On the Reopening of BC Schools

As a teacher, I would feel less anxious about schools reopening next week if the Public Health Office expressed confidence in a return to in-school instruction after they had conducted random checks of a sample of schools in a range of socio-economic areas to see first-hand the facilities that public schools in British Columbia actually have.

Restaurants are regularly inspected to ensure that meal preparation is hygienic and safe; all businesses frequented by the public know that their facilities have to be in safety compliance or their reputation will suffer and they will lose clients.  Public schools in B.C. seem to exist in a different category when it comes to health and safety. 

It’s only recently that there has been progress toward seismic safety but ongoing problems with mice infestation and the lack of drinkable water in many schools seems to be an inconvenient truth that we should all just learn to live with.

For almost two decades under the BC Liberals, there was little money for failing and inadequate infrastructure. It’s understandable that the current  BC NDP government cannot reverse the damage of  decades of neglect within a short time. 

That neglect was at best tolerable during the Before times. But then Covid-19 came along and shed blinding sunlight into the darkest of health and safety corners within the public education system in B.C.

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Like many people in B.C. I’ve been riveted to regular Covid-19 updates by Dr. Henry. I admire her calm demeanor and steadfast handling of an unprecedented crisis.  I have been especially impressed by the way she responds when concerns are raised about the number of people lining up to board a ferry or the number of people enjoying the sun at a local beach.

She refuses to fan any frustration that some may feel at the apparent violation of her orders. Instead she expresses confidence, backed by data, that people are in fact following her orders. 

Dr. Henry is reasonable and expects people to be as well. She has instructed the Ministry of Education to ensure that schools are safe for students’ return. I’m sure she expects that the Ministry of Education will be reasonable in its execution of her orders.

The problem is that teachers have vivid memories of the Ministry of Education being anything but reasonable.  Whether it was when they demanded concessions to our collective agreement in recent bargaining or when they ignored pleas for more funding for students with special needs, being unreasonable has been the Ministry’s default setting for quite a while.

For years teachers have said that it’s not reasonable to expect students to learn in hot and stuffy portable classrooms; that it’s not reasonable to expect teachers to spend their own money on supplies for their classrooms. 

And teachers know that it’s not reasonable for the Ministry of Education to expect that after decades of cuts to budgets that there will be enough money in each school district to ensure that all Dr. Henry’s protocols are followed.   

Covid-19’s presence has led to the opening of the government’s purse in ways unseen since the Great Depression with many programs available to support various sectors of society during this challenging time.

So where’s the money for schools? 

In fulfilling Dr. Henry’s orders, how does one ensure thorough hand hygiene when taps have to be held down to get a 4-second spurt of cold water? 

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How will overworked, skeletal custodial staff manage with the much longer list of cleaning tasks when they barely had enough time for cleaning classrooms during the Before times? 

In BC we can expect that any hospital in the province has standardized facilities to protect the health of patients and staff. No such standardization exists in BC schools.

Whereas one school may have a mice infestation and warnings posted at drinking fountains not to drink the water,  another school may have ergonomically designed classrooms with beautiful bathrooms in wide hallways, lots of natural light everywhere, and easy access to outdoor classrooms.

Teachers all across the province know that, in some schools, it will be easy to follow all the guidelines for a safe return to school but in too many schools it will not be. 

When all schools have lead-free drinkable water, when all school washrooms have taps that don’t have to be held down in order to work, when all schools have fully-functioning ventilation systems, then we can be confident in there being reduced opportunities for viruses to spread when we return to schools.

That would take money though. And the education budget, as a percentage of our GDP, has been kept low by both major political parties when they’re in power.

In the Before times, the impacts of regular reductions to education budgets have been borne by students who have fallen through the cracks in the system.

In this time of a pandemic, the impacts of neglected infrastructure could spread well beyond classroom walls. 

And that is not reasonable at all. 

Celebrate the Elimination of Provincial Exams?

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If I wasn’t so familiar with the Ministry of Education’s Jekyll-and-Hyde character, I’d be thrilled with the new Graduation Program. After decades of frustration about the limits to student learning experiences that provincial exams set, I’d love to pop a champagne cork now that I am free of the fetters they placed on my lessons.  

The announcement of the changes has revived old arguments about what exams are for.  I must say that I disagree with the learned professor who believes that the removal of exams will lead to the dumbing down of learning. I happen to agree with my students that they don’t need to know the details of the Halibut Treaty in order to fulfill their responsibilities as citizens in a democracy. Many of the arguments that Dr. Livingstone makes have been made throughout the history of education whenever changes have arisen.  Plato himself lamented the rise of writing in place of dialogue. That was over 2000 years ago.

