Emerging Realities of the COVID-19 Classroom

How the new school years was going to look has been anybody’s guess for some time. Now we’re a week out from welcoming students back into schools, and the picture that is emerging is not a pretty one.

They crunched the final numbers yesterday and the axes started to fall. My school had fifty teachers, and it is now down to thirty-nine. We lost eleven classes worth of kids (just over 20%) and so we lost eleven teachers. Those teachers were declared “excess to school”. Most will be re-assigned to online teaching, as numbers require; the rest will be ‘furloughed’ until there are enough students to warrant calling them back.

The re-assigned teachers were not selected for online teaching because they expressed a preference or showed an aptitude. They were selected because they were the lowest on the seniority list. There was no mechanism for any other teacher to step in and say, “Actually, I’d prefer to teach online, can I go instead?” These teachers didn’t choose this.

I know these teachers, personally and professionally. They’ll work themselves into the ground in order to do an extraordinary job for the kids assigned to them. It’s just so unnecessary for them to have to.

Full-sized classes next to empty classrooms

For the teachers and students who will be doing school in person, there is now a lot of extra space in the school. To be precise, eleven classrooms have now been freed up.

This does not mean more space for smaller classes, though you’d be forgiven for thinking it might.

Those eleven classrooms will be empty when school starts, and the classes that remain will each have about twenty-five students in them.

I’ll say that again: twenty-five students and a teacher all together in one classroom, with eleven classrooms standing empty in the school, while excessed teachers wait to be called back from their lay-off.

One meter’s distance is “safe enough”

We have already compromised on the “two meters apart” rule that has been so universal since this pandemic began. That happened early on; no one even attempted to make that possible in the back-to-school plan. Apparently schools are the exception to that rule, maybe because students are known for being very attentive to hygiene.

That in itself is confusing. Is the two meter rule so excessively cautious that we can easily halve it with no consequences to safety, or was it supported by science? If two meters is what is supported by science, why is one meter okay? Suddenly, because the funding model requires it, someone waves a hand and one meter is fine? It’s a clear contradiction. Two meters is a safe distance for everyone except large concentrations of children. Groups of more than fifteen people were not sanctioned until very late phases of re-opening, but twenty-five is fine for schools while we wait for a second wave.

Even with the lower standard, though, there is no way I can distribute twenty-five desks in my room so that the students will a) remain one meter apart AND b) be able to see the board or the projector screen. I just about managed it with the nineteen desks that were in my classroom when I arrived last week. Not sure how I’m going to add six more.

So even the reduced safety standard is not achievable with the numbers as they are. Students will not be able to maintain any kind of distance in class.

A classroom at my school containing twenty-two desks. No chairs yet.

Health and Safety Protocols

The good news is that we received robust health and safety training. We have been walked through all of the enhanced safety protocols, such as walking single file in the hall, and limiting how many students can be in the bathroom at one time, rotating recess so only one grade is outside at a time, and requiring students to stay with their own class in their own zone of the schoolyard. We know what PPE is required and how to wear it. We even received WHMIS training in hazardous substances because we’ll be doling out the hand sanitizer. We will drill the students in these procedures, and insist that they be followed at all times.

Anyone who tried to homeschool in the spring can attest that students don’t always do what you want them to do. Even if we enforce procedures religiously, there will be twenty-five kids in each classroom. Twenty-five energetic, smelly, sociable, mischievous, fidgety, germy kids. In a space the size of a Hasty Market, where the capacity is limited to ten people at a time.

The ‘enhanced’ safety measures can only do so much.

Teachers’ concerns dismissed from the start

The safety measures that teachers – and their unions – are asking for are only the measures that are already in place everywhere else. No special treatment required; we’re only asking that teachers and students be protected to the same standards as customers in, say, an LCBO.

Nevertheless, the messaging from the Minister of Education and Premier Ford has been consistently dismissive and disdainful. Teachers are complaining because they don’t want to do the hard work. Unions are being willfully obstructionist and causing problems on purpose. The government – so goes the rhetoric – has been successfully working in good faith with groups all across the province, so if the Teachers’ Federations can’t play nice then obviously the problem is not the government. Of course the teachers want more, they always do, but they’re over-reacting. They’re being unrealistic in their demands and don’t have a good grasp of the situation. It’ll be fine, they’ll see. We’re leading the nation in our back-to-school plan. What more do the teachers want?

In a word, gaslighting. I’m a woman in a traditionally female profession. I am more than familiar with the phenomenon. It is demoralizing every time.

First day of school

I cannot wait to meet my students. Being able to see their faces and respond to their curiosity and questions is central to my teaching, so teaching online to blank screens was tough. I am thrilled to be going into the classroom once again, even with all these challenges, and I have big plans.

All my plans depend on the kids feeling safe and supported. That is my first job, and my most important one. I am the one who sets the tone and determines the dynamic in the classroom. Doing so calls for an intense investment of emotional energy and labour, especially in the early days of a school year. At this point in the year, I would usually be setting up my classroom, sharing ideas with colleagues, getting excited, and generally building up my store of energy and positivity to be ready to welcome the kids on the first day.

Instead, I am reeling from the loss of valued colleagues, and witnessing their hurt and their worry. I am grieving that the students’ experience in school next week will fall far short of what I would like to offer them, both in terms of energy and of safety. I am weary from the knowledge that we have everything we would need to make them safer – enough space, and enough qualified teachers – and we’ve just chosen not to.

Who can afford to keep their kids safe when the Ontario government won’t?

This week’s return to school plan reinforces systemic racism. I thought we’d decided to do better.

This week, Stephen Lecce announced the province’s plan for reopening schools in September. Although there are several safety measures in place, one thing that has not changed is class sizes. There will be an average class size of 26 kids, which has gone up from last year due to the new employment contract (remember the teachers’ strike?). This in spite of the fact that most of the schools that have reopened globally have done so with reduced class size (10-15 students). (Source.)

Many of the parents and teachers I have spoken to are worried. They really expected class sizes to decrease for the return to school. I’ve had conversations with parents who were considering taking a leave of absence from work, or continuing to work from home where possible, in order to avoid sending their kids back to school before they know it’s safe. 

