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  • Writer's pictureDerek Stoppels

A Call To Action

This letter is a call to action to all my fellow teachers in Ontario. Stephen Lecce and Doug Ford love to brag about how Ontario has the best education system in the world, or one of them, anyway. And yet, they continue to do everything they can to dismantle the public education system in Ontario. The OSSTF is working on an Education Platform that they want to present to politicians and political parties before the 2022 election.

I have some thoughts, and fears about this upcoming election. There is no way of knowing where we will be in terms of the COVID19 pandemic when the election comes around, but if we’re not out of it by then, it will still be fresh on everyone’s minds. This government is failing students all over the province, but as usual, this election is going to quickly become a spin game.

The government has thrown millions and millions of dollars into the education system during this pandemic. Most of it has gone unnoticed, but that won’t matter come election time. Stephen Lecce is going to be able to stand behind his podium and gesticulate his way through speech after speech and answer after answer about how “this” government has spent more money on education than any other party ever, and I’ll bet money that he even uses the term “unprecedented amount”. We know deep down that this government believes strongly that if you throw enough money at a problem it goes away, but money isn’t enough.

When it comes down to the issues between teachers and governments, it always seems to come down to money. Teachers want more, and governments cut it. Here’s the rub, I have a bad feeling that teachers are going to lose public support because the government is going to be able to tell the public how much money they’ve spent on education and look at how poorly things have gone. The Ford government is going to spin things to say that even though we’ve thrown all this money into the education system, your children will be further behind than the rest of the world because the teachers who keep asking for more money haven’t done their jobs well during the pandemic.

Here’s an example. Teachers have had to change everything about the way they do everything. In Ottawa, we have moved from a semestered system, which is where students get four 75 minute periods a day to a quadmester/cohort system where kids spend one week in one class, for 225 minutes a day, but only every other day. So when they used to get 75 minutes a day of science class over 5(ish) months, now they get 11 or 12 days of 225 minutes in class over 8 or 9 weeks. The minutes add up, and if you looked and listened to Stephen Lecce in August, there was nothing more important than “instructional minutes” (and it really grinds my gears that he doesn’t talk about learning, unless it's followed by the word “loss”).

The Ontario curriculum was designed to be taught in a semestered system, at least as far as I know. The challenge now is that while the instructional minutes are equivalent, the delivery is wildly different. In August, Stephen Lecce made me believe that “instructional minutes” were far more important than learning. And since then, he has led me to believe that the education system is more about politics than it is about learning. And it's an embarrassment.

But this pandemic is playing right into Doug Ford’s government’s hands when it comes to education. The education system costs a lot of money to operate. And it should. But a government could save a lot of money if education wasn’t a public “industry.” That’s how this Ford government treats the education system in Ontario, like an industry. They talk about education as a noun, and not as a verb. They talk, and think about it like it's a thing and not something that happens. And it's an embarrassment. I can’t help but feel that Stephen Lecce was appointed by Doug Ford to dismantle the portfolio of which he is in charge. A single guy, with no kids, no teaching experience, and went to private school is in charge of the public education system in Ontario. Read that again.

This government wants teachers to fail, because everytime a teacher fails, the private system looks better to parents. And every kid that goes to private school is a kid who doesn’t need provincial funding. Everything about how school is experienced for students, parents, teachers and education workers in Ontario has changed completely. And yet, the curriculum has not changed, and Growing Success, the document that lays out an Ontario teacher’s job, pretty much, hasn’t changed. We have to do parent teacher interview night four times a year instead of two (this is an issue because these nights happen outside the school day and take time away from our own families, and in hard times like these, it's not only a sacrifice for us, but our families have to give up time so we can talk to someone else’s family). Midterm marks are still “important.” I put the word important in parentheses because I don’t actually think they’re important, especially because there are some kids I have only met four times and now I have to quantify the “learning” that they’ve demonstrated. Final grades still have to happen, and credit intervention seems to be even more important now than it ever has been, but at the same time has lost its integrity (to no fault of the Student Support Teachers).

Teachers have not been told to focus on providing learning opportunities for their students not a single time through this pandemic. We’ve been told to focus on assessing and evaluating the overall expectations of the curriculum documents.

