letter to Education Minister

Minister Lecce,

As your government is in the midst of the beginning stages of negotiations with education groups across the province, I implore you to not take your fight to media. I implore you to research and get a thorough understanding the roles and realities of education in Ontario.

By taking your fight to the media, you are working to destroy relationships and skew perceptions. There are people who believe everything the government says simply because you are the government. With that comes great responsibility. Do not take it lightly. Remember, your role is to fund and support a system with one goal: EDUCATE CHILDREN.

When you vilify teachers, you vilify the entire system. To many, teachers are education. And that’s okay – if you treat them with respect. But your predecessors and most certainly your leader has made teachers (and therefore everyone in the system) out to be money grubbing, uncaring, pampered people.

They are not. The jobs within education are too hard to do if it’s only about the money. People in education do the work because they want to EDUCATE CHILDREN.

To all those who doubt, I ask one simple question: have you done the job? Have you done a thorough set of research to increase your true understanding the job? Teachers and people within education want to do their jobs: EDUCATE CHILDREN.

And, surprise, there are so many more people in the system than teachers. Teachers do not solely educate children – they are supported by administrators, custodial staff, psychologists and speech therapists, teaching assistants, secretarial staff – the list goes on and on. By attacking teachers, you are attempting to divide these education groups to be an elitist group (teachers) and others – you are making it so that people within the system have to choose sides when they are all meant to work as a team to do one thing well: EDUCATE CHILDREN.

Your leader has also placed a wedge firmly between the education system and parents. A good example is a recent announcement. Rather than providing full support to the system to implement the new health curriculum, to encourage dialogue, your government has stated that parents can opt out. Not enter into discussions about the importance of educating young people about the critical topics within the curriculum but opt out. In a public system, there are expectations to complete all the curriculum. There is a place for accommodations, but not an outright opting out. You are creating a wedge – again – forcing people to choose sides, rather than supporting relationship building so that parents and the education system can meet the one goal: EDUCATE CHILDREN.

I recently left education after more than 15 years – I was a teaching assistant working the most vulnerable students. These students had physical and cognitive disabilities. They had behavioural difficulties – they all needed help to be part of the system. They needed significant supports to be successful and part of the educational community. Over the past many years, funding has changed the way teaching assistants support students. No longer can we take the time to support students and teachers in the previously meaningful ways to ensure that all students can reach their potentials. Funding meant that we were only able to support students in two key areas: personal care and personal safety (theirs and others).

Basically, they are there to toilet, transfer, and help with mobility. Teaching assistants ensure that students do not harm themselves or others, including running away from classroom situations which are beyond their abilities to engage in. Children who act out are the responsibility of classroom teachers/DECEs and teaching assistants but helping them learn to cope and learning skills to better manage their reactions to stresses on their abilities? That task, which used to also fall within the purview of teaching assistants, is no longer an expectation because there is not enough time, not enough funding. There are some teaching assistants who only have time to toilet all the children in the school and then start again – toileting all the children in the school.

So, the relationships with students suffer. Teaching Assistants no longer get to build the relationship necessary to get a student to trust, learn and be successful. The teaching assistants are so busy doing the tasks of personal care and personal safety – they can’t be part of the classroom in the meaningful way that students need. And these people – good people, people interested in EDUCATING CHILDREN – have so much to offer students. Don’t dismiss them any longer.

In the upcoming negotiations, remember Teaching Assistants. They are the ones doing the work that supports vulnerable students in very important but challenging areas: personal care and personal safety. Remember that they deal with violence and injury at a higher rate than other employee groups. Remember that currently a large majority of Teaching Assistants need two or more jobs to make ends meet because their salaries are not sufficient to keep up with rising costs or even the current cost of living. Talk to these frontline workers: you would not believe the levels of stress and injury that are currently being experienced. Because if you did, you could not, in all good conscience, continue to underfund these roles.

There are not enough people to meet all the needs of all of the children when it comes to ensuring they can access education, whatever that access looks like. Children with special needs are children within your community – they are children who deserve what all children deserve. An education. A meaningful education. Not a peripheral view of the system, but a meaningful engagement with education. They are not one size fits all. They are not all able to access it within the same framework as a neurotypical or physically typical child.

By cutting funding, you are cutting access for children. In 2018, the Ontario Human Rights Commission reported:

In a recent survey of parents of students with intellectual disabilities in Ontario, 53.2% of parents surveyed reported that their child was not receiving proper academic accommodations; and 68.2% of parents reported that schools were “meeting half or less than half of their child’s academic needs.” In interviews, parents emphasized “the devastating effects of low expectations and lack of opportunity for engagement.”

Do you know who can assist children to have opportunities for engagement? Teaching Assistants. Do you know whose positions are so woefully underfunded they cannot provide those opportunities? Yup. Teaching Assistants.

The current funding model does not meet the requirements of Section 8 of the Human Rights Code which states:

…education providers have a legal duty to accommodate the needs of students with disabilities who are adversely affected by a requirement, rule or standard. Accommodation is necessary to address barriers in education that would otherwise prevent students with disabilities from having equal opportunities, access and benefits.

Yes, it states education providers have that legal duty. But it is not possible for education providers to do that without the appropriate levels of support from their funding source: the government. Passing the buck is not acceptable. Funding has been cut – and no amount of creative accounting presentation can change the fact that the funding has not kept up with the needs.

So, please. When it comes to the upcoming negotiations, take your responsibility seriously. Do not lay the blame for the system failures at the feet of teachers and/or education workers. Accept responsibility for paying people within the system in a manner to acknowledges their value to their key role: EDUCATING CHILDREN.

And please, please, please – provide appropriate levels of funding and keep funding growing along with the greater demands of students and education in this province.

Paula Turner


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