Context and Meaning

When it comes to literacy there are many documents and studies on the importance of having context and meaning, for the words we are learning to read, and how those aid in our understanding of text but also comprehension as a whole. Context and meaning can be applied to many activities that are requested of children in schools and not just be connected to literacy.

I worked in a class for teenagers with disabilities in a school outside of this province many years ago. Ok…almost 25 years ago. At that time, I was completing my student practicum for the Developmental Service Worker diploma at Humber College.

The teacher was trying to engage his students in cleaning up the classroom. This involved duties like wiping down tables, organizing book shelves and vacuuming the carpet. This one young man was Deaf with a developmental disability. He did not want to push this vibrating machine around the floor, just for the hell of it. Did not.  Sometimes in classrooms when students refuse to follow instructions and complete tasks, behaviour programs come out, from star charts to more intrusive measures. This teacher was very creative. He walked over to the hole punch and removed the base. He scooped up all of the white dots and sprinkled them all over the floor. He took the vacuum and showed that the vacuum was sucking up the white dots and through American Sign Language and modeling explained, cleaning. The student walked over to the vacuum and vacuumed the carpet. He quite enjoyed it and was very satisfied by seeing the success of his work.  His teacher gave the activity, context and meaning.

It doesn’t matter what type of a disability a child has, or whether they communicate this question to teachers or not, I can tell you, that when children are given instructions at school, they are asking themselves, WHY. Why do I need to run 4 laps around the gym? Why do I need to cut this paper?  This overt purposeful planning of added communication, in my mind, doesn’t happen enough with kids with disabilities in schools. People tell them what to do, without explicitly explaining why they are doing it. And I can not scream this loud enough, visual supports are sooooo important. I really value my experience learning from the Deaf community in this context. They do such a great job of visual supports. It’s not viewed as a “crutch” the way some hearing people view it.

Context and meaning.

Next time your child is being viewed as “un-cooperative” at school, you may want to figure out if your child understands WHY they are being asked to follow a specific instruction. It may turn out that your child is not a sheep, and willing to just follow random instructions over and over again without any purpose, just for kicks.

Systemic Impacts of Scarcity in Education

I’d like to bring up the subject of scarcity and the concept of applying the impacts of limited resources in the education system. It could be physical, social, emotional, or mental scarcity.

Limited resources change how people interact and behave at the most primal survival levels. There are already many scholar reports on how scarcity affects decision making and neuropathways.  Scarcity is when there are limited resources and people are not getting what they need.  Animal and human behaviour will change in these environments. When something is scarce, people will put a higher value on it. People will use social capital, aggression, secrecy or whatever strategies they can to obtain those limited resources for their own unfulfilled need. This is evolution and not a personality deficit.

Whittling the education system to bare bones and creating an environment of such limited resources will turn Mary Poppins into Cruella Deville in just a few months. Work environments can become toxic. Communication and information among staff can be used as a source of power.  Confidentiality among staff can be used as a social manipulation tool to build a sense of belonging or exclude.  Subgroups become even more exclusive. People are being set up to fail. It’s not personal. It’s systemic design. Evolutionary instincts will kick in, and not the kind ones. Stress bubbles will burst. People will snap. Children included. Recruiting and retaining quality educators for any length of time, will be challenging. This will have more of an impact on students with disabilities and those in marginalized communities. I repeat. This will have MORE of an impact on students with disabilities and those in marginalized communities.

Understaffing is a form of scarcity. When there aren’t enough people to fill the job duties that are required for functioning, and people need to step over their own job description boundaries to fill in for other people’s work, that has multiple direction points of impact. If it’s chronic, then you’ll see the ripple effects of scarcity.  Work environments will become “unhealthy” and over time people will become very dissatisfied with their work, ultimately pushing them out of the system and creating a deeper wedge in the cycle and it just goes on and on.  Underqualified staff just filling “the body” in the role, is not the solution.  Take a look at the number of job postings for school districts and take a look at the ones that are just continuously on repeat.  The districts are all in the same basket. They are even competing with each other trying to coax staff out of each other cities with advertisements.

School districts are extremely complex human systems. The number of connections and moving parts is overwhelming to me when I try to put this system into a visual representation. It looks like a large spiderweb post wind storm. Not only do I look at all of the individual parts when I look at a system, but it’s the connections and relationships and what is generated out of those connections that also makes my head spin. Now put this very complex system in a situation of scarcity. This has disaster written all over it.

The alarming fact is that the direction the current climate of education in this province is heading, will require people to become even more competitive over the limited resources. Money won’t solve all of society’s problems; however, chronic underfunding is definitely the fuel to this education fire…amongst other things.

Brainstorming exercise:

Let’s list all of the resources that someone seeks in the education system. (I will list a few, but really, I am hoping to encourage the conversation and for people to start making their own lists)

Resources in education. (Staff and students)

  • Social relationships- support, sense of belonging, attention, power, purpose
  • Mental stimulation, communication, information, choice, adequate training, knowledge, context & meaning…blog about context and meaning for students coming in the near future!
  • Physical space, food, water, access to washroom, fresh air, safety…and yes all of this applies to staff too!!
  • Access to tools to complete tasks/goals with success
  • Time to process, time to complete work, alone time, enough sleep – proper work hours (homework or class planning)
  • Currency – (staff) to access resources in their personal life and avoid scarcity

Now take all of those resources to function. Put someone in the situation of abundance. All the time in the world, lots of attention, all the communication and information they need to understand their environment. Now take the minimal of what you need and cut it in half.  Survival mode kicks in. You will have very different people on your hands.

