Living in the age of incivility Part 3 – The Iron Cage that is the school system

The modern school system has, for all intents and purposes, come more and more to resemble and function much like what German sociologist Max Weber called the “Iron Cage” – a bureaucratic structure that traps individuals in a world driven by technological efficiency, rational calculation and control.

Paul W Bennett Globe and Mail, October 2, 2020

I worried most about this third article in my series Living in the age of incivility. I worried about this because I was going to take things personal, talk about a situation that occurred while I was a principal in the Ottawa Catholic School system five years ago.

In a tweet I never put out I wrote this:

In 2015, I was unjustly suspended by a school board I had worked for for 27 years. A disgruntled employee brought a whole host of false accusations against me. I have never written about this. In a time of such incivility, is it now time to expose the injustice of what happened?

Yes, it is time, but how do I make this a useful article? It would be very easy to become the victim in my own story or for the reader to think – maybe these accusations were not false, maybe he got what was coming for him.

If you keep the story as personal, if you hold on to the anger, the message gets lost, the story is blurred, people turn away.

Even a few years ago, I couldn’t write this story. I was too caught up in anger and shame. I have avoided any occasions that involve the OCSB for years now, including, to my shame, the retirement of a good friend, and my own board retirement party. But enough with that now.

What has given me the context for this third article is an opinion piece by Paul W. Bennett in today’s Globe and Mail. He is writing a summary of some of his ideas in his new book – The State of the System: A Reality Check on Canada’s Schools. I don’t have the book yet, but I will be reading this soon.

In his article, he starts out by writing how the pandemic has really exposed the inadequacies of our public school system, a system that has maintained the same structure for well over 100 years.

Beyond this crisis however, the pandemic has exposed a more fundamental problem. It has lost its connection with students, families and the wider community.

Our public schools, initially established as the vanguard of universal, accessible, free education, have lost their way and become largely unresponsive to the public they still claim to serve. Those voicing concerns about early reading, mathematics scores or school closings find the system resistant to change and regularly hit brick walls and glass ceilings, particularly when trying to access the points of decision-making.

What they are very good at is shutting down innovation and smothering dissent.

Now, I enter the personal, but I do it briefly, because I am not the story here.

In 2015, I was the principal of a small urban school in the Ottawa Catholic School Board. We had a great school with wonderful children, mostly new to Canada. Our school had served immigrant communities for decades and this meant going beyond the prescriptive norms to give them the opportunity to thrive in a brand new world.

At the time, we had one employee who worked closely with me who used their position to create tension and strife amongst the staff. I was unaware of this situation until the staff member began to poll staff about their attendance in a board-wide PD day. This is something you just don’t do in a school – the principal can do this, but I would never take a step like this – I trusted the people I worked with.

I did call the employee out on this behaviour, but I did not know at the time it was just one in a series of ‘aggressions’ the staff member had taken out on the rest of the staff.

While generally we could have moved on from this incident we didn’t. The employee went directly to the head of HR for the board, brought in their union representative and left the school when I asked why they were escalating the issue.

This was a time of high tension in the school board. The employee’s union was on work to rule and incidents like this were happening in other schools as well.

Still, nothing really to worry about here. In the ensuing weeks, without my knowledge, the employee with their union rep held a series of meetings with the superintendent of HR and others and in those meetings a long history of my supposed infractions were laid out out. It must have taken hours and hours to come up with this list.

It was fanciful, but it was damming. When the list was complete and the meetings were over, I was called in to hear the whole story. I brought our association rep, a fellow principal. As principals in Ontario, we don’t have a union which means we are exposed and unprotected. Most principals have no idea how precarious their position is.

A meeting that I thought would be a 15-minute conclusion to a strange affair turned into a two-hour grilling that only ended when I had had enough. I told them this was ridiculous and I left.

There is a nine-page summary of the meeting written by my representative. Even now I can’t read it and my hands actually shake as I pull it up again on the computer. I also produced a 22-page document in my defence. I really don’t know if anyone actually looked at it.

As a principal, you get accused of all sorts of stuff. This is part of the job, but you do expect your supervisors to support you and believe in you.

Mine did not. A few weeks after this meeting I was suspended pending an investigation.

I don’t know if an investigation ever took place. Three weeks later on the last day of school before Christmas, I was reinstated with a hastily written disciplinary letter added to my file.

