Sunday, December 30, 2007

Teaching After Retirement?

As mentioned in my last post, I am opposed to retired teachers taking up supply positions, assuming the supply exceeds the demand. What follows is an article I wrote about a year before I retired, stating the reasons for my position. It appeared in a local teacher publication, and the response I got was, shall we say, spirited.

Teacher Retirement

What I am about to write, I know, will not be well-received by many colleagues of my generation, i.e., those who are planning to retire in the near future. Indeed, were it not for the fact that this is my last year of teaching, undoubtedly I would lack the moral authority to assert the following: in my view, doing supply work in retirement, with one notable exception, is wrong, and does a grave disservice to recent graduates in education.

How did I arrive at this conclusion? I’m sure that if we think back to the dawning of our own careers, many of us will see parallels to the situations that new teachers face today: a dearth of opportunities, except in select disciplines, and the very real prospect of having to relocate far from family and friends. That was certainly my experience, and it is not one that I am particularly keen to see young people face today.

Since stable employment eluded me in Ontario, I moved to and taught in Manitoba for many years, returning in 1988, one of the most compelling reasons being that my wife and I did not want our children growing up with almost no contact with their grandparents and other extended family members. It was only after toiling in supply work that I was able to secure full-time employment as teachers, especially department heads, got to know me and my work; as well, I was able to see the job postings in staff rooms, thereby giving me an edge over outside applicants.

Today, our young people are being denied such opportunities. When was the last time a new teacher did supply work in your school? It has been more than two years at my place of employment. To remedy this situation clearly will require retiring teachers to adopt a new perspective and be prepared to make sacrifices. Certainly, I know many anticipating retirement who say they will need the money that supply work pays to augment their pensions. My response to that is simple: either defer your retirement, be prepared to live a little more modestly, or begin a second career. Do not fall into a comforting rationalization about how students will be especially well-served because of your vast experience. The bald truth is that the vast majority of supply work entails babysitting or monitoring, not actual teaching. Nor should you feel that you somehow deserve to teach after retirement because you have paid your dues. What would make any of us think we are owed anything by the system?

I mentioned at the outset that there really is only one exception to the opinion I have expressed. That is when a teacher, either through maternity leave or illness, will be off the job for the remainder of a semester. Assuming the illness or leave occurs sometime after the semester has begun, it is, I believe, highly desirable to have an experienced (presumably recently retired) teacher assume duties to ensure continuity in the classroom. It would simply be too difficult for most new teachers to master the curriculum in a short time and provide that continuity. Indeed, last year at my school two of my former colleagues, whom I hold in very high esteem, did exactly that, and the students were indeed well-served by their conscientious professionalism.

The sentiments I’ve expressed in this article will undoubtedly strike some as either harsh or cold-hearted. I think they are neither. It is only when we admit to ourselves that we’ve had a pretty good run that we can begin to recognize it is time to yield to the younger generation who, once they attain full-time employment, undoubtedly will acquit themselves in the job with honour and vigor, just as we did when we started out, so long ago.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Search for Meaning

They say that when people reach a certain stage in life, they look for things to make their lives meaningful. Throughout my years as a teacher, that search for meaning eluded me, partly because the job both haunted and consumed me, leaving little time for engagement with the larger world, and partly due to my belief that whatever I accomplished in the classroom had less to do with me and more to do with the innate talents and discipline of my students. Now into the second year of my retirement, I find both my interests and the focus of this blog diverging from its initial purpose of offering observations and commentary about education and moving into areas of which I feel an educated person should be aware. You might say that I am now trying to reengage with the larger world.

To that end, I suspect that more of my entries henceforth will be eclectic in nature, reflective of this search for meaning, although I have no intention of allowing them to devolve into maudlin self-indulgence. (I’ll leave that to people like Shelagh Rogers and her execrable program on C.B.C. radio, Sounds Like Canada.) To mark this shift, I would like to begin a series on how we, as individuals, through either acts of omission or commission, can have a positive impact on the world. The first act relates to retired teachers.

While I realize the situation varies tremendously depending upon where you live, in my school board, there are many retired teachers who do supply teaching and take long term occasional positions. The problem with this is that it deprives a large number of young people the opportunity of working and making themselves known to administrators. One young man I know, for example, who had worked for about three years on contract at my school, is now on the supply list but gets called an average of once or twice a month, while many retired teachers drawing healthy pensions are called much more regularly, owing to the fact that they are well-known due to their former status.

So my suggestion is a simple one: when you retire, unless your board is chronically short of supply teachers, make a young person’s life a little easier and future employment prospects brighter by consciously choosing NOT to supplant them; elect NOT to be put on the supply list. I have never regretted my decision to make way for a new generation of young people.

If I can find the file, in my next post I would like to provide an amended version of an article I wrote on this topic about a year before I retired.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Something to Think About

One of my favourite writers, David Macfarlane, had an article in the Dec.24th edition of the Globe and Mail. He is a former columnist with the paper,and I have never understood why they dropped him as a regular contributor. What follows is the kind of insightful and skilled writing that I used to savor on a regular basis:

How the rich spend at Christmas
From Monday's Globe and Mail

December 23, 2007 at 5:08 PM EST

It's always good to know what the wealthy are up to – particularly now that the holidays are upon us. And so, in the spirit of the season, here is a list of exclusive gift suggestions. Very exclusive, when you stop to think about it.

One thing the rich are bound to have this year is a roof over their heads. Untouched by bombs, hurricanes, fires and mudslides, intact roofs are capable of keeping the cold and wet out and the warmth in. Of course, roofs can't be for everyone. There aren't many refugees who know a good architect from a hole in the ground. And the homeless – they wouldn't know how to get hold of a decent contractor to save their lives. Roofs are particularly rare anywhere there has been an earthquake, a civil war or an intervention by the Bush administration. Probably anyone who had anything to do with a subprime mortgage also has a pretty good view of the stars this winter. But that is the great charm of roofs. It is its exclusivity that gives basic shelter such enormous cachet among the discerning.

Speaking of hot and cold, members of the world's economic elite have it coming out their taps. No walks with plastic jugs to the communal well for them. No worries about droughts or dried-up rivers. No mercury poisoning, no upstream chemical plants, no toxic run-off from intensive agri-factories in the watershed. And best of all, no beverage companies buying up the rights to the local source. In the households of the truly affluent, there is as much water as anyone could ever want. A flushing toilet! A hot shower! Often, there are baths. And for the man who has everything, how about this: Your favourite gardening enthusiast can run the sprinkler in the summer for as long as he wants, with water that is clean enough to drink!

And after a busy day of brushing your teeth, shampooing the dog, doing the laundry, quenching your thirst and cleaning the dishes, what would the holidays be without food? In the kitchens of the world's most well-to-do, there are refrigerators that are full of milk, cheese, eggs, hamburger, and, at the back of the shelves, um, other things. (I'm not sure. It looks like they've been there for a while. Maybe they're capers.) Also, the rich have cupboards with cornflakes and peanut butter in them, and they have breadboxes that contain bread. Often, there is orange juice in the freezer. And sometimes someone has left some ice cream.

But even the rich encounter people who are hard to buy for. You know the type. You ask what they want for Christmas, and they don't say anything very helpful in reply. Not if they're busy whisking flies away from their sleeping children, they don't. So here's a nifty suggestion. What about shoes? Everyone likes shoes. The rich have been wearing them since forever. Ands really, you can't go wrong with footwear. Shoes are especially good for crossing deserts in the Sudan (see water-related gift suggestions, above) and for running away from crazed, marauding janjaweed soldiers in Darfur.

And then, for the last-minute shopper, there's always penicillin. The upper crust has always known that it never goes amiss. There are lots of diseases and infections that can actually kill people when there is no access to antibiotics – and that is one of the many indications that, as F.Scott Fitzgerald once said, the rich are different. They sure are: They're alive. Some people – at least, the ones who don't have to ask pharmaceutical companies how much anything costs – are happy to spare no expense when it comes to not dying. And while on the subject of how good the rich have been at avoiding death, take a tip from the top 5 per cent of the Earth's wage-earners: Anti-retrovirals make a great stocking stuffer.

There are traditions that come with having an income, and one of them can solve the tricky business of giving a gift to a young person. It's always difficult, so here's a useful idea. The rich like to give their children educations. Preschool, primary, high school – the whole nine yards. Now that the economy's booming, postsecondary tuition is as common under the Christmas trees of the wealthy as Laura Secord chocolates, Tim Hortons gift certificates and sweaters from the Bay. The rich figured out years ago that giving kids the possibility of a future pretty much cut out gas-sniffing and suicides among their own teenaged offspring. And who among us is grinch enough to argue with that?

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Towards an Effective School Attendance Policy

While this is my first entry for some time, I would like to continue discussing school attendance policies. In my last post I suggested that schools and boards rarely have the stomach to implement and enforce meaningful policies for a myriad of reasons. Today I would like to look at one from the past that was quite effective.

