Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Terrible Trajectory of the Undesignated BC Child

There was an article published in the Vancouver Sun, detailing the odyssey of BC mother and teacher Lori Drysdale's search for services for her son with Non Verbal Learning Disabilities. The article was largely accurate, but there is a serious discussion underlying Lori's story, which needs to be addressed.

Minister Fassbender has decided that because about 10% of all BC students were identified as having special needs last year, there are 10% of students in BC schools who have special needs. This is like saying, "because I see only white cars parked on my street, all cars are white." In fact, the number of special needs students in our schools is a great deal higher than 10%, and I will tell you why.

First, waiting lists to get formally identified are very long. In one inner city school I worked at, we accessed about three to five assessments per year. By the end of September, the children on the, 'urgent' list, numbered about twenty five. As a result, at best, in any given year, one fifth of students who urgently needed assessment would receive it. Many a student languished on these lists throughout their elementary school career, and some never received assessment. Assessment is necessary for a child to be, 'identified' or 'designated', and thereby, funded. So children who had urgent need for funding, did not even get diagnosed, never mind provided the services they deserved.

Second, because teachers know about this, they realize that only children with the most dire needs will be assessed. There is no point at all, in putting a child on the assessment list if his need is 'only' severe. He won't receive assessment. The teacher, therefore, will not receive the information about how his brain works, that would facilitate her tailoring her instruction to his needs. The parent will not be told what, exactly, is making things hard for his child. And the child himself, will often believe that his problem is simply that he is, 'stupid', a notion regularly reinforced by his peers.

The teachers, of course, will move heaven and earth to help the child anyway. But without funding, without Educational Assistants and with massive classes, the unidentified child will often fall into the abyss of not really understanding, trying to cope, and becoming increasingly frustrated and angry. Imagine, if you were forced to sit in a PhD level biophysics class, or a PhD level neuropsychology seminar. You would be told to listen, contribute, read the relevant material and speak and write intelligently about what you read and heard. How would you respond? The lesson lasts for five hours, with a break for lunch. Would you be able to pay close attention, and meet the standards of the class? Most people wouldn't. And most people would quit, act out, or do something else to keep themselves busy. Which is exactly what happens to the unfunded LD, after day, after day, after day......

Eventually, of course, this makes him angry. Me, I'd've been angry within about half an hour, but many LD children in this situation will go on for years without throwing bricks through the plate glass. People with Learning Disabilities are some of the bravest and strongest people I know. However, eventually, they will flip their gourds, and rightly so. When this happens, they finally get their diagnosis. But their diagnosis is not for LD, it's for.....Behaviour/Mental illness.

Behaviour and Mental Illness are inextricably linked as single categories, according to the BC Ministry of Education. There is Category R, Mild to Moderate Behaviour/Mental Illness. That's how you are assigned if you are acting out but you don't have two agencies beyond the school, involved in your care. Only if you can get into enough trouble to have two (also profoundly underfunded and overworked) agencies involved, do you rate Category H, Severe Behaviour/Mental Illness. Category R isn't funded. Category H, gets you the lowest available funding.

Of course, if you are no longer attending school, which by now is often the case, you won't get any help at all, because your underlying problem, a Learning Disability, has never been acknowledged. All you know at this point, is that you are widely viewed as stupid and lazy. You are well aware that you can't keep up in school, so you don't go. It really, really hurts to be seen as stupid, so you need to find a way to get rid of the constant, gnawing, emotional pain. You also need somebody, anybody, to accept and value you. So you fall in with other disenfranchised kids, who offer you ways to numb your pain: drugs, alcohol, cutting, eating disorders...anything to give you a sense that you are in control of your life. If you have the misfortune to become addicted, you sometimes end up finding a way to finance your addiction that is not entirely legal. When you get caught at these activities, you end up in my husband's prison school class. He tells me that essentially all of his students are struggling with one learning impairment or another, most have addictions, and many have English as a Second Language.

So Lori Drysdale, who as a teacher, likely knew about this trajectory our Government has chosen for our children with Learning Disabilities, decided to go the private school route. So did I, with my daughter who has the same diagnosis. But Lori gave up her house to make that happen. I gave up an extremely good job to move, to make that happen. For Lori, it has helped her son, but for my child, it did not. I will talk about why in another blog. Suffice it to say, Private school may help some, but it most definitely is not the answer for all, or even most children with learning disabilities.

Mr. Fassbender, who is lamentably unfamiliar with the issues in his Education Portfolio, and woefully uneducated in how to assess the literature on the topic, needs to understand that 10% doesn't begin to touch the students who need special educational intervention. What is sad, is that there are reasonable ways to address these needs, and we've known about many of them for my entire thirty five year career as a special educator, but until people like Mr. Fassbender decide to ask people who know what they're doing, without a funding agenda, the conversation about genuinely positive educational reform will never happen. So meanwhile, we fight our contract battles to try to assuage the terrible, terrible needs that, daily, we see unmet.