If anyone outside of any school thought of education as a verb and not a noun, teachers would not be asked to focus on curriculum expectations. I hear all the time about parents, and teachers, concerned about “learning loss.” I would put money on the fact that if teachers could actually focus on learning, and not on curriculum expectations, “learning loss” would not be a thing. If we didn’t have to give grades eight times in a school year, learning would be more important than percentages. It has become painfully clear that the education system is more concerned with credit accumulation than it is with actual learning. And this is Stephen Lecce’s fault. Lecce doesn’t actually care about learning, and in fact, I would argue, he doesn’t want the students in Ontario public schools to learn, because if they did, he’d have to spend more money on them after the next election.

If this government really cared about learning, and education as a verb, Lecce would be urging teachers to find ways to provide opportunities for our students to grow and develop skills and characteristics that are going to help them throughout their lives, but more importantly throughout this pandemic. If Lecce actually cared about students’ development and mental health, he would be doing more to take the emphasis off of grades, and put it on to learning. And if anyone is reading this and thinks that grades reflect learning, you should rethink your definitions of those words, especially as they relate to “school” these days. Learning, like education, is not a noun. Learning isn’t something that you can do to someone. Learning is something that happens to someone, and it's inevitable.

This government is finite minded and cares only about the bottom line. This government has not once demonstrated that education and learning is in fact an infinite game. Learning, and education, and development and mental health are all words that this government has shown no interest in learning the definitions. When students are struggling with their mental health, this government is going to say things like “Look, we spend millions of dollars on getting more mental health supports into our schools, if your kid is suffering, talk to the teachers.”

And here’s the rub. The government would be right. They have messed this school year up so badly, not because of changing the schedule and asking teachers to do things differently, but because they’ve asked teachers to rethink what they have to do, but they haven’t changed anything about the expected outcomes on students. Standardized tests are moving forward as always. Reporting periods match “instructional minutes,” but if any parent, or member of the public takes a real ook at what a student's day actually looks like, there is a crazy amount of pressure on these kids to get good grades in a system that doesn’t care about learning. If the method of instruction has to change, why not change the emphasis on grades?

Students are struggling with mental health these days in part because teachers are being told to generate grades the same as they always have but lack the time and resources to try to find better ways to do it. Students are getting anywhere from one to three major assignments per week, (ex. A unit test and two lab reports, or a lab report and two unit one week) when they’ve only seen their teacher three times in total that week. So every day that kid goes to class they have a major assignment that is due because teachers have to come up with grades as they always have and don’t have the time to think about, or try, different ways of doing them. The government and our school boards tell us to focus on the overall expectations, which is a nice sentiment, but when a teacher has been teaching the same course the same way for years and years, trying something out of the box is not only unsettling, it's actually unfathomable. We have to come up with a grade for the students in our class eight times a year. And if that’s the case, the best, and easiest and fastest way to do that is by doing the same old song and dance they have always done. But this isn’t the teacher’s fault. We haven’t been given any time to talk to each other about any best practices or bounce any ideas off each other, because instructional minutes are more important than learning. We can’t give teachers PD days, because kids need to be in class, “learning.” When I read that last sentence it makes me sick.

Imagine if someone somewhere decided to change the way trials happened. Just like that, at the drop of a hat, lawyers have to change everything about the way they do things, but the law doesn’t change. Imagine juries were selected on the first sixteen people that showed up, never mind what their biases may or may not be? Or imagine that emergency room patients got to choose where in the list of priority they should be?

A Call To Action

Now here is my call to action. I hope that I have made it clear about how I think this government wants to, and actually is, dismantling the public education system in Ontario. Teachers, if we want to maintain the high standard of public education in this province we have to get creative about how we demonstrate what that looks like in our classrooms. When it comes to education, a lot of people think that school looks exactly the same now as it did when they were in school. The problem is that they’d be right. I know a lot of teachers who are not political, and who just show up and want to teach the kids sitting in front of them. But I’m trying to use my voice as the Political Action Officer of the Teacher Bargaining Unit (TBU) of the OSSTF to urge you to demonstrate the learning in your classrooms publicly. Public education needs you.

I didn’t take on this role with my OSSTF TBU Executive because I’m a “rah rah”, card carrying, flag bearing unionist. I took on this role because I believe with every ounce of my body that every person in the world deserves the right to a free, publicly funded and high quality education, and I want to do everything I can to make that happen.

