Inspired leadership?

I am about to embark on an incredible journey with some of my students. In preparation for our trip to the VIMY 100 celebration, on my own time I am taking a VIMY educators leadership course through OISE. This is my reflection on the question “What is the mission and vision of your educational institution? Does it demonstrate inspired leadership? Why or Why not?”

As I stand poised to participate in the first ever teacher strike in Nova Scotia, I will say that improvements in educational leadership could be made. Like the Canadian military, leadership in education happens at many levels. Unlike the military, leadership in education should not be one-directional. As a teacher I learn from my students everyday about what they need and I change my planning to meet their needs. However our leaders outside the school are not operating this way.

An important factor in the success of taking VIMY Ridge came from involving those at the battle front in the planning – everyone that was a part of the fight was aware of the full strategy and goal. Everyone had the same vision of what was on the line, and they were all united and inspired to fight for Canada.

In my opinion, this is not happening at the provincial level of educational leadership in Nova Scotia. Leaders at many levels are failing to unite and inspire their troops. Leadership from the EECD (Education and Early Childhood Development Department) is not happening because they are not listening to what is happening “at the front”. They are too far removed from the battle to make an effective, efficient plan. Real leaders can not be primarily concerned with political and fiscal gains, they must be concerned primarily with the well-being of their troops. That’s what will them to work harder and be successful. Without real leaders we would not have gone over that Ridge and won hill 145. Without real leaders, how will our students feel their sense of belonging and pride in Canada. If we don’t fight for them now, why will they fight for us in the future?

At a regional level the vision of the Halifax Regional School Board is “providing quality education for every child, every day.” There are some leaders there who try to improve what is happening in our classrooms. But image if the battlefield generals told the troops to collect data about the enemy movement, enemy artillery, our response to their movement, our artillery, the length of the trenches, the depth of the mud, and the weather patterns. And then, those leaders decided that the data should be collected again and reorganized. Now, maybe they did that and maybe it was useful data – but if that data was never used to make a plan or an attack – then the soldiers would be exhausted and the war would never end …or worse it would have been lost. This is what I see happening to our education system in Nova Scotia.

In our schools, our teachers are the leaders in the trenches and our students are the soldiers. We are preparing them for life (which for some of them will be quite a battle of their own). We do our best. When class sizes are reasonable and there is time to prepare and manage assessments to give quality feedback, our students learn and are successful. But the reason we are struggling in Nova Scotia is because our leaders have given us too many troops, with inadequate training. They are lacking in many skills and know there is no consequence to showing up late for the battle- or not at all. Their diversity is not a unifying factor as it was with the VIMY troops. It sets them against each other in a fight for attention. Leaders don’t want to leave anyone behind so the whole unit is weakened. The time taken to provide patience and support to the child with behaviour needs, is taken away from the academic support for the child with learning difficulties. The time spent talking and building relationships with the neglected child, is time not spent listening to the child struggling with mental health needs. We are fighting to get necessary supports in our schools so that all of these students can be cared for and learning can still take place. I believe they all want to do it and it is our job as leaders to provide the supports and training and to inspire them. Teachers as leaders want all of our troops not only ready to go over their own Ridge, but able to do it with confidence like the boys at VIMY did.

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15 Pieces of Silver Per Day

What is a quality education for your child worth to you?   This is the question that I have been asking myself this week, multiplied across another 20+ years of students ahead of me.

Like so many of my teaching colleagues here in Nova Scotia, when I first heard that the NSTU had reached a tentative agreement with the government and the work-to-rule / stoppage of all unpaid teacher activity was ending, I was full of hope.

And then I saw the tentative agreement. And my heart sank.