It doesn’t feel safe right now. 

Because we all know the benefits to our kids of going to school, rather than learning remotely, many other parents are considering other schooling alternatives. Private schools in Ontario are receiving a much higher volume of inquiry calls from parents who want certainty and safety. (Source.) In particular, kids with exceptional needs or learning disabilities, who did not thrive in the distance learning model, need to be back at school. So parents are looking for a safe way to send them.

Private school tuition can be as low as $7000 a year per child, but most of the ones I found begin at $13, 000 or so, and go up from there. $33, 000 per year was the highest one I saw. I didn’t look for long. (Source.)

All of the options being explored by these parents are available to them because they have flexibility in their work, or in their finances. The alternatives will be inconvenient, certainly, and will have an impact on the family’s finances for a long time to come. But they are a possibility.

A great many parents in Ontario do not have that kind of flexibility. They cannot just stay home, and give up one of the family’s sources of income—possibly their only one. Their jobs require (or their employers demand) their physical presence, so working from home is not an option. Many of them are getting by on their current household income, if they’re fortunate, but they do not have the resources to spend an extra $13, 000 per year to send their child to a private school.

These parents are exactly as concerned as the parents who have alternatives. 

It’s just that there’s nothing they can do about it. The schools are open, so they have to send their kids. The options available to higher-income families simply don’t exist for them.

In the current model, a safe return to school is something you can only have if you can afford it. 

That reality is repugnant enough on its own, if we value what we say we value in terms of equity and human rights. There’s something that makes it worse, though.

Canada has a racialized income gap. That means that the families who can afford to purchase safety for their children are more likely to be white, and the families who can’t are more likely not to be. If we further break down the numbers, we will find Black Canadians among the most disadvantaged among visible minorities. (Source.)

Not clear? Let me lay it out:

White families are more likely to be able to buy safety for their kids than Black families. 

It is exactly that serious. This is what is meant by systemic racism. Policies that are not overtly, or even intentionally, racist, that nevertheless just happen to disadvantage people who aren’t white.

Black lives matter. We’ve been saying it a lot lately, and I hope we keep saying it. But if Black lives matter, they have to matter all the time. Not just in terms of whether police are brutalizing or killing them, but also in terms of their health, well-being, education, and ability to reach their potential. Black education has to matter. Protection from illness for Black children and their families has to matter. 

We’re already falling down on this. To no one’s surprise, once the province started collecting race-based data around Covid-19, we discovered that racialized people, and Black people in particular, are much, much more likely to contract the coronavirus than white people. In Toronto, “Black people account for 21 per cent of reported cases in the city, while making up only nine per cent of the overall population.” (Source.) Here is the full data. Here is Kwame McKenzie, the CEO of the Wellesley Institute and a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, explaining the discriminatory nature of this virus. Just like a family’s options around the return to school, it is heavily correlated with income, and therefore with race.

Are we anti-racist or not?

In his statement about anti-Black racism (published here on July 6th), Stephen Lecce said that we need an education system that is “inclusive, accountable and transparent, and one that by design, is set up to fully and equally empower all children to achieve their potential.” Anti-Black racism in Ontario schools, he said, must not be allowed to continue. 

To this end, he decreed that Ontario will stop streaming students as they enter high school, as this practice disadvantages Black kids, and will ban suspensions of students in the primary grades (K-3).

Cost to the province: $0. It’s easy enough to be against racism when it doesn’t change much and doesn’t cost anything.

Sending kids back to school full-time in classes of about 15 kids would cost a lot. $3.2 billion, the Ontario Liberals estimate. That’s just over ten times the $309 million in Lecce’s model. We need to do it anyway.

If we don’t, it’s because we’re okay with the status quo, where higher income families have options for keeping their kids safe, and lower income families don’t. Where Black people are getting sick, and being hospitalized, at a disproportionate rate, and with worse outcomes. If we don’t, it’s because, collectively, we’ve decided that Black lives only matter as long as they don’t cost more than we’re willing to pay.

It’s not too late to change our path. Call, write, post, tweet, whatever. If anything about racism in our society has sunk in for you in the last few months, please don’t be silent.

Find out how to contact your MPP.

Contact Doug Ford.

Contact Stephen Lecce.

Can everyone go back to school , please?

I want to go back to school.

I can’t emphasize that enough. I’m a teacher, and I am so, so anxious to be back in the classroom. I have big plans! There’s so much going on in the world, and I’ve learned so much in the past few months. I can’t wait to share it with my Grade 8s, and find out what they’ve learned. I want to figure out what they need from me to be able to make Canada better. Also, distance learning was awful.

I want my students to be back in school. They’re lonely and bored and isolated, and their lives haven’t stopped just because school is closed. Being an adolescent is tough enough even without a pandemic. Some of them were already coming off the rails back in April; they need to be back at school. Also, distance learning, despite their parents’ and teachers’ best efforts, was awful.

I want my children to go back to school. They need challenges. They need socialization. They need relationships with more than just the people they share a house with. They need teachers who aren’t their mother, and whose only job when they’re at school is to teach. They need a reason to leave the house every day. Distance learning, even with truly excellent, inspired work from their teachers, was awful.

Doesn’t everyone want the schools to reopen? Doesn’t everyone want this?

There’s this pandemic, though. You’ve probably heard about it. We’re fed up with it, but that doesn’t mean we can choose not to deal with it. Teachers’ unions and parents’ associations aren’t just making it up in order to be difficult. As much as we would like to, we can’t just wave a hand and say, ta-da! It’s safe now!

Of course we all want to reopen the schools. And indeed, our provincial leaders seem set to make that happen. They’re being very cagey, though, about what they’re going to do to make that happen safely. There’s a lot of talk but apparently not much by way of resourcing.

Thing is, this virus is not impressed with their rhetoric. Neither am I, frankly. I would love to trust them with this–with my life and livelihood–but I do not believe they have my best interests front-of-mind. I don’t want to be convinced. I want to be safe.