When I taught in Manitoba, I was fortunate to work for a division that eventually developed a policy that was stringent yet fair and, for the most part, enforced. While many years have elapsed since that time, if memory serves me, a letter was sent home after 3 absences advising the parents of our policies and the importance of regular attendance, etc. After five or six absences, the student was given a detention, and ultimately, if he or she accrued ten, an appearance before a principal/vice- principal, board member, teacher and superintendent was mandatory. At this meeting, the truant had to explain why he/she should be allowed to continue in the course, after which a contract was drawn up which permitted no more than two more absences, no matter what the reason. While you might think that this was a cumbersome, draconian and time-consuming process, the truth is that such meetings and contracts were rare, owing to the fact that when they were violated, the student was removed from the course and placed in study hall for that period every day. In other words, this policy had teeth, and almost no one ever violated the contract.

Despite its success, I remember one time when one of my students violated the contract and I had every expectation that he would be removed. After talking with his father, who felt I was being grossly unfair, despite the fact that it was his son who had skipped class, I received a call from the Superintendent. He had spoken to the father and suggested that this was a time when we should show some compassion; I responded that there were no mitigating circumstances whatsoever, and not to enforce the contract was to essentially render it meaningless. Being both young and rash, I also told him he would have my resignation if he didn’t support me on this (a career-limiting move, as they say). After I talked to him, I then phoned a trustee that I knew fairly well, told him the situation and asked for his support.

The outcome was that the Superintendent was overruled by the board, and the lad was removed from my class. Needless to say, relations with the Superintendent were ‘frosty’ from that point onward. Yet for me, the gamble was worth it, as I have always believed that educational integrity has to be practiced on all levels, from the top down. Without it, we really stand for nothing but expedience, which serves no one.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Vindictive Nature of Boards

I'm sure we have all had the experience of 'peeking behind the curtain' and seeing the often petty and vindictive nature of boards and their minions, thereby offering a sharp contrast to the gentle and humane public persona they want everyone to see. Today's Globe and Mail offers such a peek in an article entitled 'Teacher faced retaliation, lawyer says.'

The story details the career consequences to a teacher who made the mistake of sending an email to the parents of her students about a massive rodent infestation that raised the allergen level in her classroom to health-threatening levels. Predictably, the board denies that their punitive actions had anything to do with the teacher's whistle blowing.


Sunday, November 4, 2007

School Attendance Policies

One of my biggest frustrations as a teacher was contending with anemic attendance policies. Although the rules on paper often looked impressive, in my experience there was rarely the political will to enforce them. The only exception was during the time I spent teaching in Manitoba where we developed a stringent policy which, if ignored, ultimately resulted in the removal of the student from class. But even there, administrative interference occasionally arose. More about that in a moment.

I have always been of the belief that something is valued only if it comes at a certain price. For example, what will you treat with more respect, the computer that you worked hard for in order to buy, or the one that someone gave you? What if you could have a new computer, television or any other consumer product free whenever you wanted it? How would you feel about these products, and how would you treat them?

In my mind, the same principle is at work in education, specifically with regard to school attendance. So many schools exact virtually no price for truancy. Oh, lip service is paid to the importance of regular attendance in the student handbooks, but ultimately truancy, unless it is really egregious, (and then only rarely), is forgiven and all teachers are expected to get the errant individual caught up so that he/she “won’t feel discouraged.”
The problem with this ‘policy of compassion’ is that it does a grave disservice both to education in general and to the truant student in particular. Essentially, the message being sent is that the service we provide is not especially valuable; were it otherwise, some very stringent requirements would be in place for the utilization of that service, not the least of which would be mandatory, regular attendance. This obvious devaluation of what we offer inevitably trickles down to the students. Those who are not keen to attend in the first place quickly learn and exploit the flexibility of the attendance policy, the result increasingly being that it is the teacher, not the student, who is placed on the defensive, inasmuch as it becomes the former’s responsibility to make certain that that the truant is giving multiple opportunities to catch up.

Who is responsible for this sad state of affairs? Clearly, both parents and administrators have to share the responsibility. Parents are frequently all too willing to lie for their children, making up excuses for their multiple absences and then placing blame on teachers for not keeping them informed or sending home work. As well, administrators rarely have the stomach for confronting attendance issues, preferring to see high pass rates that are unaffected by failures due to non-attendance. Thus you will have the situation frequently arise where the student, toward the end of the semester, is given special and intensive attention via makeup assignments and the overlooking of mark gaps due to absences in order to push him/her through. The school can then claim another success story, ‘proof ‘once more that all children can succeed. But at what cost? Apparently sacrificing educational integrity is not too high a price to pay.

Next time I will discuss the very effective attendance policy we had when I taught in Manitoba years ago.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Some Timely Advice for Parents

Every teacher has had experience with students who refuse to accept responsibility for wrongdoing, often aided and abetted by their parents who are quite happy to blame everything and everyone but their kids. An interesting article in today's
Globe and Mail
addresses the problem with some simple advice that, if followed by parents, might make our jobs easier. Check it out if you get the chance.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Less Homework More Yoga, From a Principal Who Hates Stress

There is an interesting article in today's
New York Times
about a young principal at an affluent school in the Boston suburbs. His contention is that students are facing extraordinary degrees of stress as they vie for entrance to the best universities, and he has plans to reduce that stress. What gives his position a measure of credibility for me is the fact that he has been decried by Rush Limbaugh. He must be doing something right if the extreme right takes issue. Check out the article if you get the chance.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Magic as a Motivational Tool

Although I don't think this has been tried in North America, South Africa seems to be having some success in using stage magic as a tool to instill confidence and entrepreneurship in students. For the full story, please check out today's
Globe and Mail.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

7500 Ontario Students Get Lesson In Activisim

There is a story in today's Globe and Mail that reminds all of us, whether practicing or retired teachers, why we got into the profession. Since it is such a refreshing antidote to our inevitable cynicism, I am taking the liberty of reproducing it below:


7,500 Ontario students get lesson in activism

October 20, 2007

More than 7,500 Ontario students raged with enthusiasm yesterday at the Toronto edition of a national crusade meant to encourage young people to take on causes of political and social responsibility.

The National Me To We Day gathering at the Ricoh Coliseum was organized by Free the Children, the organization founded by activist Craig Kielburger in 1995 when he was 12 years old.

"Most adults think that at some point, youth in general don't have enough interest," said Danny Nguyen, 17, who's started a Free the Children chapter at William Lyon Mackenzie in North York to raise money to build a school in Sierra Leone. "These movements and enthusiasm show we do have the initiative."

The event's goal was to encourage youth to take on leadership roles in their communities and abroad to work against poverty, stand up for human rights and work toward a more peaceful world.

The day-long event featured motivational speakers and musical guests, with host Ben Mulroney.

Students heard the story of 19-year-old Michel Chikwanine's childhood in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where rebel forces lined up the children in his village, blindfolded them, slit their wrists, drugged them and then pitted them against one another. Mr. Chikwanine was five years old when he killed his best friend.

Romeo Dallaire urged the audience to hold leaders accountable for change, question the status quo and demand human equality.

"We are all human and everyone of us counts just as much as the other," Mr. Dallaire said.

Students gave standing ovations for each speaker, waved illuminated cellphones during Canadian Idol winner Brian Melo's performance and were buzzing with ideas during their short lunch break.

"It makes me realize how privileged we are to live in this country, and that it should be like this for everyone," said Katie Pacheco, 15, who came from Lakeshore Collegiate in Etobicoke.

"I want to help people in poverty and children [from] being raped and tortured," said Grade 7 student Claudia Luszczynski, who hopes to organize clothing donations to raise money with her class.

Christine Oliver, 16, who attends Blessed Mother Teresa Catholic Secondary School, is working to organize social events, fashion shows and clothing drives to show Toronto that the youth in her Malvern community have a lot of positive change to make.
"People focus on the negative and don't want to highlight the positive," Ms. Oliver said. "We want to give Malvern a better rep."

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Parents Often Aren’t the Only Ones Kept in the Dark

There is an interesting story in today’s
Globe and Mail
about a gun incident. Apparently last Friday a student brought a 9 mm gun, with ammunition, to Johnson Heights Secondary School in Surrey, B.C. Warned by a former student that there could be trouble, a school official intercepted the student, took him to the office where a search uncovered his weapon. The police were then called. Parents are upset that a letter wasn’t sent home until the following Wednesday after a media report about the incident on Tuesday. While the school dealt effectively with the gun threat, I can’t help but think that there were some very definite reasons for the delay in communication with the parents.

Over the past several years, schools, and the administrators who run them, have become increasingly political in their concern about the ‘optics’ of situations. In all likelihood, there were meetings at high board levels concerning how best to convey this information to the public, all in the quest to convince everyone that the school is safe. This is one of the reasons that many boards have corporate communications officers. What people might find surprising is that this kind of embargo on timely information often extends to the teaching staff itself. I remember a few years back, the staff's help was enlisted to identify the handwriting of a note that contained both a bomb threat and a threat against the school’s principal. With staff assistance, the culprit was apprehended, but at the following staff meeting, we were not allowed to know anything about the perpetrator. We did not want to know his name, only what measures had been taken after he had been caught, but the principal told us that due to ‘privacy concerns,’ he couldn’t tell us anything.

