Living in the moment

After seeing many of my peers last night, I was reminded of the work done in education everyday. Hard but rewarding work, done by people with dedication to the success of students.

Don’t let anyone make you believe it’s all about the money.

writing in the (mom)ent

“What day is it?”
“It’s today,” squeaked Piglet.
“My favorite day,” said Pooh.

Betty Ford Botanical Gardens, Vail, Colorado

Yesterday really was a “favourite” day.

In working with students with autism, we often need to build a student’s repertoire of language by scaffolding skills. We use visual symbols and, if the student is verbal, teach them the corresponding words as we show them what the symbols and words mean. For instance, when we show them the visual for “dry hands”, we do the activity. Sometimes, we have multiple steps for activities (taking off winter clothes can involve a ridiculous amount of symbols/words!). The process is long, but over time, it is hoped that the student may themselves either point to the visual symbol to request an item/activity, or they may use the words alone.

I have been working with a particular student for 4 months on requesting preferred activities, such as…

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Working in education is hard, hard, hard work. As much as I have always pushed back when people say it, it does take something strong within each person to work in education and, in my experience, with students with special needs. In that work, we can literally go months doing the same activity over and over and over again, hoping that today will be the day that a student responds.

I find it remarkable to watch an educator work with a student who may have been considered uncontrollable and over time, see that child become comfortable and calm, able to participate in classroom activities. By building in predictability to their day. By building predictability into how they are treated. By having someone caring so deeply about student success that they never, ever give up on that child.

Twelve years ago, something happened that shaped and defined how I did my work going forward.

I did my practicum in a medically fragile room, with a teacher who is one of the most gifted educators and profoundly compassionate people I have ever met. In the class was a student who did not speak or give any ‘traditional’ indication that she was aware of her environment. And yet, she occasionally displayed obvious discomfort, though the source was unclear. I kept looking for ways in which to connect with her and ease her pain. I asked the teacher for guidance. She told me to not try so hard; the student could sense my anxiety and it would add to her own. Just relax and get to know the student through observation and trial and error. Over the next weeks, I tried to follow that advice. And then, it happened. I had taken off the student’s shoe, trying to see if her discomfort was due to a wrinkle in her sock, too tight shoes or her orthotic being misaligned. As I put back on her sock, I noticed her feet were ice-cold, so I rubbed them. And almost right away, she stopped crying. She became very still. The difference in her was obvious. After that, whenever she became upset, I tried rubbing her feet first. Mostly, it worked. (That’s another thing about this work – sometimes things work, sometimes, well, not so much.) When it did not work, I tried other things, gentle things, things that let her know that I wanted her to feel better. To feel cared about.

Education means listening to your student, with your ears and your eyes – but most importantly, you do have to listen with your heart. And be prepared to have it broken.

To be in education, you have to be able to be vulnerable yourself. You have to be a fierce defender. You have to believe that what you do is important. It is about the students and helping them be successful. Helping them understand that you are in it for the long haul. That they matter to you.

I have been really fortunate. I have worked with people, incredibly gifted educators, who provided an example of how to do the job of education, about how to care, about how to get up when you have (literally and figuratively) been knocked down. I am always overwhelmed at the depth and breadth of the skills and the caring and compassion that exists in schools. I am moved by how hard people work, even when they are hurt or tired or dealing with other challenges in their lives. To those people, students matter. Every single day.

For every rewarding experience, there has been hundreds and hundreds of hours of hard work to get there. I am grateful to those people who put in the time and the effort. Every. Single. Day.


High-quality public services

Recently the Ontario “Sunshine List”, the list of public employees who made over $100,000 a year, came out.

Premier Kathleen Wynne, defending the list, pointed out that the “government must pay for high-quality public services”.

I could not agree with her more.

Wynne goes on to say that “many of the people on the list have been working…..for many, many years and are experienced people and we need to have that level of expertise”.

Again, I’m with you, Premier Wynne.

The most experienced people working in my employee group have 33 years experience.

Their salary is, at best, 1/16th of the salary of the head of Hydro One ($728,570) who has 25 years experience in his field.

The people in the field of special education and early childhood education have considerable expertise and are delivering high-quality services.

We live in a society that equates the importance of your work – the value of the “high-quality service” you provide – to the salary you receive. So, when you hear that education workers are money grabbing, think again; understand that they are not shooting for the moon; they most definitely are not asking for 16 times their current salaries. They are asking for a fair wage for their delivery of “high-quality services”.

Educational assistants, child and youth workers and early childhood educators work with the future of Ontario: children.

In my world, that’s an extremely high-quality public service.

Reality check

To the Government of Ontario, and Minister of Education Liz Sandals specifically:

Here we are again – the government and the education sector, butting up against one another and about to get into a media frenzy where those working in education will be made out as money grabbing and you, our elected representatives, will not only feed that frenzy, but you will try to come out as good leaders, trying to hold the fiscal spending line. I am writing to firstly call BS on that line and secondly to provide a bit of a reality check.

