Tuesday, January 29, 2008

What Politicians These Education Officials Be

Caroline Alphonso, in today’s Globe and Mail, writes about a draft internal document from the Toronto District School Board that suggests officials are more concerned over ‘damage control’ than anything else when it comes to violence in their schools. This simply reinforces my contention that some of the biggest problems in education today are aggravated by the types of people that tend to hold positions of power – quasi-politicians, a label I think appropriate not only for elected officials, but also principals, superintendents, education bureaucrats, and directors of education . Read and decide for yourself. I have bolded parts I feel are especially relevant:


Board had a plan to limit safety-report backlash
January 29, 2008

TORONTO -- The Toronto District School Board prepared for the release of a damning report on school safety with a media strategy designed to "minimize and contain the damage to the board's reputation," including a press conference late enough to "pre-empt" views that may "contradict or detract" from its position.

An internal draft document obtained by The Globe and Mail yesterday links the expected findings of the report, commissioned after the shooting death of 15-year-old Jordan Manners last May at C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute in North York, with plans for a black-focused school.

Public-school trustees will meet today to decide whether to proceed with a staff proposal on opening a black-focused alternative school in 2009.

"The board must position itself with unified and integrated messaging as it deals with the final report and other related issues in the public/media area, including Africentric schools ...," says the communications strategy document dated November 29.

The final massive report on school safety, written chiefly by Toronto lawyer Julian Falconer, was hastily made public earlier this month after it was leaked to most of the city's major news media. It described Canada's largest school system as rife with weapons, violence and sexual assaults, many of which go unreported because teachers and staff fear that speaking out will bring down the displeasure of their superiors.
The school board was scheduled to release the report earlier this month, with a media lockup in the afternoon and evening news conference.

"The timing of the press conference is critical as it will allow the chair and director to demonstrate leadership, anticipate questions that may arise from the findings, and take advantage of the opportunity to establish TDSB positioning to pre-empt individual stakeholders' views, which may contradict or detract from TDSB's position," the internal document says.

A separate document obtained by The Globe yesterday and dated Dec. 3 suggests that a school board committee already had hints of what would be in Mr. Falconer's report. "How will we address 'code of silence' concerns from the School Community Safety Advisory Panel?" asks the summary notes from a meeting of the school safety work.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Scared Sacred

As a teacher, I always felt that it wasn’t enough just to be current and well-versed in my own subject area; I therefore made it a point to read as much as possible, both fiction and non-fiction, as well as to keep current with national and international events through the Globe and Mail. Of course, as anyone in education knows, time was always my greatest enemy. How does one keep engaged in the community and the world when there are the demands that we place on ourselves as classroom teachers, not the least of which is to return assignments in a reasonably timely fashion?

Even though I am now retired and in a much better position time wise (at least in theory) to read as much as I want to, lately I have been exploring the world of documentaries which, at the very least, seem a relatively time efficient way to expand one’s knowledge and open up a variety of avenues for further inquiry. One that I recently watched and recommend is Scared Sacred, by Canadian filmmaker Velcro ipper. The film’s basic goal is to determine if and how people can respond positively to tragedy. To answer this question, Ripper traveled to parts of the world all too well-known for their share of tragedy: Bhopal, India, the killing fields of Cambodia, Bosnia, Hiroshima, Afghanistan, ground zero in New York, Israel and Palestine.

What Ripper discovers is that some people are able to overcome the natural impulse to simply sink into bitterness and despair, seeking revenge, and instead try to turn the tragedies of their lives into something positive. The underlying idea is that catastrophe, no matter how great, offers the opportunity to recognize the common elements of humanity we all share. With that recognition comes the opportunity for reconciliation and renewal.

You can find out more information about the film

Friday, January 25, 2008

What Can the Young Teach Us?

Every so often, something occurs to bolster our faith in human nature. I had one of those moments the other day, while working at the food bank. A woman brought in a large shipment of food (well over 300 lbs.), and when I inquired of her if the source was a school, her answer surprised me. She told me that her daughter had just had a party to celebrate her 13th birthday, and instead of presents, she asked her guests to bring food, to be donated to our food bank.