Not to be trusted with information essential to the safety of the school is not only dangerous, but it is also very demoralizing, reminding teachers once again that in the great scheme of things educational, we occupy a very lowly position.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Two Book Reviews

I've added two book reviews to my review blog. One is on the book Boomsday by Christopher Buckley, and the other is The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke. If you are a fiction reader, feel free to check them out.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Facts and Arguments

In today's Facts and Arguments section of the Globe and Mail, there is an interesting article by Calvin White, a guidance counselor in British Columbia. He writes about the need to teach students to think critically and thereby help them to become more involved in the concerns of the 'real world,' something I have written about
. While I don't really entirely agree with his placing much of the blame on teachers, as opposed to the system itself, it certainly makes for some thought-provoking reading.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Servant Leadership

Imagine working in a school where the administration puts the needs of the organization before his or her own needs. Imagine an environment where that administration, instead of merely paying lip service to educational principle, casts aside politics, ego, ambition, and resume building, chooses to vigorously pursue excellence. This is not a utopia I am asking you to envisage. It is the world of servant leadership.

I first encountered the concept last spring while doing research for an educational project. Since there is an abundance of good and comprehensive information available on the Internet, I won’t go into a detailed explanation of it other than to say that the underlying philosophy involves managers (administrators) recognizing their staffs as the most important element in achieving the goals of the organization (effectively educating students), and do everything in their power to help the staff achieve those goals. While some object to this management approach as being little more than a form of condescension, as opposed to, for example, making the staff partners in the operation of the organization (which, in my experience usually is little more than an exercise in rhetoric), I can’t help but think that its true practice would have a revolutionary impact on staff morale and hence staff effectiveness.

As many teachers will know, the standard style of management is hierarchical, with a vast distance separating the leaders from the led. The greatest difficulty with this form is that it often involves an either conscious or unconscious condescension on the part of management. By virtue of their position, they frequently adopt propriety language betraying their true feelings about those who work ‘beneath’ them. How often have I cringed to hear those in positions of authority talk about ‘my staff’ or ‘my teachers!’ Such language and biases do nothing to foster the kind of true collaboration needed to succeed in education today.

However, one of the major impediments to servant leadership is that its success is almost entirely dependent upon the personality of the administrator. A questionnaire found on one website
underscores the difficulties of finding a true servant leader:

Do people believe that you are willing to sacrifice
your own self-interest for the good of the group?

Do people believe that you want to hear their ideas and
will value them?

Do people believe that you will understand what is
happening in their lives and how it affects them?

Do people come to you when the chips are down or
when something traumatic has happened in their lives?

Do others believe that you have a strong awareness for
what is going on?

Do others follow your requests because they want to
as opposed to because they “have to”?

Do others communicate their ideas and vision for the
organization when you are around?

Do others have confidence in your ability to anticipate
the future and its consequences?

Do others believe you are preparing the organization to
make a positive difference in the world?

Do people believe that you are committed to helping
them develop and grow?

Do people feel a strong sense of community in the organization
that you lead?

I strongly believe that there is much merit in adopting a new management model. But until school boards are willing to adopt fresh criteria in their selection processes, including psychological testing of perspective administrators, servant leadership is likely to remain a rarity in public education.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Profit Before Student Health

There was an interesting story in yesterday’s Globe and Mail entitled ‘School food policies get low marks.’ It asserts that governments have failed Canadian students by permitting the sale of very unhealthy food in schools. While some provinces fared better than others, a report card released by The Centre for Science in the Public Interest gave an F to three: Saskatchewan, Ontario and Prince Edward Island. No province received an A.

This story got me thinking about the last school I taught at, and the unpleasant consequences of a little activism for better nutrition within that school. It all started one lunch hour when, emerging from the staffroom, I saw something that even
my cynical eyes found hard to accept: a candy dispensing machine was being installed right beside my room! Assuming this was the result of miscommunication, I called the office to express my incredulity, only to be told by the Vice-Principal that it was being installed under the Principal’s authority. Several of my colleagues spoke to him about the inappropriateness of this location, to no avail.

There was something deeply disconcerting about entering the school at 8:00 a.m. to find students feeding the machine their money in order to secure a candy bar in place of a decent breakfast. Equally disturbing were the compromises the machine’s presence forced me to adopt, such as having to close my door at about 9:30 every morning rather than allow my class to become distracted by the cafeteria lady emptying the last previous day’s profits from the machine. I was told this was the only time the task could be performed, as the lady only worked at the school four hours per day. This cacophonous clash of commerce competing with the art of English instruction was, I felt, richly symbolic of the many philistine priorities that seem endemic to education today, and certainly made a mockery of education officials’ public expressions of concern for student health and well-being.

Because it was right beside my room, I eventually decided to take matters into my own hands. I began printing up posters warning of the rising risks of diabetes amongst young people, the relationship between junk food and heart disease, the epidemic of teen obesity, etc. Ultimately, my efforts were rewarded with discipline which took the form of a “written verbal reprimand” (something of an oxymoron, I always thought) which I successfully grieved. After about seven months, the machine was relocated to the school foyer, to join the Pepsi dispensing machines. Now students could get both their caffeine and sugar fixes in one convenient location.

One thing that the public probably doesn’t understand is what a moneymaker the sale of junk food is for schools. For every greasy, cholesterol-laden hamburger, fat-drenched batch of french-fries or poutine sold, for every candy bar dispensed, there is a kickback to the school. The exact amount of the kickback in my school was a closely-guarded secret, something even the Federation could not ascertain. When I made inquiries of the cafeteria management as to why healthy snacks could not be placed in the vending machines, I was told that had been tried but there was little money to be made due to poor sales. While it may be true that the money from such operations is needed to supplement the government grants for education, surely endangering the health of our students is too high a price to pay, and unquestionably makes education decision-makers complicit in their physical decline.

This has to change.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Battlestar Galactica and Education

I’ve been getting caught up in the viewing of a show I recently discovered called Battlestar Galactica, not the cheesy 1970’s version, but the new one starring Edward James Olmos. As with all good science fiction, this series is uncompromising in the moral questions it poses and societal situations it explores. The one I watched last night, called “Dirty Hands,” reminded me a great deal of what the working situation was at the time of my retirement.

In “Dirty Hands,” the workers responsible for processing the fuel essential for the fleet to be ready to escape from their enemy, the Cylons, should another attack come, are becoming increasingly restive due to the fact that they are working 7 days a week, have been for months, with no relief in sight. Those in power utter the usual platitudes about the important work that the fuel processors do, etc., but ultimately a general strike is called, which is looked upon as an act of treason by those in command. Eventually, however, the strike leader is able to get a meeting with the President and convince her that their society is rapidly devolving into a slave-owner dichotomy, and that career opportunities are determined essentially by what planetary colony people are originally from. He persuades her that it is time to extend job opportunities and also for the leaders to begin doing some of the less desirable jobs or, in other words, ‘get their hands dirty.’

So what does this fine episode have to do with teaching? If it isn’t obvious, in so many jurisdictions our profession has become polarized; teachers and administrators occupy, to borrow a famous Canadian expression describing the distinctness and separateness of the English and French cultures, “two solitudes.” To be sure, all the right things are said by the leaders; they talk about the important work their teachers do, and how they appreciate their efforts, etc. etc. ad nauseam. However, in far too many situations, once that shallow rhetoric is ripped way, it is obvious at both the school and the board or district level that those words are mere political expedients meaning absolutely nothing.

To demonstrate from my own experience, near the end of my career I wrote a letter to the Director complaining about certain things. To my surprise, he invited me to meet with him. He proved to be a very attentive listener, took copious notes on the suggestions I made for reversing the deteriorating staff morale, said he would take my suggestions to Human Resources, and then, the predictable happened --- absolutely NOTHING.

I often think that because so many of them have become such creatures of politics, administrators and principals forget that teachers are experts at detecting insincerity. As I’m sure many know, it doesn’t take too long to demoralize staff if a principal seeks advice and input from a committee, and then simply ignores that advice because it doesn’t fit with his or her preconceived notions. It is far better not to pretend you value staff input than to insult teachers in such a manner.

As for “getting their hands dirty,” how often have we ever seen a principal or vice-principal take an on-call for an absent teacher? Of course, they would argue that they have much more important things to do in running the school, but what could be more important than showing some leadership and experiencing what the “troops” experience?
Or for that matter, how often do you see your administrators in the halls amongst the students? If you have such people in your school, consider yourself very lucky. My experience was frequently that they were often not even in the school, instead attending meetings at the board office, no doubt ‘seeing the bigger picture’ which for many meant promotions in the not too distant future.