For more than four months, the teachers of Nova Scotia have been pleading for improvements to our classroom conditions. We are over-burdened with data entry demands – many of which students and parents never see or benefit from. Our classes are bursting at the seams; often in classrooms designed for only 2/3 the number of bodies that are there. We are drowning in new initiatives while we are still trying to integrate previous waves of the latest-and-greatest into our daily lives. We are trying to meet the diverse needs of our students – often with little training or support and while waiting months and years for specialist support. Increasing portions of our daily lives are devoted to having to justify every single part of our teaching practice to bureaucrats with no classroom experience,  and not educating students.

To be fair, this cannot be laid only at the feet of the current Liberal government. As many of my colleagues have pointed out in very frank discussion this year, we as teachers have been complicit in this process. Each time a little bit more has been laden onto our shoulders, we have shuffled and shifted and done our best to move forward and do the best we can for our students. But now we are buckling under all of the weight.

We have rejected two tentative agreements which offered the terms near-identical to the financial package imposed in Bill 148 and did nothing to address the needs of the over-burdened classroom teachers and specialists.

The shadow of Bill 148 still looms large. Like the two tentative agreements that came before it, this offer included salary increases that pale in comparison to the rising cost of inflation, leaving me with less spending power each year. This time around, there was a marginal gain: the former contract gave us 3% over four years, only if you take into account a raise scheduled for the very last day of the contract and the latest offer didn’t have such a tricky accounting maneuver.

Our “Service Award” – affectionately referred to as a retirement bonus by the government – would be ended by this contract. It is worth noting that the Service Award has a history which goes back decades, but can be traced to roots as a Deferred Raise Agreement:  instead of paying thousands of teachers a raise for their entire careers, it saved school boards and the province an incredible amount of money to give teachers a one-time payout at upon retirement.  Teachers accepted this in negotiations in lieu of a raise. And later, when various provincial governments helped themselves to some of the pension fund at insanely low interest rates leading to an under-funded pension plan, teachers agreed to give up an indexed pension (which would grow to reflect the rising cost of living) based on an argument that the Service Award would cushion the effects of a pension which will not increase.

It is also worth noting that in other Canadian jurisdictions when similar long service awards have been ended, it is typical that all employees who would qualify at retirement get their pro-rated award paid out when the program is ended. That isn’t what the Nova Scotian government is offering teachers – and like many of my colleagues, I am suspicious that this is because there is a plan to claw back any accrued funds in a future contract.

The proposed contract does include language around a committee to deal with some classroom issues around inclusion.  But this committee cannot include any front-line teachers. And if the three (that’s right, three) members have a dispute and arbitration is involved, there is a cap on how much can be spent. And the Minister of Education has veto power over recommendations. And there’s no guarantee that the money dedicated to this money will be spent making any real impact in the classrooms of Nova Scotia.

In my humble opinion, we don’t need a committee.  We need front-line support. More Educational Program Assistants, the daily heroes who help ensure that inclusion works. More classroom teachers (and therefore lower class sizes) so that ALL students get more individual time and attention from their classroom teachers.

The proposed contract also offers teachers two extra days off each year – which amount to 1% of our contracted yearly teaching time and mirrors the 1% per year of our service award.  Funny thing is, I haven’t spoken to a single front-line teacher who is excited or motivated by these extra two days.

And in recent developments, we are hearing that not only is the government responsible for proposing these two days be added to the contract, they also demanded that the NSTU suspend job action before even bringing this proposed contract to its membership.

Ending Work to Rule was never an act of good faith; it was the result of blackmail. The McNeil government continues to poison the well all the while trying to browbeat teachers into setting precedent for all other Nova Scotian unions by accepting this abuse.

What is a quality education for a Nova Scotian child worth to me?  A hell of a lot more than 15 pieces of silver per day.

Light beaming through the cracks

Sometimes change happens slowly and sometimes it happens in a flash. Schools are notoriously slow. In a world that is moving from flash to flash, we’re slugging along in a system that can’t possibly help our kids adapt.

And I’m not talking about technology. They already know how to do that better than we do. What they need to do is want to come to school to learn about themselves, each other, and the world. They need skills to create useful and beautiful things, and to learn to communicate effectively and respectfully.