It isn’t about convincing Ontarians that it’s safe. It’s about actually making it safe.

If we want to reopen schools (and I do, I might have mentioned), we can’t do it the way we used to. We have a lot of changes to make.

Class sizes need to drop dramatically, so we’ll need more space. Not really a problem, since there are all these unused community centers, libraries, and other public buildings standing more or less empty. These are public buildings. We already own them. What do we do about transportation? Custodial workers? PPE? Symptom screening? I don’t know! I am a Middle School teacher. I am willing to bet, though, that there are people in this province with the expertise and the organizational knowledge and the bird’s eye view to figure out the buildings, and the transportation, and the PPE. I wonder if we know who they are? I wonder if we’ve asked them?

Seems like there are a lot of people they haven’t asked.

As a parent, I will feel safe sending my children to school if they are in classes of no more than 15 kids. I will feel safe sending my children to school if they will be with the same teacher all day, and the same kids. I will feel safe sending my kids to school if they can all go for the whole day, and then observe proper distancing measures when they go home, instead of having to be farmed out to a vast array of daycare solutions during the time they ought to be in school. I will feel safe if there is screening and symptom-monitoring and a plan for what to do if there’s a positive test. I will feel safe sending my kids to school if there is adequate custodial staff with adequate supplies and funding to keep the learning spaces safe. Not safe-ish. Safe.

As a teacher, those are also all the conditions that I would need in order to feel safe going back to school.

Spoiler: This is going to cost A Lot.

It’s going to cost a lot no matter where you cut, or where you skimp, or where you hope that the parents, grandparents, babysitters and older siblings will step up and shoulder the cost and burden. No matter that much of that burden will be shouldered by women, usually unpaid. It’s still going to cost a lot.

It’s going to cost a lot, and we have to pay what it costs. All of what it costs. Because if we only pay for part of what it costs, we might as well have done nothing. If we have tubs of hand sanitizer in every classroom, but we keep the average class size at 26, we might as well save our money. If we have smaller cohorts, but have them all alternating in the same spaces, they’ll still be at risk. If we have small classes and enough learning spaces, but inadequate custodial staff, there’s no point.

The only way to justify paying for any of it is to pay for all of it.

Every person in Ontario who has regular contact with a school-age child, or who works with someone who does, is affected by this. Add to that people with conditions that place them more at risk who must be vigilant about any kind of community spread, and it becomes pretty much everyone. If we do this right, everyone will be better off.

I really, really want to go back to school. Mr. Ford would like to send me. He needs to do more than just tell me it’s fine, though. He needs to actually make it safe.

To My Fellow Teachers

I want to share a metaphor I saw online that seems to sum up our situation very well:

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and not just in terms of voting. It seems particularly apt right now because of the very difficult labour climate we’re living in right now. These are hard times. Stressful and costly. Divisive. Polarizing, even. We need each other more than ever to keep our spirits up, and yet we’re finding it difficult to maintain any feeling of unity.

Some of us are starting to ask ourselves whether this is the right way forward. Whether our Union leadership has our best interests at heart any more than our government does. Whether this will actually get us where we want to go, or if we’ll find ourselves short six days (or more) of pay and still have to accept a lousy deal anyway.

The longer this goes on, the better it is for the government. Not just because they’re saving millions of dollars for every day they don’t have to pay teachers (approximately $500 per teacher per day), but also because all this uncertainty makes it increasingly likely that we’ll turn against our own leadership just to get a resolution. That we’ll decide to cut our losses, because this battle is not winnable.

We should, of course, question authority in all its forms. Our Union leadership is no exception, any more than our political leadership. Who are these people? What are their qualifications? We’re losing thousands of dollars — what are they risking? In a situation where negotiations take place behind closed doors, we can only take their word for what’s going on at the table. How can we be sure they’re being honest?

In the absence of media presence or any kind of transparency, we’re left with the very unsatisfactory situation of having to decide — with no access to evidence — who we trust more, the Union or the Education Minister. (For me, this isn’t a hard choice, but the list of “People I Trust More Than Stephen Lecce or Doug Ford” is a very, very long one.) Alternatively, we can decide we don’t trust either of them and split the difference. We can even begin to suspect the two parties are secretly in cahoots and this is all just very expensive theatre.

I do think that our Union leader having been re-elected by teachers every two years since 2009 gives him more of a claim to my trust than either the Premier or the Minister of Education, but for some that might not be enough. It’s not really what you’d call evidence. We’re giving up thousands of dollars in pay based on a balance of probability. It’s not a comfortable position.

I can’t solve any of this for any of us. I have “only” been in the profession since 2007 and “only” been on strike one other time (and then it was only one day before they legislated us back to work). I am also wildly positive and a completely immoderate optimist, which I know diminishes my credibility in these jaded times.

But folks, there are only two buses. One is heading towards a future where public education in Ontario is gutted and the already insufficient supports that we can offer our most vulnerable students have disappeared. A future where the wealthy enjoy substantial tax breaks and send their children to private schools while kids living in poverty or kids with disabilities are left to fend for themselves in a system than is geared towards standardized testing instead of student success. I can’t get on that bus. None of us can.

The other bus…well, the sign above the windshield says it’s going somewhere very different. It says it’s heading towards a future where Ontario teachers continue to demand fair treatment for themselves and for students. A future where our robust public education system continues to offer support and opportunities to every child in Ontario, regardless of what their parents can pay for. Where a child coming through our schools will graduate with a good chance of success in the future. No guarantees; there are still so many strikes against them. Just a chance.

Right now, not travelling is not an option. I know what I want out of my collective agreement, and I definitely know what I want for the future of public education in Ontario. The bus that’s going closest may have engine trouble or an unreliable driver, and the fare is really freaking steep, and I can only take it on trust that it’s even going where it says it’s going. But on the chance that it’s even going anywhere close, I’m getting on, and I’m taking as many people as I can with me.

It’s the only way to make it clear that the destination on the sign is the only one we’ll accept.

What Money Can Buy

Everyone makes choices about what to spend their money on.