Later this week I would like to look at the concept of ‘servant leadership,’ something that I think could be a very positive development in many of our schools.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Faith-Based Schools - Part 2

I came across a couple of articles in The Hamilton Spectator today on the issue of public funding of faith-based schools. One is by Eveyln Myrie, Tory's school funding plan is complicated and the other is by Zeynep Basal,No time for religious ghettos in new world.

Check them out if you are interested in looking at the issue from the perspectives of a Jamaican-Canadian and a Turkish-Canadian.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Public Funding of Faith-Based Schools

As a Canadian, I am proud of our multiculturalism. Although not a perfect policy, it reflects, I think, one of our defining characteristics as a nation. However, during the current Ontario election campaign, there is a policy being promoted by the Conservative leader John Tory that I cannot support. His election promise to extend public education funding to faith-based schools is ill-considered and divisive.

Currently, about 53000 children attend such privately-funded schools. Tory’s contention that the extension of funding will ‘bring them into the public tent’ and promote understanding and greater tolerance makes no sense to me. First, a public system, by its nature, is open to all, and at least in theory offers equality of opportunity. Faith-based schools cater to an exclusive clientele and refuse to hire those who do not share their beliefs or religious denominations. I doubt that would change were funding extended. One has only to look at the publicly financed Catholic system to see its discriminatory hiring practices which no one challenges them on. The fact is that an applicant must be a good practising Catholic with a note from the parish priest to even get an interview. Indeed, they even refuse to share school buses with them, even though transportation costs could be reduced significantly. Would it be any different with other faiths and denominations?

Secondly, Tory’s assertion that it will bring people together is a non sequitor. When I went to Catholic elementary and high school, I was rarely exposed to people of other faiths. How would the extension of funding result in anything different? Indeed, isn’t it likely that the current 53000 enrollment would jump considerably if people didn’t have to pay the tuition, thereby increasing educational segregation?

Finally, and most importantly, a proposal that would take at least a half-billion dollars out of the public system can’t be healthy for that system. I was reading in the Globe the other day that there are many schools that now have to rely almost exclusively on fund-raisers in order to acquire books for the library. Indeed, Heather Reisman, CEO of Chapters and Indigo, has embarked on a program to fill that gap. What more sacrifices to the quality of public education will have to be made if funding is extended to others?

Mr. Tory has said publicly that this is the right thing to do. My own thought is it probably had its origins in an ill-advised bid to attract votes in large multi-cultural centers such as Toronto. In any event, polls show that it is a very unpopular proposal for the majority of Ontarians.

Election Day, October 10, will see which view prevails.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

I’ve been doing some reading lately about a trend called ‘character education.” Ignoring the fact that as an English teacher I spent many years teaching literature that scrutinized the behaviour of individuals and examined both the positive and negative aspects of human nature, I can’t get past the feeling that by encasing it in an official program, as many boards seem to be doing, once more the message being given to the public is that schools can solve society’s ills.

For much of my career, I felt that educational institutions took on far more than they could realistically handle. Whether talking about mediation, conflict resolution, bullying, drug use or almost anything else you can imagine, boards and administrators gave the public a reassuring, politically expedient and entirely misleading view of what teachers can do with their students. This is not to say that such attempts at social engineering shouldn’t be made, but the problems arise with the inevitable large-scale failures of such initiatives. Ultimately, because no one at the top ever offers a realistic view of the limitations of the educational institutions, these failures inevitably have to be borne by the teachers. In other words, it becomes just one more thing that they have failed at. There seems to be an intentional blindness to the fact that our influence over students is not nearly as great as we might wish, and that parents and peer groups are major determinants of the values that children eventually adopt. But the later is a harsh reality that senior administrators and boards are loathe to tell parents. To my knowledge, no education official ever advanced his/her career by telling unpleasant truths.

For an example of what I am talking about, please take a look here:">

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Leaders and the Led – Final Installment

For the last three posts, I have tried to demonstrate what I feel is the gulf that exists between the executive of organizations such as OSSTF and the general membership. Today I would like to discuss ways of narrowing that gap.

First, I think the most difficult thing for the executive to do is to acknowledge that this chasm exists.

Second, I think they need to work toward conquering the fear they seem to have of somehow losing control of the organization if ‘the great unwashed’ become more involved. Now critics of my thesis might claim that there is ample opportunity for involvement if people care to sit on district committees, etc. While this is true, I think we have to acknowledge the fact that people lead very busy lives today and while they might not have the time to commit to regular meetings and other obligations that attend committee work, they may still have something worthwhile to contribute to the organization. For example, a former colleague of mine, from whom I learned a great deal, is especially skilled at dealing with unreasonable parents. I know he would be willing to give a workshop on his techniques, but, not being part of the 'power structure,' I'm not sure his input would be welcomed by the executive.

Next, each local should do a needs survey of its membership. The one I discussed in the previous post was essentially designed to determine both the strengths and the weaknesses in the local unit, as well as solicit suggestions for constructive change that might lead people to want to become more involved. An addition might be asking people to list the email address that they use regularly, in order to keep in touch with the membership on a regular basis, asking their opinion on issues, etc.

Another suggestion is to divide the district into quadrants; each executive member with release time would be assigned a portion, his/her responsibility being to contact each new member, introduce her/himself, and personally extend an invitation to the annual new members’ night. This night could feature a light meal or wine and cheese, or beer and pretzels and something new: the provision of the historical context within which OSSTF operates. In other words, it would educate them about battles fought in the past that have been instrumental in achieving the benefits that teachers today enjoy. Some appropriately chosen video would help to provide this context. It would also be a good idea to have some retired teachers on hand to tell a few ‘battle stories.’ New teachers must be given the opportunity to understand that ‘management rights’ and ‘teachers’ rights’ need not be bases for conflict, but when conflict does occur, it is right and proper to turn to the federation for help and not simply try to placate ‘the boss.’

Well, those are a few of my observations and suggestions, and thus ends this series. I would love to hear what others have to say about this or any other issue related to education.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Leaders and the Led – Part 3

Continuing with my theme of the gulf that often exists between the executive and rank and file members of organizations, I would like in a moment to discuss a personal experience that illustrates this problem. First, however, I should emphasize my belief that it is not enough to provide good service to the members; if the organization is to truly thrive, it must always have an eye toward the future, when a new generation will have to assume the executive positions. In my view, the only way to do that is to make the members feel welcome, to take seriously their suggestions and input, and to continuously demonstrate to them the importance of the organization. Unfortunately, often the ensconced upper echelon pays little heed to the membership, assuming that securing a reasonable contract is all that anyone expects, along with good representation in grievance matters.

A few years back, at the local Annual General Meeting, we had a large turnout of young teachers. Unfortunately, I suspect they left singularly unimpressed by the proceedings. The constitution is such that one can only ask questions of the executive that pertain to the various tabled reports included in the program. For example, any questions to the Vice President had to pertain to his report. Many people were turned away at the microphones because their questions were broader in nature. Later I proposed an amendment so that a fixed time could be allotted for more general questions. The former President, a retired teacher who continues to work under term contracts, spoke against the motion, and voting was postponed until after our dinner, by which time many of the young ones had left. My proposal was defeated, but as I made clear to the executive, I thought that they had squandered a real opportunity to get the newer teachers more involved in the Federation by making them feel valued for their input.

Near the end of my career, I took it upon myself to send out a survey to a large number of teachers with the board, trying to ascertain the things that they liked about how the local was operating, and areas where they thought things might be improved upon. Within two days, the President and Chief Negotiator paid me a visit, wanting to know why I was doing this, what I was upset about. I tried to explain that even though I had very much appreciated the support I had received during a grievance, I felt that more outreach was needed in order to involve people more and to demonstrate the vital nature of the Federation. Needless to say, the meeting did not go well, as we wound up shouting at each other, etc. I maintain to this day, as I told them, that they take everything too personally, and should welcome the activism of people outside the inner circle.

In my next post, I’ll offer a few suggestions as to how greater member involvement might be achieved.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Leaders and The Led – Part 2

The other day I wrote about what I perceive to be the chasm that exists between the executive and the general membership of organizations such as the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF). Before continuing, I want to make it clear that I am a firm supporter of unions and federations, and believe that the people they represent would be in far less desirable positions than they are today if they did not exist. My concern, however, is that if the current divide continues, the long term survival of such entities is in jeopardy.

Today, during a time of increasing conservatism, many of the people best served by their organizations have attained a degree of affluence that, paradoxically, seems to be leading them to adopt a more conservative mentality. How many times, for example, have we heard people who should know better say, “Well, there was a time when unions served a purpose, but that time is over. We really don’t need them anymore.” Whether the speakers are teachers or tradespersons, the irony is that they would not be in a position to make such statements were it not for the success achieved by their bargaining units. They seem to forget that the salaries and benefits enjoyed did not arise out of the magnanimity of the employer, but were the result of often hard-fought battles. I can remember many times during the last few years of my career hearing young teachers utter such anti-union sentiments, some going so far as to say they resented ‘being held back’ by the federation. Few seemed to understand that even though they might be management’s ‘pet of the month’, the vagaries of administration are such that circumstances can change quickly, and falling out of favour can carry with it consequences that, without the protection of a federation, can be rather severe. The notion of individual ‘rights’ over the well-being of the collective is indeed a worrisome trend.