There was no explanation about what their findings were or if they had actually conducted an investigation. To this day I don’t know the results, but apart from the letter, there were no consequences. The employee was relocated and later it turned out that this person had done similar things at another school, but in the earlier case the principal was told to keep quiet. There has never been an explanation or an apology.

This is my story of the Iron Cage. A school board totally out of touch with their staff more than likely doing its utmost to stay clear of a strong union in a time of labour strife. A school board that placed little value on a loyal employee.

There is no question in my mind that the system of centralized power and incompetent managers needs to be reworked. The pandemic has exposed all of this, but I experienced this gross misuse of authority and power over five years ago.

In his article, Paul Bennett calls for a humanizing of the education system. We need to turn away from big schools that dehumanize relationships between educators, children and parents. We also need a system that has some real oversight so that power can no longer be abused by those who want to sanction others who do not follow the script.

One board official once told me I deserved what I got because my views on education were unconventional. With attitudes like this how can we not want to rework our system? How can someone think it is OK to say things like that?

My situation remains unresolved because I never received an explanation and certainly not an apology. I am retired now – writing this while working at a school would certainly lead to grave consequences.

Now I want a better system. Not for me, but for all those who work in schools, for all children and families and their communities. These old institutions need to go and we need to start considering alternatives. As paul Bennett writes:

A new set of priorities is coming to the fore: put students first, democratize school governance, deprogram education ministries and school districts, and listen more to parents and teachers. Design and build smaller schools at the centre of urban neighbourhoods and rural communities. It’s not a matter of turning back the clock, but rather one of regaining control over our schools, rebuilding social capital, and revitalizing local communities.

This is what we really need to do. Humanize education, give power back to parents and communities, get rid of the bureaucracies that do everything in their power to protect what they have.

Education should be about people, it is not about power and institutions. When abuse of power happens so easily with no consequence for the abusers it is time to rework the system.

Covid Journal # 7 – Returning to school is risky

These graphs put out by science teacher and biostatistician, Ryan Imgrund are something I am going to watch closely over the next month.

‘On August 2, in Ottawa there is a 4.8% chance you’ll encounter an individual who can transmit COVID-19 in a group of 27.’

This is actually a statement put out on Ryan Imgrund’s Twitter feed. You can fill in the blanks for your region if you would like. How’s it going for you?

What this means should startle everyone. There is a significant risk of COVID-19 spreading in classrooms this fall. There is no hard cap for kindergarten classes or grades 4-8. Kindergarten classes can still be as high as 29 students, classes in grades 1-3 are capped at 23 (90% of classes must have 20 or fewer students).

From Ontario Families for Public Education

The only meaningful caps that exist right now are in grades 9 – 12 where students will attend in groups of 15.

Not to sound overly critical, but I am not sure how this is going to work.

Today, Sunday, August 2 – Australia declares a state of disaster in Victoria and imposes curfew in Melbourne  

Great Britain and Spain are beginning lockdowns again in various regions.

In the New York Times – After a brief reprieve, coronavirus charges back in US

Again the New York Times – A school reopened. It had to quarantine students within hours.

I am going to stop at four, but I could add many more stories. My point here is to state the obvious, this virus is not under control. Reopening is fraught with danger and in many cases leads to more outbreaks.

The great thing about daily statistics is that we can track the daily spread of the virus against significant changes in behaviour.

While we all should be concerned as Minister Lecce is for the emotional well-being of students, is sending them back into a very risky environment the best way to do this?

Should we not be trying to reimagine what school could look like if we were not so tied to an industrial era school model? We could be asking – what was so good about how we did things in the past? What could we do better? Why are we so tied to tradition at the risk of our student’s and teacher’s health?

Schools support the economy, there is no question about that. When kids are in school people can go back to work. If we truly were concerned about the well-being of staff and students we would be looking closely at the statistics and we would be using this time to reimagine school.

Are the people in charge of our school systems motivated to do this? People in senior positions traditionally want to protect the status quo. It is in their self-interest to do this. There is nothing amazing in this – all large corporations act in the same manner.

But what should we be doing?

  • Should any grouping of students be above 15?

  • Could we be using facilities like community and health centers to spread out our teachers and students?

  • Could we develop more robust video conferencing tools to make the online experience more meaningful (is there life after Zoom??)