When my parents think about what I do for a living, they picture desks in rows with tests, and slideshows. I guess it was acetates and overhead projectors back then. And even though, with COVID restrictions being what they are, our classrooms look more traditional than they have in a long time, we need to demonstrate to the public that learning is happening in our classrooms in spite of that. What does learning look like in your classroom? It would be hard for someone to imagine why we should give money to an education system that in their minds, looks exactly the same as it did when they were in school. If they think school hasn’t changed, and it seemed good to them back then, its probably still good...right?

Get a Twitter account, follow me @TheStoppelsShow, or write a blog, or a podcast, or a letter to the local newspaper. Get out there and show the world what learning looks like in your classroom. If we want to ask more of our government, we need to show the public that “school” looks a lot different now than it did when anyone else was in school. If school looks exactly the same as it always has, how is the public going to understand why we need more from the government. And let me be clear, I’m not talking about our compensation package. I know the government has spent millions of dollars on updating the ventilation in our schools and hiring more staff, but what about class sets of resources? Why are teachers still spending so much of their own money on their students? Because we (teachers) aren’t showing anyone what learning looks like. We talk to each other about it, and we celebrate amongst ourselves, but how do we show the public what we are doing in our classrooms and why we could use a few more books, or microscopes, or field trips, or guest speakers.

We, as teachers, have to get away from tests, quizzes and exams to quantify learning, and provide opportunities for our students to demonstrate their learning in meaningful ways, that we can then in turn not only show the public, but contribute to them as well! You sometimes hear about a high school kid who invented something and now developing countries have access to clean drinking water. These types of students are not one in a million. They’re in our classrooms everyday. We just don’t give them enough chances to figure that out!

In 2021, the role of the teacher must change. We cannot afford to be the sage on the stage if we care about public education. We have to be navigators. Put the students in the driver seats, and we sit beside them with the map in our hands. We know how to get to where we’re going, but let them drive the bus. Literally every student in our classes has a device in front of them with all the information in the world. As much as some teachers might want to think they’re the smartest ones in the room, we’re not. Maybe we think it's our job to get our students ready for “what comes next,” but it's not anymore. This world is so crazy and has changed so much, I will argue, in fact I’m arguing right now, that we (teachers) have no right to decide what our students need to know to get ready for the “next step” because there are so many directions our students can take to get to where they want to go that there is no way of knowing what “next” really is. Let’s give them skills that will help them here, now and always. If we push our students out of their comfort zones, next time they’re out of their comfort zone, they’ll know that they have to ability to adapt and adjust accordingly. Giving tests doesn’t actually get students ready for more tests. And I’m pretty sure they can figure out how to take notes during a college/university lecture if they have to. And don’t get me started on the “importance” of preparing students to take multiple choice tests!

The government is not going to give more money to a public education system that hasn’t changed in hundreds of years, and if this pandemic is demonstrating one thing it's that the public education system in Ontario is in dire need of updating. We absolutely need our classrooms to reflect the communities which they serve. Slideshows, lectures, book/lab reports, unit tests, exams, are no longer good enough, let alone if kids are still looking at overhead projector screens.

In order to protect the publicly funded education system, I urge teachers to make a change to enhance it. You don’t have to change everything about who you are or what you do. But take this opportunity of teaching in a pandemic to give yourself permission to try something new, one new thing, and show the public what happened. Even if it doesn’t go the way you wanted it to, learning will have happened. Let go of the curriculum, even just a little. Take one unit, or one activity, from each course you teach and try to do something a little differently than you ever have before. Make a change. The education system needs us to update the way we do things so that we can provide our students with the opportunities they really need and deserve.

The OSSTF is a very powerful union, but if a government wants to dismantle a publicly funded education system, they can. I believe in our union, and I love what they do, but we as teachers, as individuals, have to do more to protect our education system. To do that we have to enhance the education system. And the change needs to be meaningful, however it doesn’t need to be unmanageable. But imagine your life without public education. Imagine your children's lives without public education. If I’m being honest, I can’t imagine it. But I can imagine Doug Ford and Stephen Lecce, or any other politician trying to undo everything we’ve worked for. Even they can say that our public schools don’t reflect the communities which they serve, and I think we would be hard pressed to prove them wrong. If our schools don’t reflect the communities which we serve, how can we ask them to keep funding them?

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