From my perspective, the best way to combat this is to make the membership feel like a valued and essential part of the organization. While it may seem that I am stating the obvious here, unfortunately, there is an attitude amongst the upper echelon that they have nothing to learn from the rank and file. In my own experience, the executive is often either condescending or defensive when advice is given by someone outside the power structure of either the executive or a federation committee. Indeed, they can get downright hostile if a member shows some initiative in trying to effect some changes in thinking. I’ll discuss my personal experience with this in my next post.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Water for Elephants

If you are interested in reading a review of a great new novel, please visit my other blog.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Leaders and The Led

The year was 1997. There were five of us left on the bus, returning from a protest against Bill 160, education legislation that teachers opposed for a variety of reasons. Present were the local OSSTF president, the treasurer, and the vice-president, me, and a fellow teacher. The president turned and said, “Do you guys want to go for a beer?” There was only one thing wrong with the invitation – it was made to the executive, but not to we remaining two teachers, even though I knew the executive well.

That same year, a member from the provincial executive addressed about 500 teachers at a meeting convened at my school, to determine the next step in our escalating protest against the Mike Harris government’s assault on education in Ontario. The possibilities ranged from a strike to a mass resignation. When the time came for questions and comments from the attendees, I went to the microphone and said the following:

“I’ll do anything you folks want. If you tell us to strike, I will. If you tell us to submit our resignations, I will. But the problem is, you people ignore us until you need us. Then you are here holding meetings, rallies, etc. The provincial executive has to cultivate the membership much more effectively than they have been.”

To illustrate my point about provincial aloofness, I relayed how at one time I could go to the Federation website to obtain the email addresses of everyone, from the President on down, in order to send them my thoughts. I told them that now, all one could get was a general email address, The response of the guest was that he would make sure the problem was rectified as soon as he got back to Toronto. Ten years later, I am still awaiting that rectification.

Again in 1997, I had occasion to speak to Earl Manners, at the time President of the Federation, when he was in town for a function. I asked him how OSSTF planned to harness and channel the deep anger teachers felt over the ill-advised actions of the provincial government. He told me they were planning to put up a series of billboard ads. I guess he didn’t understand the true nature of my question.

Occasionally, a member of the local executive would join us for a beer after school on Fridays. All was well and convivial until a member of the provincial executive would come in. It was invariably at this point that the local executive member would leave our table and go off to another table with his provincial counterpart for a ‘private consultation.’ Not only was this bad manners, it was also bad politics.

What does each of the above situations demonstrate? First and foremost, they amply show the chasm that exists between the leaders and the led,” the washed” and “the great unwashed.” In my view, it is this gulf that will ultimately threaten the long-term viability of organizations such as OSSTF. In my next post, I will discuss why I believe this.

Monday, September 10, 2007

I'm Back

Well, September is here; teachers and students are back in the classroom, and all is right with the world. I hope you’ll forgive the sarcasm of the latter, for if it were true, there certainly wouldn’t be any purpose in continuing this blog. For those of you who are new to this site or who took the summer off from all things related to school, I thought I would list some links to some of my previous posts that help to define the philosophy of Education and Its Discontents. If interested, please check out any or all of the following:

Student Cheating

Shortcomings of School Administrators

Administrators I Have Respected

Administrators I Have Respected Part 2

Some Heartfelt Advice

A Brief Return to My Criticisms of School Administrators

Al Gore and the Assault on Reason

Inculcating the Skill of Reasoning

My Awakening About Student Complacence

How Politically Aware Are Teachers?

Do You Hate Your Boss?

School Dropouts and Pathways to Education

School Dropouts

Friday, August 24, 2007

Time to Recharge the Blogging Batteries

There won't be any new posts for the next two weeks or so as I take a break from the blogosphere. When I return, I hope to go back to the more issue-oriented types of pieces I was writing when I started in June.

Enjoy the rest of the summer, and for those of you returning to the classroom, all the best for the upcoming year.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Hamlet Part 5 – The Illusory Nature of the World (3)

In recent posts I have been looking at the disparity between appearances and realities as an important theme in Hamlet and, increasingly, in the world we live in. I suppose one could argue that governments have always used propaganda and various media to convey a perspective that they want their citizens to share, but I can’t help but think there is something much different about what is going on today. It seems to me that all kinds of policies are being enacted and promoted that have little concern with the common good, so that the lies currently being propagated have, in many instances, become vehicles for promoting hatred, evil, suspicion and paranoia. Certainly these are not results that strengthen society. People deserve, and are entitled to, much better.

The most obvious illustrations of this revolve around the American-initiated ‘war on terror,’ a war which, as in the one depicted in Orwell’s 1984, will seemingly have no end. Ever since that horrifying attack on the Twin Towers, George Bush and Dick Cheney have used the politics of fear and manipulation to further their goals. For example, although Iraq had nothing to do with the attack, the administration carefully, in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq, suggested there was one.
The effect of this manipulation was such that as of January 2003, 44% of Americans believed that some or all of the Sept.11 highjackers were Iraq. Of course, the truth is that none of them were. One can see the motive behind this manipulation was to make the invasion of Iraq much more palatable to the American people.

Yet the truth is never obvious. Fortunately, with the formidable access to information afforded by the Internet, there is at least the potential for citizens to be able to sift through what they are told and come up with reasonable conclusions about their leaders, who often, when the data is analyzed, seem to be sneering at the electorate. For example,such is the contempt the U.S, government has for its own people, it even indulges in revisionist history. If you have the time, the link in the previous sentence will take you to an entry from the Huffington Post which then offers a link to NORAD tapes which clearly show Dick Cheny caught in an egregious misrepresentation of his role during the 9/11 crisis.

But the lies and malfeasance continue, costing so many lives, both American and foreign, in remote parts of the world. And to what end? In the play Hamlet, only after the waste of many lives is there a sense of restored order and the beginning of healing; in our world today, I suspect that the latter is still a long way off.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

A Change of Pace

Today, a brief departure from my ruminations on Hamlet. If interested, please go to my other blog for a review of John Updike's latest book, Terrorist.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Help Change The World – For As Little As A $25 Loan

Many of you will be familiar with the concept of microfinance, the process whereby small amounts of money are lent to poor people in various countries to enable them to start businesses. These businesses provide a means for them to support themselves and their families, and in many cases, provide employment in their communities.

In doing some research on microfinance, I have come to realize that there are several organizations worthy of consideration. The one I am most impressed by is one called Kiva. If you are interested in helping to make a difference in people’s lives, please consider visiting their website for more information.

Hamlet Part 4 – The Illusory Nature of the World - Manipulative Political Practices

Last day I discussed how the Canadian political establishment, like Claudius in Hamlet, shows little respect for the citizens. I’d like to continue with this idea in today’s post before going on to examine some American examples tomorrow.

The current Conservative government, led by Stephen Harper, promised in the last election to establish a regime that stresses transparency and accountability. That promise has proven to be just the usual political rhetoric one expects from today’s caliber of politician, in other words, just another illusion of respect for the people. The most recent and egregious example of this is the fact that Harper and his cronies tried, on the claim of national security, to keep secret blacked out parts of the O’Connor commission of inquiry into the Maher Arar false imprisonment
and torture debacle. It turns out that the reason given, national security, was a lie; the actual reason was the report was embarrassing to Canadian and American security officials, as they knew from the outset that the alleged evidence used to send him to Syria was obtained from another man through Syrian torture. Fortunately, the courts have now forced most of this material to be made public.

The Freedom of Information and Privacy Association had this to say:

The decision to cite national-security grounds to censor about 1,500 words of Judge O'Connor's report was made by Conservative cabinet ministers, and it was they who ordered federal government lawyers to fight their release in court.

"This failure to inform Canadians truthfully about key mistakes of government serves to highlight Tory hypocrisy over our right of access to information," said FIPA executive director Darrell Evans. "We were deeply disappointed in the Conservative government's failure to deliver on their election promises to increase federal government transparency."

For the full story, click here.

In Hamlet, Claudius’ smooth façade conceals some terrible realities. I think this one Canadian example suggests the potential of the same truth in my country.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Hamlet – Part 3 – The Illusory Nature of the World (1)

In my last post I talked about Hamlet as a story of the transition from childhood to adulthood. Today I’d like to discuss how a related theme, the disparity between appearance and reality, is relevant to our lives today.

Almost from the play’s outset, Hamlet discovers that the world he thought he knew was more of an illusion than a reality. First comes the discovery of his mother’s seeming fecklessness in hastily marrying her brother-in-law Claudius, a union considered incestuous at the time. As things progress, Hamlet learns about other types of betrayal. The woman he loves, Ophelia, rejects him at her father’s behest, and two childhood friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, essentially spy on him to curry favor with Claudius, who wants to know why Hamlet has been acting so strangely. Ultimately, the Prince is able to ascertain that Claudius did commit fratricide, as claimed by the ghost early in the play, and therefore is a usurper. All of these discoveries send the young prince into a depression and a despair of paralyzing proportions.