Such a selfless act needs no further comment from me.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The War on Greed

Robert Greenwald has an interesting film on corporate takeovers. value="transparent">

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Some Reading Recommendations

For any of you who might be avid readers, I have posted four recommendations on my
book blog. There are mini-reviews of three novels and a comedic memoir.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Culture of Concealment - Part 2

In the last post I gave several examples demonstrating the administrative penchant for obscuring unpleasant truths. What are the effects of decisions prompted by policies of parental appeasement, avoidance, and concealment? Beyond the immediate impact of eroding student discipline and respect for rules, which makes the school less safe for everyone, there are much more insidious consequences negatively affecting the educational experience: staff demoralization, cynicism, and, in the case of impressionable younger teachers, the sense that educational principles are fluid and changeable, which, in turn, adversely affects their own judgment and development as educators. One final example will help to illustrate this.

In a specific department I will not identify, the practice existed of having a fieldtrip for the culminating task, which accounts for a certain percentage of the final mark. In this particular instance, because the students had performed so badly in the accompanying activities, the department head changed the assignment’s criteria so that everyone got at least 80%. Consequently, the teachers of students who did not go on the fieldtrip were instructed to make sure that their culminating task was designed so that those students would also achieve a minimum of 80%. Whether this perversion of education principles occurred with the knowledge and consent of the administration I cannot say, but the very fact that it happened should not be surprising, given the kind of environment and mentality arising from the weak leadership I have described here.

It would be easy for readers to dismiss each of my illustrations as isolated and insignificant events, but the truth is that most teachers have similar or worse stories to tell, but are not free to speak about them. Although boards would vehemently deny it, the pervasive organization ethos is that making things difficult or embarrassing for ‘the bosses’ is to invite, at the very least, career stagnation, and at the very worst, retribution, even dismissal. As we were often told by our local federation, criticizing your employer is grounds for dismissal. The fact that I am retired is the only reason I can bring these matters to light, and the reality is that I have presented only a highly selective version of what transpires in schools today; because I have no desire to jeopardize the careers of teachers who are still working, and the fact that some of the administrative transgressions I know of are based only on reliable second hand accounts, I have omitted much.

Without doubt, whenever misdeeds are brought to light, senior administrators and board officials will, as they always have, utter platitudes designed to placate the public, while ignoring opportunities for substantive change. The culture of concealment will, in one form or another, continue unless two things happen:

• Whistle-blower protection for teachers is enacted to spare them the retribution that normally ensues when people dare to speak out

• Board trustees begin to take back some of the responsibility for the day to day operation of schools they have abdicated to administrators and bureaucrats, both of whom often have an agenda at odds with quality education.

Unless and until there is a real desire for improvement at the top, things will, I fear, continue to deteriorate in our schools.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Culture of Concealment Part 1

Thanks to the recent publication of the school safety panel report investigating violence in Toronto schools, the general public has received a rare glimpse into some unpleasant truths about contemporary secondary education. One of the newspaper headlines, ‘Fears of career suicide stopped educators from reporting violence,’ was followed by the revelation of a board–wide staff failure to report problems due to fears that revealing anything reflecting badly on the board would be “a career-limiting move.” Unfortunately, however, people living outside of Toronto have little reason to feel smug. This culture of concealment is widespread in public education today.

Although now retired, as a teacher for thirty years I witnessed my own share of questionable decisions and behaviour based more on political expedience than educational principle, and most seemed to spring from the almost pathological fear many administrators have of dealing with unhappy parents or having their schools look in any way less than perfect. Sadly, such a short-sighted philosophy incurs both immediate and long- term consequences. A few of my own experiences may help to illustrate.

Years ago I broke up a game of hackey sack in which one student was being physically assaulted by two others; after delivering them to the office with a full report, I was dismayed to later learn that no discipline had been meted out, as the physical abuse had “been part of the game.” When I insisted to the vice-principal that suspension was warranted, he protested that such action would require him “to answer some hard questions from the parents.”

For several years now, smoking has been banned on school property. It is the practice of bylaw officials to inform schools of the date they will be visiting for enforcement purposes. For a time at my school, however, when such a visit was pending, daily announcements were made warning the students that the ‘smoke police’ would soon be arriving. The common perception amongst staff was that these announcements were made to ensure that no student would receive a citation, thereby minimizing the chance of parental outrage.