We have a list of needs, and a list of wants. Typically, the needs get met first, and then we consider the wants. (If we’re lucky enough to have disposable income that covers more than our necessities, of course.) Everyone’s “needs” list might look different, but we put things on there that we consider to be non-negotiable.

Someone I know, who voted for Ford, recently explained to me, repeatedly and vehemently, that “you can’t print money” and so all of these cuts were needed. We just can’t pay for everything we want to pay for. That’s what he said. So we have to stop pretending we can. Some things have to go.

Some things, perhaps, do.

In my family, the things I can compromise on are many. When I can’t pay for everything I would want, I decide which expenses can wait, and which ones I have to pass on altogether. My partner and I just have to make a call; We can maybe delay updating the bathroom, but what about glasses for the kids?

I can shower with frayed caulking, but my kids need to be abe to see at school; glasses are not optional.

There are certain things that my kids just need, and I have to find a way to pay for them. I prioritize what is most important to me. We all do. In my case, my kids’ needs are the ones I can’t compromise on. There is nothing I value above their success and well being.

As a province, we also have to prioritize our spending, because we ‘can’t print money’. We have to do what families do every day; decide what is most important to us, what we value, and then figure out how to pay for it.

Doug Ford’s Clear Priorities

What does Doug Ford value the most? What, for him, is sacrosanct? What are the things he considers too important to compromise?

I find it strange to have to argue that education should be higher up the priority list than beer in corner stores, or 14% raises for MPPs.

In making deep cuts to education, Doug Ford is sending a clear message about what he considers to be important. He looks at Special Education, Early Childhood Literacy, Guidance, and lower class sizes, and he sees luxuries that we can well afford to do without.

And in fairness, some of us can. But many cannot, and if they don’t get what they need at school, they just won’t get it.

Is that an Ontario you can live with? It is for Doug Ford.

What Do We Need?

What are the things Ontario can’t do without? What are the costs that just can’t wait?

To me, the answer is very clear, and it’s the same for Ontario as it is for my kids: Health care and education. People who are sick or injured need care right now, and there’s often no going back if they don’t get it. Kids who are growing up need schools and qualified, highly-valued teachers right now…and again, there are serious consequences if they don’t get it. Not as dramatic, perhaps, as for the victim of a car crash, but potentially just as life-altering.

These services are expensive. Of course they are. So are eye glasses and asthma medications and epi-pens, but families are not going to not provide those things for their kids just because they cost a lot. Not if they have any choice at all.

We, in Ontario, have a choice. We need to be grateful for that fact, and we have to choose wisely.

Ford’s Cuts Take the Most From the Kids Who Can Least Afford to Lose It

It costs money for a kid to be successful at school.

No one is actually denying that, whatever else the government is spouting. There is physical stuff that they need, and buildings, with furniture and computers and electricity. There are the people who keep the buildings maintained and safe, and who plan the learning, and deliver the lessons, and monitor progress. There are the networks of people behind the scenes to help get exceptional support for students with exceptional needs, whether that support is special education or career advice or grief counselling or suicide prevention. And yes, all these things come at a cost.

It is the proper purpose of a public education system to cover that cost. Every teacher’s union in the province is currently involved in strike action because of proposed cuts to public education, because we want to continue to provide a high level of service to every child in our care.

These strikes are not about those costs, though. It seems like they are, on the surface, but let me explain.

Parents Pay For Student Success – If They Can

A child’s success at school carries a great many other costs, that the public education system relies on but does not pay for. The food and clothing and shelter and health care that keep kids ready to learn. The rides to school when someone has missed a bus. The lunches and the gym shoes and the field trips. The Internet access at home, and the technology that goes with it.

Some kids have all of that provided at home. Some kids have all that plus piano lessons and karate class, swim team and soccer camp, math tutoring and the latest Percy Jackson books on the shelf.

Even in the current climate of slashing funding for public schools, those kids are going to be okay. If Special Education is cut, their parents will hire a professional to supplement what is offered at school. If libraries are underfunded, there will be trips to Chapters. If arts programs get the axe, these kids will be signed up for drawing classes or music lessons, if they’re not already. If technology is limited at the school, these kids will have their own iPad so they’re not dependent on whether they could get their hands on a school laptop.

These children’s success, while of course not assured, will not suffer unduly because of these cuts, because their parents will be there to make up for the shortfall. These kids have options.

Many others do not.

For Many, Public School Is The Only Option

Poverty, and the many factors it correlates with (such as race, citizenship status, mental health and addiction, among others), means that there are a lot of kids in Ontario for whom public education is their only option. And all across the socioeconomic spectrum, and for widely varied reasons, there are many kids who also don’t have a Plan B. For these kids, if they don’t get it at school, they don’t get it at all. This applies to technology, books, music education, counselling, early literacy (and late literacy for that matter. In many cases (and this is true across the socioeconomic spectrum) it also applies to care and attention. In some case, also, to love.

Anything that is cut from public education is cut from these kids. Directly and disproportionately, these are the kids who stand to lose. To lose access to guidance counsellers and experts in Early Childhood learning. To lose out on arts and music education, despite their proven long-term advantages. To lose special education support intended to level the playing field for the kids who face the most obstacles. To lose the time and energy of a teacher who is not stretched too thin to give each student the care and attention they need.

To lose the safety of a loving adult, in the only place they’ve every known it.

Why We Created Public Education In The First Place

Having publicly funded education for all (which correlates to a high quality of life the world over) costs society a lot less than not having it. Kids who are failed by an under-resourced public education system don’t conveniently disappear; they go on to be over-represented in statistics related to unemployment, homelessness, addictions, family violence, and crime. They go on to not use their gifts and innovations in the service of making a better Ontario.

That’s why we decided, as a society, that it is in everyone’s interests to have a high quality education system, and to fund it publicly. Even people who do not have children benefit from having a society where all children can go to school.

Education in Ontario is one of the rights protected under the Ontario Human Rights Code. Every student in Ontario has the right to the same high quality of education as every other student. Where barriers exist that mean some students don’t get the same quality of education as others, we do our best to remove or reduce those barriers.

