids Fundraiser with fantastic music by The Teachers and the Moneyman, so many friends and supporters, terrific silent auction with a huge, surprise donation, lots of competition over beautiful homemade items, FATBOYS gift certificate and keg won by Wendy, motivational send-off by Canadian Olympic athlete Segun Makinde and NOW, over $28,000.00 raised for CLK kids. And we are not done!

Communities move mountains!

Heather Swail Climb for Kids

 

This is such a good line I need to quote Heather Swail a second time – Community Moves Mountains. Maybe this should become the byline for our project – Christie Lake Climb for Kids.

Part of the Family Team – Mairi, Liam and Colleen

We are now 44 days away from our second group trek. This time we are walking around the highest mountain in Europe – Mont Blanc. We will walk over 170 km and camp along the way. Our trek is rated as a level 4 or moderate/challenging by our trip coordinators Exodus Travels.

You are moderately fit and have an interest in remote or challenging environments. Some previous experience is required for activity based trips.

These ratings are a really good way to measure the amount of difficulty involved in a trek. By comparison, Mt. Kilimanjaro is a 6 and the ascent of Mont Blanc is considered an 8.

The bulk of our fundraising is now over except for a really great wine auction that goes until June 15.

By the way – we are happy to sell you a ticket if you want to help support us!

Our fundraising goal for this year is $30,000. Right now we are at $28,000 so I think we are going to make it. This means we will have raised over $60,000 for Christie Lake Kids programs in the past two years. And as Heather put it, we are not done!

This is the humbling power of community. When you come up with a good idea that supports innovative recreation programming for kids people gather around you.

Our last fundraiser at Fatboys here in the Byward Market brought together all sorts of wonderful people united by the desire to support something really important. The opening page of the Christie Lake webpage symbolizes what they do.

I am really struck by the approach they take with kids. They call it Transformative Recreation and what they really want to do is change the destiny for kids living below the poverty line here in Ottawa.

Transformative Recreation® (T-REC®) is our program model, guiding all of our efforts as we encourage our children and youth to build resiliency and realize success on their own terms. T-REC® is founded on a mixture of best practices in the field of social recreation, as well as the lessons of success derived from over 95 years of serving the Ottawa community. Our programs focus on developing physical, social and character skills, with the intent of developing four key outcomes:

Positive Peer & Adult Relationships

Self-Efficacy

Self-Regulation

Positive Future Outlook

The community that is coming together to support this work is truly wonderful. This includes our whole family who comes out to all the events, designs our Climb for Kids logos, contributes silent auction items and even acts as the coat check staff when needed. Community includes my oldest friend Bob Kennedy, whose band Teachers and the Moneyman played at our last event.

Teachers and the Moneyman

It includes lots of teachers from Heather’s School Vincent Massey and teachers from my last two schools, St. Greg’s and St. Anthony. It includes 24 businesses and two great bands who have supported and sponsored us throughout the year. It includes former trekkers who climbed with us last year in Peru.

A collage of some of our community supporters

Apart from the money we are raising for kids, I think the community-building is the most significant part of this experience. People are contributing their expertise and resources to help put us back on the mountain and as the project grows, the community widens.

Next week the group will gather again to hear from another amazing trekker Mike Baine who has done the Tour de Mont Blanc and has also trekked in Peru and to Everest Base Camp. He will talk to us about this trek and we will talk to the trekkers about how to prepare for the TMB. Meanwhile, we will continue to look at the figures to see when we break through the $30,000 barrier.

Our fundraising total on May 23. Now we are over $28,000

At the same time, we are actively working on preparations for Year III of Climb for Kids. We won’t announce this trip until Year II is over, but the planning is a continuous process that really only slackens when we are on the mountain.

Our Year II logo designed by Mairi McGuire

The community grows daily. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the largest group of supporters, the people who are helping us surpass $30,000 – all our donors. I know that I have at least 30 people who have contributed to my fundraising total. I am around $250 short of my personal goal of $2500 and I know that I am going to make it. Each trekker has a similar group supporting their efforts.

Community Moves Mountains, that is for sure. This is an experience that enriches the lives of everyone who gets involved. It is really great to spend lots of time on a project that brings life and hope to so many people. Thank-you to all the wonderful supporters out there and welcome to all those who will continue to join us in future days!

Climb for Kids group members at our last fundraiser

When it comes to mental health in Canada, the gap is still too wide

The story of Clement Gascon, the Supreme Court Justice who bravely went public this week about his mental health struggles is a story we should all pay attention to.