When it comes to fiscal restraint, I can assure you that my peers, educational assistants/child and youth workers/early childhood educators, we ARE experts. We have been living on salaries that make it an absolute necessity to be good at fiscal restraint. After 12 years as an educational assistant, I am at the top of my pay scale, where I have been for 7 years, where I will remain as long as I stay in the field. Other than a few cost of living increases over the years, I have not moved up in my pay. I take home under $30,000 a year. So, yup, fiscal restraint is a well-worn path for those of us in this line of work. On that salary, I still have been able to find money to purchase supplies for students that are not available within my school. I am not talking crafts supplies or reward stickers: I have purchased books at the appropriate reading and interest level; I have purchased manipulatives – hands on activities to encourage students to learn and grow and change. Every early childhood educator, behavioural or special needs teaching assistant I know have done the same thing. We have done that with a much smaller personal budget than anyone working in the government. We have done that for our students. We need you to start doing more for our students too.

You, on the other hand, my Liberal friends, have not actually been practicing what you preach. This is where I call BS on you constantly saying that cuts in education are needed for fiscal restraint. The people in Ontario have been and will continue to pay for some ridiculous situations that showed anything but fiscal restraint. Air Ornge – $1 billion; cancelled gas plants – $1.1+ billion; money misspending on e-Health ($1 billion spent, much of that unaccounted for)….no need to go on.

And then there are the salaries of Ministers – in 2009, Minister of Education Liz Sandals had a salary of $133,000 + taxable benefits. I appreciate that’s not a take home pay amount, but I am very confident it is more than the $29,333 I took home in 2013.

Imagine that, $29,333. No, I mean it – imagine that.

The billions of dollars misspent would make an incredible difference in the lives of students in Ontario. They would allow for more speech and language support, autism intervenors, equipment within schools. They would allow the early learning programs to remain fully staffed and fully supported with supplies and space to run the programs that you, the government, insisted were needed. That had hundreds and thousands of early childhood educators leave jobs in the private sector to come and be a part of a strong government initiative – and now you are talking about how cuts need to be made to those programs that you insisted were critical to the education of young children. I have worked with some of the most gifted educators in my 12 years in education and in the past few years, I have been fortunate to see the strong impact early childhood educators have made to our kindergarten programs. To pull the funding out from under these programs, these educators, these students – that would be detrimental to the foundations these programs are creating.

What about the senior students, those with learning needs who do not have the depth of programs they need to prepare them for the world beyond the education system? Their programs have been cut and their support diminished because you have underfunded special education for years. And years. And years. These students are capable and want to contribute whatever they can to society – but they need the foundations to do that and they need those programs to last through the end of their final year of school (and beyond).

I have worked in special needs and behaviour since 2003. I value the work of all the members of our education system, but special needs is what I know and therefore the reality of that work is what I can best impress upon you. My peers and I work with the most vulnerable members of the system and of society – children with physical, intellectual and mental health issues. We are the people who, along with the teaching teams, deliver education to students who need more – perhaps it’s personal care, or curriculum support or behaviour management. Everyday, members of my employee group are faced with unimaginable stress and incredible types of successes.

Let me focus on the stress aspects: We feed students who cannot do it themselves. We change diapers, clothing and sanitary pads, often lifting students the size of grown men and women. We can be kicked, pinched, punched, scratched, spit on, urinated on, have feces or furniture or pretty much anything thrown at us. I have worn protective gear to minimize the chances of injury, which makes it harder to move around. In addition to this physical abuse, we also can be subjected to verbal abuse. Personally, I have had all of these things happen to me, including being hit so hard in the face that I fell to the ground, momentarily unconscious. I have visited the emergency department of my local hospital on more than one occasion for myself, in addition to accompanying students with seizures and other medical conditions.

When I get hurt DUE TO DOING MY JOB, I think it is reasonable that I will be allowed an appropriate amount of time to heal, according to doctor’s recommendations, should that injury include being away from work. In order to ensure that I can do that without jeopardizing my financial health, I banked my sick days. You took away those sick days in 2012. I was injured at work in 2014 and once my WSIB and benefits ran out, I paid for my own physio. I used up all my sick days for appointments and had to take reduced pay sick days. Even though I had saved up six months of sick days prior to the last contract negotiations, they were not available to me. Once again, I paid out of my pocket to do my job. So, when you make claims in the media that it’s about the money, you are right. It’s about being compensated for the work I do and for the injuries I sustain doing that work. If I were trying to raise a family on that salary alone, or even living on my salary alone, unpaid sick days DUE TO AN INJURY AT WORK would devastate me.

And guess what? When I am dealing with out of control students, or otherwise doing my job, you know who is standing right next to me? The teaching staff. Early childhood educators. Other teaching assistants. My principal. We all are at risk every day and need to know that we can do our job and have support to help us if we get hurt DOING OUR JOB.

Walk a mile in my shoes. You would love aspects of your job. And you would be devastated that your government undermines you on a personal level and on a professional level. You would be devastated to see amazing students not get the chance to succeed because your government felt it was important to support projects that got votes over supporting students.

And that, no matter how you spin it, is the reality. Your government has chosen other priorities in front of the future of Ontario: children and the people who are educating and shaping them every single day.

Stop taking a bird’s-eye view of education. Don’t stop by for a photo-op, or read a quick story with a bunch of students. Really find out what is going on in education, how schools are still somehow succeeding to support students without sufficient funds, but also find out how much more could be done if your government would focus on what really matters.

Get real. And think about the reality of the lives of education workers in Ontario.

Most importantly, think about the reality of the lives of students. You are robbing the future to pay for the past.

Paula Turner