The true miracle of learning disabilities, is the astonishing number of children who do make it through to become functional citizens. They cope, and some thrive, but the wounds create scars that never disappear. And if you really need a financial reason to care about this, consider that for every dollar spent on providing a good education, seven to eight are saved in corrections costs.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Answer is No

Mr. Fassbender has asked the teachers to stop striking now, please. I guess he hadn't thought to ask, previously. I guess he thinks if he asks, we will be so dazzled by this new idea that we will drop our picket signs in the nearest trash can and rush back to work.

Mr. Fassbender would like a, "cooling off period." He seems to feel that the past two months of rejecting Jim Iker's repeated requests to meet and negotiate were a bit too hot, so we need to wait a while longer before he refuses another overture. It's okay, Mr. Fassbender. It'll be cool enough soon; fall is in the air. 

Mr. Fassbender would like teachers to stop asking for class size and composition funding. We all know those greedy teachers are giving up their salaries because they like to grandstand, and so he'd appreciate it if we'd just stop worrying about the kids and get back to worrying about our salaries.

Mr Fassbender would like teachers to quit worrying about the two court cases they won. Now he wants to play best two out of three best three out of five? 

Mr. Fassbender would like teachers to stop making outrageous demands for, 'benefits.' He thinks the numbers are just too high. Of course, he's calling the cost of Educational Assistants a, 'benefit'. I wonder if the salaries of the baristas in the Starbucks where he hides from protesters, are a, 'benefit' of his job?

Mr. Fassbender would like teachers to start volunteering  stop working lunch hours  stop volunteering  start volunteering  just get back to work. He thinks we should trust him to be fair....this time, he means it.

Mr. Fassbender reminds us all that he is a grandfather. He wants us to know that because of this, he understands the needs of children. We, parents and grandparents ourselves, of course, don't share his insight, because it is negated by our status as teachers.

Mr. Fassbender wants Mr. Iker to poll the teachers for their opinions. He thinks maybe Mr. Iker is confused about what we want. I think we should help Mr. Fassbender to know that we know what we want. We want our students to have timely assessment, access to libraries and specialists, reasonable class sizes and properly funded schools. We want, in short, a quality public education. We don't need a poll. We need funding. I don't mind helping explain, though. 

I hate to disappoint you, Mr. Fassbender, but it doesn't matter how nicely you ask. What matters, is that you fund public education. Properly.

Mr. Fassbender, until you do that, the answer is no.

You Can't Wear Buttons in the BC Legislature

On Sunday this past week, my husband and I went to the BC Legislature to join some parents and students who were presenting an 11,000 name petition to the Opposition Education Critic, asking for a mediated settlement to the Ministry of Education's dispute in time for the scheduled start of the school year. We got there a little early, so I suggested to my Welsh husband that we go into the impressive legislature buildings and have a look at the art and architecture. Standing at the main entrance was a uniformed guard, who smiled pleasantly at us as we entered.

We wandered into the little gift shop area, and then into the main, domed foyer. We were quietly admiring the decorated walls, my husband having drifted over to a different part of the room, when I was approached by another uniformed guard, who asked me what the two buttons on my shirt said. I offer you this photograph: 
For clarity, my buttons say, "In the US they call it Survivor; in BC they call it TEACHER", and, "WTF? Where's The Funding?" Not in the picture, the lettering embroidered on my shirt says, "For the Charter, For the children, #iwillholdtheline."

As you can see, the buttons are not small, but I'm a special ed teacher, so I assumed that the guard must have left her glasses at home, and I obligingly read them to her. She replied, "You have to take those off." Startled, I asked why, and was told, "You can't have any partisan slogans in the Legislature."

I was stunned. My brain simply could not compute. Is not the Legislature the very seat of partisan politics? Is it not the place where I, as a citizen and taxpayer, should most be able to exercise my democratic right to freedom of speech? I just stood there. I was not allowed to wear buttons in the legislature.

Having been raised as a good little girl in the 1960s, just after the hippies passed through their teens, during the rather conservative backlash of the docile, compliant, non-protesting followup group, I began to remove my buttons. My brain was essentially in zombie-mode, and I complied because critical thought was stunned into inaction. As this exchange took place, my husband turned toward us and the guard, raising her voice, said, "Sir, you'll have to remove your button." He had only one button, far too distant for her to read.

Hubby approached, not having heard the directive, and asked what was up. The guard reiterated her position. My husband, who is entirely and stalwartly unflappable, paused, visibly thought about his position, and replied, "No, I'm not interested in doing that."

We were then told we had to leave.

Finally, my brain kicking back into low gear, I stopped unpinning my buttons and repinned them. My husband agreed that he would leave before he would remove his button. The guard had moved into full, officious, power mode and was repeating that we had to leave. So we left.

Later, I began, as people are wont to do, to fantasize about other actions I could have taken. I could have refused to leave, sat down, engaged in a little non-violent civil disobedience, and been dragged out. It certainly would have made a point. I could have removed my buttons, handed them to her, then noted that my shirt also bore a partisan slogan, and removed that as well. That one would have been fun. If I had pulled it off, I could have very calmly continued in my bra, looking at the wall paintings, until security arrived and removed me.