  • Is five days a week, 6 hours a day really meaningful? Can we develop a community-based model for education that makes parents active partners?

 

We do ask these questions in countless blog posts and podcasts, but are these questions ever taken seriously? If not now, when? How tied are we really to an old model that really doesn’t work well for many kids?

I really want to see what happens in the next 30 days. Will there be meaningful debate about what education in Ontario will look like this year? Do we realize that we are in this for the long haul? There is no returning to school until there is a vaccine.

I will be working with teacher candidates in first and second year so I will certainly have lots of opportunities to see how we protect our students and staff. I will continue to look at the stats – we are very fortunate to have this daily reminder about what we are heading into.

Will we invest in real change or will we just hope for the best?

Why e-learning during a pandemic can’t work

These are challenging days. Teachers are scrambling now to find ways to teach their students using some form of e-learning. While families with multiple devices and parents at home will be able to do this, in many cases e-learning can’t work. We haven’t done the human capacity building that is necessary for this to take place.

We should have been doing this, but we haven’t done the necessary capacity building.

At my last school, we worked for over a year to build capacity with our students and teachers. We had a Chromebook for every student from grades 3-6 and they were obliged to take them home every night. We trained the kids on how to use Google tools. That was the capacity building that would need to be in place right now to make an e-learning system take place.

Students need to be taught that the computers are for daily learning and the expectation needs to be there that they will use the machines – that takes time, that is a paradigm shift.

And before you say but… this was a very poor school. With the help of our school board, we made sure the computers were always available – after school, on the weekend and if there had been enough time, for the summers as well.

We are woefully underprepared for this current situation.  We have squandered an opportunity to set up good e-learning relationships.  It would take a long time to get this set up, I am not sure why we are trying to do this now.

You can only build this capacity while you are still in school. We should have been working on this years ago, but there was no real support for this. Even a flipped classroom takes in-person time to set up.

I talked to one of my students this year who tried to set up a flipped learning system in his high school classroom. He did assign work for students to do at night that could be taken up the next day. The project failed because students didn’t see the assigned work as something they had to do.

We talked about this and realized that such a system would only work with some careful in-class learning. As in our school, a good e-learning relationship can only be set up if there is a prolonged in-person training period prior to enacting the system.

We needed a year to set up our system. Unfortunately, as soon as I left the school, the new principal stopped buying the computers our students needed and the system fell apart. There was no system-wide support for this kind of a relationship so the experiment ended.

I write this post with a certain amount of frustration. It seems that we never think of the important human relationships that we need to structure first before we plunge headlong into technical solutions to learning. Yes, we have the technology, but no we have not developed the important human linkages necessary to make this work.

It is not really the technology that is slowing us down here, we just haven’t done the necessary human face-to-face work. Yes, we could easily get the Chromebooks to the kids who need them. We could set up mobile hubs in neighbourhoods that do not have internet access. But we have not done the necessary work with our students, especially at the elementary level to make all this work.

These are extraordinary times. Our students and our families are really on their own now. Maybe we will learn from this. Maybe we will construct the necessary human linkages to make real, meaningful digital learning work in the future.

I hope people are thinking about this. Technology rarely solves important human problems.

Naming and Shaming

It is tiresome to write about people who misrepresent the truth.

It is tiresome, but it is worse if we don’t write anything. It is so easy to become desensitized to misrepresentation and outright lying by our public officials. We see it all the time now and we are used to it.

Right now I am a bit housebound. I have an inner ear condition that produces dizziness and instability. The one thing I can do is watch the on-going impeachment saga in the United States. That and read Twitter.

This is really something terrible to watch. House Republican leaders are actually saying what Donald Trump does in his attempts to bribe the leader of Ukraine is OK because, well, he didn’t go through with it. He got caught, so no bribe happened.

I find this incredible. These are publically elected officials who are blatantly ignoring the facts to push their own party line. While this might work in a grade 9 classroom debate, we should be better than that when it comes to public office.

This type of misrepresentation of the facts has seeped into Ontario politics. Steven Lecce, the Minister of Education in the Province of Ontario, duly elected by his constituents is doing exactly the same thing. He is appealing for public support because he knows a significant portion of the public will believe him or will at least not allow facts get in the way of a good story.

Last week he put out the tweet above ‘naming and shaming’ the OSSTF for standing up to his misinformation campaign.

