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September 4, 2020

Why I am Still Not Freaking Out About School

Photograph of a barrel of red apples, with a sign on it that says, "Welcome back to school"

I am still not freaking out about school. There are a lot of reasons why not, and some of them include denial, but mostly it’s that me freaking out about school isn’t going to make anything better. It will be as futile as all-caps screaming at the Education Minister on Twitter, and I don’t do that anymore. (Most of the time.)

This is not to say that I have done nothing. (There is a wonderful plot of land in that space between “freaking out” and “doing nothing,” and I’ll meet you there.) A bunch of parents with smarts and agency put together an advocacy group calling on the government to put caps on class sizes, which would go far in actually applying the advice of medical experts that keeping groups small lowers risk of disease transmission.

This group is called Ontario Safe, and you should follow them, and support their initiatives, which include an email-writing campaign to the Minister and local MPPs.

I have sent the letter, I have encouraged other people to get involved. I have also emailed the Minister on my own behalf. I have thought about the importance of public education, for my own family, and also across the board. (Have you listened to Nice White Parents yet? It was fantastic and challenging in the very best way. I learned so much in ways I wasn’t expecting…)

I have also not really engaged with other parents about their own thoughts on sending their kids back to school, because in general, I just don’t care. Quite magnanimous of me, because usually I am judgey as all get-out, but the best thing about there being no perfect choice is that there is no terrible one either. Usually the idea of “choice” is totally sanctimonious (and I should know—I cloth diapered) and kind of gross, not remotely as neutral as it would like to be (don’t get me started on “school choice”) but this is a different kind of situation, or maybe I’ve just evolved since the spring (I doubt it).

You will make your choice based on your own childcare needs, and your own child’s social needs, and the health of the people who live in your home, and the size of your school, and your comfort with school and teachers in general based on previous experiences, and your child’s personality, and how well virtual schooling went in the spring, and your own level of anxiety, and infection rates in your area, and whether it’s really worth it to have the people in your family start wearing pants again.

I am sending my kids to school because local infection rates are really low; because I want to demonstrate my trust and support in the public school system which I fervently believe in as much as I believe in any system, because the government is telling us that it’s safe to do so and I also believe in trusting the government (because the government is more than just the ding dongs and because not trusting the government can turn a person into a lunatic); because public schools are the only choice that is financially possible for me; because my kids are old enough that I trust them to follow processes and direction, and be smart; because when I think about sending millions of kids into schools my head explodes BUT when I think about the fact that my children will be under the supervision of two specific teachers (I don’t know who they are, but it’s always easier to break a thing down into parts) I feel better because I know how seriously teachers take their responsibilities; because the risk of serious harm to ourselves or others is statistically lower than in many activities we partake in regularly; and because if things go wrong and we’re not comfortable/it’s not working, I can take them out of school again, as we’re flexible enough with two parents working from home that this is not a big deal—and the last six months has taught me that missing school does not mean missing education. Even if they miss that remote learning transfer window, or whatever, it will be fine. Kids are resilient. I think we parents should strive to be more so.

By which I mean we should not be freaking out, I mean. Whether you are sending your children to school or not. We all have our reasons. And other people’s reasons really shouldn’t even apply to you

There is also a plot of land I’d like to meet you in between the space where you might shrug off the pandemic as a hoax and regard mandated mask wearing as a government conspiracy and where you constantly share articles from CNN about outbreaks at Georgia high schools and wake up with night terrors at the premise of a second wave (which in news headlines always gets calls a “DREADED second wave). Another plot of land between the pandemic being a hoax AND an awareness of the fact that news outlets want you clicking on their stories all the time and keeping you anxious works to their benefit. Stories about Georgia are not necessary applicable to my situation.

In March and April, children hung rainbows in their windows with signs that said “Everything is going to be okay.” In March, for a week or so, I was convinced that we were all going to die in the coming days, and it turns out the children were more correct than I was. I have been working hard to channel their optimism ever since, and in many ways, it’s been the right path. And no, “everything” is not going to be okay, but when was it ever? In general, we have been and we will continue to find a way for ourselves through all this, and working hard to keep our responses calm and measured goes a really long way.

April 10, 2019

I didn’t rally on Queen’s Park in 1997

Education Rally on Queen’s Park. 1997

I didn’t rally on Queen’s Park in 1997, the last time an austerity government set its sights upon Ontario’s schools and teachers fought back. In my defence, I was a student in my final year of high school. And if walkouts were being organized, I didn’t notice. I recall thinking that politics shouldn’t concern me; surely the adults could work it out? I didn’t understand that teachers were standing up against policies whose destructive effects would be felt for generations.

And this is not hyperbole. When my child began kindergarten in 2013, elementary schools were very different from what I remembered. Apart from the implementation of full-day kindergarten, it has been decades since major investments were made in Ontario’s education system, a system whose underfunding was signed into law in 1997 when Mike Harris’s government changed the funding formula, the policy my teachers were rallying against.