So how is any of this relevant to 21st century life? Today, isn’t it becoming increasingly difficult to discern truth from lie, illusion from reality? Most people, of course, on some level understand the nature of advertising, with its beguiling yet completely illusionary promise of happiness and fulfillment through a better dust collector, brighter teeth, or, ‘six-pack abs,’ so I think I’ll skip that discussion. The more serious and insidious gulf between appearances and reality, in my opinion, lies in how the government, aided by much of the media, shapes our view of the world, both domestically and internationally.

If we go back to the play for a moment, Claudius is the consummate politician – adept at reading and manipulating people, and skilled in the discharge of foreign policy. He uses these skills to hide his corruption. In his very first speech in Hamlet, he addresses his court, acknowledging national sadness over the passing of King Hamlet, making reference to the possible impending war with Norway, and implicitly justifying his incestuous marriage to Gertrude (“Th’ imperial jointress to this warlike state”) as a way of ensuring continuity in these difficult times. Indeed, this speech and an analysis of it should be required reading for all those who aspire to power! (Actually no, since I have no interest in electing more such politicians.)

When contemporary politicians fail to find public support for policy initiatives, their most common explanation is, “We haven’t communicated our message effectively enough.” Never is there a consideration that the policy might be flawed or should be reconsidered, the subtext being that they just have to find a more effective way of manipulating the people, of spinning an illusion or half-truth to get the people ‘onside.’

One example from my own country illustrates this succinctly: since Canada’s participation as part of the NATO contingent in Afghanistan has become increasingly unpopular here, there has been a shift from the earlier, bellicose rhetoric of the chief of the Defence Staff, General Rick Hillier, about killing “scumbags and murderers,” to greater emphasis on aspects reminiscent of more traditional Canadian military operations, such as helping a school open and handing out food to displaced Afghans. This public shift does not mark a change in the mission, which is to hunt down terrorists; the loss of Canadian soldiers’ lives continues, but such is the contempt in which the public’s intelligence is held that the government hopes the voters will be fooled by a few treats handed out to Afghan children as being in the Canadian humanitarian tradition, and we’ll forget the realities of the war.

In my next post I would like to continue examining this facet of Hamlet’s relevance to our lives.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Hamlet – Part 2 – From Childhood to Maturity

In the last post I gave a brief synopsis of the play. Now I would like to begin addressing its importance for us.

In many respects, Prince Hamlet is the most human character I have ever encountered in literature. Although of royal lineage, he is in many respects an everyman who is called upon to respond to a world I think he would prefer to ignore; just as we have little choice in our engagement with the world as we mature, neither does Hamlet.

Although the play begins less than two months after the death of his father, there is much to suggest Hamlet had a rather idealized, innocent life prior to that traumatic event. We can infer this from the shock and despair permeating his first soliloquy in which the melancholy Dane says, “O that this too too solid flesh would melt/ Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!" “In other words, he wishes he were dead. But his disaffection and disappointment with the world goes deeper: “Or that the Everlasting had not fixed / His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!” In fact, he wishes it were not against God’s law to kill himself. Here is a young man, reacting with despair to two events: his father’s unexpected death and his mother’s hasty marriage to his uncle, a man young Hamlet sees as vastly inferior to his father. Both events have shaken his faith in the world and in human nature, leading the Prince to see the world no longer as Eden-like, but as “an unweeded garden/ That grows to seed, things rank and gross in nature/ Possess it merely.”

Perhaps the most painful revelation for Hamlet is the fact that his parents’ marriage was not the utopian union he had imagined: “Why, she would hang on him/ As if increase of appetite had grown/ By what it fed on and yet, within a month - …married with my uncle/ My father’s brother … O most wicked speed: to post/ With such dexterity to incestuous sheets…” So there we have it, revelations of unpalatable realities: love that was a sham and a hasty and incestuous remarriage.

If we were to view this part of the play allegorically, we could see it as the beginning of the transition from childhood to adulthood. The world poses challenges to all of us in its imperfections. How we respond to those imperfections is ultimately a measure of our character. Do we turn our backs on them and seek oblivion in one form or another? Or do we confront the challenges and engage with the world? That is Hamlet’s challenge, and it is also ours.

While this brief examination of an important idea hardly does justice to the theme, I hope it gives you at least a hint of how it resonates with the human condition. In my next post, I will continue discussing this and related themes of the play.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Great Books and What They Have To Teach Us – Hamlet – Part 1

The following post is much briefer than I had originally intended, the reason being that I love the play so much that I want to take extra care in writing about it

Every semester that I taught a senior English class, I made certain to leave one book to the end, Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It wasn’t that I dreaded teaching the play – quite the opposite. But my enthusiasm for the work meant that if I taught it at any other point, I would spend far too long on it. It is that rich a tragedy.

Very briefly, the plot of Hamlet revolves around the assertion by a ghost that he is the spirit of the late King Hamlet. He reveals to King Hamlet’s son, Prince Hamlet, that he was murdered by Claudius, the King’s brother, the man who has now claimed the throne and married the late Hamlet’s widow, Gertrude. Additionally, the ghost suggests that Claudius and Gertrude were carrying on a relationship while the king was still alive. His purpose in appearing to Prince Hamlet? He asks the lad to avenge his murder. The rest of the play revolves around the prince determining if the spirit’s story is true, and the impact on him of discovering the truth.

While the plot sounds simple, it is considered by many to be Shakespeare’s most complex play, and that complexity is found in both its themes and its imagery. But what has any of this got to do with today’s readers and audiences? Well, just like Macbeth, it has much to teach us, both as individuals and as a society. In my next post I'll begin to talk about its value.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Great Books and What They Have To Teach Us – Macbeth

For the next few posts, I’d like to address something that I think is undervalued in our society and our school systems today: literature. I have already touched upon how it can help to cultivate critical thinking, but now, at the risk of sounding somewhat airy, I’d like to talk about how it can also cultivate the spirit and teach us important things about human nature. These aspects perhaps are not taken as seriously today when put against some of the ‘hard skills’ taught through public education, but, I would argue, are essential in order to live fully and meaningfully.

I was never one of those teachers who stand in awe of everything written by Shakespeare, (let’s face it, Romeo and Juliet really are just a couple of very immature teenagers who make some very bad decisions), but I never tired of teaching certain of his works, including his darkest, Macbeth. Set around the eleventh century, ‘the Scottish play’ has no end of relevance for our own times. Revolving around a military commander of great prowess and courage, the play tells the story of what happens when you start believing your own press. Praised by his King and colleagues, emboldened by the prophecies of some witches, and encouraged by a seemingly amoral wife, Macbeth gives in to his hidden ambition, setting down a dark road that will see him kill that King, assume the throne, and embark on a bloody reign of terror that will take many innocent lives and cost him everything: his virtue, his humanity, and ultimately his life.

So what does such a tragedy have to teach modern audiences? For me, it always put in stark relief the essential emptiness of pursuing purely material goals; even though we live in times that try to convince us that the key to happiness is “the next big thing,” be it the latest cell phone, plasma T.V. or ______________ (you fill in the blank), experience teaches us that we are doomed to be continually disappointed by such pursuits. Macbeth, however, learns this truth far too late for it to do him any good. We see him early in the play contemplating assassinating Duncan, both his King and his cousin; he asserts that if he could be guaranteed success in this venture, “We’d jump the life to come.” This willingness to sacrifice his very salvation for the acquisition of power is contrasted much later in the play when he admits, “…my way of life/ Is fallen into the sere, the yellow leaf,/ And that which should accompany old age,/ As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends,/ I must not look to have; but in their stead,/Curses, not loud but deep, mouth honor, breath,/ Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not.” In this quotation, Macbeth realizes that the achievement of his ambition has not been worth the price he has had to pay, the complete absence of all the indicators of a life well-lived: integrity, love, respect, friendship. All he has instead is those who obey him out of fear.

A chilling lesson, both for Shakespeare’s time and all others.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Critical Thinking - Considering Alternate Views

One of the keys to being a critical thinker is the willingness to consider alternate points of view instead of being wedded to one idelogical position. In order to sharpen my own thinking and expose myself to perspectives other than those advanced in mainstream media, I have always enjoyed the work of Canadian writer Linda McQuaig. What follows is my review of her latest book.

Holding the Bully’s Coat – Linda McQuaig

Whether holding forth on the global economy, the excesses of capitalism, government deficits or the U.S. invasion of Iraq, author Linda McQuaig never disappoints. Her willingness to challenge conventional wisdom, especially that which is promulgated in the mainstream media, is always guaranteed to provide the reader with new insights and rich material to allow him or her to critically examine previously-held beliefs. Whether or not one agrees with the things she asserts, this is her greatest strength as a writer.