Last week the Justice disappeared for a few hours after suffering a panic attack brought on by a change in medication and the stressors of his job. Thankfully, in this case, this story had a relatively happy ending. He was found and embraced by his community and has received nothing but support since the incident.

Today, the Globe and Mail’s editorial, In Canada, the mental-health gap continues, picked up the story and used this as an occasion to shine a light on the problems that still exist here in Canada when it comes to treatment for mental health issues.

The gaps are significant and go well beyond what is reported in the editorial.

The World Health Organization reports that in low- and middle-income countries, between 76% and 85% of people with mental disorders receive no treatment for their disorder. In high-income countries, between 35% and 50% of people with mental disorders are in the same situation. In today’s Globe and Mail article, a 2016 joint statement on access to mental-health care from the Canadian Medical Association and Canadian Psychiatric Association estimated that, of the 20 per cent of Canadians who suffer from a disorder, fewer than one in three will seek treatment.

Many can’t seek treatment. Unless you are fortunate to have a very good health plan, counselling, which can be as expensive as $200 an hour, is out of reach. Even the medication which really helps people to focus on talk therapy is out of reach for many.

It is good however that at least attitudes are changing. In my own case, my admissions of struggling with anxiety and depression were met with stony silence. I remember actually admitting to a superintendent that my condition could easily be exaggerated by undue stress. She was happy to add the stress but ignored my clear message that this could do harm. For me, this was an unforgivable misstep for someone in a position of authority.

In Canada, we need to realize that the gaps in treatment are wide unless you are well off and well connected. I have been extremely fortunate because I have friends in the medical system and a great drug plan. Most, however, are nowhere near as lucky.

As an administrator, I came in contact with many children and adults who needed really good mental health care. It was rare that they received it and I don’t know how they survived. In a society as rich as ours, there is absolutely no reason why anyone has to suffer from the silent killer of mental illness.

We are, unfortunately, at a downturn in compassion in our society right now. We are going through one of those awful cycles where the artificial budgetary bottom line reigns supreme. This is tragic and people with untreated mental health illnesses will suffer even more than most during these times.

It is really too bad that we need stories like Justice Gascon to remind us how terribly many people suffer in silence. We are a superficial society that rarely takes the time to consider the real suffering of others.

I am happy for Justice Gascon. I am grateful for the wonderful assistance and support I have received from family and professionals. I worry about the many parents and children who suffer in obscurity and I really hope for the day when we point our priorities firmly in the right direction.

Speak out on Social Justice or Become Part of the Problem

Every day now in Ontario there is another cynical announcement about another cut to our social infrastructure. While this is happening, we are now learning that over 1 million species are facing extinction in the next few years unless we make significant changes to the way we live on this earth. There is little good news out there right now and we have to start paying more attention.

Every day I read the Twitter feed. I see the posts and reposts by Andrew Campbell and others and I am thankful for his courageous work. At the same time, I see prominent educators who continue to write as if nothing is changing.

To be honest, I don’t know what bothers me more.

People like Doug Ford are destructive. These people come and go. But what really matters is how all of us respond to the destructive people who have no idea on how to build and sustain a social infrastructure.

Another way to look at this could be how we see social justice. Is social justice important? Should we stand up for a just society or should we continue to write the same inane stuff?

Some people will not utter a peep because they feel that it might ruffle feathers. Could there possibly be a better time to speak out? If not now, when?

Justice is a really important concept. It is what built our democratic society. It is what protects the weak and the dispossessed. Those who have a voice have a responsibility to speak for those who suffer from the acts of the powerful.

Strong democracies are built upon strong voices. when these voices become timid democracy fails.

Now those who suffer will include any student in our public school system in Ontario. I am not exaggerating here. When the rich and the powerful make arbitrary decisions that lead to the suffering of others this is an injustice. If you don’t make any statement, do anything to counter this injustice you are complicit.

You probably won’t change what is going on right now in this province, but your voice matters because people read what you write.

Maybe you haven’t seen real injustice, but it exists. It is real and it is pervasive and if you don’t stand up to it you eventually will be consumed by it.

Take a look around. Don’t let educators who are making their voices heard stand alone. Injustice has been stopped before, greed, avarice, and ignorance do not have to win out.

My fear for Ontario is that we will all settle into the new normal. We will stay in our comfortable corners and hope things just get a little more normal. Too many of you are not saying enough and you need to reconsider your position.

