Cheryl Angst, Writer

Writer of strange tales – because no one ever accused me of being normal.

Teaching in BC February 29, 2012

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I try to keep my personal politics separate from my writing career, but I am a teacher, I am a Canadian, I have a right to have my voice heard, and I cannot stand by in silence. Right now, my government is pushing legislation through to silence my voice as an advocate for public education. In a last-ditch effort to make my voice heard, I wrote a letter to my member of the legislative assembly in the hope it will be read aloud during the debate of Bill 22, and will be entered into public record.

Dear Mr. Farnworth,

I am a constituent and one of the more than 40,000 teachers whose voices will be silenced by the passing of Bill 22. While disappointed—devastated would be more accurate—I am not surprised.

In 2001, I lost my constitutional right to engage in political protest as a means of achieving a fair contract. In 2002, I lost the right to have a say in how many students would be placed in my classroom. In 2002, I also lost the right to argue for support for students with special needs. In 2005, I was told the actual number of students in my class was irrelevant so long as the district average for class size at my grade level was 30 or fewer.

I stood and fought to protect the needs of children in my care every time.

And every time, I lost.

The Supreme Court has ruled that those cuts were illegal. My fight to protect the learning conditions of the students I teach has been validated by the highest (and most impartial) body in the province. Yet, what is happening as a result of that ruling?

Nothing prior to July 1, 2013.

Why?

Because the current government needs to say they eliminated the budget deficit. It doesn’t matter how many students suffer in the meantime. It doesn’t matter how many classrooms are too crowded and have too few resources. It doesn’t matter how many students with special needs receive little or no extra help. What really matters is getting re-elected, and the government has determined that rectifying the injustice perpetrated in 2002 will cost too much money.

Flash back thirteen years:

When I started teaching, intermediate classes could not exceed thirty students and the limit for placing students with special needs in a classroom was firmly set at three. In addition, for every Ministry-funded student in the class, the cap was lowered by one, so if I had three special needs students in my class, my maximum class size was 27. At the time, it was acknowledged that these measures weren’t really sufficient to meet the needs of all students in a classroom, but would have to do given budgetary constraints and the impossibility of funding lower student-to-teacher ratios.

I accepted this. I felt my efforts to individualize instruction for all the students in my class was recognized and that my employers understood the challenges I faced in working with such a diverse group of learners within a very limited setting.

I felt valued. I felt as though my employer and I were working as a team to deliver the best possible learning experience for the students in our district.

I took lower wages during local bargaining in exchange for better learning conditions for my students. I took lower wages in exchange for better benefits for myself and my family – benefits I may never need, but am willing to take home a smaller pay cheque for, just in case I ever do. I earned less, and given that I didn’t access all the benefits I was entitled to, my employer saved money.

Flash forward to 2012:

Now, my employer has very little motivation to bargain, even over the few things still allowed to be decided at the local level, because the government has shown a willingness—nay, an enthusiasm—for legislating contracts as a means of solving problems.

I teach in a 44-year-old classroom that does not meet the minimum size requirements for a safe teaching space. My school is not earthquake safe. The ceiling tiles are falling down. The roof leaks. My blinds don’t open or close. I only have enough science textbooks for one third of my class. My school has thousands of carpenter ants nesting in the ceiling and they emerge every spring by the hundreds, writhing and falling onto the students packed into the rooms below. My school has HVAC issues. Every winter teachers have to close their classrooms and take up temporary shelter in the cafeteria and library because the furnace cannot warm certain areas of the building above 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Some days there aren’t enough classrooms with heat, and students have to wear coats, hats, and gloves to class.

I don’t teach in the remote north. I teach in Port Coquitlam.

When I walked into my classroom last year, I faced thirty students across their chipped and battered desks. Six were already formally identified as having special needs. Another eight should have been (and are now in the process of being identified), and five more simply could not handle the complexity or pace of the government-mandated curriculum for their grade. All in all, I had nineteen—NINETEEN!—students on various individualized education and behaviour plans.

Who in their right mind would argue that my class was a suitable learning environment?

Well, because the district average was at or below 30, with fewer than three funded kids per division, the government said it was fine.

Fine?

I didn’t teach last year, I performed triage.

Barrie Bennett, a well-respected professor working out of OISE (the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto) once compared teaching to organizing a children’s birthday party.