Which is why these days, teacher-librarians work half-time, if at all. At my kids’ wonderful school, we don’t have a vice-principal, or a music teacher. Parents volunteer in the office to help our lone administrator keep up with her tasks, and they also tutor students in literacy programs. Parent fundraising replaces decades-old gym mats, replenishes classroom libraries, and leads initiatives to redevelop school playgrounds. Education Assistants and other support staff are rare in classrooms, while teachers—carrying on heroically—face growing numbers of students with special needs.

Meanwhile, Ontario schools—literally—are falling apart, facing a growing $15.9 repair backlog. In 2016, thanks to advocacy from grassroots organization Fix Our Schools, the Liberal government committed to $1.1 billion for school repairs, which was a start, but not enough. And then weeks after their election in June 2018, Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives eliminated the Cap-and Trade program—“Promises made, promises kept,” Ford and his ministers crowed—the school repair fund disappearing with it.

So this is the system the government is looking to cut from to pay for overpromised tax breaks. When high school students walked out of classrooms on April 4, they were standing against pedagogically unsound ideas including increased class sizes, mandatory e-learning, the elimination of thousands of teachers, and specialized programs and classes. At the elementary level, junior class sizes are rising, teaching staff are being laid off, special grants and programs are eliminated, along with plans to implement Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission into the curriculum, and there has been no additional funding for students who’ve lost support through the province’s autism program.

The students who walked out—the Premier dismissed their organizing as coming “strictly from the union thugs”—are so much more aware of their world than I was at their age.

“I heard about the cuts and I was just kind of mulling it over for the weekend,” said Natalie Moore, 18, who organized the walk-out. “I kind of realized that students, especially as leaders, need to step forward and take it into our own hands.”

And on April 6, two days later, thousands of teachers, parents, children and allies—galvanized by students’ actions days before—would do the same, gathering at Queen’s Park to stand against cuts to schools and this government’s unwillingness to invest in public education.

Education Rally at Queen’s Park, 2019

It was another demonstration that Ford and Thompson would write off as a union stunt, but I was there, and I’m not in a union. Neither are my neighbours, my children, their classmates, and parents and grandparents who gathered in a downtown playground on Saturday morning so we could walk to the rally together. We were there to stand with our teachers—our partners in our children’s education—and because we believe in a well-funded education system where every child has a chance to succeed.

For me there was another reason to rally at Queen’s Park, and it’s to make up for my failure to do so two decades ago. I see a direct line between my inaction then and the ways my children are being let down today. They deserve an education as excellent as the one that I received in Ontario schools, as do all those students who walked out of class last Thursday, those with the courage and conviction to use their voices and stand up for schools, and not simply wait for the adults to work it out.

And we are the adults now. So let’s fight back, and finally be the kind of people that Natalie Moore and all our children can be proud of. They’ve set the most incredible example for us to follow—and we’re proud of them already.

Neighbours on route to Queen’s Park. Saturday April 6 2019

Next steps: Ontario parents with school-age children: the group West End Parents For Public Education Toronto has created an incredible tool kit that we are using at our school to rally together and fight back against the government’s attack on public education. Please take a look at it!

  • If you’re on the council at your child’s school, there is lots of practical advice and things to do—and if your council is not political, let me tell you that ours wasn’t either but I’ve found lots of support from my colleagues on council as we take action for our kids.
  • If you’re not on council, you can still organize (and possibly the people on your school’s council will be happy someone else is doing it!).
  • And if you do not have the time, please reach out to your school’s council and let them know that these issues are important to you and make sure they know about the WEPPE tool kit.
  • To those of you whose children go to private schools, I hope your communities will also think of ways to be allies for public schools and support this cause.

An important thing I’ve learned in the last year is that you don’t need to wait for permission to start acting on the issues that are important to you. Please reach out if you have any questions or would like to work together.

September 26, 2018

Spending a Morning at School

“All those beautiful back to school pics are a reminder (to me, anyway) of how deeply vested so many people are in the education system & that it can be political dynamite to mess with it recklessly.” —Shawn Micallef 

One reason I like volunteering at my children’s school is because I’m nosy. And when a nosy person commits to spending a few hours administrating a fundraiser from the office—sorting order forms by classes with letters to parents—that person is not simply organizing papers. She is paying attention. And she is welcome to be there paying attention as she shuffles papers, because she’s going to be bringing in a few hundred extra dollars to the school coffers, which are chronically underfunded. Every little bit helps, and teachers and school administrators are expert at stretching those dollars at far as possible, finding value, and making them count. So I’m happy to help, and besides, there are plenty of places for me to work—the Vice Principal’s office? The nurse’s room? Because, of course, there is no money either for Vice Principals and Nurses anymore, and the Secretary relies on volunteer support. Speaking of stretched, and I’ve not even got to Education Assistants (gone the way of the Vice Principal…) or caretaking staff (of which there are a few, but as few as possible due to budget constraints). This is not austerity, but also I can’t remember the last time our provincial government made  a major investment in public education. And yet there is something miraculous about the way it all functions anyway, credit for all of which is due to the amazingness of people.