Her latest book, Holding the Bully’s Coat, reflects this strength as she examines in both an historical and contemporary context, Canada’s relationship with the United States. She argues that by aligning the country too closely with the policies of the United States, our political, military, and economic elites are sacrificing Canada’s international reputation (one she acknowledges as being exaggerated) and our role as a middle power, as well as jeopardizing our independence as a nation.

McQuaig deals with a number of issues that will have occurred to thinking Canadians over the years, including how our reputation for peacekeeping and compromise is being unjustly denigrated by the right wing; how the United States’ penchant for exceptionalism has essentially made it a law unto itself as it chooses to flout international law, the United Nations, the World Court, the Geneva Conventions’ prohibition on torture, and any other potential restriction on its dominance; the destabilizing effect of the U.S. opposition to nuclear disarmament; and its military’s refusal to abandon Cold War thinking, having simply substituted Islamic extremism for “the Red Menace.”

While the above description may make this book sound like an anti-American rant, it is not. Rather, McQuaig shows, through copious examples and careful analysis, how the citizens of both Canada and the United States are being ill-served by those in power who are quite willing to mislead and manipulate their respective peoples. Indeed, some of her harshest criticism is reserved for the Canadian government, both the current Conservative one and the previous Liberal one, and its often uncritical deference to American policies of very questionable merit.

The book will be offensive to those who think the motives and policies of the United States (and Canada, for that matter) should never be questioned. It will, however, be appreciated by those who want to go beyond media rhetoric and think deeply about issues of importance. It will also appeal to those humble enough never to have subscribed to the jingoistic notion, “My country, right or wrong,” a very dangerous mantra for the people of any free society to adopt.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Transforming Education – The Mantle of Leadership- Part 6

I was discussing earlier the role that literature can play in cultivating critical thinking. One of the most important means by which this goal can ultimately be achieved is through exposure to a variety of viewpoints, an area in which literature truly excels.

One of my favorite playwrights to teach was Arthur Miller. A man of integrity, blacklisted for his refusal to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee which had its heyday in the McCarthy Era, Miller wrote, amongst many other works, The Crucible. The play, inspired by the madness of McCarthyism, revolves around the Salem witch hunts of 1692. A powerful piece of literature for any era, it addresses what happens when a society, gripped by hysteria, abandons logic and common sense and turns on its fellow citizens. The worst aspects of human nature emerge as the play progresses: jealousy; lust; greed; self-preservation at any cost. In the midst of the quagmire stands John Proctor, a man who, despite his high standing within the Puritan community, is deeply flawed, having secretly committed adultery with an adolescent servant, Abigail. From his religious perspective, he is condemned in the eyes of God, yet, after enduring a lengthy crucible (one of the word’s meanings is ‘a severe or trying test’) he is able to find “his goodness,” what we today would call his integrity, by refusing to lie in order to save himself from hanging after having been falsely accused and convicted of witchcraft.

One of the many benefits of teaching this play is that it affords students the opportunity to explore the concept of integrity, for some quite a novel notion. As a class, we would examine how Proctor ultimately places the needs of his community above his own interests. By refusing to falsely confess to witchcraft, a confession that would save his life, he takes a stand against the injustice of the witch hunts. The point is made in the play that because he has standing and reputation in the community, he accepts his responsibility to that community by refusing to further the evil, even if it means he must pay the ultimate price.

Predictably, some students saw his sacrifice as a meaningless gesture, while others appreciated it as a rich symbolic act. Again, the purpose of the discussion was not to convince students of anything, just to expose them to a concept and discuss it accordingly.

I like to think that it at least provided an alternative view to the very utilitarian times in which we live.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Critical Thinking – The Mantle of Leadership – Part 5

Just a brief posting for the time being. Pursuant to the theme of my last several posts, I am providing a link to a Newsweek article that traces and exposes the tactics of global warming deniers. The article is a timely reminder of how important it is to think critically about issues.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

The Power of Literature - The Mantle of Leadership - Part4

Continuing with the theme of transforming education to produce more informed, critically aware democratic participants who will ultimately be able to demand the kind of political leadership they deserve, today I would like to talk about the role that literature, taught through high school English classes, can play in achieving this goal.

For me, literature only succeeds when it engages both our hearts and our minds. Arid tracts that advance philosophical positions devoid of flesh, blood and passion are of no use to anyone, in my view. Fortunately, there is a wealth of good literature that can engage us totally.

Now, before proceeding, I should address something that may have occurred to you. Am I suggesting here that the classroom should be used as some sort of ideological platform? The answer is an unequivocal no. What I am suggesting is that it should be used to teach people that there are a number of sides to an issue, that there is no absolute truth, and that it is incumbent upon individuals to think deeply and critically about issues of import and try, as much as is humanly possible, not to succumb to preconceived ideological positions. That, of course, is easier said than done, but it is an absolute requirement if we are ever to raise ourselves above the current base level of political discourse and leadership.

One other personal note I feel I must add before proceeding: I have never considered myself any kind of a political radical; I believe there is some merit in most parts of the political spectrum, but the problem for me arises when a group, be it left or right (unfortunately, it seems today that the right has most of the media power) insists on the absolute correctness of their position to the exclusion of all others. It is this kind of polarizing philosophy that produces polarized people. If you, for example, insist that private business does everything better, I am as contemptuous of your position as I am of the one which insists that all important businesses should be nationalized. These kinds of extreme positions are, and should be, repugnant to the thinking person. With these provisos in mind, I will continue.

One illustration of literature that appeals to both the heart and the mind is the classic Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Set in the ‘dirty thirties,’ the novel tells the story of dispossessed farmers, leaving behind the dustbowl conditions that have destroyed their livelihoods and traveling to California to begin life anew in a land they have been mislead to believe offers unlimited opportunity. During the course of the novel, which centers on the extended family of the Joads, these migrant workers are mercilessly exploited by selfish landowners. Profit is put before human health, welfare and dignity.

One of the things I used to do in teaching the novel in order to cultivate critical thinking was to ask if Steinbeck was being fair in his portrayal of the wealthy in the novel. Of course, the answer is no, as he only presents one side, the side used to elicit sympathy for his protagonists; we would discuss how almost all writing is manipulative, inasmuch as the author writes with a bias. This is true of both fiction and non-fiction. We then looked at some of Steinbeck’s techniques in creating that bias. This in no way undermined the power of the book, but it did serve as a useful lesson in how the reader has to think and interpret everything he or she reads.

In my next post I would like to talk about some of the other materials I used in this pursuit.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Activism for Change- The Mantle of Leadership – Part 3

Transforming Education - The Mantle of Leadership – Part 3

In my last post, I talked about the importance of education in ultimately changing the political culture that besets us today. Specifically, I examined the role that a knowledge of history can play in providing much needed context for interpreting events.

Although this knowledge may not necessarily provide easy answers to the many problems we face, it does give us the tools to ask the right questions and evaluate the answers. And it is precisely for this reason I am not hopeful that governments will mandate more history in their curricula. With a more informed citizenry, governments might be challenged on the facile rhetoric that allows countries to accept the abrogation of civil rights, violations of constitutions and charters, interception of personal communication, imprisonment, without charge or due process, all in the name of “the war on terrorism.” People might demand answers as to why their country can’t afford universal health care while billions are spent monthly to wage war in a country that never posed a threat. Informed citizens might want to know why aboriginals live in third world conditions while corporate and personal income taxes are cut, and budget surpluses are accruing. This list of potential queries is endless. Just imagine if leaders knew that their misbegotten policies were going to held up to vigorous public scrutiny and could no longer be justified by platitudes!

So it is doubtful that governments will make the changes to education needed to produce a thinking and critical people. Yet I do believe change is possible, and that history can be made a core subject occupying the same position of importance in the curriculum as do English and mathematics. The responsibility for bringing this about rests with the teachers themselves. Most history teachers I have known over the years have been very passionate about their subject, and they now need to begin to channel that passion into political action, forcing the issue into the public arena.

As well, the public, especially that segment that currently has children in the system, has an even bigger role to play. They first must realize that the critical thinking skills which a study of history can develop are as crucial as any computer or other job-enhancing skill that public education can impart. Next, they must make their demands known to their school districts and their provincial and state governments. Obviously it is not a process that will see results overnight, but it is vital that it begin immediately.

It was Socrates who said that the unexamined life is not worth living. A knowledge of history can contribute significantly to that pursuit, and it can also give us the skills by which we can intelligently evaluate the society in which we live.

Monday, August 6, 2007

A Timely Column

I just read an article by Linda McQuaig which amply demonstrates what happens when the government assumes that its citizens are disengaged from the political process. Especially interesting is the fact that extraordinary efforts are being made to keep ordinary citizens far away from the meeting site.