What Doug Ford wants to do is remove most of the tools we can use to do so.

When The Most Powerful Target The Most Vulnerable

Consider just who will suffer from the Ford government’s proposed cuts. They are disabled kids, or kids on the autism spectrum, or refugee kids, or kids from families living in poverty – or kids for whom all of the above is true at the same time. Or else they are kids with plenty of money but no love. They are abused or neglected kids. They are kids dealing with trauma or grief.

They are the kids we should all be most interested in protecting. They are the kids who already have a lot of strikes against them when it comes to success. Kids who are among the least powerful and most vulnerable people in the province. Kids – and families – without enough of a voice to speak up for themselves.

Is that what this government is counting on? That those affected the most are the least likely to fight back, and that no one will care enough to fight for them?

Speak Up For Those Who Have No Voices

I care. Parents care, even the parents whose kids are doing okay. Teachers care – the ones who were with me on the picket lines today, giving up more than a day’s pay to chant ourselves hoarse and march the blood back into our chilly toes. Every blessed soul who honked their support while driving past, they care. Every Ontarian who has phoned or emailed or tweeted to their MPP to let them know that this attack on equity is not acceptable cares.

It doesn’t matter if you don’t have kids. It doesn’t matter if your kids have enough support and advantages that they’ll be okay regardless. It doesn’t matter what your particular opinion about Labour Unions might be, or whether you think teachers ought to have paid sick days. This time around what’s at stake is glitteringly clear and starkly simple: Do we think that education is a right that should be guaranteed for all, or do we think it should be yet another product where you get what you can afford to pay for?

Please let your voice be heard. Even a few lines in an email or a brief phone call will help. Let your MPP know that Ontarians expect better, and we expect it for every single child in the province.

Every child. And if there’s no one who will speak for them, then you do it.

(Click here for how to find and contact your MPP)

The Man Who Has Everything (Has Given Me So Much)

My Dad turns 70 this weekend. And as always, it’s been really, really difficult to think of an appropriate gift. I did find something I think he’ll like, something a little cool, something he might not have seen before, so that’s good, but it’s his 70th birthday, you know? A round number? Shouldn’t the gift be something a little more…meaningful?

But, you know. Dads. My Dad at least is not exactly what you’d call sentimental. Well, he is, but only when you catch him off-guard, like when he’s in his cups or when his daughter’s getting married. Most of the time he keeps that stuff locked down.

For example, one of my sister’s favourite stories to tell is once when we were young—in our teens, maybe—a friend of Dad’s passed away and he (naturally) went to the funeral.

Now I have always considered myself to be a compassionate sort of person, and I (at perhaps 13 years of age) wanted to give my Dad the opportunity to express his feelings on what must surely be quite an upsetting occurrence, so when he got home, I asked him, with great sensitivity, “How was the funeral, Dad?”

To which Dad replied, frowning, “It was a funeral. How do you think it was?”

Undaunted, I persevered: “And…how are you, Dad?”

At this, he stared at me for a moment, then said, “I’m fine. I didn’t die.”

And so ended the heart-to-heart.

So you see, coming up with a meaningful gift appropriate for when one’s father hits a milestone birthday was always going to be a bit tricky.

And maybe it’s just that I don’t know him as well as I should.

When I was a kid, like all kids, I was way too focused on myself and my concerns to pay attention to my parents, and who they actually were. As I got older, I got to know my mother a bit better, because we spent more time together, and anyway, she’s a lot less reserved than my Dad. But Dad and I never really hung out that much, and a lot of the time, we sort of spoke different languages. I knew he loved me, I knew he was proud of me, I knew he felt that way about my sister and my mother too, I knew he liked his job, I knew he cared about his family…important stuff, of course, but not terribly informative.

But he’s been my Dad for almost 40 years. Time to take stock. What do I know about him?

Or maybe, what has he taught me?

Odd question, actually. The lessons I learned from my Dad come from really specific moments throughout my life where he became briefly, startlingly visible to me in ways that extend far beyond the moments themselves.

Moments that became memories, like snapshots. Fleeting, but so, so revealing.

Such as the time when I was 4 or 5 and I had new sandals and we went camping. We had a campsite beside a lake, but on higher ground, so we had to make our way down a rough, rocky  track to get to the water, where there was a short pier.

One night after dinner my sister and I were down on the pier while my parent relaxed by the campfire. For some reason or another, I decided it would be a great idea to jump into the lake, fully clothed, with my shoes on.

Well, the splash brought my Dad, clambering at speed down the rocky track and hurtling to the end of the pier to fish me out of the water. This was well over three decades ago but I still have a very clear picture in my mind of him scrambling down the bank between the trees because his daughter had fallen in the water. I can’t have been in any actual danger, or I wouldn’t have been able to see him coming. I was probably already standing up on the sandy bottom. But I still knew why he was coming so quickly.

He was mad. He was always mad when one of us hurt ourselves. He scooped me out of the water and showed me the rubber soles of my new sandals. “This is waterproof,” he spat at me, disgusted. “Being underwater doesn’t hurt it, it’ll just dry out. You,” he added, really furious, “You are not waterproof. You could drown.”

(I was nowhere close to drowning. I stood in the lake and watched him climb down the slope, for heaven’s sake. I knew better than to point this out.)

I don’t know if I minded his anger at the time, but it hasn’t coloured the memory at all. That memory has only ever meant one thing to me: My father loves me beyond all reason and the idea that something could happen to me terrifies him to the point of fury. (And more, that I can always count on him to come running to the rescue, even when I don’t think I need it.)

Lesson learned.

Or else there was the time, a couple of years later, when we were skiing together. I was still just learning, and quite nervous, so my Dad was leading me carefully down the hill, making a path for me to follow, in full snowplow mode: almost straight across the slope, shaky turn, back across the slope, and another painstaking turn. It must have been excruciatingly dull for him, but I didn’t think about that at the time.

Suddenly, though, on the hillside just above us, another skier had a somewhat dramatic fall and skidded to a stop some meters up the slope.