It is his government that wants to stack Ontario classes with more students at the high school level. It is his government who wants to save education dollars by requiring Ontario students to take on-line courses following the shining example of that leader in education – Alabama.

Interesting, the original plan was for four online courses. Steven Lecce is showing his flexibility by reducing the number to two – twice as many as Alabama and other states. Beyond this, he only wants to increase class size now to 25:1.

Let’s be very clear about what is going on here. Both initiatives have absolutely nothing to do with improving the quality of education in the province. They have everything to do with siphoning money out of the system. That is the fact and it is something Stephen Lecce will never talk about.

This morning there was a good conversation on Twitter about raising the level of discourse on education issues here in Ontario. It’s a good point.

But, I have to say, how are we to discuss matters of education reform when our system is dominated by politicians who struggle with the truth? Yes, public bargaining is not a refined tool for developing education policy, but when we are dealing with people who are insincere and dishonest, we have to realize that a strong, coherent defence is essential. When someone is trying to shame you you need to stand up to the bully.

I remember being at an education conference soon after the Harris Government was replaced by the Liberals. It was a great conference, new ideas and positive, innovative initiatives were being discussed. I asked a consultant what it was like to have these discussions during the conservative years. She replied that everyone just kept their heads down.

What a way to bring about change!

When your minister knowingly doesn’t tell the truth. When he tries to use old-style bully techniques, when he apes the tactics of Republicans south of the border we have to realize that we are playing by a different set of rules.

Facts matter, education matters. If we don’t want to keep our heads down we must call out those who want to hurt our system. We shouldn’t have to do this, but here we are. There is no shame in this.

Trolls Creep Into the Education Debate in Ontario

What does one expect a retired principal to say??? You just want leech our system dry and fail our student to line your colleagues (sic) pockets.

Taken from a direct tweet to me – Sunday, March 24

We are entering into a zone in Ontario where debate and protest are again necessary to protect public education here in Ontario.

Unfortunately, when you begin to advocate for a public institution, you do invite the trolls out there to take shots at you. It is incredible how quickly the debate on social media can go south when we start talking about education. I certainly will not be focussing on the negative, but it truly is a shame when people think it is OK to attack teachers for standing up for their students and parents.

Every 15 years or so democracy seems to take a misstep. We elect someone whose interest in public institutions is suspect. Why do we do things like this? Why do we get tired of supporting vital public institutions?

Democracies sometimes head down the wrong road and when this happens the consequences can be very destructive.

In Ontario, the current government of Doug Ford is taking the beginning steps in dismantling many of the gains our education system has made in the past 15 or 20 years. For the most part, we have made these gains because the people in power believed in strong public institutions. Of course, they made lots of mistakes and they could have done more, but I don’t think you can argue that they didn’t believe in a strong public education system.

The current government is having trouble figuring this one out.

When I protest, I’m not standing up for my rights. I’m standing up for my students because my working conditions are their learning conditions & they deserve better than crowded classes, fewer high school options & forced e-learning.

Taken from Twitter – March 25

It is great to see educators fighting back – there are lots of comments like the one above on Twitter right now. Maybe we can drown out the trolls!

There is an important interview you should all listen to. In it, the current Minister of Education, Lisa Thompson struggles to explain why increasing average class sizes to 28 in high school is a good thing.

//www.cbc.ca/i/caffeine/syndicate/?mediaId=1461676099953In a follow-up article, Lisa Thompson is quoted saying that her government is committed to standing by Ontario’s teachers.

I would argue it’s a little more like standing on the necks of teachers, but that’s just me.

This is an important moment for education in Ontario. Increasing class size does only one thing – it reduces the number of teachers you need to employ, nothing else. Anyone who has spent time scheduling high school classes knows that and I have done lots of that.

You have to expect the trolls will ooze to the surface during these debates. Lots of people have real or imagined gripes against an educator and social media gives them a voice.

trying to ‘school’ teachers will not work for Doug Ford

What is great about the current debate is that lots of educators are also taking to social media to write in support of the current system. This is really important. I don’t know if it will make any difference, but politicians should learn that they can no longer make decisions in a personal vacuum. Their decisions will be debated and in some cases protested against in the public forum. Doug Ford warning teachers not to protest his education cuts is a hollow threat.

It is good to reflect on the Twitter comment to me. The troll writes,  “You just want leech our system dry and fail our student to line your colleagues (sic) pockets.”