A strategy of containment is at times practiced by wary administrators. On one occasion, a student who had urinated on the floor outside of the school’s photo developing lab was apprehended by a custodian. I subsequently learned that the perpetrator was ‘punished’ with a week of cafeteria clean-up duty, and when I complained that such an egregious violation of the school merited a suspension, I was shocked to learn that the offender’s parents hadn’t even been notified, as administrators were concerned that there might be “home issues.”

Bullying, despite board rhetoric about zero tolerance, is another problem compounded by administrative ineptitude. In one incident, a vice-principal told me I would be receiving a new student, three weeks into the semester, as she had been the victim of bullying in one of her classes. When I inquired as to why the administrator was victimizing her a second time by revamping her entire academic schedule instead of punishing the bullies, I was told that the identity of her tormentors was unknown. Two days later, I learned from a very reliable source that the administration did, in fact, know who they were.

Perhaps the worst example of administrative indifference to school safety occurred several years ago. A colleague was threatened with death by one of her students, which she immediately reported to the office. The student who made the threat was told that if he ever did it again, he would face suspension. The victim suffered tremendous psychological distress as a result of this event, and was off on a sick leave for a significant amount of time afterwards, fearful that the student would, in fact, carry out his threat.

In Part 2, I will discuss some of the effects of decisions prompted by policies of parental appeasement, avoidance, and concealment.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

School Safety - Part 3

Once more, I have included in bold print the parts that seem particularly pertinent to teachers. As well, the politically expedient comments of Gerry Connelly, the Director of Education for the TDSB, have been bolded. One fact the article fails to make clear is that any criticism of your employer can be grounds for dismissal, undoubtedly another reason for the culture of fear and concealment endemic in education.

Violent incidents hushed up, union says
January 12, 2008

Toronto's high-school teachers' union confirmed yesterday that educators are told by administrators to keep safety issues quiet for fear of damaging their schools' reputations.

Simultaneously, principals moved to tackle the hundreds of unreported violent assaults taking place on school grounds in the wake of a damning report on school safety.

Doug Jolliffe, president of the Toronto district of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, said union members are reluctant to speak out about violence because they are rarely protected by their superiors.

A culture of fear permeates the TDSB, Mr. Jolliffe said, echoing the conclusion drawn by criminal lawyer Julian Falconer, who led a high-profile investigation into the issue.

His panel heard from employees of the Toronto District School Board, who said that revealing violent incidents in schools, including robberies and sexual assaults, would be "career-limiting" because it would reflect negatively on the board.

Mr. Falconer was asked to report on school safety after 15-year-old Jordan Manners was shot to death at C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute in May.

The panel's final report, made public this week, describes the country's largest school board as rife with violent attacks swept under the rug.

"The principal's argument would be if this stuff gets out, it reflects badly on the school," Mr. Jolliffe said. "If it reflects badly on the school, then we'll have fewer students here. If we have fewer students, then we're going to lose jobs here."

The union chief added: "I don't agree with that, but that's what they say to people."
Meanwhile, principals met with the TDSB's director of education, Gerry Connelly, to discuss the report. Principals were asked to speak with staff, students and parents about what can be done to rectify the problem.

"One of my main priorities is to ensure that we have a culture of trust and openness," Ms. Connelly said.

"Fear of reprisal ... was most unfortunate."

Unfortunate, but very real, Mr. Jolliffe said.

"We can't afford to do that any more. We need to figure out what we're going to do about it," he said. "We need to make our schools safer."

Friday, January 11, 2008

School Safety - Part 2

The findings of the school safety panel investigating violence in the Toronto District School Board were reported in today’s Globe and Mail. Teachers, I think, will see the almost universal truth expressed in the section I have placed in bold print.

Fears of career suicide stopped educators from reporting violence

From Friday's Globe and Mail
January 11, 2008 at 4:01 AM EST

Teachers and school staff are too intimidated to speak out about violence in Toronto's public schools, a damning report charges.