In high schools, non-attendance is at epidemic levels, and most of the kids who are there attend because they are driven by competition to do well or to get an exam exemption. This isn’t to say they haven’t left their homes in the morning – they do. And often they’re wandering the halls looking for friends to connect with or end up somewhere else just hanging out.

Why don’t our schools help them fill this need to connect? To others, to ideas?

I think it’s because teachers are required to stifle their own passion in the name of standardization. If I had the autonomy and time to create my classroom and curriculum in ways that I know – through experience, study, and instinct – will get the kids fired up about ideas and meaningful work, I guarantee your kids would want to come to class.

The education system is tired and ready to crumble under the weight of too much bureaucracy. Too many years as a disconnected, piecemeal factory model. Too much history in streaming kids by social identity.

What it does have right now is your attention and hell of a lot of possibility. I see light beaming through the cracks in the foundation, and that’s why I will be voting no to this latest contract. I can’t let myself pass up an opportunity to effect real, true change. If this contract goes through, we go back to slugging along grinding the gears of a system that isn’t relevant anymore. The kids know it and we know it.

This moment was not won easily, and it won’t come again soon. Maybe not in our lifetimes. If we seal up the cracks in the foundation we’ll get by, but barely. And our kids will continue to disengage and our teachers will go back to resenting the top down initiatives and meetings and meaningless data collection. And everyone will take their place as cogs in the wheel when what they yearn to do is feel something real.

A Tale of Two PDs

Professional Development for teachers is a topic that seems to be widely misunderstood. Part of that stems from that fact that PD days are days away from school for students.  Teachers work on PD days, although not always at their usual workplace. Other times, teachers might be called to the board office for training during the regular school day, and a substitute teacher will fill in for them in their classroom.

Sometimes, teachers seek out their own professional development opportunities.  We are teachers because we love learning, and we seek out workshops and conferences that speak to our own strengths and weaknesses as educators so we can better serve our students.  Sometimes these happen on our own time, and sometimes we can get permission to attend during the work day.

I am going to describe two very different Professional Development days for anybody struggling to understand why we continued to participate in teacher-directed PD during Work-To-Rule while declining to participate in board-initiated PD .

In April of 2015, I went to a teacher-organized PD day with Rick Layton and Jacque Schrader, some well respected experts in elementary music education.  This PD took place on a Saturday morning.  I paid my own registration fee and gave up a day out of my precious weekend because I believed attending this day would make me a better music teacher.

As part of a session, each participant took a balloon and kept in in the air using xylophone mallets.  After a few minutes of exploration, we sat down in a circle and played rhythms on our balloons, eventually working up to playing rhythms in canon with the other half of the circle.

I realized that playing games with mallets would reduce many of the issues my young students were having when playing xylophones—a tense or awkward grip, overreliance on their dominant hand, and letting mallets rest on the bars instead of bouncing not allow resonance.

I expected that my students would have a more satisfying experience of playing the xylophone if I took care to build good habits through these mallet games before ever asking them to play on a xylophone.  This was perhaps fifteen minutes of a full-day workshop, and my handout is full of scribbled epiphanies directly related to the work I do in the classroom.

Fast forward to another school year, and a very different PD day.

In November of 2015, HRSB brought Dr. Kimberly Mcleod from Texas to speak to teachers working at priority schools.  This was on a board-scheduled PD day.

Teachers from priority schools around the HRSB gathered in the Bingo hall of the Halifax forum for the day.  I know these teachers, and they work hard; their classes might have multiple students with IPPs and adaptations, students who need behavior plans to try and regulate behavior categorized by the province asseverely disruptive, and students struggling with mental health issues directly related to poverty.

And what were we told by this expert?  That it was our fault if their students didn’t achieve an outcome; that even one student failing is a failure; that we need to work together as a team and not accept failure.  To demonstrate this, Dr Mcleod gave each teacher a balloon to inflate, and then had groups of teachers work together to keep their balloons from falling on the floor.