Part of the reason it works is because we expect it to—every morning we drop off our children, those extensions of our hearts, and then we go out into the world to do the things we do, and we take it for granted that our children are safe and cared for, that they’re learning, that they’re even happy. And for many of our children, this is mostly true, at least on the good days. And when all our children went back to school in September I was struck by the reality that plenty of parents who were taking our schools for granted as much as I did had voted to elect a provincial government in June with no respect for teachers and a disdain for public education in general. (Our new Minister of Education’s background is managing a goat cooperative, and she has still given no media interviews about her portfolio which has been controversial since her government elected to dismiss an updated sex-ed curriculum [against the advice of experts] and cancel a curriculum rewrite that would have boosted Indigenous content. Her deputy is a twenty-one-year-old who was homeschooled and whose limited worldview is informed by his extreme religious views)

And how could they do that, I wondered. How could they send their children into the care of people whose profession their electoral votes had so undermined?

“Because they know teachers will still do the best possible job with their children,” answered my friend Dorothy Palmer when I posed that question on Facebook a few weeks ago, and Dorothy, a retired teacher would know. But I know too, or at least I’m reminded after the time I spent this week sorting papers in the office, paying attention. To the tiny people from kindergarten who had the huge responsibility of bringing the attendance down to the office this morning, in pairs of course. To the older girl who’d hurt her knee in gym and came to get ice, and also all the other people who came to get ice—after falling on the playground, getting hit by a soccer ball, going too wild on the monkey bars. Ice is the most tremendous tool, and it makes so many things okay again. Which the teachers know, the teachers who come into the office to check their mailboxes, who greet their colleagues jovially and say hi to students they haven’t seen since last year and remark on who has grown tall over the summer.

There was a little boy in the office this morning and it was his first day of school ever, and he was terrified, unhappy to be there. His dad was in the office filling out paperwork, but could hear his son crying down the hall where the boy was being comforted by an ECE. Over the course of my time in the office this morning, this small boy and his father were greeted by teachers, and welcomed to the school, and the kindergarten teacher came to ask if he wanted to come along to gym. When I finally left awhile later, the boy had joined his new class, no one was crying, and the relief on his father’s face in the hall reminded me of how good I felt when my eldest daughter finally stopped crying every morning for the first month of Junior Kindergarten, that maybe we could find a place here.

At our school, the Principal knows everybody’s name, and when it’s your birthday they put your name on the announcements and you get to come down to the office and receive a brand new pencil. The school Secretary is mostly magical and plays her guitar for the kindergarten classes. At our school, psychologists and speech therapists and other specialists visit to give support to kids who need it. My daughter has had occupational therapy help with handwriting, and speech therapy. When her Grade 3 teacher had concerns about her speech, she went back and talked to her teachers from the year before. At our school, our amazing music teacher retired after 28 years of teaching there, and (without her knowing) every single child at school, hundreds of them, had been taught a song just for her, and on her final day of school last year they sang to her, and a lot of people cried. (Our music teacher has not been replaced. What kind of school has music teachers anymore?)

I think sometimes people underestimate how good teachers are at doing their jobs, what experts they are in their professions. I absolutely know that the role of teachers in our society is shockingly undervalued, the incredible role these people play in our families’ day-to-day lives. A good teacher can change a life, and imagine what happens to a life when a kid has one good teacher after another. I sat in the office this morning, and said hello to a number of these teachers, and thought about what we’re trusting them with, up there with heart surgeons and bridge builders. Is there anyone more important?

Sit in a school office for a morning, and you get a glimpse into your community. Harried parents straggling in late, kids with disruptive behaviour, students living with their mothers in shelters because they’re fleeing family violence and the special needs that come with that. Our school specifies 10% of all money raised throughout the year go into a fund for students who are most in need, and this money has paid for eye glasses, winter clothing, gift cards at the holidays for families who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford things. If a child shows up at school without a lunch for reasons other than a forgetful dad or mom, they will be quietly accommodated. Parents turn up with hugely pressing concerns which they seem blasé about, and others hysterical about incidental problems, and all of them are treated with care and consideration, and some other kid will arrive because he has a stomach ache and somebody will call his mom, and the day will continue, even after all my papers are filed. There is no such thing as extraordinary there, because everything is extraordinary all the time, and it works, because the people do, in spite of everything. I can’t imagine who’d we be without them.

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