I'm really quite dismayed that I didn't at least consider doing either of those things. It seems to me, that if there is indeed a rule that I can't wear buttons in the Legislative building, it's not exactly a rule borne of respect for democracy. Had I wanted to walk about the place with picket signs, which in a closed space could arguably become weapons, I would have understood. Had I been approaching people and thrusting my views, unwanted, upon them, I would have understood. Had I been disturbing the peace, or in some way intruding on others' enjoyment of the building, I would have understood. I might even have understood had the Legislature been sitting, and there been some argument that lobbying was a potential problem due to the sheer number of people guaranteed to be dissatisfied with the current government. But that wasn't likely, given how rarely this government actually sits.

However, I didn't do those things, and maybe it's just as well. Maybe the tourists in the vicinity would have been so appalled at the sight of a fifty something woman wandering about the building in her brassiere, that the future of tourism in BC would have been catastrophically impacted. We'll never know.

But ever since, I have been thinking about it. What would have happened, if I'd had a BCLiberal button? Why is it that the guard at the door didn't stop us and advise us that we couldn't enter wearing our buttons? Is this really a policy? I could find no reference to it on the Legislature web page

And then there's the other question: Do I still live in a democracy, when the government can rip up what were supposed to be legally binding contracts, ignore the decisions of the Supreme Court without sanction, rule over a population, the majority of which did not vote for them, make decisions about professionals whose roles they do not understand and suppress the voices of dissent in its citizens? 

It's an interesting question. And it's not the only one coming out of this summer of assault on public education. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014


As the days grow shorter, the heat subsides and the Back To School campaigns pop up in local stores, we teachers begin to prepare our classrooms. We gather bright decorations, arrange desks, lay out books, and markers, and science equipment, and we do what we can to make a warm, welcoming environment for the children and youth we will be inviting back into school. This is part of the rhythm of our lives; we mark our years from September to September, we celebrate seasons and rites of passages with children year after year, and we watch our young charges grow into the adults they are meant to be. There is a special camaradarie among teachers. There is a humour that only we share, a passion that each of us lives, and there are rewards we value beyond prestige and money. As attacks on us have grown, fostered by a neoconservative agenda to reduce every event, every lesson, and every moment to a dollar amount, we have fought back with a commitment that could only have been fueled by the real love so many of us have for our chosen profession.

And now, in British Columbia, we must fight again for 'our' kids, for our society, and for our schools. Today, tomorrow, next week, and for who knows how long thereafter, we are called upon to justify our defense of public education to a hostile and punitive government. 

This is hard. Many are frightened, and they have reason: we are losing our means of buying food and paying bills. Many are sad, because they fear that we will have no power to fix that which is so drastically wrong. Many are angry at the abuses they see perpetrated on children living in an uncaring and shattering system.

But I believe in BC Teachers. I believe that we can and will stand firm. This government is single mindedly committed to getting rid of the public education system, and they are eager to see us fall. They would love to see us falter, back down... give up. I, for one, will not.

For all of the children who sit in class, waiting their turn for help, while the teacher struggles to hold onto another, more distressed student, #iwillholdtheline.

For all of the parents who have sat in my office, tears in their eyes and on their faces, begging for the help their children needed, but could not access, #iwillhold the line.

For the school psychologists I know who have become seriously physically ill, exacerbated by the stress of knowing they cannot possibly keep up with the needs for assessment, #iwillholdtheline.

For the brilliant children, of great promise, whose programs have been eliminated and who mark time, helping others while waiting for the challenges they need, #iwillholdtheline.

For the new, young teachers, who have never taught in a system of caring and compassion, #iwillholdtheline.

For the teens who fight their own minds daily just to stay alive; the teens with whom I've sat in hospital waiting rooms, padded rooms, awaiting verdicts from an overtaxed health care system, #iwillholdtheline.

For the angry ones who rage in class, and the sad ones whose arms bear scars and who cannot eat, but also cannot get a counsellor, #iwillholdtheline.

For the, 'typical' children, who watch and wait while teachers struggle with the others, #iwillholdtheline.

For my colleagues, with whom I have laughed, cried, danced, exulted, raged and vented, #iwillholdtheline.

For my grandchildren, little faces full of eager promise, born to the 99%, #iwillholdtheline.

Whatever happens in the coming days, whether we achieve a meaningful contract or fall prey to a government that has completely lost sight of the humanity they are sworn to protect, we will prevail. Because we care. We are taking a stand. We are passionate and committed and we are doing the right thing. And at the end of the day, we will know that. We will know that we stood for the children. That. That is worth doing. And for that reason, #iwillholdtheline.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Education's Bottom Line

I teach teens with moderate to severe intellectual disabilities. That means that they range from struggling and needing support to understand their world the way the rest of us do, to nonverbal, and needing toileting, feeding, and extensive physical and life skills support.

Most Resource Teachers (RTs) try very hard to do a good job of preparing these students for the world that awaits them: an rather unforgiving, rigorous world that has high expectations and low pay. We do what we can to teach everything from basic nonverbal communication skills through to household management, financial skills and employment expectations. Because of the vast range of kids we work with, school recycling has become a very popular way to work on those job skills. Students generally travel about the school with Educational Assistants (EAs), collecting bottles and cans and sorting them into recycling bags, where the custodians will gather and dispose of them.