The day before Doug Ford was quoted saying this, “I love the front-line teachers and we may not see eye to eye with the head of the unions because all they want to do is collect their union dues and start pocketing (them) into their pockets,”

There seems to be a similarity here. This is what happens when our political leaders drag down the debate and make things personal. It gives permission to the trolls out there to do the same thing.

Educators in Ontario should not allow this to happen.

 

Power Corrupts Absolutely, Even in Education

Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.

Lord Acton,  in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887

I started off my day today reading about the testimony of Jody Wilson Raybould to the Justice Committee and John Ibbitson’s response in the Globe and Mail        “Trudeau has lost the moral mandate to govern“. It was quite the day yesterday. Not only did we have the stunning testimony of the former Justice Minister, the House Oversight Committee in the United States grilled Michael Cohen, the former Trump fixer, for over nine hours. I watched lots of this testimony, it was incredible. While I didn’t see Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s questioning, I saw a clip of her quizzing Cohen later in the day. If you haven’t seen it you should take a look here

If you contrast this with the performance of her Republican colleagues, you can get a good example of power corrupting absolutely. Like their Liberal Party cousins here in Canada, they are displaying blind loyalty to a leader and a party that has lost the right to govern due to their abuse of power.

I think we need more oversight committees and more politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jodi Wilson Raybould. Speaking truth to power is a very rare commodity these days.

There are more examples of the corrupting influence of power closer to home. Our premier Doug Ford has been in the news twice this week. First, it was reported that lobbyists, companies and industry groups are feeling pressure to attend a $1,250-a-person fundraiser in order to maintain access to Ford’s government “Doug Ford defends fundraising dinner amid cash-for-access criticisms“.

Then there is the $50,000 bill for Doug Ford’s new van with leather-covered swivel chairs. Very nice, but is this something he really needs to be premier of the province? This is yet another interesting article to read – all published this week! Here it is “Doug Ford’s van customization has $50K price tag, documents show”.

Power corrupts absolutely. Is there an educational context? I think there is. As a society, we are just not interested in making the investments necessary to ensure a safe system that is flexible enough to cater to all children. There is no reason at all that in a wealthy society like our own we can’t create a system that caters to the needs of all children. The fact that we have daily incidents of violence, especially in our elementary schools is an indication that we are not willing to make the hard choices that would allow for a more humane system.

Instead, we get the shoddy of implementation of cure-all philosophies like self-regulation. We get well-meaning educators who claim that if we just trained really hard, there would be no violence in our schools because everyone would be ‘regulated’ somehow. While this is an interesting idea, school boards will never be able to make this happen. Their implementation has been way too ham-handed.

The senior administrators who have played out this cure-all are happy with this self-regulation movement. They want violence in the schools to be the educator’s problem. Advocating for a whole-scale change to the education system to put all children first is not part of their game plan. It doesn’t have to be. Like all those in positions of absolute power, there is no real incentive to solve, or even look into the problems of school violence.

Education commentators are no better. Because they are linked to the current ideas on self-regulation they seem to be unable to think outside the education box. The response seems to be that this is the best we can do or that this is ‘part of the solution’. What if we put the child, every child, including the autistic child first? Why are we instead contemplating a system that stops intensive treatment at a very early age then putting everything on the backs of the school system? We are inviting more violence. Is self-regulation really going to be our best tool, or are we just blurring the issue and blunting the debate about what is really needed.

parent protests against the proposed changes to funding of autism programming in Ontario

One school board – Halton District has reversed this trend by speaking some truth to power. This week (again – a big week!) they published a letter to Education Minister Lisa Thompson and Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod. In the letter, the school board indicated that a lack of communication about government funding has made it challenging to ensure that these students have the resources they need.

Without the current government funding, many of these families will be unable to continue therapy at current levels. For example, some students may drop from 25+ hours of therapy per week to two hours per week under the new program. Presumably, students will spend some, if not all, of the rest of this time within publicly funded schools…

Halton school board ‘gravely concerned’ about Ontario autism program changes

I would be surprised to hear that many other school boards are planning to write similar letters and I am sure none of the Catholic boards will do so.

Power corrupts at all levels. When it comes to senior management in school boards, there is little connection to the classroom and to the current debate on violence in the classroom. While protesting against a cut in funding for treatment programs for autistic children is a necessary step, senior officials need to question why we have the problem of rising violence in our schools. The symptom is the violence, the problem is that we are doing an inadequate job at serving our most needy children.