My Dad stopped, so I stopped too. “Stay here,” he told me hurriedly. He retrieved the woman’s ski, and proceeded to skate/ski back up the hill to bring it to her, and see if she was okay. It was only when he’d returned her ski and seen her safely to her feet that he came back to me, and we continued our plodding, deliberate descent.

We didn’t speak about what he’d done. Nevertheless, my father showed me, though his actions, that when we see that people need help, we help them. It’s our job. Be alert to others, and help whenever possible.

Another lesson learned.

Related to that lesson was the next one. My parents took us to see the a fireworks competition one night when we were in high school. We were allowed to bring a friend. It was fun, but it was late when it was over, and there was a horde of people all making their way to the Metro at the same time.

My friend and I were prattling away, more or less oblivious, when a small mob of rowdy, intoxicated Youths began shoving their way through the crowd. (With an actual boombox on their shoulders, which kids today won’t understand.) They cut through any old way, and in the melee, my friend ended up on the other side of the raft of obstreperous young men.

She probably wasn’t in any actual danger. The kids were noisy, not violent, but of course when a crowd of them are intoxicated at the same time, that can change in a hurry, as my Dad presumably knew much better than I did.

So he pushed right through the middle of those raucous drunken punks, took my friend by the arm, and drew her back through to where the rest of us were waiting.

And while later she agreed that there probably wasn’t much actual risk, she also admitted she was very, very glad when he came to get her.

And of course he went to get her. He was responsible for her. And when we are responsible for others, we take that responsibility very, very seriously. When people are in our care, we take care of them.

Yet another lesson learned.

Finally, what about those weeks and months where I was…obsessed is the wrong word, but certainly focused…with my cleavage. And vocal about it.

I was maybe 17 at the time, and up to then I’d been quite a heavyset kid, much more so than I am even today. But I’d recently discovered that there were different ways of being attractive, and that a plump body was not at all off-putting to some people, particularly when paired with an ample bosom.

(I just used the word bosom unironically. I must really be getting old.)

So I was deliberately choosing clothes that set off my assets to what I considered to be their best advantage (which was probably still quite modest by most people’s standards) and saying so. Often. Probably (knowing me) quite loudly. My father would have had to be stone deaf not to hear it, as would anyone else who lived with me.

Then I remember one night, we were all going out to dinner. Was it to celebrate my graduation? Maybe. We were dressing up, like it was a Big Deal, so that might have been it.

I dressed nicely. I think I even remember what I was wearing at the time. (And keep in mind when reading all these memories, too, that I am the mother of two boys and I’ll be 40 this year and I forget whole conversations I had this morning so if I remember these things it’s because they made an Impression, okay?)

Anyway, when I emerged from wherever and we were ready to go, my Dad took a good look at me and said, “You look beautiful.” Then, after a brief pause, he added, “With or without cleavage.”

Which, in Dad, means, “You have value regardless of your physical attractiveness, and that’s what I love about you.”

It was not a joke, or a jibe, although I think my mother might have thought it was. And fair enough, too, because there was always a lot of banter flying around in our house in all directions, so if you weren’t looking too closely at his face, or if you were distracted from picking up nuances of tone, you might well have taken his words as a meaningless quip, and overlooked them.

But they weren’t meaningless. And I speak Dad, sometimes, if I concentrate. You have value, he said. And it’s not in how you look to others.

It’s taken me a long time to learn that particular lesson completely, but it certainly meant the world that my Dad was one of the first to try to teach it to me.

Beyond these moments, these snapshot memories, of course there are years and years worth of Dad providing support and opportunities. There are the big milestones, like weddings, where he blinked back tears while walking us down the aisle, and again (and again) while giving his speeches, or dancing with us. There are also the smaller pleasures, like the same Dad jokes at Christmas (“Is it bigger than a breadbox?”) or birthdays (“Is it argyle socks?”), or any other time (“Don’t let your mother mash the potatoes!”). And now there are the jokes he made when my sister and I were little, brought out again and dusted off for use with my kids, and they’re exactly as funny as ever.

There’s the softness that is in him, too. With his grandkids, yes, but with his daughters as well, and even with his wife (although they both hide that softness under a convincing veneer of wisecracks and exasperation). He knows what he has, I think.

It’s not a bad accounting: 70 years old, and living comfortably, and generally healthy. 45 years married to a person of integrity, who continues to be an unflagging partner in all aspects of their life. Two healthy daughters, who have also chosen good partners, because we always knew what respect feels like, because we always got it from him. People woven into all aspects of his life who think of him with warmth and view him with admiration.

The life he is enjoying is due—of course—to a great deal of incredible good fortune, true, but it is also due to his own hard work, his own generous heart, and his own unstinting faithfulness to his family and to his chosen path. And he’s taught me the value of doing the same in my life, through a few blink-and-you-miss-’em words and a lifetime of example.

I guess I do know him.

Happy birthday, Dad.

Babes in Love

I’ve been thinking about the way we treat kids when they do grownup things. Which they do all the time, because they’re practicing to be grownups. Or, to put it another way, grownup things are human things, and kids are humans. They just haven’t been doing it for as long as we have, and they’re smaller than we are.

Take relationships, for example. Romantic ones. You’ll tell me, quite correctly, that little kids don’t have romantic relationships. But romantic relationships are a pretty huge part of the human experience – how could a kid not realize that? From movies and TV and stories and real life and the fact that the friendly, affable neighbour started asking my son about his girlfriend when he was six.

Now, my current romantic relationship is, along with my children, the primary focus of my life. I’ve been in it since I was twenty-three years old and I fully intend to stay in it for life. It’s important. This has not escaped my children’s notice.

My husband and I have supported each other through an impressive array of life changes and family challenges, and we’ve followed each other to five different cities in three different countries in order to stay together. We do a lot of work on our relationship, to keep it honest and respectful, and to model for our kids what a positive, supportive and loving relationship can look like.

We do this because, if we thought about it (which we have), we know that having such a relationship can go a long way towards creating a happy, fulfilled life. Which is what we want for our kids.