When I took my current secondary school position, three years ago, I'd returned to high school following a long break during which I'd taught elementary resource, done a masters' degree in Australia, and dealt with pressing family issues. So I brought a reasonably fresh perspective to the high school scene, and what I saw concerned me. The pattern of our intellectually disabled teens cleaning up after their more privileged peers, to me, sent a problematic message. Why should intellectual disabilities relegate a person to menial tasks? Why couldn't these kids learn a broader range of employment skills? I decided to find out.

I'm an incurable crafter, and at some point that first year, I came across a Cricut die cutting machine. It crossed my mind that if EAs were to cut out the component parts, there was no reason our kids couldn't assemble Christmas gift tags. So I used the money they'd earned by working in our school coffee shop and I purchased our first Cricut machine.

That year, we sold gift tags at ten for a dollar. The kids assembled them, but they also participated at their level of competence, in taking and filling orders, distributing the tags, and keeping records of who had paid. I made a point of taking them with me whenever their earnings were due to be deposited, and they brought back their receipts to report to the class. We started chalking up our profits on the class whiteboard, and we began to save towards the community goal of a trip to Victoria for Operation Trackshoes.

Soon, we branched out to more elaborate offerings. They sold like hotcakes! So that you will understand that we are not talking about sympathy purchases, I will show you some pictures of what they made:

Before long, people started asking us whether we would have cards for other occasions. We produced some really wonderful ones for Mothers' Day, and then for Fathers' Day. Our local teachers' union contracted with us for fifty cards, to celebrate the retirement of fifty local teachers! The kids did all of the work marketing, promoting, and selling the cards. The EAs, God love them, designed and cut the components.

While all of this was going on, I was also teaching concrete lessons in how to conduct oneself in the workplace. Thanks to some excellent videos from James Stanfield company, we were doing role plays, discussions and written work on the topic of how to keep a job. Some of the students started using the language of instruction when they went off on work experience, saying things like, "We'd better work hard, because we need to be ninety day survivors!"

The students knew that the work they were doing had value, because people were paying for their cards and complimenting them on their work. They knew that the work they did had to meet a standard, because people would only purchase well made cards. They were excited that they had something to offer that people wanted, and they understood the concept of work ethic in a way that no amount of discussion would have imparted on its own. The district work experience person assigned to the special ed students, Dale Andersen, was so delighted with what she saw that she spread the word to other high schools. Now, she and I are working on developing a program for the district that moves well beyond recycling, into real-world job training that is reinforced in work placements.

We're thrilled and the kids are empowered. This is a big success story, and when I retire, it may be my legacy. But we afforded our new die cutter (a Silver Bullet - the Cricut couldn't keep up with demand) because we, the special ed department, have the task and the budget of running the secondary school coffee shop. We also manage and run the snack shop. Thanks to the foresight of our administration, we have a budget that allows us this kind of experimentation, due to a simple profit margin.

But what happens in schools where the kids aren't affluent enough to buy coffee and snacks? What happens in inner city schools, where kids are coming unfed and under funded? The opportunity we developed in my school for our students with intellectual disabilities is a huge success - but should it only be the kids in our particular neighbourhood who can afford to develop these skills?

Or should we, just possibly, contemplate the idea that all students deserve a chance to be the best they can be? Should we, maybe, fund schools so that students in inner city schools can also have a chance to be partially or wholly self supporting? 

Or do we want to privatize schooling and relegate my students to the back of the bus, where they will learn to fully appreciate the enormity of their handicaps, the degree of their dependence, and the need for handouts? Apparently the BC Liberals support this latter approach.

I don't know about you, but I think many of these kids can support themselves with dignity. The rest can contribute to their care. And that's my bottom line.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Suicide, Kids and Depression: What is happening in BC schools?

So I haven't posted about depression, or suicide, or the death of Robin Williams, because everyone else is, and I really, really hate being where everyone else is. When I was in kindergarten and the teacher was handing around Hallowe'en construction paper, we could choose black or orange. Everyone was choosing orange, and although I preferred orange, I chose black, because, hell if I was going to be the same as everyone else.

That said, in my life, I have lost two family members to suicide, and it's profoundly painful. At least, it was for me. My little sister, seven years younger, whom I, to a significant degree, parented, drove into the Seymour Test Forest on August 15th, 1998, and gassed herself to death. She had bipolar disorder and it wasn't responding to meds and she'd had enough. Then, just three months ago, the father of my children, with whom I was half of a couple for seventeen years, shot himself to death - presumably because of the challenges he faced as a person with a severe disability and intractable pain.

So Robin Williams' death hit me rather hard, and I keep thinking of how it must have been to be him, in those last moments, as he followed through and kicked the chair, with the noose around his neck.

And of course, because I'm a teacher, and a special ed teacher at that, and because I see teens with serious depressive disorders every single day at work, my mind spins and cycles back to their plight, and the plight of people all over the province with mental illnesses, and the results of the failure to support these people, and the destruction left in the path of the government that has declared them expendable nonentities.

Oh, people....oh parents...employers...politicians...when will we ever achieve the collective consciousness required to understand that our children need us?! There are so, so many children out there, and they are hurting so badly, some of them. So very many.

There are supposed to be mental health services. There are supposed to be social work services. There should be services in the Children's Hospital. There should be support for struggling parents. Victims of violent crime should receive both emotional and financial support. That's the British Columbia I once knew. But it's not the BC we live in today.

