by Maureen Dagg

File photo.

Well folks, things are heating up across the province between teachers and the Ontario government. It’s obvious to me why teachers are striking—and it should be apparent to anyone who has a kid in our system right now.

You would be mistaken to think that your kids are getting the quality of education that you received.  And if you think you received a poor education—well, it is in fact even worse for your kids today!

I graduated high school some forty years ago, which means I started grade one over 50 years ago. (I know. Pretty scary.) I went to a rural high school, Osgoode Township High School in Metcalfe, Ontario.

Let me describe (albeit from a student point of view) what it was like back then:

My older siblings went to a one-room schoolhouse. Grades 1-8 in one room. No kindergarten in those earlier days. Older kids taught younger kids. Before I started school, a brand new public school opened in Osgoode, so everyone switched to that school. A separate room (nearly) for each grade! Yes, our classes were bigger than today. My grade 1 class has 28 kids in the photo; my grade 2 (which was a 2/3 split) has 33.

There were no extra helpers in the class, but it was ruled with an iron fist – and if you got sent to the office, you could get strapped!  This consisted of an actual belt used several times across your opened, outstretched hands.  Any kids who misbehaved in any way were sent out to the hall or to the office.  Any kid that was a lot of trouble was sent to a special school for misbehaving kids. Kids with “special needs” were not in our classes. If they couldn’t “make the grade”, they failed their year and had to repeat it.  Homework was assigned.  Quite a bit of it by grade 7. If you didn’t do it, you stayed in at recess to work (or of course, you failed).

Many kids dropped school after grade 8 or age 16, whichever came first.  In my family of 8 kids, 4 didn’t complete high school. I was the only one who went to university.

In my family (which struggled to make ends meet), we were expected to work on the farm.  No one ever pushed us to do homework and no one hired tutors to help us.  Our father cared only about our behaviour at school—and if one of us got into trouble, there was actual physical violence as punishment. Obviously this didn’t help matters. I don’t think my family was unusual in this regard.

Then came high school. Extra-curricular activities were exactly that: extra curricular.  They took place before/after school, or during lunch. They did not interrupt the school day. Of course, since we were rural kids, there were late buses provided to accommodate extra-curriculars (or kids who stayed after school for academic help).

Our high school classes were taught by people who were specialists in the subject matter we were studying. Some of our classes were quite small and specialized, but even back then, we did not have access in our rural school to the full suite of courses offered by the Ministry of Education. We were assigned to the academic level that our grades suggested!  We had textbooks, science materials and such. An interesting note is that the PhysEd teachers used to smoke in their office by the gym! Of course, there were no computers in the school – I never got to see a real computer until I started into Computer Science and Mathematics at the University of Waterloo.  And that was before the PC was invented.

In the years since I graduated, some things got better—followed by some things getting way worse for kids.

People started noticing that our graduation rate was very low, and our society determined that more education is better than less, and perhaps we ought to do something to figure out why so many people didn’t finish high school—if they attended it at all.

We began to realize that people learn in different ways, and some people need more help to get them started on the right track.  We began to understand learning difficulties and how to address them.  And once we started addressing them – with extra help for those students – this involved adding more staff to accommodate those kids.  A teacher can handle a fairly big class which is more or less homogeneous, and well-behaved.  But when we keep the kids who used to just “flunk out” and we try to help them individually, this is too much for one teacher.

However, we did start to do this: we added the support staff, the specialists to deal with special needs, the one-on-instructors for those kids, and we did increase graduation rates!  More kids than ever were graduating high school and even going on to university or specialized skills.  All wonderful news for our society in general.

We also removed corporal punishment from our schools, and have (albeit gradually) been learning that things like bullying and corporal punishment do not lead to more student success.  Kids with behaviour issues who are still in the classroom require special support, however.  It was truly a lot easier for teachers back in the day when they could kick kids out, and kids were expected to fend for themselves. Fear was the way that kids were kept in control in my day, and this wasn’t a good thing.

The main point to make is that all of these improvements to help our children meant that education was more expensive. People—those who are supporting our kids —deserve a living wage. And if these folks who are supporting our kids have the supports that they need, then we must be able to expect a lot from them.

I believe that it is worth it for all of us to pitch in and help give kids the best start in life that we can. A good education shouldn’t just be for wealthy people, any more than decent health care. Once you have children, don’t you want them to receive all support they need to help them succeed?  If you don’t have kids in the system, don’t you want to know that well-educated people are a part of your society as you age? Doesn’t it take a community?

We must always keep in mind that Education is an evolving thing, and in fact things have evolved quite a bit from when I was in school.  I’ve often joked over the years that Education is a huge experiment, and that our kids are really guinea pigs for the latest idea on how to improve things. This I believe is true—but how are we to improve unless we discover what works and what doesn’t?

At some point in the last thirty or so years, the Ministry experimented first with reading (remember Whole Language and the resulting Hooked on Phonics?) and then with arithmetic, both of which were very poorly implemented … and we started having kids who, in one generation couldn’t seem to read well, and then in the next, couldn’t deal with numbers. The Ministry—the implementor of these experiments—started testing all of the students … and blaming the teachers for the bad results rather than taking responsibility themselves.