All adults know this, surely. It’s not that you can’t have a happy life without a good partner, it’s just that statistically, you have a better chance with one.

Also, we think about relationships and love all the time. We sing about them, we read books and stories about them, they’re all throughout our movies, our TV shows, our gossip. Relationships and love are very, very important parts of human experience. Possibly, arguably, the most important.

Bad relationships are particularly destructive. They erode our self-worth and damage our confidence. They affect how we relate to everyone and everything in our lives. They affect our integrity, of body, mind and soul. They cause emotional and possibly physical injury. They can kill us.

Yet, when kids start developing their own feelings in that direction, we laugh at them, and give them terrifyingly little help.

We do. We go all lovey-eyed and smile in that stupid, embarrassing way, and our voices go all sing-song, and we say, “Awwwww, that’s so cute.

As if that helps them handle these feelings in any way.

As if the kid who has just confessed his crush has no sense of his own dignity. As if his heart – and his confidences – are not to be taken seriously. As if one of the biggest feelings he’s experienced in all of his seven years of life can be reduced and confined to a little red box with flowers on it marked “Cute” in pink bubble letters.

As if he hasn’t just handed us a precious gift by letting us know the feelings of his heart and trusting us to show him how to accommodate them.

Or she, obviously.

What are we teaching kids about love? When our small children start having crushes on people, and we let them know as quickly as possible that these feelings are a bit ridiculous, adorably inane, something of an embarrassing joke? Rather than something to be addressed with the serious consideration of one’s whole heart, whatever size that heart may be.

And then they hit adolescence and make all kinds of really cringe-worthy choices about whom to be with, and how to treat them, and how lightly to enter relationships, and leave them.

And they don’t discuss these choices with us at all, and we can’t understand why.


A year or two ago, I attended a talk for teachers given by Johnny Issaluk, an athlete and leader from Canada’s North. His Inuit upbringing, and that of his children, was about as different from mine, and my children’s, as you can imagine. He made quite an impression on me.

He told the story of how he shot his first caribou when he was five, and his son shot his when he was seven. I had a five-year-old at the time, into whose hands I would never, ever consider placing a hunting rifle, and afterwards I asked him about that.

After my preamble about my own son, I said, “So what has to happen between birth and age five such that it becomes conceivable to give a kid a gun and point him at a caribou?”

He explained that children in his society are not kept separate from the “real” stuff that the adults do. From the time they’re born, they see hunters preparing to hunt, and handling and maintaining their weapons. They see hunters coming home with their kills, and they see the process of taking the animal carcass and turning it into all manner of useful things. None of this is hidden from them.

Also, he added, if a small child tries to pick up a tool or a weapon and use it the way an adult does, the child is not patronized and told how cute and funny he is. Instead, he is shown the correct way to handle the tool, and how to do it safely, and given something useful to do with it.

That way, when it is time for him to do these things “for real”, he is ready, and he knows how serious it is, because he has been taken seriously all his life.

Or she, hopefully.


Back to love, then. Do I need do draw out the parallels? Simply put, if we want our kids to learn how to handle their relationships safely, we need to take them seriously when they start trying to have them.

So that when my son, at seven, tells me he has a crush on a girl in his class, I have to fight the temptation to melt on the spot and go all googly-eyed, and instead I calmly tell him that those feelings are pretty special, and thank him for telling me.

And when my other son, at five, tells me consistently that he already knows who he’s going to marry, and it’s the girl with the cubby next to his at school, I make sure not to tease him, and instead agree that she seems like a pretty cool girl.

(And if I can see a potential future complication for him between the nice girl he says he’s going to marry, and the boy with the cubby opposite he says is his boyfriend, well, I will help him sort through that when the time comes.)

And when a thirteen-year-old at school comes to me in tears over a boy, and apologizes for it, because, as she says, “I know it’s stupid to cry over boys,” I quickly correct her, and say, no, that stuff hurts, and if it hurts, you can cry. (Though I did suggest that it might not hurt for as long as she was worried it might.)(I gave it the weekend.)(She came back later and told me it had only lasted till Saturday.)

It’s hard, of course. I remember those days, and those feelings. It seems like a golden age now, when nothing was too real for too long. It’s tempting to laugh, and pat them on the head, and giggle, and in a dozen small ways let them know that their feelings are not really as important as they think they are.

But we know – don’t we? – that love, handled wrong, can be at least as destructive as a loaded hunting rifle. And yet we laugh at children learning to love, and tell them it will all look different when they’re older, and mainly leave them to work it out on their own.

All I’m saying is, if they’re picking up those feelings and trying them out, it’s our job to take them seriously, to show them – if we can – a safe(r) way to handle them, so that when they go to do it “for real”, they are ready.

Or at least they know that we’ll be here for them if they’re not.

School’s Out

It’s summer, and I’m off until September, and that is deeply, deeply wonderful. The end of a school year is an odd time. One the one hand, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and I just want to hold on and get through the days  until I actually have some time to myself to think and recuperate and just pause before it all starts up again. On the other hand, I look at the faces of the kids in my room, and I think, this is it. Anything I was hoping to impart to these people, any impact I was hoping to make on their lives, if I haven’t done it already, it’s just about too late. Quick! Inspire them! Affect them! Motivate them. Do it NOW, before it’s too late. Because in another twelve school days, you’ll have missed your chance.

Being a teacher, of course, I get another chance. I get a whole new cohort of eager young minds (I mean that mostly unironically) to work with in September. They, too, will stay with me for ten months, and we’ll get to know each other. Some days I’ll make them work at their French, and challenge them, and push them to do better. Other days I’ll allow them to distract me into telling them stories about my kids, or my mis-spent youth (usually to encourage them to mis-spend theirs in the same way), or pulling down the world map and answering their random questions about world history or languages or culture, because I find that stuff fascinating and when they get me jumping up and down about it, they’ll feel like they’re cheating the system by learning stuff that’s not in the curriculum, like they’re getting away with something, and they’ll feel very clever to have managed it.