I have a child who sustained the unthinkable: an abduction by a stranger, complete with handcuffs, knife, blindfold, and sexual assault. She was thirteen, and hadn't hit puberty. Her assault happened in BC, but I lived in the Yukon at the time, and when the entire mental health department of the Yukon quit, I left town and a damned good job to come to BC, where I had family for support, and where I had experienced a compassionate public health system.

Ironically, even though Victim Services in the Yukon had called their counterparts here to arrange paperwork and so forth, I arrived in the office in Surrey the day after Gordon Campbell's government axed the financial support for victims of violent crimes for 'pain and suffering'. My desperately distressed child could only claim time lost for work, which, as a 13 year old, she didn't have. She could also claim losses out of pocket, which amounted to about $50 for clothes that she threw in the dumpster after she got home. I, who was out a good seventy five grand or so, could claim nothing to help my child, and was on my own to find her the help she needed.There was nothing for my child for counselling, for schooling, or for anything resembling rehabilitative support. So I lived in my dearest friend's driveway, in my parents' motorhome, and I microparented for the next six months. My friends will never know how much I love them for that.

When school resumed in the fall, she was able to attend grade ten. But when I went to what I thought was a meeting to arrange her Individual Education Plan (IEP), I was told that despite PTSD, an identified learning disability, current grief (her dad was now in hospital following a life threatening car accident) and other fallout, she did not qualify as special needs.

Think about that. This is a child with fallout from extreme trauma due to abduction. A child with a pre-existing learning disability. A child expressing serious emotional and behavioural pain. A child from a single parent home, with a potentially terminally ill father and a struggling, then unemployed mother. And she did not qualify for assistance.

That was at the very beginning of the cuts.

Depression among teens, even without their having been abducted and raped at knifepoint, is a very, very severe and life threatening illness. In my small town, a teen died of depression just last year. Anyone reading this will have heard of Amanda Todd. Children die all the time because they think there is no hope for their future. And there are people who know how to help, and who want to help, right there, in their schools. Trained people, who care, and who have the skills to keep them alive. But they cannot help, because in my school, which is typical, there are 500 kids for every counsellor. Five hundred. Kids. Per counsellor.

My child was sort of lucky. She had a parent with the training, experience, passion, and emotional strength (just barely) to get her out of town, into counselling, and advocate like a lunatic until her needs were met. Not every child is lucky enough to have a parent with a masters in special ed, a whole lot of contacts, and a personality of relentless focus. Some children are immigrants whose parents have no English. Some are in poverty. Some have parents with addiction and mental health issues of their own.

How many of the children who aren't supported because we are running a school and societal system driven by the bottom line, could have been Robin Williams? Ernest Hemmingway? Nelson Mandela? To how many children of great promise, and great pathos, must we bid adieu, because we couldn't afford them?

That's what I want to know. That's what I want my elected officials to address. That's the pain that needs to be heard.

How many more children's lives do we name, 'disposable,' because we can't afford to help?

Friday, August 8, 2014

About Lunch and Knitting

A little while back, I taught in an inner city elementary school in the Lower Mainland. Kids from that school came from all over the world, and there were 54 first languages represented by the 350 or so students in the building. Think about that for a sec - fifty four different languages! And these children were from five to twelve years old.

Many of the children came from cultures dramatically different from this one. Many spoke little or no English. Almost all were living at, or below, the poverty line. The vast majority were from visible minorities, and because I'm a special ed teacher, the ones I taught had disabilities.

In addition to being a teacher, I'm a die-hard craftsperson. I relax at my spinning wheel, weaving loom or sewing machine. When I watch a video, I can't be without something in my hands, so I knit. I knit a LOT! Sometimes I knit while my husband drives the car. So it was only natural that I would start a knitting club at school.

At first, only the girls came. We didn't have any money at this school, because there were a great many urgent needs for any that came our way, so I put out the word on the internet that we needed yarn and needle donations. Pretty soon we had boxes of yarn, and all in bright colours. The kids were thrilled!

I'm a big believer that everyone grows and gains confidence by doing something for others, so I decided that the children would learn to make scarves for people without homes. I explained to them that the homeless people would surely need help to stay warm in the cold, wet, lower mainland winter. I would give them the yarn and teach them to knit, and their first project would be a scarf to help someone who was cold. After that, they could have all the yarn they wanted for their personal use, to knit anything they were able to produce. At the end of the school year, we would go to a nearby park for World Wide Knit In Public Day. And so the children began to knit.

Well, those kids knit, and knit, and knit. It started with a few little girls, knitting industriously away, their scarves becoming more skillful with each row. The number grew, and pretty soon even the littlest children were asking to knit. Some were too young or ill coordinated to really master the skill, so I got a set of knitting looms, and more scarves were started. We weren't excessively particular about the odd added or dropped stitch, so some of those early scarves were quite....artistic! It began to get a bit tricky for me to walk down the hall, because even though knitting club day was announced on the loudspeaker, the children would ask and sometimes beg to have my room opened so they could knit. Because I'm a special ed teacher, I and my fellow specialist were often called to deal with emergencies at lunch: somebody had clobbered the autistic child on the playground, or the child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder had thrown a punch at the child with anxiety disorder. Maybe someone had had a seizure, or needed asthma medication, or had to be restrained because they were in a destructive, dangerous rage. When these things happened on knitting day, the disappointment was so palpable that I soon lined up colleagues to supervise, even if they couldn't knit. Before long, I was teaching some of the adults to knit as well.