How many times do we need to see injustice happen and do nothing? It is certainly worse in other places close to us – Latin America and increasingly the United States. We in Ontario have had it really good for a long time, but this time is coming to an end.

Yes, this is offensive to some and I am sorry for this. But I read the notices every day that more teachers are being laid off and I see many educators and academics write as if everything is OK.

Everything is not OK and sometimes social justice trumps whatever else you are writing about. Otherwise, unfortunately, you become part of the problem.

This morning while reading through Twitter I found this new article by Michael FullanWhy Pedagogy and Politics Must Partner. If you think this is all just me talking, read Fullan’s article.

Here is a quote from the article that I think is really important – pedagogy and politics are linked and really need to be now more than ever before:

One item of particular significance is the relentless increase of inequity. We have found that deep learning is good for all students but is particularly good for students who are disaffected. In this domain, the pedagogical and political pathways can combine as a particularly powerful combination. Deep learning students are needed as part of determining societal solutions. The combination of deep learning (the pedagogical pathway) and political action (the political pathway) may turn out to be the strongest force we have ever seen in the cause of social justice and high-quality education essential for the rest of the 21st century.

Measuring Retirement in Stories

When I retired from my last school, this building was barely started. Now I think it is the tallest building in the city, a soon-to-be-open condo high-rise in Little Italy.

We took part in a Jane Jacobs Walk in Ottawa this morning, one of sixty planned for this weekend. A pretty wonderful to start a weekend and expand one’s horizons.

After a long really dreadful winter here, it was very good to get out. Our guide was Luciano Pradal, a 77-year-old human repository of the cultural history of Little Italy. I remember Luciano from my time as principal at St. Anthony School. We were looking for ways to install new gardens to grow food at our school and Luciano came in to talk to me about what we might be able to put together.

This project never took off, but Luciano was a real treat to meet. He introduced me to his book, Chronicles of a Chestnut Lover and I learned more about this wonderful part of the city.

My time at St. Anthony’s was full of encounters like this one and taking part in this Jane’s Walk reminded me of the wonderful people I encountered while I worked here. Today, I took a picture of the tower because it is a good reminder of how much has happened since I left. Our son Liam gave me the title to go with the photo and it really fits.

This neighbourhood is full of great stories. Not only of its Italian past but also of its current immigrant population which now is mainly from Asia. It is also a very high-risk neighbourhood with many rooming houses and drop-in centres for the homeless. It is such a diverse setting for a Jane Jacobs Walk and it truly represents what a livable city can be. It is culturally diverse with a tradition of housing groups of new Canadians that find their collective grounding and move on.

Now with giant condo projects, one of the main threats to this neighbourhood is gentrification as it also has become one of the most fashionable parts of the city.

As a principal, I saw it as my role to get to know everything I could about this community. It was thrilling to work in such a rich and exciting part of the city and I really wanted our school to be an active part of the fabric of little Italy. If I miss anything about my teaching career, I miss this place.

The streets of Little Italy. New condos and derelict buildings waiting to turn a big profit.

There is something that can get lost once you retire. Your world can grow a little small. As a principal, I saw it as my role to get to know this area very well. Meetings with people like Luciano were opportunities to connect and learn where I was. Walking along Preston and Booth streets today was a good reminder.

You need – or maybe I should say – I need – to stay connected. I need to walk the streets and see how my city may be changing. Whole blocks of social housing have been demolished since I left the school. Acres of old federal buildings are about to be repurposed for mixed residential use. This could be a really cool development for Ottawa!

At the end of the walk, I made a point to visit the bust of Dante that sits across from my old school. This bust used to stand right next to the school. It now sits in a little piazza directly across from the church.


St. Anthony’s started out as Dante Academy and the church across from the school celebrated its 100 anniversary in 2013. We have seen wonderful old photos of celebratory masses and marches past the school and the church during religious festivals. The community has changed since these days but there are still Italian celebrations every year that include an old car show, a gala, a great bike race, and lots of other festivities.

Dante Academy class 1925

I remember recovering the memorial to students who fought in the Second World War that had been on loan to the local church. It now (I hope) still hangs in the main hall of the school, a testament to the long history of the two schools in the community.

It is amazing that a walk can stir up so many memories of the past and expectations for the future. After a long winter, we all need to get involved in some purposeful walking. Get out and see what is out there still. Take a morning or a whole day to extend yourself into the community we are all still a part of.