If they cannot address the problem they should get out of the way and let others try. That will never happen. They have the power and authority and power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Self-Regulation and Evangelism in Education

Why and how did Canadian elementary schools become so enthralled with “mindfulness” and “self-regulation”?  What critical education issues were either obscured or ignored in pursuit of pseudo-scientific cures for today’s classroom challenges? What will be the legacy of turning the younger grades into therapeutic classroom environments? What does all of this portend for Canadian K-12 education in 2017 and beyond?

Dr. Stan Kutcher

Many years ago I travelled to the Dominican Republic with some of my students. This was easily a transformative experience for me. I witnessed true poverty and injustice in the streets of Dominican towns and especially in the hovels of the sugar cane plantations called bateys.

a batey in the Dominican Republic. Modern-day slavery

Everything is wrong about how people, especially Haitians, are treated in the Dominican Republic, but there is one thing that really stuck out during my visits. One constant presence on the bateys were the evangelical churches.

I bring this up here for a post on the self-regulation movement because there is a link I want to explore. The evangelicals were very popular on the bateys because their ministers did not call into question the injustice of their situation on the plantations. Their reward was elsewhere – not in protesting against the grinding poverty they suffered so we could all have cheap sugar.

Here is the link. Self-regulation never calls into question a system that lends inadequate support to educators in their struggle to teach in a peaceful environment. Rather, self-regulation or mindfulness calls on the educator to transform their inner self and the inner selves of their students to create a peaceful environment in the classroom.

There is no need to advocate for change because the change is within us.

In the past few days, I have received a fair amount of push back for posting about the self-regulation movement. Fair enough, the conversation is a healthy one. We are gearing up for an episode of the Class Struggle podcast on this topic, but we aren’t ready yet. More conversation is needed.

What I find interesting is the push back. People are writing about how self-regulation has transformed their lives and has saved their careers. People write stories about how they were able to transform a situation with a hug while other staff looked on.

Statements like this make me uncomfortable. They have a certain whiff of evangelism. You just need to see the light and your classroom will be at peace. Nothing else is necessary.

My former school board loves self-regulation. Why wouldn’t they? By putting it back on educators to transform their students there would no longer be a need to spend more on educational assistants. There would be no need to lobby the government to change the way we approach the education of our children.

It’s a simple solution.

At one point, our local ‘self-regulation consultant’ came to see me to complain about a new teacher in our school. During her observations, she did not see any ‘evidence of self-regulation in the classroom.’ I think she expected me to march right in and get that fixed. To be honest, I really didn’t know what she wanted or expected. I did know that we weren’t following the new orthodoxy and that this needed to change.

Nothing changed and the consultant moved on to spread more of the good news.

Self-Regulation is based on Mindfulness and Mindfulness is heavily influenced by Buddhism. I think Mindfulness is really great and I have practised it for many years. It is intensely personal and takes years of practice to get good at it. From a Buddhist perspective, you never really get good at this, your whole life is spent working on getting better.

Paul Bennett has written a series of articles (Teaching ‘Stressed-Out’ Kids: Why is the Self-Regulation Movement Spreading?) on self-regulation. They are worth reading. I won’t summarize his writing here, but he makes some very good points about the nature of the self-regulation movement and the approach it is taking in our schools.

I got into this most recent debate not because I wanted to write about self-regulation. I wanted to highlight the important CBC piece on the Sunday edition about violence in schools. This became a bit of a rant about self-regulation when it was suggested that the solution to violence in schools is self-regulation.

I have to push back against this idea. No one idea will save our education system. An idea based on developing a stronger sense of self puts an undue burden on the educator. There is a strong current of evangelism in the current self-regulation movement that blurs our vision when it comes to what is truly needed in our schools.

Violence is tearing at the heart of our education system, we need to keep a clear focus on the problem and avoid distraction.

 

Why I have Trouble with the Self-Regulation Movement

Yesterday I happened to pick up on a story on the CBC’s The Sunday Edition. Just like the Globe and Mail and other media sources, the issue of increasing violence in the classroom was being highlighted. I retweeted the story and we listened to the episode.

