Since retiring from teaching a few years back, I’ve been supply teaching here and there. It used to be in the local school board that retired teachers weren’t allowed to come back as supply teachers, but now there is a shortage of occasional teachers and they’ve opened the door to us. I suspect the shortage has something to do with Teachers College becoming a two-year program (and that’s after getting a four-year university degree), but I also think that teaching is not a profession that has the same appeal to young graduates that it once had. It is a challenging profession and becomes increasingly more so as the years pass.
It’s nothing new that provincial governments have repeatedly led an uninformed public in a campaign to vilify teachers and our education system in general. Whenever the word “cutbacks” comes up in government, Education and Health Care are the first targets. Never mind that our existing prison system is three times more draining on the coffers than either Education or Health Care. Politicians like to promise a “crackdown” on crime to secure votes, never mind that crime rates have never been lower. This is a subject for another time.
It’s not that I don’t agree that money allocated towards education can’t be used more effectively and efficiently. It never seems, though, that the higher-ups can think about working within the existing parameters of the system. They have to get out their axes and start chopping.
Politicians and other people who have no direct association with our education system in Ontario are unable to realize or comprehend the reality of the needs of the many struggling children we have in our schools in the present day. This has been written about time and time again and I won’t go into all of the challenges education workers face in trying to meet the needs of students while working within the limitations of the system. But when Ontario’s Premiere, Doug Ford, complains about the state of education and uses the example of kids no longer knowing their times tables, it makes my heart sink to realize how out of touch this government is.
I was working in an FDK (Full Day Kindergarten) class recently and while I was outside with the children, a plastic bowling set ended up becoming my microcosmic vision of education in Ontario.
I noticed the bowling set in the back of the storage shed where the outdoor learning materials are kept. I brought it out and started setting up the pins and instantly, an enthused crowd of bowlers gathered. (If there’s one thing a kindergarten crowd has mastered by April of the school year, it’s how to line up). I showed the students the painted line we’d be working from and they made a nice line behind it. There they stood, ever so patiently, while I explained the goal (roll the ball towards the pins and try to knock them over). I told them they would get one roll and then they’d have to go to the end of the line for another turn. This way, everyone in the line would get a turn before it was time to tidy up. And maybe, even a lot of turns if everyone cooperated. Everyone nodded and smiled.
As I finished the short bowling lesson and going over the rules, a little boy came trotting excitedly over. A wonderful, clever little boy with severe autism and significant challenges with communication. Those beautiful, multi-coloured pins were delightful to behold and utterly irresistible. He sailed over and leveled every pin with a happy kick.
Okay, no problem. The children waited in the line for me to set the pins up again. Keeping an eye on my happy little pin-kicker, I handed the plastic bowling ball to the first person in the line. She got a few pins down and I applauded her accuracy and sent her to the end of the line. As I was handing a ball to the next student, another little guy ambled over. He walked in front of the pins and apparently became completely overwhelmed with exhaustion. He plunked down on the pavement. “Move, please move!” the line called. He looked at them with a confused face, obviously not understanding a single word they were saying. I went over and said, “Hey, there. You’re in the way of the game. Can you please move?” He gave me a blank look and smiled. And then the happy little pin-kicker came in from behind and got another strike with the tip of his shoe. I took the sitting boy by the hand and led him out of the way. Set up the pins again. A few more of the kids in the line got turns to roll the ball. Some of them missed. I consoled them with promises of another try later. Along came another boy. This one wanted to help me by setting up the downed pins and throwing the plastic balls back to me. Great! I thought. (At first.) This will make things move a little faster and more kids will get turns.
At first, my little helper thought it was funny to over-throw the balls and make me run after them. I was supplying, so I didn’t know the kids. So I assumed the best. But I started to have suspicions when it kept happening, even after I’d chatted with him about it. My suspicions were completely confirmed when he clutched both the plastic bowling balls to his chest and refused to throw them to me at all.
The children in the line waited patiently while I chatted with the boy about listening to the teacher and appropriate behaviour and playing respectfully and sharing. The game finally resumed. I think everyone got a turn. I hope they did. But it was time to line up for dismissal. The line dispersed and a few kids helped to tidy up the game.
It’s not the challenges of bowling with the students that I am thinking about with a bit of sadness and frustration. It’s the thought of all those kids in the line, doing exactly what they were supposed to be doing, waiting patiently. Settling for a couple rolls of the ball, when they were lucky enough to get them. Happy to get what they could get.
That’s what happens, a lot. The system is flooded with special needs and challenges—and I’m all for integration. But those kids aren’t given enough support in the mainstream. The bowling game is just a minor example of what’s wrong with the system. Bigger examples would include everyone in the class evacuating the room because a student is trashing the classroom. An Educational Assistant having to leave students unsupported because she’s been punched in the face and has to get checked at the ER. A Learning Support teacher abandoning his visit to support students in a classroom because there’s a six-year-old who’s stripped off all his clothes and is screaming naked on a table in the Conference Room. These are all things that I have seen. If your kid in this system is fortunate enough not to have intellectual or behavioural challenges, he or she is going to have the challenge of losing instructional time when things like this happen. Because one teacher can only do so much. And Educational Assistants are spread incredibly thin between several students who need support.
So think about bowling when the government starts decrying the state of a system where kids don’t know their times tables any more and what are these overpaid teachers doing with your tax dollars? I can’t even begin to imagine what this shredded cloth is going to look like when they start hacking at it again.
If you would like to read more by me, I hope you will check out my book Corners now available to order in print and as an eBook!