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.

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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.

Has inclusive education gone too far? – The Globe and Mail debate

When I started this series of articles for the Class Struggle Podcast, I wrote that public debate on important public issues is sustained and encouraged through our media. A strong public press is essential in a healthy democracy and we are very fortunate here in Canada to have a vital and responsive media.

On Saturday, the Globe and Mail’s education reporter Caroline Alphonso wrote an important feature on the problems surrounding inclusion in Canada’s schools – Educating Grayson: Are inclusive classrooms failing students?

The article is an intelligent and sensitive report on the problems that take place every day in Canada’s schools surrounding inclusion. As a former elementary principal, I am well aware of these issues. Although I have not been in schools in the last two years, the problem obviously persists and the solutions remain elusive.

The Globe and Mail is sustaining this debate by publishing some of the comments to Saturday’s article. I have included two of them here:

From the comments: Has inclusive education gone too far? Educators and parents share their experiences

In 2018, I retired after 17+ years as an Educational Assistant (EA) in elementary schools. Over those years my job changed dramatically; from helping students (with varying needs) achieve their potential in class, to keeping students with often volatile behaviours from being a threat to others while in a “regular” classroom. Most, if not all, children want to belong and succeed at school. Teachers and EAs also want to make this happen. Too often, I have seen principals and parents put their own interests and opinions ahead of the best interests of the student. It becomes a fight about which adult is right, and the student’s true needs get overlooked. It is a terrible waste, made even greater when “experts” are brought in to observe briefly, and then chime in on what is best.

Please, parents and administration, gather and listen to the student, and the teacher and the Educational Assistant together. Set a few goals, be consistent at home and at school, and be kind and respectful of each other. You will see improvements almost immediately. Unfortunately this rarely happens. – MacKenzie96

Ms. Kahn is not wrong to want better services for Grayson. It is sad that services for children like Grayson are so limited. Underfunding special education programs pits parents against teachers and administrators. This undermines an education system that is the envy of the world (we rank #5 internationally according to the OECD). Please keep in mind that funding for education has been frozen for the last few years and special education in most boards has been cut. There are fewer Educational Assistants in my classroom than ever before. My fear is Mr Ford’s austerity measures aimed at health care system, social assistance and education will only make things worse. – Daysofmiracle

I don’t know if I have anything useful to add to these comments, but I do know that educators need to be part of this discussion.

This Thursday for this week’s Class Struggle on VoicEd Radio we will weigh in on this issue. As I have been saying, educators need to be heard on this issue and it would be great to see more writing from those who are active in the profession. We know there is a lack of resources when it comes to education and there are real human consequences to the underfunding that has been going on for years.

the next Class Struggle podcast will be this Thursday (January 10) at 8:00PM

The problems with inclusion are well known. Principals, especially in elementary school have been excluding special needs students from their buildings for years. These exclusions are hard to trace because they were never documented and were never part of any formal process. I remember many times as an administrator asking parents just to keep their child at home. They weren’t suspended, we just didn’t have the resources to keep them and others safe in our school.

These actions are taken by principals every day. When I excluded I always did this on my own authority. No one above me was willing to take any responsibility for these actions and when things went badly, I was the one who suffered the consequences.

Here is the problem. There are nowhere near the resources in the schools to deal with many special needs cases. As Caroline Alphonso mentions in her article, there are situations where a gifted teacher may be able to accommodate a special needs child, but such a situation is not sustainable, and not all schools have the talent to work successfully with challenging children.

More often the lack of adequate resources leads to disruptions and sometimes violence in the classroom.

In most cases, it is the educational assistant that suffers the direct consequences for the emotional outbursts of the child, but I know the results of poorly thought-out inclusion affects the entire school community, including children and parents.

The solution calls for a rebuilding of the inclusion model. Generally, the practices in Ontario at least are haphazard. Inclusion needs to be rebuilt from the ground up with a sharp focus on how best to accommodate the special needs child, their parents and the wider school community. Inserting the student into a regular classroom with some support and hoping for the best is just not good enough.

Such a rebuild will be expensive and I really don’t think we are there yet as a society to make the financial investment that it will take. Patching is cheap, rebuilding takes lots of resources and intelligent design.

I hope we have a good debate on Thursday. This is a problem that will just get worse until we face it head-on. Again, good for the Globe and Mail for keeping this important issue in the public eye. As educators, we need to do our part to make sure it stays there.