He asked all the parents in the room to recall the amount of work and planning that went into the last party they planned. He listed all the things that needed to be prepared ahead of time, things like a cake, presents, goodie bags, balloons, and games. He discussed the challenges of bringing ten or twelve children into a single home for a period of three hours and keeping them suitably entertained. He had everyone visualize the clean-up at the end of the event, and most importantly, had people reflect on how they felt—tired, exhausted, relieved it was over for another year—after the event.

Barrie, eyes twinkling, then asked us to imagine hosting a birthday party, not for ten children, but for thirty. And instead of entertaining the kids for three hours, we had to do it for six. He casually said, “And instead of goody bags, you have to give tests.” There’s no cake. No games, no prizes, no clowns, no balloons. Instead there are required learning outcomes, unit plans, lesson plans, photocopying, adaptations, modifications and mountains of paperwork. Some of the guests won’t want to be there. Some are not ready to be there, and a few will come with adults who will tell you you’re doing it all wrong.

He asked us to recall those feelings of exhaustion after hosting a party again. Then he told us we’d have to do it again the next day. And the one after that. We’d have to plan and host the equivalent of one hundred and eighty parties. And remember, these aren’t parties where the kids are excited to be there, where you can whip out a clown or chocolate fountain to appease the masses. These are parties where there are tests and assignments and bullies and insufficient resources.

Barrie was talking about a typical class where less than 10% of the population is categorized as having special needs.

Last year more than half my class either held or qualified for a Ministry designation.

According to the government, this was fine because my district average fell within their guidelines.

I will never forgive the person who looked at my class composition and approved it.

And what’s worse, I will never forgive myself for being a part of the injustice perpetrated on those students. I couldn’t help every child every day. Assuming all things are equal, there are enough minutes in the day for me to spend 5 minutes talking to each student – and that’s assuming I don’t actually deliver any lessons, or you know, teach.

All things are not equal though. So if one student takes six, seven, or ten minutes out of my day, that means I don’t get to even speak to one other. I had nineteen students who could not cope without significant support. I’m an experienced teacher, but even I haven’t mastered the ability to clone myself eighteen times over in order to provide the one-on-one assistance those students needed.

Guess what? They struggled. They acted out. They disrupted the learning environment of others. The class was set up so they would fail. I was set up to fail.

Never before have classroom conditions been so atrocious.

But, I was assured it was fine because “on average” the district met the government’s guidelines.

It breaks my heart to think of the other students – the eleven who could cope. Can you imagine spending an entire year with someone and have them speak to you maybe once a week? To watch as the student who strolls in late and cannot find his homework gets the teacher’s attention and you, who are there every day and always try your best, are basically invisible because you don’t have an urgent need?

Removing class size and composition from the collective agreement was criminal.

It needs to be redressed.

The government needs to repair the damage that has been done, not cripple the system even more by stripping contracts and imposing a legislated settlement that doesn’t come close to restoring what was taken away.

I am an advocate for my students. Let me do my job. Let me tell you what my working conditions are like. Let me tell you what I need to help our children become the best and the brightest in the country. Let me help you put their needs first.

I have been told by those who are not teachers that I ask for too much. That I should be happy with the “generous” wage increases the government has given me over the years. That I am over paid and under worked. That I should be thankful I get what I get because I’d never have it so good if I had a “real” job.

I have been called lazy.

Slack.

Selfish.

Incompetent.

Not by my students or their parents, but by the government, the media, and the general public. I have listened to this message over and over again for the past thirteen years. I have tried to remain positive, to tell myself I am making a difference, that what I do matters.

Does it?

I am no longer sure.

Actually, that’s not true. I know what I do matters. What I no longer believe is that anyone else cares.

Public education is not about an altruistic belief in learning for learning’s sake. It no longer exists because it is an essential component of maintaining and improving a democratic society. It is not about preparing our youth for the future.

It is about free childcare.

Firefighters are an essential service. Police officers. Paramedics. These are highly trained professionals who have to be available 24/7 because accidents, crimes, and illness don’t work nine to five.

Education is valuable.

Is every minute essential?

The government says it is. They argue that students will be harmed if they miss even a single day due to teachers walking off the job – that’s what essential service legislation boils down to.