It is an important story. It is a frustrating one as well because no one in positions of real authority seems to be listening. What might surprise people is the fact that the problem of violence is most pronounced in elementary schools. On top of that, these incidents of violence go largely unreported.

These were the results of an online survey conducted for the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario in relation to the 2016-17 school year. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

The article attached to the Sunday Edition episode includes an upsetting statistic:

Results from ETFO’s members showed only 22 per cent of teachers said they would report cases of verbal or physical violence, and less than a quarter said steps were taken to prevent future incidents.

The report continued by stating that many teachers felt that no change would take place so why bother reporting?

As a former elementary administrator, I understand their reluctance to report. People at the most senior levels of school boards are not comfortable with this kind of information and they have no answers for teachers who have to deal with violence in the classroom.

I am not making this up. Schools are generally on their own when it comes to violent incidents, especially at the elementary level. To complain does not do any good; you are reminded to rely on the resources you already have.  These resources continue to be cut back all the time. High schools have more specialized programming and more support staff. Elementary schools have the principal, a resource teacher, and the all-important educational assistant staff. That’s all.

One comment on my retweet struck me.

While I respect what Lisa was saying here, her comment misses the point. I am sure the teachers talking on Sunday Morning are good teachers trying very hard to do their best. Learning about self-regulation would not change what is going on in their classrooms.

I do think self-regulation is useful. It is always useful to learn about what motivates people and it is very healthy to acquire a deeper sense of self-knowledge. Most ancient religions are based on ideas of developing a deep sense of self.

There is a danger with a reliance on any one system of belief and the danger here is that we are really pushing the idea that the violence in schools could somehow be solved if teachers were just a bit better trained. The problem with this approach is this – the system will never be improved by political pressure or social advocacy, therefore, change must be on the backs of educators. Nothing else will change so we need to be the change.

This is why, I think, self-regulation is so popular amongst senior administrators and some consultants.  We are taking an ancient idea and asking educators to become agents of personal transformation. If educators are the only agents of change there is little need to call for the resources we truly need to make our system more effective, more humane and more peaceful.

Social change is hard to do and hard to understand. It is easier to give up on change and get teachers to take up the mantle.

That is why I am uncomfortable about waving the flag of self-regulation in front of the angry school.

I know there will be blowback against what I am writing but I want to be clear. I am an advocate for educators. I have seen the struggle they go through every day and I have dealt with my fair share of very violent incidents in elementary schools, some so dangerous that parts of our building had to be cleared to keep students and educators safe.

I also understand self-regulation. I have listened to and read really good material on self-regulation and acquiring self-knowledge and have undergone my own very painful journeys to understand myself and those around me. Yes, self-regulation is important for everyone – no it will not solve the problems experienced by educators in our schools today.

My point is simple – don’t put school reform on the backs of the educator. Self-regulation is simply not a panacea, it is one tool to help educators better understand themselves and their students. We are relying on this movement too much and it is crowding out the necessary conversation we need to be having on how schools can better serve students, parents and educators.

Let’s focus on a system that needs to be changed, let’s broaden the conversation.

Class Sizes Really Matter

Why is it that conservative-leaning governments always feel the need to go after public education? Is it public education in particular or is it all public institutions?

I really don’t know, but I have seen along with many other educators in Ontario the latest trial balloon put up by the provincial government in an effort to relieve the strain on taxpayers. Lisa Thompson, the Minister of Education is about to start consultations on a variety of education-related issues – class size being one of them. This is what she put out today.

We’ve launched consultations with education partners on many topics including class sizes. Let me be clear, no decisions have been made. We look forward to the sector sharing their experience and perspective so we can ensure tax dollars have the greatest impact in the classroom.

I added in my contribution to the consultation. Not that I was asked, but I am a taxpayer too, so why not.

Smaller class size for kindergarten and primary are certainly a good investment. You obviously could save money with larger class sizes, but you would be responsible for decreasing the quality of education in Ontario. Better idea – hard cap in kindergarten of 25.

This got way more attention than my tweets usually do. I think this is a good thing, there are many educators who are concerned about class size in kindergarten and primary. As a former elementary principal, hard caps in grades 1-3 made a huge difference in the learning environment for children and their teachers.

The not so hard cap of 29 or 30 in kindergarten did make some difference. I would argue that if we were really serious about the learning environment in kindergarten, there would be a hard cap of no more than 25.