So yes, If I miss the mark with this bunch, I’ll get another bunch to work with, and I will get the chance to engage with them and – who knows – do them some small amount of good.

Or perhaps I won’t. They might not be that sort of group. They might sit quietly and conjugate their verbs, and memorize their vocabulary lists, and work away at their projects (writing, diligent and ungrammatical, or spectacularly advanced direct from Google Translate – I’ll just copy it, she’ll never know –  and halting, painfully accented oral presentations)  until June, and we won’t really connect. They might never ask me a question that sends me off on a tangent. They might never misbehave in a thoughtless way that gives us the chance as a class to talk about character and integrity. They might never bring me a problem or a conflict or need me for anything other than a 45-minute French class. And if they don’t, all I will have taught them by next June will be noun/adjective agreement, a smattering of quebecois culture,  and a few irregular verbs.

So this class, these kids, they might really be my last chance. And there are only nine more days of school. And then eight, and then there’s a trip, so only six, and then there’s a fun day and an assembly and a talent show, and what with one thing and another, it’s the last day of school. (And HURRAY!! It’s the last day of school!!! And OH NO!! It’s the last day of school!)

And really, that mental countdown ought to start in September. I have one hundred and ninety-four days to accomplish whatever I am going to accomplish with these particular kids before sending them on down the line. But the feeling  is much more acute in June. I don’t know if that’s human nature, or just my nature.

And now here it is, summer holidays. I said goodbye to the kids I taught this year, with hugs and hand-lettered cards, and by next November they’ll see me in the hall and ask if I remember their name. (There are always a few who ask this. I wonder – after they spent a year in my class, in my care, even if ‘only’ for French, do they really think they’re so forgettable?) Maybe they’ll join one of the clubs I run. Maybe we’ll end up on a trip together. When they graduate from Middle School in two more years, I’ll go to the ceremony.  And that will largely be it. I will get more kids, but those kids will be gone.

No more melancholy! It’s summer! I am free! My kids are in camp this week, so I am at liberty to blog in a coffee shop after my trip to the gym. And as for the kids I waved goodbye to, I think I did okay. I don’t think I did them any actual harm, and may have taught them a thing or two. About French, maybe, or about kindness. Either would be fine. And I’ll do okay with the next lot, too. It’s just hard to avoid this kind of momentous thinking sometimes. I know I’ll get a lot of chances, but I only get one chance per kid, and I never want to miss it.

Happy Mother’s Day

I negotiated two Mother’s Day ‘gifts’ for myself today, and they did not include a card or flowers. I did get a card (made by my four-year-old at his babysitter’s) and some flowers (3 stacks of painted packing peanuts stuck on coffee stirrers and tied with a ribbon), and my cockles were suitably warmed by both of them, but they were not what I required for Mother’s Day.

No, I got what I wanted. First, I told my kids that they were not allowed to come and wake me up, that I would decide when to get out of bed. Furthermore, to my youngest in particular, that he was not allowed to decide to wake up his brother instead, since said brother would then start to howl and I would still be required to get out of bed. Instead, they were to stay in bed, or if they couldn’t, they were to go downstairs on their own, make breakfast, get out the lego, watch TV, whatever they wanted to do was ok with me, as long as I did not have to be involved in it.

Astonishingly, they managed it. I got to sleep in until eight o’clock. And then I got up on my own and had a shower and no one yelled “Mom” the entire time. And this was completely down to my kids deciding not to bother me, because my husband was still snoring when I got out of the shower.

The my husband rolled out of bed and had his own shower, and I sliced up some fruit to throw at the kids while we waited for him to come out and make breakfast, because he had gone up to the shops last night and came home with greek yogurt, blueberries, fresh croissants, cranberry compote and a wedge of brie for my breakfast. Of course the kids wouldn’t touch the brie or the compote, but they ripped into the croissants and blueberries, and left the more civilized fare for the grown-ups. Fine by me.

I hadn’t asked for the breakfast, but I was very glad of it. 350 days out of 365, if food appears on the table it’s because I put it there. When someone else does it, whatever they slap on the table is automatically delicious, because I didn’t have to make it. When someone else does it AND makes an effort for it to be lovely, it is impossible to overstate how much I appreciate that.

After breakfast, things fell apart a little. I attempted to weed the lawn (I have a special gadget for grubbing out dandelions), unload the dishwasher, do some laundry, and call my mother, but I had to stop because:

  • “Mom!” My six-year-old wanted to use his Star Wars volcano and needed to know where the vingear was;
  • “MOM!” My four-year-old threw a snow brush at his brother, who was now screaming;
  • “Hey Mom!” I had to go inside to look at the shuttle launcher my oldest had made out of three unrelated toys;
  • “Mama, help!” I had to go pull my youngest down from the fence he’d suddenly forgotten how to climb;
  • “Don’t look at me, Mama.” I had to go see why he didn’t want me to look, and boy, was I glad I did.

Because my husband, having made me breakfast, considered his job done and had retired to the basement, where (he reasoned) anyone could have found him if they’d gone looking for him, but why would they go looking when their mother was right there?

This led me to ask for the next part of my present: Two hours by myself, with my laptop, in a café with wifi. And here I am. And it’s bliss.

Being a mother means that I’m the one they need, first and last and above all others. And on the whole, that’s wonderful. I want them to need me. Here are these two beautiful boys, who will, God willing, become beautiful men, and if I try really hard every day not to mess things up, those beautiful men will still love me when they’re grown up, and I will get to be in their lives whatever they decide their lives should look like, and (again, all going well) I will have them and the people they love enriching my life until my very last breath. And that is the prize worth any investment, any number of imperious shouts (“MOM!”) and interrupted tasks now, for these brief years when they are small. I believe this. I know this. You don’t get to reap rewards like that without a significant effort early on. That’s the deal.

But right now, in this moment, no one is calling me. Everyone who needs feeding is getting fed by someone else, and any fights that need refereeing are being refereed by someone else, and I will start and finish a piece of writing, and a cup of coffee, and pack up when I am ready. I am not needed, not right now. And it’s the best gift I could have asked for.