Then one day, a boy of about nine strolled in, and stood watching, shyly, until one of the girls spotted him. Both of the children spoke Cantonese, and the words that flew back and forth were incomprehensible to me, but clearly a blistering exchange was underway. In broken English, the boy explained that the girl had said that boys may not knit; only girls could knit.

Very gently, I said, "Oh, no, that's not true! Many men knit. In fact, men actually invented knitting, far away in a country in the middle East." Well! That had everyone's attention. Soon we were talking about the origins of knitting, probably in in the Arab world, and the little boy picked up some needles and yarn. By the time the school year ended, the club was about half and half, girls and boys. And we did, indeed, go for our year end public knit picnic.

The wonderful thing about those lunch hours, was that we bonded. Children of many different backgrounds, colours, languages, shapes, sizes and ages, all sat down to learn, to do something for someone else, and to chat. We talked about so many things in that group, and they practised their English, and they described their homelands, and they learned and they grew. At the end of the year, we had two big boxes of scarves to give to the homeless. When a colleague took them to the charity that would be distributing them, the recipients were thrilled! They knew that a child had knit each scarf, and that the children cared about them. It might have been my imagination, but it seemed to me that those kids stood a little taller, and sat a little straighter, knowing they'd made a contribution to someone; knowing that they were not only the recipients of generosity, but benefactors, as well.

On my lunch hours in that school, we all taught each other things that weren't on any curriculum. I loved every minute of it. 

But when I left that school, the cuts had finally become  so severe that those lunchtime crises took over. These days I work through all of my lunch hours, either on the paperwork required by the Ministry of Education to 'designate' special needs students, in the hopes of getting some funding for them, or on meetings with colleagues and parents to try to find services for those already designated. I would love to start up another knitting club, but there really is no more time.

Kids really do matter, and this teacher really does care.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

What is All the Fuss About?

As everyone probably knows, when doctors become qualified physicians, they take the Hippocratic Oath, in which they are required to vow never to do any harm. But doctors are always having to do harm. They have to cut into people's bodies to repair what lies within, or they have to poke needles into their arms to get information to help the person. Sometimes, in horrible circumstances, usually with mass casualties, they have to choose between patients, knowing they can save only one of two or more. These are the life and death situations that face doctors routinely, and nobody expects that they would do other than what they do: their very best to help people to survive to continue their lives.

Nobody will ever confuse teachers with doctors. Nobody will ever see teachers as performing a life or death service (except, of course, when they're shielding children with their bodies in mass shootings and things), and nor should they. Teachers don't maintain life; they contribute to its quality. At their best, they give their students broadened horizons, wider ranges of thought, and deeper compassion. But they don't, by and large save lives. Not in a measurable way, anyway.

But teachers do have to make choices, and some of those choices feel very, very important. For me, as a special education teacher, although I probably do not singlehandedly keep anyone alive, I do indeed make choices that have the power to truly affect kids and their parents. About fifteen years ago, when I taught a tiny class of five students with profound disabilities, and had three Educational Assistants (EAs), I made a whole lot of choices. I experimented with different communication strategies for the nonverbal teens (all but one had no speech). I, together with my EAs, used sophisticated technology to work out how much they did and did not understand. We thought carefully about ways to teach them to cope in public places, which they often found frightening or uninteresting. We dug deep and explored the ranges of their capabilities, and as we worked, we learned. It was a wonderful time. One of the EAs in that class told me, a while back, that another had remarked to him that it was the best job he'd ever had. 

It was exhilarating to see the kids learn, and grow. We wanted to teach some of them how to take control over their environment, because their disabilities were so severe they'd had no way of making anything happen independently. So we brought in a whole lot of green fabric of all sorts: green whole cloth, green jeans, green tshirts, anything green that we could get, and we wove a jungle. We hung long braided cords of green from the ceiling to simulate jungle vines. We made draping leaves and created a fantastic jungle world in our classroom. Then I went out and bought a bunch of battery operated toys; parrots, and monkeys, and snakes, which we hung strategically amidst our fabric foliage. We ran wires from the battery cases, carefully hidden, to a bank of large, colourful, switches. If you went up to a switch and hit it, something happened in the jungle: a parrot cawed, or a monkey chuckled and spun, or a snake hissed, or whatever. Soon we were wheeling the kids up to the switches, and they would hit one and watch the result, and one would smile, and another would laugh, and laugh. They could make things happen!

We went on to experiment with a whole bunch of fancy technology. We tried galvanic skin switching, with which a severely disabled person can use biofeedback to change the switch by controlling the surface of their skin. We tried mercury switching, where the slightest movement changes the position of the mercury and closes the switch. Always, the switches were attached to things the kids loved: recorded music, or special toys, or a visual treat.