Learn and listen and don’t become small. Yes, I am retired and my world does seem a little small sometimes. But a walk with twenty people you don’t know but who share a love of the city is a good way to stretch into a new season, one where winter has finally retreated.

Luciano finishes the walk in front of St. Anthony’s Church

What is the most important thing to me as an educator?

This question was put out on Twitter today:

It’s a good question and I wonder how this will be answered today. This is what I said.

The most important thing to me right now is protecting public education from governments who truly do not see the value in strong, independent school systems. When a system is under attack and young teachers are losing their jobs, little else matters.

I have the advantage of being retired and because of that, I don’t have to worry about what my employers think about what I write. At one point I did and I suspect this is what stops many people who play prominent roles in education social media from speaking out.

Many educators think they shouldn’t speak out and that is sad. I really think this is a time when people should work in solidarity with other educators, mainly young ones with no seniority to oppose what the right-wing government here in Ontario is doing.

The current approach to governing in Ontario is basically slash and burn. Cut away public health, education, trees, music programs, public transit, legal aid, libraries – the list grows every day. There is growing resistance to this approach to governance and more people are beginning to push back as illustrated in this Toronto Star opinion piece – Ford ill-prepared to be the great disruptor:

When you go out of your way to offend people, you invite a bitter counteroffensive. Which is what’s happening with federal cabinet ministers, municipal councillors, medical experts, educators, parents and students.

Some people don’t seem to realize how good we have it in Ontario and how bad things could get. I have talked with teachers in El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico about their systems and it is incredible how fragile public education is in these countries. Even in the United States, it is really frightening to listen to the pressures educators are under. I talked to one teacher last year from New York City who told me they really had to dress warmly in the winter as their boilers were no longer functioning. To get replacements the school has to raise a public bond, something the local ratepayers were not willing to do.

People here don’t seem to understand sometimes how things could change in this province. It is like we live in a protected bubble here in Ontario and many still think we can go on as before and other people will fight our battles for us.

Fortunately, others are. If the Toronto Star piece is to be believed, there is continuing protest against cuts to public spending. The opposition has to be constant and it has to be universal. As I wrote in an earlier piece – you can’t just wait until they come for you, you have to stand up for the ones losing their jobs right now.

We are actually dealing with a true bully right now. I am not saying this to be clever or to score political points. Doug Ford has learned – probably from the politics of the current American government – that bullying works. People will not stand up on a prolonged basis to a bully. Somehow, that is someone else’s job.

That is not what we teach in schools. The bystander plays a key role in removing the audience from the bully. The bystander can suck the oxygen out of the room.

I mentioned the names of some educators in my last piece – What Do You Say When Our Social Institutions Are Under Attack? who are doing a really important job of leading the opposition to the PC government. More are joining them and even more should. This is not a momentary crisis. It will not end with the summer. It will never be business as usual as long as students are being crowded into classrooms and young teachers lose their jobs and their futures.

Maybe what I am saying will make some people uncomfortable or even angry. I really don’t mind that. But if you want to get angry at someone, why not direct your ire at the people who are willfully taking apart the public education system we have all benefited from?

Now that is a pretty important thing to do as an educator!

What Do You Say When Our Social Institutions Are Under Attack?

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me

Pastor Martin Niemoller

There is little question that social institutions here in Ontario are under attack. As an educator, I am most aware of what is happening to schools in this province and especially, I am very concerned about the newer teachers, those without seniority whose jobs are disappearing. Every day brings another announcement of new surplus to board notices.

Like Doug Peterson, I really don’t like that term. Surplus sounds pretty non-commital. I think we should use lay-off as they do in other sectors. These mainly young people are losing their jobs – that is what is happening.

I am encouraged by Andrew Campbell. He is quietly doing a wonderful job through social media of cataloguing the lay-off notices and now the stories of teachers who are being laid off. I am encouraged by Doug Peterson, who is featuring some of the posts written supporting teachers and students each week. I am also encouraged by the teachers who are speaking out about being laid off. These are brave people who are putting a human face to a great injustice.

One of these teachers is Melissa Basta. I don’t know her, but I am really struck by the message she put out this week and encouraged that so many people have retweeted her post.

Andrew is collecting these stories and you can find them here.

This is where I am struggling. Over the past week, several educators have written me in private and one pretty publicly to tell me (or in one case lecture me) on why they can’t get political on this issue.