Cute metaphor, right?  We all need to work together.  Everybody smiled awkwardly and started to sit down when she insisted that we didn’t get it: we had to keep going until we could keep the balloons in the air.  Then she might take a partially inflated balloon and throw it to a group saying, “you have a new student who didn’t have breakfast, don’t let them fall.”

If you search twitter using #culturalwakeup, you’ll find plenty of images of teachers across the continent engaged in the same activity.

The intended lesson seemed to be that we need to work together, but there was a fury simmering within me. For one, if we are comparing students to balloons, then each teacher doesn’t have one, we have up to 27 each at the elementary level.  And it’s fine to say that we need to support each other, but if one “balloon” is in danger of falling, the other teachers aren’t available to help, they have 20+ balloons of their own to keep in the air and the VP might be helping in another class where one balloon has started screaming and throwing things, requiring the teacher to stop teaching and direct all the other balloons into the hallway for their own safety.

I saw the anger that I was feeling reflected on my colleagues’ faces as the activity continued for what felt like an hour.  It actually might have been an hour—I didn’t think to note the time when we started.  This was precious time that we could be using in a way that would benefit our students.  We could have been planning lessons, creating learning materials, or even going over data on student achievement.

We knew that our students needed help, and so did we.  We needed smaller class sizes that reflected the complex needs of our students.  We needed additional EPAs available to help students who needed support behaviorally, physically, and academically.  We needed funding to purchase books and learning resources, since our communities possessed a limited ability to fundraise.  Instead, the board spent money to bring in an American expert who told us to “work harder” and “support each other.”

Teachers should not be held personally accountable for the cycles of poverty and racism that plague our province (at least, not any more than any other citizen) We are fully aware that public education should be an equalizer, but we cannot do this work alone, and should not be expected to.

Two PD days, two school years, and two rounds of keeping balloons in the air.  One left me feeling inspired and energized, the other left me feeling condescended to and belittled. Which do you think was of more value to my students?

Be careful what you wish for

A few years ago I went to a Professional Development session at Saint Mary’s University.  It was put on by the provincial Social Studies Teachers’ Association.

The dean of poli sci was speaking about the change in institutions as seats of power.

As I read the many disparaging comments and vitriol aimed at our noble profession it occurred to me that our place in society as guides of knowledge acquisition is under fire.  Those who perhaps feel that the institutions have failed them now feel free to attack those who they perceive to be somehow “winning” or enjoying the benefits of status.  The race to the bottom is ugly and full of hate. The underlying inequalities are being stoked by our so-called leaders, and the results are a dismissal of our accomplishments and a loss of respect for our profession.

Those who know me know that my optimism has served me well over the years. Today as I read the words of people I considered friends I find my optimism severely challenged.

What those who attack us and those who diminish our accomplishments forget is this: Watch out what you ask for. You just may get it. A bitter and demoralized teaching profession will poison this province’s future more than any fleeting economic gain you trumpet from the heavens as your victory.  Attack those who care.  They will stop caring. Practice politics of hate and division.  You will get a divided and hateful society.
Premier McNeil. Minister Casey. Minister Regan. Do you want to be known as the government that won the ultimate Pyrrhic victory only to watch your just society crumble?

Why aren’t we in this together?

 

I hope you don’t mind me starting with this: I am so disappointed right now, I find it hard to even know how to say what I feel needs to be said.

I am a parent. My kids are missing out. So many things are spinning out of control and no one seems willing to take control, or even attempt to gain control. My home province has gone from Canada’s Ocean Playground, to a playground where it has become acceptable to berate and chastise friends, family and people you don’t even know. I honestly never imagined I would see this in my lifetime.

