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  • Writer's pictureDerek Stoppels

Open Letter to Stephen Lecce

An open letter to the Minister of Education, Stephen Lecce,

I am writing to you to share my concerns about your statement about synchronous learning. As a teacher with 12 years experience I’d like to share some things about what I’ve learned about my students and Learn At Home. I’ll mention that I currently teach grade 9 and 10 science in Ottawa, and this letter represents only my thoughts and opinions.

I’d like to begin by saying that I don’t think that these school closures should represent online learning as we currently understand it. When a student chooses to take an online course, that’s exactly what it is, a choice. This distance learning, or emergency learning, was not a choice. Being locked down in their homes, away from friends and family was not a choice. Not being able to celebrate Ramadan the way they usually would, was not a choice. So why not at least give our students as many opportunities to choose as we can, so that they can feel like at least they have some kind of control over things that are happening in their lives.

I know you are an advocate for mandatory online learning, but this is not what it looks like on a normal day. As you are aware, we are in the midst of a global pandemic and living situations for a lot of your Ontario students is a nightmare. As a teenager, it is developmentally appropriate for them to be relying less on their parents, and start spending more time with, and learning from their peers. Now, imagine being 14, or 15, or 16, or 17 (or 18, or 19, or 20, or 21) year old cooped up in your home with your parents, with more hormones than you know what to do with (thanks to puberty), and not being able to see your friends, or anyone, really, outside your immediate family.

Now, maybe you’re thinking synchronous learning is a perfect way to see their friends online and spend a little time “away” from their family, and that argument plays right to your point. But be honest, do you really think that that online time counts as time spent with friends? In my experience, when I have a Google Meet with my classes, every single student has their camera turned off, their mic muted, and type their questions into the chat feature of Google Meet so that I, as their teacher, am the only one with their camera and mic on and it literally feels like I’m putting on a performance for them without having the luxury of being able to read the audience. They can’t see each other, because they’re too self conscious to turn on their cameras, and they don’t even talk to each other because they’re too self-conscious to turn on their microphones...even to ask a question.

When this all started, teachers were told, in no uncertain terms, that student wellbeing, our own personal health and that of our families should be considered above all else, and that this was not business as usual. However, it seems like that’s no longer the priority, and we are starting to get back into politicians playing politics while people are struggling. I have students in my classes who have family members who are sick with COVID-19, and some who have family members who have died because of COVID-19. Now their family members have died, and they can’t go to their funeral and say a proper goodbye to their loved ones because we’re all on lockdown, and yet, teachers are being told that they need to provide online synchronous learning. It’s hard not to feel like someone is just trying to micromanage us.

I get about two-thirds participation, at the best of times when I have a Google Meet with my classes. I was hearing that parents and students alike were stressed out by the amount of emails and communications they were getting from teachers. So in an effort to find out how I could help my students keep their stress at a manageable level I sent a survey home to my students and a lot of them said that they get stressed out when they miss a scheduled Google Meet. So now, they’re a hormonal teenager who just wants to get away from their parents, and they’ve missed a Google Meet because someone else had to use the computer, or they had to change their siblings diaper, or make lunch, or a snack for someone in their house, or the connection was so poor they couldn’t participate, or it was the only chance they had to shower in the last few days. If you’re picking up what I’m putting down, the stress keeps building.

As I mentioned, not every student has access to the internet at the same time as every other student. Some students are sharing only a few devices at home, and their internet connection, with two parents working from home and one or two or more siblings. And I know where you’re going to go with this. You might recommend having Google Meets with smaller groups or one-on-one with students when it fits their schedule better. So maybe that means we Meet with students after school hours, say around 7 or 8 in the evening. That’s around the time I have to start the bed time routine at my house for my own children, who I also have to take care of, so, I hope you can understand that that is just going to be an impossibility. When you say that parents want more online synchronous learning and you respond with “okay, you got it!” I think you are not taking into consideration a lot of important factors.

A lot of teachers are parents too. And those same teachers/parents are married to, or living with someone else who is a parent and working. I can’t help but think that you’re prioritizing one person’s access to the internet over another one’s access. I know you have a job to do, and that’s to focus on education, but demanding teachers to do more synchronous learning is not going to improve the learning situation at home for your Ontario students.

Students’ marks can’t go below the mark they had on March 13th, so why would they bother doing any more work if they are happy with the mark they had on the 13th of March? Do you honestly think, deep down in your heart of hearts, students are going to engage in online synchronous learning just because their teacher is hosting a Google Meet? What if the family has decided that since the student is passing all their courses already, they don’t have to do any more school and their time and efforts would be better used helping out around the house? Is more synchronous learning really going to help that student? Imagine being a teenager that works at a grocery store and both of your parents lost their jobs because of this social distancing/quarantine/lockdown, whatever you want to call it. Now you have to work full time because you’re an essential worker and you need to help support your age 16. If you’re the type of student that really wants to do well in school and be a part of all of this synchronous learning, but can’t because you have to work full time so that your family can use your pay check to buy groceries, do you think missing all your synchronous learning opportunities is really going to help you, as a teenager, cope with all this uncertainty and turmoil in your already stressful life?

Before this global pandemic took over and we had to self-isolate in our homes and schools were still open, I would work outside regular school hours every day, and on weekends too. But the dynamic in every single household in Ontario (globally, really) has changed. Kids of all ages can’t leave their homes to see their friends, or their aunts, or uncles, or grandparents, and you have to know that that has an effect on their psyche, even if they can’t communicate that. Some kids can’t go outside and play whenever they want, because if they do, they might get fined $800 for playing basketball by themselves as they try to unwind, stretch their legs and clear their minds. So parents, some of whom are also teachers, have to find ways to keep their kids' minds off what is happening in the world so that they can be as happy as might be possible in these strange times. My role as husband and father has changed drastically as well, and so it has for every teacher with children, and I don’t have the freedom to work the same hours, and have the same flexibility, that I used to because for the sake of my family and my relationship, I have to help out at home in a much different capacity than I used to.