As soon as they started blaming teachers, they could start chiselling away at their supports (which weren’t as visible to the public as the teachers themselves). The fact is that not all experiments work, and blaming the front-line workers for a systemic failure is just ludicrous. Teachers are bound by law to implement what the MINISTRY decides must be taught. They don’t just make this stuff up and pull it out of their back pockets. There is supposed to be consistency across the province!

But the thing to do was blame the teachers for political failures.  And politically, it is expedient—and even wins votes—to make financial cuts to education as the solution to the problems.  Yes, education IS way more expensive than it was when I was a kid, BUT we invested in student success, and supporting kids to get the best education requires people to help them.

Without good supports for teachers, today’s elementary parent is pretty much expected to read with their kids regularly, and they should also do multiplication tables and basic fractions with them. My parents certainly didn’t do this, but then in my day, the graduation rate was much lower. My grade 5 teacher made me stay in at recess until I learned my multiplication tables (for which I am still grateful).

Today’s parents expect their kids to have part-time jobs, play sports (often during the school day), have very little homework, and STILL achieve high enough grades to get them into post-secondary education. They still believe that the school (meaning the teacher) is fully capable of enabling their kids to be incredibly successful—even with cuts to things that support them.

Today, teachers at the elementary level are faced with kids of all learning abilities and styles in their classrooms. They have to deal with the discipline themselves. Of course, there is no corporal punishment, but many other discipline strategies have also been thwarted, leaving teachers often uncomfortable or uncertain about how to handle the physical violence to which they and other students are exposed; and they no longer have the support staff that made the integrated system workable for all learning styles and levels. They are made to pass kids to the next level at school with no choice in the matter, and there aren’t even adequate people to assess kids with difficulties so that they can each receive the type of support they need.

Elementary education has, in short, become a lot like chaos control with one person managing the crowd and higher and higher demands with less and less help.

A friend of mine is personally paying $200 per week for educational support for her learning-disabled elementary school daughter. I paid $2000 per child to have my kids assessed outside the system so that we could discover what supports would be most useful to them—and then provided much of the support ourselves. I tutored 9 high school students last semester in mathematics—and my roster is filling up for this semester. I am not tutoring special needs kids—just regular students who are not receiving a good enough education here in Almonte.

Why?  Because of CUTS, folks!  When the board has had MILLIONS of dollars in cuts in the last decade (this is a fact), they cut EVERYTHING they can that is “not too visible.” And then they start “making do” with what is left.

Do you know what is “not too visible”?  Support staff:  educational assistants, specialists in learning disabilities, people to make assessments, subject-specialist teachers; and textbooks and supplies. Now, at the high school, we have core courses sometimes not even offered, two grades of academic subjects in one class; and, at all levels, exhausted teachers who have a huge mess of abilities and behaviours and learning styles in their classroom, NO support staff to lighten the burden, NO timely assessment of kids with special needs … and many parents who seem to think that education should cost less and less. I can’t even imagine late buses being provided for kids to do extra-curriculars outside of school hours—that idea was cut many years ago!

It seems we’ve long ago decided that people aren’t worth our tax money when it’s people who make our social systems work. I mean, “social” implies “people”, doesn’t it? Remember, I’m not talking about teacher salaries—I’m talking about teacher supports!

Here are two GREAT ways to save money in education, folks:

The first way is to eliminate the Catholic education system. We are all paying for it, contrary to what many would like you to believe. We have FOUR completely taxpayer-supported education systems in Ontario!  English/French, Catholic/Non-Catholic. This is ludicrous, especially when you realize that Quebec (the raison d’être of this system) has eliminated it. Offer Religious Studies in all schools—after all, these courses are not mandatory even in the Catholic schools (as a recent Supreme Court of Ontario case determined). All people of faith ought to practice their faith in our community along with the rest of us, and attend their own places of worship.

Eliminate the EQAO, an extremely costly government endeavour which has only served to prove that many kids have special needs and has caused elementary teaching to go off the rails.  We keep penalizing the teachers for the situation that we have allowed them to be put into.

Folks, teachers are striking because the parents AREN’T! I’ve been writing articles for a while now urging parents to act. The teachers are parents too, folks. THEY have special needs kids who aren’t getting support. THEY have kids in over-crowded and under-supported classrooms, often in other schools. And THEY are in the system, so THEY are seeing it. LISTEN to them. GET involved. Write a letter. Or an article. Send it to the Ministry. I’m sending this one.

Education is big, complicated and nuanced. Obviously I cannot hope to exhaust even a micro-subtopic of education with a short article—trust me, I tried to cut it down! But there are REAL issues here, and I will keep writing. Hopefully I can increase awareness.

Just food for thought: Anyone in health care could write a compelling article on the issues there too!  This is CANADA, people. We have TWO awesome equalizing social structures: health care and education. BOTH could use a lot of improvement  But improvement doesn’t come from crapping on the front-line people. It comes from LISTENING to them and implementing great ideas.

Of course, we could just all go back to grade 8 being the average for the level of education in this province. We could make it so that only wealthy folks can afford a good education for their kids.