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!

Teaching as Resisting

There once was a note
Pure and easy
Playing so free, like a breath rippling by

Pure and Easy, The Who

What’s wrong with this picture?

I saw this photo on Twitter today and it made me wonder – what has happened to the art and gift of teaching? When did we forget that one of the roles of the teacher should be to resist the dominant culture of the day?

I read Neil Postman’s Teaching as a Conserving Activity while I was in teacher’s college. There are all sorts of interpretations of this book, but one thing that I took away from this was that educators need to stand in resistance to the dominant ideology. At the very least, we should question the status quo.

Is this still true? Was this ever true? Are we instead here to support the dominant culture and as in the case above, support a political leader who has a very questionable opinion of public education (think Betsy DeVos).

Why are we now afraid to be critics of the system? I have read so often how teachers are satisfied to ‘innovate’ in their own classroom and leave the big questions to others.

Some may say – easy for you  – you are retired now, but there have been times when I questioned the status quo while being actively involved in the education system.

Many years ago, as head of student services at a suburban high school, I was quoted in the city newspaper saying that the schools were the source of drugs for teenagers. Everyone knew this was true, we even knew who the dealers were. I probably should have kept my mouth shut but as a counsellor I saw on a daily basis the negative impact drugs were having on our students. At the time, we as a school board were doing nothing to combat the problem.

The day the article came out the wrath of the school board descended on me. My superintendent was furious and demanded to know if I had been misquoted. I had to explain, no these were my exact words. This did not go over very well with anyone at the school board. The issue of the ravaging impact of drugs on our youth was not something that entered the conversation.

Years later, I was again admonished for being critical of the Canadian Catholic Bishops. I was actually agreeing with a letter that was critical of some stand they were taking (or more likely not taking).

My post had been found on a Facebook Page that had no connection to our school board. A very conservative pressure group found the post and was trying to use it to embarrass the Catholic school board. Again, and not for the last time, I found myself in huge trouble for speaking my mind. The issue of the Canadian Bishops’ lack of leadership in commenting on social injustice was again not part of the discussion.

I bring up these stories in this post not to brag about being a ‘resistor’ but to make the point that I believe it is the role of educators to speak the truth and that in doing so they should not find themselves in the institutional ‘doghouse’.

All educators know they need to keep their opinions to themselves. Resistance and even criticism can be seen as dangerous and even a career stopper.

Is it that we don’t want to offend? Is it that it is seen as our job not to criticize the system? Is it that we simply do not have political opinions?

I really don’t know. I do think we have relegated an important role to others in society.

I don’t think this is good for education and I am sure it is not a sign of a healthy democracy. All I can say now is that in retrospect I am glad I got in trouble and I  hope I would do it again.

Those in the upper echelons of the education system should take pause and consider the importance of resistance as a key role for the educator.