I am not judging them, but it does make me sad. Maybe it is because I spent so many years as an administrator trying my best to encourage and work with young educators, but I just can’t understand why many will not take a stand when the quality of education here in Ontario is under such a threat.

Not standing up against what is wrong is a slippery slope. This is why I have included the Martin Niemoller poem in this post. Niemoller was a pastor in Germany in the 1930s and he spent seven years in concentration camps for his opposition to Adolf Hitler.

He actually started out as an early supporter of the Nazis but gradually learned to see how absolutely evil their regime was. His poem shows his gradual evolution as an activist. It is a stark reminder that we all need to play a role to speak out against injustice.

Will speaking out make a difference this time? I am not sure. Andrew Campbell wrote that he questions if it will. It is much easier to display opposition these days through social media so the overall effect might not matter.

I hope this is not the case. I hope those who feel it is not their role change their minds. I hope people like Andrew Campbell, Doug Peterson, Peter Skillen, Julie Bolton,  Will Gourley and many others will continue to write and collect the stories that should be heard.

This is a gentle challenge for more educators to speak out. I am not doing this to put you on the spot and what you decide to do is obviously up to you. However, allowing any government to act with impunity especially when it comes to the institutions that gird our social fabric is dangerous.

Please don’t wait until there is no one left.

Dividing and Conquering Educators in Ontario

This is an emotional time here in Ontario. The education system is certainly under attack by the Ford Government and I would say nerves are getting a bit frayed.

Not only are class sizes going up but more and more teachers are being put on notice that they have no position for next year. Andrew Campbell is doing an excellent job of cataloguing the surplus notices as they come out almost daily in Ontario. His list is now 11 pages long and it makes for depressing reading.

The notion that these redundancies will be covered by teachers retiring makes no sense to me. The way things work is that teachers with the least amount of seniority are declared surplus to school or the system first, then, much later in the year, some will be taken back as other teachers retire.

The document talks about “attrition protection” – a fund that will allocate money to boards so that younger teachers will be hired back if their position is cut. This seems to be a very complicated way around the current issue. In other words (I think) if the number of retirements is low, the Ministry of Education will allocate money to school boards to hire back its younger teachers.  This, to me, means that the Ministry will in effect be keeping the class sizes lower.

I don’t get it.

The shuffling and readjusting continues. One new measure brought up during the budget announcement has to do with the repeal of Regulation 274. This is not a budget issue, but it is one that could distract educators as they work to oppose the current actions of the Ministry.

Regulation 274 was brought in in 2012 by the Liberal Government as a way to make sure only the most qualified teachers be considered for new jobs. Principals were obliged to interview a prepared list of five candidates and these five were the ones with the most seniority on the long-term occasional (LTO) listing.

Unions liked this measure as they said it took out any favouritism in the hiring process. Education administrators didn’t like it because they were no longer able to choose the best candidate for the job – they were told who they could consider and it was a very narrow list.

Making an announcement now that the Ministry will be getting rid of the regulation has the potential to divide educators at a crucial moment. I have already seen this happening in some of the Facebook conversations I have been a part of. In one conversation I wrote that the end of Regulation 274 would allow for a more merit-based hiring system than what we have had since 2012. While my comments received some support from administrators I know I also received this comment from a teacher I used to work with. Referring to the time before the regulation he wrote:

We had a nepotistic system which was completely controlled by principals, many who were incompetent leaders. This was an improvement because teachers had to prove themselves with successful LTOs before they could move ahead.

He continues later in the conversation:

So the principals can now go back to hiring those that they can bully or someone’s relative. THAT will be great for education.

It only took a few hours for this to flare up. We have to remember that there are some profound differences in opinion amongst educators in Ontario. There has to be, just like in any other profession. What is important to remember now is that it is very easy to exploit these differences.

The hiring process should be discussed and debated and it certainly needs to be equitable, but this is not the time for this debate. The current government is working hard to syphon off millions of dollars on the backs of students and teachers. That is the issue, we can’t start fighting amongst ourselves.

If we become divided we become weaker. We become easier to isolate and easier to manage. It is very good to remember that it was Doug Ford’s predecessor, Mike Harris who took administrators out of the teacher federations and helped set up the ‘us and them’ dynamic reflected in the comments above.

A house divided will surely fall. Our profession is under a great deal of stress right now, let’s not make ourselves a pushover for those who currently hold the reigns of power.