After decades of  feeling like a quisling every time I told my students how “important” studying for provincial exams was, I’ll happily let them know that they no longer will have to spend months memorizing the gajillion facts that they can instantaneously access on their personal devices.

But my joyful relating of this good news will be dampened by the knowledge that there is no funding to make possible the full implementation of the new curriculum.  It’s as though my students have been given the keys to a car without any money for insurance or gas or maintenance or even driving lessons.

The new curriculum requires more student-led activities but when schools are at or above 200% capacity where will teachers find the space for breakout rooms so that small groups of students can work together on projects?

Personalized learning is one of the core ideas in the new curriculum but with no Education Assistant support for students with special needs, how can one teacher provide personalized learning for all students in a class of 30?

Given the pattern of cuts that the Ministry has imposed on school district budgets, I suspect the elimination of some provincial exams is more of a political rather than a pedagogical decision. If it were purely pedagogical, the FSAs would be eliminated as well.

Contrary to what the Minister says about them being “valuable” FSAs only serve to highlight the socio-economic differences between schools. Unless and until the Minister is going to do something to alleviate those differences, they only serve to support the arguments of those promoting the growth of private schools.

After 15 years experiencing the BC Liberals’ brand of public education, I have a lot of difficulty believing that the Ministry makes any pedagogically-based decisions. Take a look at the mandate letter that Mike Bernier received from Christy Clark upon his appointment as Minister. His top task is to balance the ministerial budget. His final task (on a list of 13 items)  is to ensure that “taxpayer resources” are used “efficiently. Nowhere in his mandate letter is there any acknowledgement of barriers to learning such as a 20% childhood poverty rate in this province.

The provincial exams were indeed a barrier to my students’ pursuit of learning and I am pleased to see them gone. Each year my students take on the role of adult citizens when our classroom becomes a country. Through the process of electing a government and participating in an economy, they become curious about many things that will never be on the Socials 11 provincial exam: mercantilism, Machiavelli, Kant’s Categorical Imperative, egalitarianism, ethics. 

In the past I’ve only had enough time to guide them through brief glimpses of these and many other concepts so they have often been frustrated when discussions had to be stopped because we had to study the Statute of Westminster instead.

I am relieved that I will now be able to assess and evaluate my students in ways that fit their learning experiences. Perhaps that’s enough of a reason to celebrate the new Graduation Program. Perhaps.

Why the new curriculum reminds me of a jazz funeral

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I wish I could get excited about the new curriculum from the BC Ministry of Education, I really do. I wish I could believe all the hoopla about how the new curriculum is going to prepare our students for their lives as adults in the 21st century. I really want to believe that this time the Ministry really does have our students’ future in mind.

But my mind is filled with too many images that keep popping up like gatecrashers at the new curriculum party.

Here’s one: a student with severe autism who used to have an education assistant to support him for every block of the school day but who now has an education assistant for just one block per day because budgets had to be balanced after massive cuts to school district funding.

Here’s another:  a class of 30 students, half of whom need learning support of one kind of another. How will one teacher create and monitor personalized learning assignments for all  students in this class?

And another: students who have their one meal each day at the school’s breakfast club, who do not have computers, let alone internet access at home, and who have parents who work two jobs just to keep the family fed and sheltered. What do the changes offer these students?

This new curriculum is being launched in a province that has the highest rate of childhood poverty in Canada. A province that has no plans to reduce childhood poverty. A province where a teacher’s plea for shoes for her students led to the establishment of a charity to support the needs of students in public schools.  A province in one of the richest countries in the world.

How can we talk about 21st century learning when so many of our schools could be the setting for a novel by Charles Dickens?

I wasn’t quite sure whether to laugh or to cry when I saw an example of how the new curriculum could be implemented for Grade 6 – 9 Science: “Students build a Shelter”.  Will children need these skills for when their classrooms come crashing down around them during an earthquake since seismic upgrades for public schools have been delayed for ten years?

Being a teacher public school in British Columbia can be so Kafkaesque. There are so many contradictory messages that emanate from the government, it’s hard to make sense of it all.  I am often confused by communications from the Ministry of Education. It seems that there are two different personalities that take turns being in charge at the Ministry, just like in the story of Dr Jeykll and Mr Hyde.

When the Ministry is being lead by the Mr Hyde personality, as it seemed to be during the 2014 labour dispute with teachers,  it issues edicts that cut a teacher’s daily pay by 10%, it locks teachers out of classrooms during lunch so that they are forced to have their lunch breaks on sidewalks, and it refuses to raise teachers’ wages to compensate for the rise in the cost of living.

The Mr Hyde version of the Ministry guts public education funding while it increases funding to private schools.

It is quite remorseless as it forces the education system into the “affordability zone” while completely disregarding  Supreme Court rulings and the Canadian constitution.

