In her first opinion piece for SHIFTER, downtown Toronto teacher, Avril Addie, explains why teachers are striking in Ontario and why the status quo just isn’t good enough.
I love teaching. I have been teaching in downtown Toronto for 16 years. During that time, the needs of my students have not decreased, if anything I have watched them increase in complexity and in scope. The Special Educational Needs alone that I deal with in my classroom can range from Dyslexia and other learning disabilities to Attention Deficit Disorder. to Oppositional Defiant Disorder, as well as a rise in the number of students with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Not to mention that as an inner-city teacher in one of Toronto’s highest priority neighbourhoods, I am also frequently dealing with issues of malnutrition, neglect, abuse, trauma and even PTSD.
Gangs are ever present as well, recruiting kids as young as Grade 5 right off the playground. I spend a great deal of my yard duty vigilantly watching for signs of gang activity in, or around, the schoolyard. However, despite this bleak description, I do love teaching. I am proud to be a teacher and even prouder of the kind, tolerant, and amazingly resilient students I have the privilege of teaching everyday.
When I started my teaching career 16 years ago, there was an Educational Assistant in every classroom in my division, a stand-alone Special Education class and a second full-time Spec. Ed Teacher who supported students with various needs in the division’s four “regular” classrooms. Today, Educational Assistants are all but non-existent with only two in my whole school of over 500 students. Special Education students have been integrated into the “regular” classrooms where there is no Special Education teacher to support. The math is easy, with an average of 29 students per class in our Intermediate Division and only one teacher to fully meet the academic, social and emotional needs of all 29 students, well even if every child was functioning at grade level, this would be a virtually impossible task.
Under these circumstances, it is easy to see how student frustration can become commonplace and how tempers can flare. This is especially true for students who struggle with self-regulation and lack the tools to communicate what they’re feeling in socially appropriate ways. It is common for my students to hear the sounds of a fight filtering in from the hallway during a lesson. It is also all too common for me to have to abandon my lesson in order to go and assist a colleague in trying to de-escalate an angry, aggressive and often violent student. Chairs and laptops are hurled across the classroom in frustration with surprising frequency. Threats against life and property are made daily and classroom evacuations have become the norm. Obviously, this is far from the ideal learning environment.
Enter now, our Education Minister Stephen Lechee and his constant refrain of how the unions are doing the students of Ontario a disservice by striking. “Students belong in the classroom” is a familiar refrain to most, if not all residents, of this province by now. To begin, I couldn’t agree with him more, our students belong in the classroom. But, the questions I have for our esteemed Minister is, “What kind of classroom should our students expect to be in? What kind of classroom and learning environment do they deserve? Classrooms where students have to wait until frustration or, worse yet, surrender to disillusionment just to get help on a math problem. A class in which there are too many students for the teacher to get around to in a day or, where students with Special Educational Needs do not have their legal right to supports provided? Classrooms where the teacher spends more time dealing with behaviour then biology? Classrooms where students with specific learning needs who are not yet identified do not get the support they require and thus are “falling between the cracks” that have opened up between them and success, or even progress? Classrooms where students are either locked in or locked out due to violence, too frightened or frustrated to focus on their learning? None of these scenarios are acceptable. Unfortunately, these are precisely the type of classrooms that Minister Lechee and his policies will have this province’s students housed in, should the Ford government’s plans to change our world-class education system come to fruition.
In fact, this government would have us believe there is no money to invest into education. They want us to believe the real problem is with the greedy union bosses who control the teachers who are just pawns in their game. They want us to swallow the narrative that the teachers just want more money and are angry about the 1% over 3 years raise the government has imposed on us. Or their latest narrative, that unqualified teachers are being hired strictly because of their seniority. First of all, to the first argument of teachers being pawns. Every single day in classrooms across this province, teachers are working diligently to give their students the confidence and skills to ask tough questions, to analyze the tsunami of information they encounter in this tech-driven society, and to never accept the status quo just because it is the status quo. They are encouraged to stand up and make their voices heard. It is exactly these lessons that teachers throughout this province are implementing now. Teachers are highly educated, highly informed, politically active members of our society. Calling us pawns is not only insulting, but ignorant to who we are as a whole.