Yet, even a former premier used to pull his children from classes for family vacations! How can it be illegal for me to protest my horrific working conditions in defence of my students, but it is absolutely fine for parents to take their kids out for days, weeks, sometimes even months at a time? If it is illegal for me to deprive students of their right to an education, then it should be illegal for parents to do so too.

To argue otherwise is to admit the essential service designation is a hypocritical piece of politicking designed for the purpose of weakening teacher’s ability to bargain for a fair contract – or that it’s a PR gesture to buy parental support because it’s painfully hard to find affordable child care in this province.

Speaking of child care, why doesn’t the government tell parents schools are actually open during a withdrawal of services? If parents cannot find suitable care for their children during a walkout, they can still drop their children off at school. The administrators have to report for work, and they’re not bound by any class size or composition rules – they could supervise the entire school population in the gymnasium if need be.

THE. SCHOOLS. ARE. OPEN.

YOUR CHILDREN CAN STILL BE SAFE.

If more parents were aware of this fact, no family would have to experience stress and financial hardship as a result of any job action, and teachers would still have a tool in their arsenal for bringing their employer to the table.

The current Minister of Education is arguing that the job action I have engaged in over the past six months is harming our students. I would argue it’s benefiting them. Instead of dealing with paperwork for the office, instead of being bombarded with administrivia, my entire day is focused on teaching my students.

The Minister has argued that the lack of report cards is harming students. He has argued that students have failed courses and will not graduate because teachers haven’t issued report cards. He has publicly stated parents have contacted him, telling him they had no idea what was going on in their child’s class because report cards weren’t issued.

I have several issues with this line of reasoning.

One, why aren’t parents contacting teachers during the semester and, are instead, contacting the Minister of Education after the fact? Really? That’s like driving your car for over a year without taking it in for maintenance then phoning the president of the car company when the mechanic tells you your brakes need changing.

Teachers only refused to write report cards, we didn’t stop communicating with parents. Did these parents ask to see their child’s graded assignments and tests during the semester? Did they not think it odd if the child either wouldn’t show them, or said they hadn’t had any tests?

Parents want to trust their children, but if a child says they’re doing well and then brings home a failing grade, how is that the teacher’s fault? The assignments were marked – that’s communication. Tests were graded – that’s communication. If a student hides the failing evidence from his/her parent, the teacher shouldn’t be to blame. Short of driving to every student’s home and hand-delivering the assignments, there’s only so much we can do if parents don’t reach out too.

If, as a parent, you feel you aren’t being adequately informed about your child’s progress, you have a right to contact the teacher and request a meeting to get the information you need. You can have a meeting in person, over the phone, or even via email. This applies at any point in the school year, regardless of whether or not teachers are engaging in job action.

Two, once the report card goes home, it’s too late. The student has already failed the course by this point. A report card is a summative document that summarizes what occurred during a semester or term. It is issued at the end of the course/term. Anyone who thinks a report card would have prevented a student from failing has their timelines mixed up.

Students are not failing because report cards aren’t going home. Students are failing because they haven’t done their homework. (Or it’s because the system is failing them, but I already covered that earlier.)

I think the lack of formal reporting has been incredibly beneficial. Parents who would never contact me in the past—or only swoop in after a report card was issued and demand to know why certain grades were assigned—are taking a more active interest in their children’s progress. The parents of students in my class are asking their children what they’re learning. They’re asking to see the planner (homework organizer), and they’re asking to see completed assignments and tests.

The parents of students in my class are becoming active partners in their child’s learning. This government purports to put families first. The sorts of discussions happening in the homes around the province as parents actively seek to understand what is going on in their child’s life is just the sort of thing the government should be encouraging, not legislating an end to.

Oh, and because I am not spending hours counting money, or making lists of locker numbers and combinations, or collecting vaccination forms, or handing out photo orders, or alphabetizing student information verification sheets, or counting the chairs in my room for inventory, I actually have time at the end of the day to do the most important thing of all: talk with parents about their children.

I am a teacher.

I have always put my students first.

I matter.

My students matter.

Please, I implore you, do not let the government demean me and the services I provide even further by passing Bill 22. There is another way. There always is.

Thank you for your time and attention to this matter.

Yours in Education,

Cheryl Angst.

 

 
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