If people have options, they will leave the system. We all have our breaking point.

Who is controlling the resources to this system?

It’s not the school districts. They may be managing…I mean struggling, with the system, but they aren’t the Wizard of Oz at the end of the road. The Ministry of Oz is hiding amongst ambiguous unanswered questions in their huge castle.

Provincial systemic issues, are going to need a provincial intervention approach, and will require a provincial response.  Let’s start with some resources, shall we? Adequate funding please.

The Unpredictability of Public Education

Years ago, this particular school year flipped our lives upside down. Frequent phone calls for assistance to come and pick up my child. It was a year of not sleeping.  Every morning I would organically wake up by 4am.  Off to the gym by 5am, for my alone time. I would walk on the treadmill and cry. That was my coping strategy. I would think about what email to send next, how to approach the next situation, what to communicate to the counsellor, what appointments to still make, who to tell what, wondering if I was missing anything, what should I be planning for? It was constant. My stomach would be on edge every day after school.  My work hours needed to change to accommodate so I could be home to deal, so I started work at 7am, my husband taking the morning shift.  I didn’t see this ever coming to an end. At the end of the school year, I left my employment. The emotional weight and constantly being “ON” at work and at home every waking moment of the day was just too heavy. Something had to give.

The year after, it was a completely different situation. The teacher was skilled.  She used universal design. My child was supported by LSS. Every strategic move she made was all absorbed. Just like that, the phone calls stopped. I started sleeping through the night. No more emotional ripples effects to deal with after school.  I guess I didn’t need to leave work after all…

When proper supports are in place, I can breathe. The grass is greener, the sun is brighter, the air is fresher. We can all just…live.  It’s glorious. I also know, that with every change in teacher and with every school year that goes by, it’s all temporary.  Hoping for those amazing teachers and support staff to be the ones to stay around your child is a daily thought. There are amazing people out there. I have jokingly even let these people know that if they ever need a kidney donation or a blood transfusion to keep my contact info. (I offered my kidney up in a Christmas card one year).  There are also people out there who work in education who…(cough)… “need support”.

Public education is unpredictable. One year your child is supported and the next year they are not. Parents at the end of every school are on the edge of their seats. Questions around what support will look like for next year are being discussed as parents find out which EA’s are moving to different schools or are being cut all together.  One year a child could have an EA with 20 years of experience with a degree, the next year with 2-weeks of a district training program, or no EA at all.  EA’s can change yearly, monthly and for some horrified parents they have had to deal with daily or weekly changes in staff. Riding the roller coaster of public education will make anyone sick.

Unpredictable education supports are stressful. It happens all over the province. It takes a huge toll on parents AND children. I wonder how many parents remove their child from public education, in search for alternatives, for their own mental health, the need to get off the roller coaster, for some level of control and predictability in their own lives. The supports for my child this year have been wonderful. Next year?? Fingers crossed!

Expectations of Parents Behaviour

Why are so many parents losing their shit?

I have heard many people admit that they have sent emotional emails, or that they are labelled as “rude” or a “tense advocate”. I have heard of parents being banned from schools or they have had to pull their child out of their school or even the district because they are viewed as too emotional. When parents admit that they have “lost it”, and sent angry or emotional emails, it’s admitted as if its some shameful act. I will admit that I too have sent my share of emotional emails. So why are so many parents losing their shit?

This is a symptom of a much larger problem. This is what happens when there is no accountability for decisions made from district administration or Boards of Education. It’s when administration have all the power and don’t need to do anything they don’t want to.  It’s when parents are bullied, have fear of retaliation, or are served emotional abuse on a plate with a smile. When there is a fish flapping around and behaving strangely, we all point at the fish and wonder what is wrong with them. No one looks at the pond. Let’s take a look at the pond, shall we?

Parents are legally required to send their child to school.  Parents need to work and fit in daycare schedules to cover their working hours.  Transportation from home to school comes into the decision-making filter and everything needs to fit perfectly. Now let’s say school is turning into a disaster, and as a parent you need to advocate. This is not a minor issue you are dealing with and you feel that your child’s physical or mental health is being severely affected. The stakes are high. This is after all your child.  However, you are being ignored by administration. You are being lied to by administration.  The problem is not being fixed, and they don’t have to do anything about it. They are gaslighting you. You feel you are an ant under a magnified glass and they are just watching you squirm in the sunlight. And. There. Is. Nothing. You. Can. Do. About. It. And now you send an email and lose your shit.

Parents, don’t feel bad. Your reactions are normal and given the situation, one could argue even healthy.  The amount of self-regulation that I have had to go through to send emails to the district, is intense. There are times, I literally need to leave my home to get myself away from a computer. They are getting a fraction of my true feelings and intensity.  It’s normal that one squeaks through, every now and then.  It’s not you. It’s the pond.

Now, you have sent your emotional email. I have heard stories that as part of their strategy, parents have experienced the districts using their emails against them as emotional blackmail.  I have never had this experience, thank goodness. I would snap. I’d think you would see me on the 6 o’clock news looking like I popped out of a zombie movie ranting about the education system. There is a definite abuse of power and toxicity about the lack of protection vulnerable children and families have in the education system.