Waking People Up! - The Mantle of Leadership – Part 2

In an earlier posting I discussed how the mantle of leadership is a heavy responsibility, much of it discharged in an irresponsible and self-aggrandizing manner. I suggested that when power is abused, the people can suffer in many ways: physically, economically, and, perhaps most significantly, spiritually. I also suggested that the world is hungry for direction from those who are selfless and morally centered. Today I’d like begin discussing how to achieve such leadership.

The beginnings of change, I believe, lie in cultivating a more aware citizenry through improvements in education. Such a citizenry would then have the means to resist a phenomenon all too apparent in recent years, the drift toward simplistic thinking, the kind of thinking that allows politicians to go unchallenged in their abuse of rhetoric and logic. Consider such statements as “You are either with us, or you are with the terrorists,” (George Bush); “We aren’t the government; we’re the people who have come to fix government,” (Mike Harris, former Premier of Ontario); “People who criticize the Afghan mission aren’t supporting the troops,” (Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada).

What changes should be made? Ask a Canadian student the historical significance of a man named Macdonald and they might say he constructed the golden arches as readily as they might identify him as Canada’s first Prime Minister, the man responsible for building the Canadian Pacific Railway. I don’t know how it is in other jurisdictions, but in Ontario, only one course in History is mandatory; I would make it required throughout the four years of high school, so that upon graduation, each student would have had some exposure to Canadian, British, Ancient and World History, thereby possessing a tool invaluable to informed democratic participation: context.

Without context, citizens can become pawns in the hands of powerful interests. Take, for example, the commonly accepted assertion of business that continuous downsizing, rationalizing of resources and the pursuit and achievement of ever-increasing profits at the expense of workers is a necessity in today’s global marketplace. If we lack historical context, what choice do we have but to accept as unavoidable the consequent disruption in people’s lives through layoffs, endless pressure to increase productivity, and less and less participation in the profits that their work makes possible?

We must accept it unless we know something of the history of the Industrial Revolution. During the early 19th century, men, women, and children were ruthlessly exploited for their labour and then callously discarded when they had no more to contribute. 14-16hour work days were the norm, and children as young as five entered the factories and coals mines, only to emerge years later, crippled, deformed, incapacitated by lung disease, awaiting early death at about age 25.

It was a time, of course, when there were no benefits, no workplace protections from hazardous conditions, no compensation for injuries, and it was not uncommon for women and children to be beaten if they were late for work or found to be in any other way impeding the production process. Only through the brave and moral leadership of activists, thinkers and politicians were these horrible conditions ultimately ameliorated.

Without this kind of historical context, how can a citizen counter or even disagree with the ever-increasing notion that government is a bad thing and should have very little role in our lives, and that only an entirely unfettered marketplace will somehow ultimately redress all imbalances and problems. For example, one doesn’t have to look hard to find some commentators suggesting that, even though corporations are making record profits, workers need to temper their wage demands and even give wage and benefit concessions. Or that trade with China will promote human rights; if this is so, why has the United States had a trade embargo of Cuba almost 50 years? Aren’t both countries Communist? What is the difference in the suppression of human rights that one country should be traded with and another embargoed? Who can ask these questions if they don’t know basic history?

I will be continuing this thread in my next post.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

People Responding Selflessly

As reported in the local paper today, people in Ontario have been responding to the Premier’s call to conserve energy. Despite the extremely hot and humid conditions of the past several days, we have managed to keep our energy usage below record levels. According to the item, Ontario's all-time record for electricity demand was set last year on Aug. 1, when users powered through 27,005 megawatts. That record hasn't been cracked so far. Even in this week's heat wave, usage peaked at 25,584 megawatts. This is directly attributed to both individuals and businesses reducing their power usage.

I post this information only to demonstrate how people will respond positively to aid the common good, reinforcing the need I have been discussing for strong, morally-centreed leadership, a theme I will be returning to next week.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Manipulation of Marks

After reading the New York Times about mark manipulation referred to in the previous posting, I started feeling a little guilty about thus far not discussing my own acquaintance with such practices. Let me preface what is about to follow by saying that while administrators have the legal authority to overrule a teacher’s judgment, the circumstances under which they do so are more often motivated by political expedience than they are by any stretch of pedagogical justification. In these instances, the effect of this poor leadership is to breed cynicism amongst the staff, underscoring the “unseen but highly contagious disease” metaphor of Hamlet discussed earlier.

One instance from the past I can personally attest to arose when the Grade 10 science class went on a fieldtrip as their culminating activity. The tasks were fairly involved, but because all did rather poorly on it, retroactively the criteria for the activity were changed to, as I recall, ‘data collection’, so that each participant got at least 80%. The teachers of the students who did not go on the fieldtrip were instructed to alter their culminating tasks so that each would achieve at least the same mark. Now, I can’t honestly say whether the administration was aware that this was done; however, the fact that such a dereliction of academic responsibility occurred has to be, even indirectly, an indictment of the kind of atmosphere established by that administration.

Another instance involved, once again, the science department. A teacher who had been experiencing some health problems failed to mark 2 or 3 student assignments out of about 35. None was a major assignment. After a couple of complaints from parents, the administration, after consulting with the teacher, decided to raise everyone’s mark by 4 percentage points. Now, given the small number of unmarked assignments in this case, probably the most that would have been involved was about 1 percentage point. The effect of the change in marks meant that students who had failed the course now passed; since this was a senior class, conceivably some students gained an unfair advantage in competing for university scholarships; the students, of course, and all their friends became aware of it, so one can imagine the resultant cynicism; and finally, such an act really paved the way for more such ‘compromises’ in the future. Once that kind of precedent is openly established, teachers, especially inexperienced ones, assume this is the ‘way of the world,’ and thus see less reason to remain principled and resolute in the future.

Quite a price to pay in order to placate a couple of disgruntled parents.

A Very Interesting Story from Dennis Fermoyle's Blog

There is a very interestng posting by Dennis Fermoyle, based on a New York Times article discussing the sad state of academic standards in a New York school, aided and abetted by administrative interference. Check it out through this link:
From the Trenches of Public Ed.: There are no heroes in this one!

Thursday, August 2, 2007

The Mantle of Leadership

As Peter Parker, aka Spiderman, learned long ago, with great power comes great responsibility. For the past two posts I have been discussing what happens when that power is abused. Today, I’d like to begin looking at the powerful effect strong and morally-centered leadership can have on all of us.

Perhaps the best immediate demonstration of this effect can be seen in the recent announcement of the formation of a group called “The Elders.” Consisting of such moral luminaries as Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter, and Kofi Annan, their envisaged role is to try to solve problems in the world through a combination of diplomacy and moral suasion. I submit to you that the world is hungry for such selfless leadership. As cynical as I am, I couldn’t help but feel a thrill upon hearing of the involvement of my personal hero, Mandela, a man who shows all of us the best that is possible in humanity. Enduring many years of imprisonment to maintain his integrity, when freedom was promised if only he would renounce the goals of the African National Congress, allowing himself to grow old in prison, here is a man who had every right to be bitter and ultimately seek revenge on a government that had oppressed him and his people. Instead, rising to become the President of South Africa, he embraced, not retaliation, but rather forgiveness and reconciliation. Here is a man who was able to put ego aside for the greater good.

In earlier articles I talked about administrators who earned both my respect and my admiration. Their secret was that same ability to put aside ego in order to serve the greater good, education. They were, through their examples, able to motivate the staff in like manner. While the schools were never utopias, they were, for the most part, harmonious, with administration, staff, and students working toward common goals.

I believe that the existence of these two models demonstrates the potential for application in the world of government leadership. But the transition to such a world will not be easy. How do we get there? I’d like to discuss that in upcoming posts.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

What’s Shakespeare Got To Do With Anything? – Part 2

I was thinking a little bit more about the infectious nature of bad leadership, and, while I may be stating the obvious here, probably the best validation of the concept can be found in an organization I know rather intimately – public education.

Having already written extensively about my own experiences with poor administration, I’ll try not to repeat myself here, but if we consider institutions as microcosms of society, there can be little doubt about the ripple effect when “there is something rotten in the state of Denmark.” Whether at the board level or within the individual school, when teachers perceive inequity, corruption, or malfeasance (and believe me, those unsavory elements can be pervasive) but feel powerless to remedy the problems, the pernicious effect on morale is difficult to ignore. Some teachers will simply shrug their shoulders, close the door to their classroom and try to carry on doing the best job they can. Others will try to bring the wrongdoing to the union which, unless it is a contractual violation, will say it is beyond their purview. Still others, noble but naïve souls, may try to take the issue to a higher level, only to find that upper management really wants to ignore unpleasantness if it can, and more often than naught will try to threaten or punish the whistleblower. As you can see, none of the responses I’ve outlined here are satisfactory, largely because the problem continues to fester, gnawing away at teachers of good heart.

I realize that what I have written here is quite vague and theoretical sounding, but it is based on things I know but cannot be more specific about for a number of reasons. My point, however, is that just as a kind of moral malaise can beset those working within an organization, so too can the citizens of a country suffer in a similar way under poor political leadership.

Next time around I’d like to look at some possible antidotes to this illness.