I had the ‘pleasure’ of sitting in the staff room eating my lunch the other day and listening to a small group of coworkers talking about the current contract negotiations with teachers. One woman, who has no children of her own and hasn’t set foot in a school since she finished approximately 40 years ago, was quite vocal with her abuse of teachers. I won’t go into details, that serves no real purpose, but I will tell you how it made me feel.

First you have to understand – those teachers that she was berating, those are some of my best friends. And my one true love; my husband. After listening for a few minutes, I chimed in a comment on how much our schools have changed since we were in them and it truly is difficult for us to understand the issues. She continued on with her very abusive tirade and after another five minutes I left, not quietly though. I emphasized why I feel those teachers will never return to the same level of good they have been doing, and how our education system is going to be far worse off in the months and years to come because of the disrespect thrown at teachers.

Then I went into my office, shut the door, and cried. Why? Because I know how much my husband puts into his kids. Yes – his kids. Not ‘our kids’ – but his kids. The ones he sees five days a week for ten months of the year. The ones he jokes around with and creates a fun environment for so they will want to learn with him. The ones who cry in his office because something is going on at home and they have no one to talk to about how they feel. The ones who have been called into that same office because they have been bullying someone, or being disrespectful, or cheating on a test, and they need someone to show them the right path.

The same kids that years later, walk up to him at the grocery store or even an office party and thank him for everything he did. The ones who thank him for being there when their friend was killed in a tragic accident. The ones who thank him for helping them figure math out, so they could feel smart when they never thought they would. The ones who went on to do something with themselves because he showed them they had the ability and that they didn’t need to act like a class clown to get somewhere.

Why, all of a sudden, is it okay to publicly berate people? I grew up learning some pretty good rules. “If you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything.” That one proved very useful for most of my life. I admit, I have been ignoring it a little lately. When people attack my husband about his work, I get pretty defensive.

It’s really not surprising. I have watched him coach team after team and run more clubs than I could name. “There’s no parent to coach basketball? Okay fine, I don’t have time but I can’t see the kids miss out on playing.”

One year, he coached three different sports, one with a very long season, and ran an after school club that was in such demand it had to run on several days each week. Did he mind? Nope, not at all. Would he have preferred if parents had stepped up and done it? Sure thing. Why? Because he has a family of his own. But the reality is, parents have not been stepping up to do these things.

We have seen it in sports, where teachers have been picking up the slack since I was in high school (that’s 30 years ago!!). It can be seen in parent-teacher groups, where a small group of parents does the work for an entire school. A few years ago I was involved in an elementary PTA in a school with 320 kids. There were four of us moms who were the PTA. We organized everything. The fall fair, the Christmas dinner, the fundraisers to pay for class trips. And with the assistance of teachers, we were able to make things good for our schoolchildren.

But this new reality of parents turning a blind eye is catching up with us. Few of us are putting in the effort to coach. Few of us step up and ask the school if we can help. It also appears few of us are teaching our kids about respect. We are allowing our children to ‘be the man’ instead of ‘respecting the man.’ Or woman. I’m not sexist.

There are examples all over social media of adults berating, chastising and showing no respect for the very people who could be the difference-makers in their children’s lives. From inside homes to our government representatives, everyone feels it’s fair game to attack teachers.

I would ask you to remember that when you are attacking that teacher, you are attacking your friend, perhaps someone in your family, perhaps the spouse of the person sitting next to you at the staff room table. And you are setting an example for our children that will shape the future of this province.

Show them some respect. It’s okay to disagree and it’s wonderful to ask questions. But the only way to a solution is to work together. Alienating your friends, families and co-workers is not going to help us.

The solution is out there in the middle of long conversations and heartfelt respect. I hope we find it soon so we can all get back to normal in my house.

 

 

On Professional Development

Two teachers’ thoughts on professional development:

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In 2015, I made use of Article 60 of the Teachers Provincial Agreement for the first time to apply for an out-of-province conference. I wanted to attend a conference on social justice education. The conference takes place every two years in July and moves to different cities to cover different regions of the U.S.