Those kids thrived. They were happy, and we knew it, because they laughed, and smiled, and lit up when they saw us. Their parents were happy because their children were happy. It was a wonderful time in my life, and although those kids were never going to be elected to office, or granted degrees, or even live independently, we knew that we were making a difference, and they knew they could, too. I only left that job because an amazing opportunity arose for me to go off to Australia to get my Masters degree in Special Education. 

When I resumed teaching in British Columbia, it was 2002. That was the year that the current run of attacks on our public education system began. I had a lovely little class of primary aged children (5-9 years old) with significant special needs. We did some good things with that group, and many have gone on to do very nicely. But there were clouds gathering on the horizon.

Since that time, year, after year, after year, the cuts have come. Relentlessly, the services we could provide became fewer. Wait times for evaluation became longer. I went to work for an online school, thinking it could help kids who has been medically excluded because of their severe behaviour. These were children and teens with acting out, due to disabilities, so severe, that they could not be housed in the education system, and they had been offered hospital home bound services instead. But for these children, mostly with autism, hospital home bound was a poor fit, so we tried something innovative, called blended learning. It involved some carefully chosen work in a centre with behaviour management staff, and a lot of online study and interaction. It showed real promise for children who had huge trouble attending to human faces, but who did well with computer screens.

When the focus of that online program changed in the direction of catering for paying foreign students, and more 'typical' students looking to pick up some coursework at home, I went to work as a Learning Support Teacher in an inner city school. What I saw there was devastating. In the online school, we had had a good budget, which I now realize was partly because various people were looking to commercialize it. But this little elementary school had very, very little. The children were mostly immigrants, and many, immigrant or not, were living well below the poverty line. It was routine for most of us to keep healthy snacks at hand, because so many came without breakfast or lunch. Many of the children spoke little or no English. Some had no winter coats. School supplies? That wasn't on anyone's radar, so a lot of us bought them ourselves. One year, we ran out of white photocopy paper in March. A friend of mine taught her class to garden so they could grow their own food.

Things were getting worse. It was taking longer to get kids evaluated by the school psychologists, and the wait list was growing. In a given year, we might have up to twenty five names to propose for urgent assessment, but we could get maybe three or four completed at best. The psychologists, you see, were being spread thinner and thinner, covering more and more different schools. One little girl whom I knew for sure would qualify as learning disabled, never did get assessed while I was there, and I know there were many others.

At that point, the commute was killing me, as it was an hour and a half each way, as long as there were no road accidents. I chose, therefore, to switch to a semi-rural high school. By now, so much damage had been done due to underfunding, that the job I took would have been two and a half people's work, fifteen years previously. 

Now, there are three counsellors for fifteen hundred students. Three. And they do all of the necessary timetabling and juggling of courses for all fifteen hundred, so that everyone will be assured of taking what they need to graduate. This means, that if a student is suicidal, or if a student is grieving, or if they have a very serious illness, or depression, or bipolar, or an addictions issue, or teen pregnancy, or any of the myriad issues that can befall teens, that they must wait to get in to see a counsellor who is tasked with four hundred and ninety nine other kids. When they do get in - and the counsellors do their utmost best, working crazy hours day after day - they mostly get triaged, and referred. There isn't much counselling anyone can do with those caseloads. But of course, the same cuts that are literally destroying the public education system, are also attacking other social services. The social safety net is very, very thin, and many young people are falling through the holes.

Now, there is one consistent Learning Assistance Teacher, to support the needs of a school of fifteen hundred. There is a little more time allotted, so the rest is filled by various teachers who have a block in their schedule for working with the kids with learning disabilities. That teacher, an extraordinarily passionate and dedicated person, is often in the building after six o'clock PM, because in addition to her teaching load, she has a massive case management load.

Now, we have no sensory room to help our student, who is so easily overstimulated, soothe himself and calm into a state where he can learn. The building is just too full. I actually bought a tent this year from Canadian Tire to try to give him his own comfortable space. We lined it with foam padding on the floor and put in bean bag chairs, but it didn't block out noise so it wasn't really what he needed.

Now, students with learning disabilities receive no funding at all. Neither do students with mild intellectual disabilities (what used to be called "mild mental retardation"), or those with mild to moderate behaviour or mental health concerns. These children are supposed to be 'managed' without funding for EA support, specialist teacher support, or any extra mental health services. So children with anxiety attacks, for example, or depression, are left without any funding for services at all. Teachers and counsellors, who know and care about these kids, move heaven and earth to try to 'fit them in' as best they can.

Now, it is much harder to get a 'designation' that will get funding for a child. The Ministry of Education requires that any child with special needs who will receive funding, be 'designated' according to the nature of their need. So a student can be designated 'dependent handicapped' or 'chronic health' or 'severe behaviour/mental illness'. There are fixed amounts attached to these designations, no matter what the particulars of the circumstances actually look like. So, for example, a student designated 'chronic health' receives roughly the amount of money it would cost to hire a half time EA. What we do, then, is whenever we have a child who gets that kind of funding, we load his or her classes with other students who urgently need help, but are not funded. We try very hard to take into account how this will look for the classroom teacher, but essentially, because so many students have high needs but do not qualify for funding, we have to group these with kids who do qualify, to get them any help. This means that the students who have funding often share their EAs with those who do not. The EAs can be stretched pretty thin, and so can the classroom teachers.