On the other hand, the Dr Jekyll version of the Ministry mentions the need for teachers to be supported in the work that they do. It seems to value teachers and the role they play in students’ lives. 

The Dr Jekyll personality not only talks about placing students’ needs at the centre of the learning process, but also acknowledges that doing so would require many changes that are not cost free.

So, which version of the Ministry should I expect to show up when the new school year begins?

I so want to believe that the Ministry truly acknowledges the “complexity of the teacher’s role” in the classroom. But I just can’t believe the hype until and unless the question of class size and composition is settled.

It would be wonderful if a teacher’s right to bargain her working conditions – the learning conditions of students – didn’t have to be confirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada. The fact that it has to be puts a huge damper on all the trumpets heralding the launch of the new curriculum.

I wish all the celebrations of the new curriculum didn’t remind me so much of being at a New Orleans jazz funeral, where joyful music masks a sad reality. 

That this image comes to mind is quite ominously ironic since it was in New Orleans that public education was killed and replaced by charter schools with devastating results.

Can we expect the same to happen to BC’s education system which seems to be undergoing a kind of death by a thousand (funding) cuts inflicted by the BC Liberals since 2001?

I really hate being a party pooper but I can’t unsee what I’ve seen during the past 14 years of BC Liberal governance.

Essential Time for Education

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Dear Minister of Education Peter  Fassbender,

Now that Bill 11 has become law and you have the power to determine what I do for my professional development, I wonder if you could spare a few moments to help me with some concerns I have?

What do I do if an Individual Education Plan (IEP) calls for a student to have a scribe but there are no Education Assistants assigned to that student? What should I do? Do I leave the other 29 students to their own devices while I write the student’s responses to an assignment?

When I have fifteen of thirty students in a class with IEPs that all call for different adaptations, which of those IEPs should I attend to first during each 70 minute period with the students?

Do you have any suggestions about what I should have the students without IEPs do while I set up the students with IEPs when I do not have an Education Assistant in the classroom?

And what do I do when I am lucky enough to have one Education Assistant in a class where there is a student who is autistic, a student with dysgraphia, a student with hearing difficulties, a student with severe behaviour issues and a student with ADHD who needs to constantly pace? To whom should the Education Assistant and I address our attention?

There are so many more situations I need advice on. I hope you have some suggestions.

Does your plan for my professional development include having time to analyze my lessons and discuss my observations with colleagues like teachers in Finland and Japan do?  I have noticed so many things about the way my teen students learn. I would love to have time to do more research and to find ways to adapt my teaching practice to accommodate what my students need.

I must confess that I envy teachers in Finland who are allowed to spend 40% of their time at work in analyzing lessons! I have so many questions about what happens in my classroom that I’d  love to have the time to discuss with colleagues.

As it is, the situation now is that I can snatch a few minutes with a colleague while we wait for our photocopying to finish. Sometimes we are lucky and get a few minutes during lunch if we don’t have students to meet with or department meetings to attend. We have become experts at eating while multitasking!

Having only five Pro-D days a year means that by the time the Pro-D day arrives, there’s so much more that needs to be discussed and so on those days we can only chip away at the mountain of curiosities we have about teaching and learning. Imagine having interesting things happen each hour over 180 days and then having just 5 days to discuss all that has happened.

As you know, back in the 1980s teachers gave up vacation time in order to have Pro-D days so I know that adding more Pro-D days by extending the school year will definitely not be popular! It seems to me that a much more effective approach would be for professional development to be built into each instructional day as is done elsewhere. That way there is a timely addressing of the issues, wouldn’t you agree? Children can change so much over a short period of time through their development. But, being that you’re a grandfather, I’m sure you know this.

As a mother, there’s lots that I learned about child development while my daughter was growing up. Her questions often flummoxed me! Young children can be so smart, can’t they?

Through all my undergraduate and graduate studies it was wonderful to be able put my experiences as a mother into the context of research in Psychology, Sociology and Philosophy. Nowadays I draw from my 6 years of university studies in education to make decisions about what the best approach would be to increase the chances of my students being successful. But sometimes not even my Master’s degree  is enough to deal with some of the challenges and that’s when I wish I had time to discuss possible responses with my colleagues.

When I do happen to carve out enough time to talk to a colleague, I’m always amazed how a different perspective can help me to see more clearly what is happening in my classroom. It’s as though my colleague has cleaned up my glasses so that I can see through them more clearly!

By the way, I don’t mean to be rude, but  what education qualifications will you be drawing upon when you make determinations about what I should learn in order to develop professionally? Just curious…

I really hope that when you determine what I should do for my professional development that you consider that what teachers need most are enough Education Assistants for every student with an IEP and time with colleagues to discuss ways to help our students to be successful learners in the 21st century.

Sincerely,

A. Teacher