In order to receive funding for the conference, I had to submit an application to a joint committee of school board staff and NSTU members. I had to explain what the conference was about, how my pedagogy and classroom practice would benefit from it, how my students would benefit from it, and how I would share the information I learned with colleagues. Preference is given to conferences that align with the board’s current priorities.

With my application, I had to submit a budget that included transportation, accommodations, registration, and meals. I was eligible for up to $1700, and my budget came in under $1600. I was allowed one night’s stay before the conference began and one night’s stay after.

During the conference I took courses on class, the intersectionality of privilege, and how to seek and use data sets that challenge a status quo that upholds a supremacist system. I heard from teachers who had lost their jobs when Arizona got rid of ethnic studies, a teacher who was blacklisted for allowing her students to write letters to a person who was incarcerated, and a Grade 10 teacher who had a Black student who was shot by police in a case of mistaken identity.

The conference opened my eyes to the systemic inequalities that exist not just in our education systems, but in many of the institutions that have been developed in both Canada and the U.S. as a result of colonization. To my knowledge, there is no such conference for educators in or near Nova Scotia.

Since returning from the conference, I have shared what I learned with colleagues via an email newsletter as the NSTU school rep. I have read books that challenge the dominant White Eurocentric narrative of Canadian history, which has given me a foundation to help my understanding when my principal gave our staff a PD session on treaty education.

Perhaps most importantly, the conference was a direct cause in me seeking a Master’s program in culturally relevant pedagogy, in which I am currently enrolled, and which aligns with my school board’s top priority in its current business plan.

I am currently having the best year I have ever had since I began teaching 13 years ago. I could say that it is because I have great students (and it’s true, I do), but I have always had great students. What has changed is me, and who I am as a person and a teacher. It is a direct result of the program in which I am currently enrolled, which I arrived at because of that conference. Opportunities for professional development are important, and their impact ripples beyond the teachers who are engaged in that learning.

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So eleven out of ten thousand went on a conference in Hawaii , and now fighting for better classroom conditions and a better working environment is too much to support? A basketball tournament is cancelled and classroom sizes and adequate resources are no longer of concern?

International conferences host people from around the world and focus on specific areas of education with world-renowned experts in the field. Such a conference would never be offered in this part of the world because we don’t have the means to host it. Something tells me if it was held in Bangor, Maine or North Dakota, nobody would care. We are contractually allowed to attend professional development that is not offered to us in our province or country. Does it look bad? Of course it does! Should the union have foreseen the bad optics and asked them not to attend? Maybe. But to be fair, this is the first job action of this kind in this province, and things are going to be learned along the way. Would I personally have gone or would I have forfeited the thousands of dollars? Who knows. It would have been an agonizing decision for sure. One thing I do know is that Karen Casey, whose budget indirectly funded each of these conferences, made these remarks to turn public support, and clearly it has worked.

It occurs to me that some people don’t realize that Work to Rule is job action. We are technically ON STRIKE. When any union takes job action, people are inconvenienced. This is no exception. I am a parent. My own kids have been affected. But they have adjusted far better than I thought they would. They go to school, learn, see their friends. The important things are still happening. Everyday I see people say “I wish they would just strike. The kids are suffering.” I don’t understand why people would prefer we withdraw ALL services by walking out. Sports, clubs, recommendation letters….all of that would still be disrupted. But so would learning. Then we would be the bad guys because people needed to find childcare. The only other alternative is to roll over, accept the state of our education system and let things continue the way they are. Is that what most people want?

Does it suck that Coal Bowl is cancelled? Of course! But are we going to give up the fight for better education for future generations over a basketball tournament? No. And are the teachers who volunteer their time to put on such events with an open heart going to do so in the future after being called every nasty name in the book? Today’s personal favourite is “selfish, greedy bottom feeders who live on tax-payers’ dollars.” I have a feeling that when this is all over, teachers who volunteer their time will have a hard time forgetting how people really feel about them…”