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.

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.

The Opposition grows in Ontario to Health Curriculum Changes – Minus a Catholic Voice

 

The summer is usually a quiet time for education news in Ontario.

Not this year. The declaration by the new Conservative Government of Doug Ford rescinding the current (2015) Health and Physical Education curriculum is causing a virtual firestorm in the province.

The story just gets more interesting by the moment. Andrew Campbell is doing an amazing job at keeping track of the school boards in Ontario that are coming out with statements in support of teaching the 2015 Health Curriculum.

Here is a portion of the TDSB (Toronto Public) statement:

We want to let the TDSB community know that regardless of the Health and Physical Education curriculum, we have a responsibility guided by the Human Rights Code, the Education Act and supported by TDSB policies, to ensure that each and every student, such as LGBTQ students, feels included and reflected in our schools and classrooms.

Similar statements are being put out by many of Ontario’s Public school boards.

It is important to note that none of the boards making public statements are Catholic school boards. Before I go on, I want to state that I was a Catholic educator for 31 years in Ontario, the last six years as an elementary principal.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Catholic Principals Council of Ontario seem to be silent on this very important issue. They may have made statements, but nothing is available on their websites or twitter feed. These two organizations are important components of the Catholic voice in this province. Just like the bystander who doesn’t stop the bully, these organizations are becoming part of the problem when it comes to delivering an important curriculum to our children.

Liz Stuart, the President OECTA, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association has made a positive step to become the lead Catholic voice in the province.

And I say again Teachers need relevant, up-to-date information and resources to help students manage relationships and personal well-being.

She was interviewed by CBC Toronto a few days ago. In the interview, she makes it very clear that the current Fully Alive Program taught in Catholic schools complied with the 2015 HPE Curriculum. Why then are Catholic school boards reluctant to publicly support the retention of the 2015 curriculum?

Good for OECTA and Catholic teachers in the province. However, the Catholic hierarchy seems to be taking the position that a return to the earlier 1998 curriculum is a relief. No mention of cyberbullying, same-sex couples, issues relating to LGBTQ people, consent or sexting. No uncomfortable conversations.

Huron-Superior Catholic District School Board chair John Caputo was quoted in the Sault Star as being satisfied by the current regression by the province.

“Being Catholic, we don’t agree with the lifestyle,” Caputo said. “(But) we’re not here to judge people or to crucify them for their lifestyle. We’re here to educate, and that’s what we’re trying to do with our children is try to educate them so that they’re well prepared for the real world.”
There was, however, a “sigh of relief” within his board, Caputo said, when the new government announced the older curriculum would be brought in.
“It was a lot easier to deliver it, based on our faith,” he added. “The newer one did have some challenges and we were struggling on how we were going to present it.”

While it is inspiring to see the position the Public boards are taking, it is very discouraging to see Catholic boards favouring a position of abstinence rather than speaking out for the protection of their students.

It seems to me there are two reasons for the silence. First, this is uncomfortable ground for the Catholic leadership. As school board chair John Caputo stated the 1998 curriculum was easier to deliver, it was based on Catholic faith.

I would argue that our faith is much more inclusive than that. As Catholics, we have a responsibility to support those who are underrepresented in society – that should come first. Respect for the Dignity of the Human Person should come first. Instead, we are falling back on old ideas.

Second, the Catholic boards do not want to say anything to anger the current government at a time where the idea of amalgamating Public and Catholic school boards is gaining currency.

Hardly surprising, but troubling.

When so many voices are missing from a crucial public debate you have to ask if the Catholic voice in public education is losing credibility. As a former Catholic school principal, the absence of Catholics in a debate that really centers on what is best for our students is a loss for everyone.

Students, parents and teachers deserve better than this. There should be a stronger, braver Catholic vision in Ontario right now.

How do We Respond to Violence in our Schools?

This morning I listened to a very disturbing interview on CBC Ottawa. A local Ottawa teacher was being interviewed about a violent incident that ended his teaching career. You can read an article about the incident here.

This is a very brave teacher. He is speaking out about violence in schools, a topic that does not get enough public discussion.

It is hard to read this article. In cases like this, the rights of staff to remain safe in their workplace are not being considered. When a student is suspended, their right to privacy trump the rights of staff to work in a safe environment. Merely moving a violent student to another school does nothing to solve the problem, it simply moves it along to another school where teachers are equally in the dark about the presence of a violent offender in their midst.

The CBC asked teachers to speak out about violence in their school and I hope they respond. The Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA) commissioned a study that reported 60 percent of teachers surveyed have personally experienced violence in the school.

I think the actual percentage is much higher than this. I have heard of incidents this year where students have actually tried to break into classes to get at students. Schools seem to be helpless when it comes to dealing with these incidents.

I remember being in a situation where we actually had to physically restrain a student who wanted to get at another pupil who was locked in my office for his own protection. As the incident played out, students in the school had to be rerouted to other parts of the school to keep them safe. While we were able to keep the violent student restrained, the incident was never debriefed and the only feedback we received from our school board was criticism on the methods we used to restrain the student.

These incidents happen every day in our schools. In many cases, educational assistants are the ones who are being injured. While some of these staff members have training working with violent students, teachers and administrators seldom receive this type of training.

The system is skewed in favor of the student and their need for privacy. When a student receives a suspension or some other consequence staff members are rarely informed. There is no procedure to keep staff members safe from a violent offender and their right to privacy comes before the right of school staff to remain safe.

I am not surprised to read that violence is increasing in the schools. Whatever is happening in society is reflected in the school. Andrew Campbell wrote an excellent article on the lack of mental health services in our schools – The Hypocrisy of Student Well-being. In his article Andrew points out that very little is currently being done to provide schools with the resources they need to deal with a growing mental health crisis in the schools.

So during a time of crisis, as students are suffering and educators are getting hurt, the ministry’s new well-being program is more focussed on funding active transportation and breakfast programs than providing front line support to children with mental health needs. In fact the major initiative to address student mental health is a provincial support team that doesn’t work directly with students. Unacceptable.

I hope that this excellent article will get more attention. It is hard to hear about a teacher suffering a career-ending injury and it is troubling to know that these incidents will continue to happen until we begin to take a serious look at the growing mental health crisis that is making our schools an increasingly hazardous place to work.