Secondly, Lecce’s argument that teachers are angry with regards to the imposed 1% wage increase is simply wrong. This has already been debunked by the mere fact that teachers have already given up 2.5% of their annual salary due to our strike actions. What the 1% cap would do is errode collective bargaining rights not only for teachers, but it would set a precedent for all unions in Ontario. The reality is most teachers would be happy to give up a wage increase all together for smaller class sizes, greater funding for Special Educational supports, real solutions to violence in the classroom (which is definitely tied to the lack of supports for our most vulnerable students), and a commitment to continuing full-day Kindergarten with a qualified teacher. The reality is a 1% wage increase is an insult. Despite what Doug Ford says, there are no bonuses in Ontario for teachers. The only way a teacher is going to have a pay increase after reaching the top of the pay grid is through collective bargaining. If a highly educated and experienced person working in the private sector was offered a 1% pay increase over three years, they would start looking for a new job tomorrow. Especially if they worked in the conditions that I have previously described.
Finally, Lecce’s third argument that teachers are hired based on seniority rather than merit is completely erroneous. Teachers in this province are highly educated, and all possess a minimum of two degrees. Many also, on their own time and often with their own money, obtain various Additional Qualification courses. The reality is, most teachers are dedicated life-long learners and are constantly looking to upgrade their skills, whether through professional development or other avenues. We love to learn. I mean, come on, that’s why we got into education.
Becoming a teacher in the province of Ontario today is a long and difficult process and not one that can be undertaken lightly. Most teachers start out their career doing supply work, then hopefully move into a long-term occasional position, covering a maternity or medical leave. This state of occasional short–term employment often lasts for years. But it is through this process that teachers gain invaluable experience working in different communities, under various circumstances, and dealing with multiple student exceptionalities and personalities. Each year getting stronger. It is these years of experience that may get them through the door, but they will be hired into a permanent position because of their merit and specific qualifications, not seniority alone.
Education cannot and should not be run like a business. The success of an education system– and especially the success of an individual child cannot, and should not, be based on quantitative measurements alone. After all, no parent is ever going to look at their child in this way, in terms of a cost-benefit ratio. The truth is, properly funding education is an investment, not a cost, and, truth be told, it’s an investment this government can afford to make. Instead of mismanaging and wasting money on Buck-a-Beer, dysfunctional licence plates , suped–up vans to haul our honorable Premier around in, and a 14% raise for Deputy Ministers who now make between $235,080 and $320,130 annually. Lastly, but certainly not least, a mind boggling $48 million dollars a day has been spent on a program to pay parents a child care subsidy on strike days. Imagine what an investment of $48 million could do for our education system? A priority should be placed on education. Teachers should not have to bear the cost of the education system on their backs. We should not have to bargain away our dental and health benefits in order to secure lower class sizes.
In short, the teachers unions are not the enemy of the people of Ontario. It is the unions who are standing up for some of the most disenfranchised and powerless people in our province, our children. Children are at the mercy of the adults charged with their care, and who should be protecting them more then our government? Instead, this government has decided to treat education like a factory, but teachers do not make chairs. What we do everyday is nothing short of magical. This may sound like a reach but, when you see the excitement of a child who is learning to read, and watching the whole world open up to them for the first time there is nothing comparable. We are granted the trust of children to lead them in their learning.
Imagine the joy in the eyes of a student who finally understands that math concept they have been working on for weeks or the quiet child who decides to take a risk and raise their hand to answer a question in front of the class because they feel safe and valued. Or, perhaps even more importantly, the relief and freedom a child feels when they are able to use a strategy to help them control their anger or frustration, so they can finally approach the journey of learning. Yes, every single day is magical in teaching because school is where children learn important things. But when their schools are crumbling and their teachers and courses are disappearing, do not fool yourself into believing that these future voters do not understand why. They know that funding is the answer. So, I pose the question, Minister Lecce, what will the children of Ontario learn about their worth and value from this government?
By Avril Addie