Some people, including some education writers, argue that class size does not make a difference. I don’t think these people have ever spent enough time in a primary or kindergarten classroom.

These spaces can be real battlegrounds. Especially in neighbourhoods where kids have never been in group care situations, kindergarten is very challenging. Many of the children may not speak English, many have no idea how to play together and for some families, this will be their first introduction into the formal education system in Ontario.

While ‘battleground’ may seem like a strong word, the world of kindergarten and primary is something really different and very special. It is not something you want to get wrong, and you certainly will not benefit from an overcrowded classroom.

No caps mean you can put any number of children in a classroom. This is actually one of the key issues teachers in Los Angeles are striking about right now. No caps means you can save money on staffing, you may get a few dollars back at income tax time. If you don’t have kids in the system, you will never know the difference.

An important political issue for the taxpayers of Ontario.

Do we not have any primary principles in our society that stop us from making decisions that negatively impact the most vulnerable?

Trick question.

I know we don’t, but we should. The education of our children – and very important decisions affecting our children’s education – should not be treated like other public forum decisions, like extending LCBO hours or charging for tourism signs on provincial highways. No trial balloons to the general public on an issue such as kindergarten class size.  This is not about saving the taxpayer a few dollars.

We must, we deserve to, have higher-quality discussions about significant issues. Bantered taunts on Twitter and angry exchanges between strangers do not constitute informed public debate. And, often that debate should be guided by well-briefed, informed leaders who have spent a day or two with this province’s future voters – the kindergartners.

 

The Debate Continues – Are We Doing a Good Job at Inclusion in Our Schools?

Over the past week, there has been a good deal of material written about inclusion especially in Ontario. The discussion was reopened by Caroline Alphonso’s article in the Globe and Mail – Educating Grayson: How Do We Make Inclusion Work?

We look at the exceptions and say that inclusion works, at best, this is only partially true.   What happens when a system (inclusion) depends on exceptional teachers and schools? Is inclusion really sustainable when we depend on exceptional practice?

Aviva Dunsiger wrote an excellent article on inclusion as part of this debate. This is a sensitive, reflective piece and it does show that inclusion can work in some circumstances. Aviva made some wholesale changes to her classroom and the learning environment did become more inclusive. The article does bring up an important question. Is this the exception or is this the rule? In the article, Aviva writes that a board team came in and gave its recommendations and then left. It is telling that her first response was to question her own professionalism.

Well, when the team members came in and spoke to me, I left feeling as though I was the worst teacher out there. I totally broke down. Heaving sobs. They wanted me to change my classroom around for one child. Why? 

Aviva was able to put together a plan with her EA, but that does not mean the system is working. Her story may be the exception. The onus is still being put on the classroom teacher to do something truly exceptional with no increase in support apart from a visit from a group of school board experts.

Is this good enough? Are we being reflective enough to bring about significant change or are we hoping that exceptional teachers and schools will simply become the norm and the problem will go away?

One person made an excellent comment on Aviva’s post. She noted some of the things that still need to be in place for inclusion to work better in schools.

 self-reflective, flexible and open teachers, and as you noted:
leadership that creatively considers
-class size and composition (just because they have a dx doesn’t mean they should be in the same class every year),
-teacher training and updating of that training (a lot of parents don’t want ABA style or even punishment-reward style motivation anymore as new research becomes available)
-availability of community members that have knowledge and experience (there is no us v. them, only how can we help?)
-stress levels of families, students and staff & how we can alleviate those!
-lastly to choose staff that are open-minded and flexible and accepting that their way might need updating or that visual/reward/breaks won’t work for everyone, but it will work for more than one!

The comment about the involvement of community partners really strikes me here. Schools generally see themselves as silos and do not invite community agencies to play an active role in solving the problems all schools face. Most educators are unaware of the community resources that surround their schools. This is an area where we could really improve upon.

We need school boards and schools to be much more critical of their own practices. We all love to promote the exceptions and say they are the rule, but that is simply not the case. Who assesses school boards on the effectiveness of their own practice?

There is little oversight, so boards love to say how well they are doing in areas like inclusion. How many times did I hear that our school board was easily one of the best in the province? The more you say that the less critical you become.

I hope this debate continues. There are many great voices out there and it is good to see educators speaking out. The exceptions and innovations need to be celebrated, but the system as a whole needs to get much more responsive to the needs of our children and parents.