Telling teachers to host more online synchronous learning sessions, isn’t just telling teachers to do their jobs.

  • First, it doesn’t show any faith in teachers. It assumes they aren’t doing their jobs, but I can say with a huge amount of certainty that teachers everywhere are doing the very best they can, considering they are in the midst of a global pandemic.

  • Second, it's telling students that they need to be doing more, but some of those students might interpret it as they will be missing more. And some students already feel like all of this is too much.

  • Third, saying teachers need to be providing more online synchronous learning time, eats into the 3 hours of work per week, per course (for high school students) that the students could be engaged in a rich learning task, and maybe doing some learning away from a screen, because I’m sure they’re getting enough screen time these days.

  • Fourth, it’s telling parents that they have to rearrange their schedules even more than some already are so that their children can take part in synchronous learning sessions where chances are good that the two-thirds of my students who do actually show up are just going to sit in front of their screen with their camera off and mic muted and wait for someone else to type a question that they hope someone will ask. If you respond to this letter, I can invite you to one of my Google Meets and you can see what I’m talking about. Some students just log on and don’t even pay attention to the Meet. I know this because every time I have a Google Meet there is at least one student I have to remove from the Meet on my own when it’s over, because they aren’t at their computer to log off like the rest of the students.

  • Fifth, security is a major issue for teachers and students. I know that we can record our Meets, but we live in a time where honesty does not always prevail, and teachers are guilty before proven innocent. Having one on one meets in an online forum can be a slippery slope. The public tends to side with the student when teachers are accused of something unbecoming of a teacher before any kind of investigation and personally, I’d rather avoid one on ones and small groups if I can so as not to be accused of starting a recording too late, or ending it too soon. I record all of my class Meets and give students access to it for future reference. But you know how things are these days, it’s not easy.

More online synchronous learning sessions is not going to improve learning during this global pandemic shut down, and I think we both know it. It’s going to make teachers busier, but that’s about it. It’s not going to increase student engagement. It’s not going to provide more rich learning opportunities, because rich learning opportunities don’t come from lectures and slide shows, and we both know that as well. You didn’t go to school to be a Minister of Education, you did a lot of your learning for the job, on the job. Instead of asking teachers to give more slideshows and lectures, I think, as a Minister of Education,it would be great if you could help teachers find ways that we can provide learning experiences for our students that will last a lifetime.

And shouldn’t that be the essence of education for now and for always? Shouldn’t education be about learning experiences that last a lifetime? What am I going to “teach” to my students during an online synchronous learning session that they couldn’t just find on Google on their own in the same amount of time or less? Why not provide students with a task, or an experience, that they could spend what time they would be spending listening to a teacher drone on about, let’s say, the phases of mitosis, and instead, have them finding that information on their own, and then doing something meaningful with that information?

As Minister of Education, it would be great if you could work with and help teachers find meaningful ways to help their students learn, instead of telling us how to spend our time. Trust that we know how to do our jobs. Thanks to The Education Act, Growing Success, the curriculum documents, Ontario teacher education programs and our collective agreements, along with our experience, I am confident that Ontario teachers are competent, we know our students, and we know what learning looks like.

If parents complain about teachers not doing enough to support their child, you put out a tweet or a press release that teachers need to do more, you make it seem like you’re hoping to get re-elected. If parents complained and you worked with teachers, students and parents to provide more meaningful experiences, you’d be helping move the education system in a more relevant direction. Saying we need more online synchronous learning sessions, is saying we need to get back to the old school. I know you’re part of a conservative government that still thinks the old school is better than the new school, but come on, you’re 33 years old. You have to understand that the world today is not like the world was 50 years ago...not even 8 weeks ago! Why aren’t you encouraging teachers to try to find ways to adapt with the new times, instead of telling us to try to fit a square peg into a round hole and get back to a new version of the old school.

Sugata Mitra delivered a TED talk in 2013, and in that talk he asks “Could it be we are heading towards, or are in, a future where ‘knowing’ is obsolete?” The point I’m trying to make here is that more online synchronous learning sessions not only puts undue stress on teachers, students and parents, but it also doesn’t necessarily improve education. Don’t you think we should be looking at ways to move the education system forward instead of trying to bring traditional models into an online forum? Why not try to find ways that promote learning that is equitable and promote health, wellbeing and growth in areas that will be relevant to students here, now and always. Maybe, the teacher’s role has shifted, or should shift. As a popular educator named A.J. Juliani says, “It’s not our job to prepare our students for something, it’s our job to help our students prepare themselves for anything.”

Let’s change the game of school and make it a more meaningful and equitable experience for every student. Let’s find a way to provide learning experiences with multiple entry points so that teachers can meet their students where they are and help them develop skills that will serve them here now and always. There are 10 skills and characteristics that I believe need to be developed in every student: Collaboration, Global Awareness, Goal-orientation, Innovation/Creativity, Resilience, Academic Diversity, Critical Thinking, Digital Fluency, Effective Communication and Ethical Decision-making. The hard part is, these skills and characteristics aren’t going to be taught, or developed with more online synchronous learning sessions.

I ask you to please reconsider your push for more online synchronous learning sessions. I’d love the opportunity to speak with you about how we can make some meaningful changes to the education system and move it forward to provide experiences and help our students develop the skills and knowledge that are going to help them here, now and always.

Best Regards,

Derek Stoppels, OCT, B.Ed, B.Sc Hons HK

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