There are a very great many more changes in the BC public education system that I have seen over the past twelve years, and none of them are good. Many, many teachers are genuinely exhausted. I have always been pretty healthy, but this year, towards the end of the year, just before the job action began, I got a bad cold. Not wanting to stay home, because my students are all intellectually disabled and the uncertainty of the situation needed a familiar face to provide support, I pushed through what became bronchitis, then laryngitis, and finally pneumonia. Long before the school year would have ended, had it ended normally, I was far too ill to work. Ultimately, I seem to have had pneumonia or its precursor illnesses for around two and a half months when I was finally hospitalised. I am not unusual; more and more teachers are getting physically ill. There is a great deal of stress in knowing you work with some of society's most vulnerable people, and you cannot possibly meet their needs.

However, like physicians, we make the best choices we can. And after an enormous amount of distress, a great deal of pain and a lot of guilt because we see no other way, we chose to strike. Unlike other public sector workers, we are told that the cost of EAs is one of our 'benefits'. Unlike other public sector workers, the conditions under which we work directly affects our 'clientele'. You won't see car salesmen on strike for bigger show rooms. You won't see plumbers and pipe fitters striking to raise money for their clients to afford pipes. But we are on strike because we know that the kids, our kids, need books, and rooms, and smaller classes, and timely assessments, and specialist teaching, and libraries and so much more. And only we have a way to stand up, draw a line in the sand, and say, 'Enough. This is enough. The children need your help.'

So we are on strike. And no matter how many people say that we are greedy, and we are lazy, we know the truth. We walk together, and we write signs, and we grieve. We grieve that children are hurt by our action, but that we know no other way to prevent continued ongoing harm. We grieve that we know how to help, but cannot. We talk to each other, and we hold each other up, and we take turns supporting our colleagues in their fear and sadness. But we strike, we make the hard choice, because it is the right thing to do. Even if it hurts. 

Friday, August 1, 2014


Here is the letter I sent today to my MLA, Marc Dalton, and cc'd to Christy and her Minions. It pretty much speaks for itself, but I'm sure I'll have more to say on the topic.



I am a constituent of yours and a taxpayer in Mission, BC. I am also a BC certified teacher. I hold a masters degree in Special Education, and I am trained and qualified to teach students who are deaf, and/or blind. I have thirty five years of experience teaching children with special needs of all types, as well as more 'typical' kids.

I would like to tell you some very specific true stories about how your government's behaviour has affected British Columbia children and parents, but I don't believe you are interested. I don't believe you want to know, or care, that an intelligent, hard working child I worked with, born with a neurodegenerative disease that makes him weaker and more fragile every year until what will be an early death, had his Dependent Handicapped category support removed in grade ten and changed to Chronic Health, at half the funding. I don't believe you especially care about the fifteen year old who tried to slash his own wrists, after losing five family members in two years. It took a month to get him any services even though he was classified as high risk. In my school of fifteen hundred students, we only have three counsellors, so there was very little they could do.

I could go on about all of these kids, whom I see daily, and who desperately need a government that cares about them enough to provide systems and support, but the message your government has consistently sent has been that you don't care.

So let's talk about the latest malevolent attempt to manipulate public opinion by bribing parents of some children with $40 a day. Clearly, this is money that is 'saved' in the education system by not paying teachers, while we are out in the streets fighting for a decent public education system. This is money that could, along with all the other money retained off the backs of teachers' salaries, have gone towards repairing the extensive damage to British Columbia schools. Instead, your government chose to give it away to parents who might or might not need it. Your government arbitrarily decided that it might, 'help with daycare' and appease those parents so that you could continue to ignore the just fight that teachers are engaged in, to call you to account for your illegal actions and your decimation of the public education system. At no point, could your government have considered that graduating and senior students in the province, expected to write Provincial exams in February for their semestered senior courses, might be in even more desperate need than the younger children. At no point could your government have considered that children with special needs over thirteen are actually *harder* to get daycare for, or that with nothing to do all day, young teens might find themselves in unfortunate circumstances. And you certainly couldn't have thought through the fact that there are already very, very few daycare spaces available in the province, because BC has no universal daycare program and does not foster the opening of such facilities. Forty dollars is little help with daycare if nobody will take your child. I know you can't have considered these possibilities, because, having considered them, no rational mind would have chosen the course of action that you did.

Your colleague, Mr. Simon, tried to explain to me that the refusal to address the critical need in our schools is due to lack of money. British Columbia has the lowest corporate tax rate in the country, and one of the lowest in the world. I suggest that might be a source of money, as it was back when our schools were properly funded. We know from countless studies that trickle down economics do not work, so how about you do the work government is elected to do, which is redistributing some of the province's wealth to ensure that the social well being is maintained? For every dollar you save on the education of young children, you will later spend seven or eight on incarceration. Yet you continue to decimate our education system.

This government ran on the slogan, "Families First". That slogan has been thoroughly ridiculed both privately and publicly, so I will restrain myself. I do, however, wonder, as I do whenever I see so great a chasm between word and deed, what truly motivates the individuals concerned. It has never been the words, rather, the deeds, that answer that question.

Families First, indeed.