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