A school safety panel revealed yesterday that employees of the Toronto District School Board told them they feared that revealing school safety issues or anything that would reflect negatively on the board would be "a career-limiting move."
As a result, hundreds of incidents that should have been reported were not. This "culture of fear" led to a failure of the system and its overseers to protect students from violence, including robberies and sexual assault, on school grounds, the report said.

"Jordan Manners died on May 23, 2007, of flat neglect, pure neglect," panel chair Julian Falconer said yesterday, referring to the 15-year-old whose shooting sparked the inquiry.

The panel's findings had officials at Canada's largest school board facing uncomfortable questions about why so many violent incidents go unreported, and why it took the death of a 15-year-old to prompt a review of school safety.

"I think that until [the Jordan Manners shooting] happened, we probably thought we had a pretty good handle on it," said John Campbell, chair of the TDSB. "And I think what that did is it really drew attention to the fact that we didn't have a very good handle on it."

Mr. Falconer said many officials within the school system are too intimidated to report violent incidents. Many of the school officials interviewed by the panel refused to go on the record for fear of reprisal.

"People are afraid and it's not just students; it's teachers," Mr. Falconer said.
Toronto District School Board officials hastily convened a press conference yesterday. Both the School Community Safety Advisory Panel's final report and the press conference were scheduled for early next week, but the report was leaked to virtually all the city's major news media outlets on Wednesday.

The panel - led by Mr. Falconer - was asked to report on school safety after Jordan was shot to death at C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute in North York.
The report, which is almost 1,000 pages, describes the country's largest school system as rife with violence, including robberies and sexual assaults - all unreported by school officials.

The lack of reporting is the biggest problem the board must deal with, according the Manners family's lawyer.

"That is one of the greatest concerns," said Courtney Betty. "That code of silence continues to be maintained."

Mr. Betty said it remains to be seen the extent to which the TDSB will continue the "mirage" that everything is all right within the school system.

Jordan's mother, Laureen Small, is especially upset that a summary of the report was not given to her in advance, the lawyer said. Ms. Small found out about its contents from news stories yesterday.

Since Jordan's killing, Mr. Betty said, no one from the TDSB has contacted Ms. Small to express condolences.

Gerry Connelly, the TDSB's director of education, said that while the school board's own information shows that students feel safe in their schools, the report clearly indicated more work is needed.

"With respect to weapons, with respect to violence, with respect to sexual assaults: our students and our staff must feel clearly, absolutely safe and they must feel empowered to report any incident or suspicion that comes to their notice."

The school board is piloting a "Safeline" that students can call anonymously 24 hours a day to report incidents.

But Mr. Falconer said there is no "quick fix" to the board's problems.
"You could fill a Home Hardware with the amount of knives kids bring to school, but we don't find them," he said.

Since Jan. 13, 2006, the panel says, it found 177 violent incidents in schools across the district, including gun incidents, robberies and sexual assaults. During its inquiry, the panel came across allegations of a gang sexual assault of a Muslim female student at C.W. Jefferys.

At Westview Centennial Secondary School near the corner of Jane and Finch, 29 female students said they had been victims of major sexual assault at the school in the past two years, according to the report.

The panel issued 126 recommendations, including that the board employ canine units to sniff out weapons in a "non-intrusive" manner.

The panel also calls on the Ministry of Education to strike a task force on implementing the recommendations.

Education Minister Kathleen Wynne would not comment on specific recommendations in the report, saying she needed more time to study it. However, she said the ministry will fund more social workers and counsellors and continues to pump more money into the school system.

"There's always more to do," she said. "We've been changing the funding formula every year."

Some of the panel's other recommendations received mixed reviews.
A Toronto police officer questioned a proposal for each school to set up a "student hot-line," manned by pupils familiar with such issues as bullying, augmented by a TDSB-created website allowing students to relay anonymous crime-related tips.
Such tip lines are already in place, albeit in different forms.

"And we don't need to reinvent the wheel," said Constable Scott Mills, who runs Toronto's Crime Stoppers school program.

Constable Mills said he offered to speak to the Falconer panel, but none of its members got back to him.

At C.W. Jefferys yesterday, students didn't seem too concerned about the dire condition the report says their school is in. However, some said that students simply don't talk about violent incidents.

"The reputation going around is: when you talk, you're basically a snitch," said student Chandé Wilmot. "[People worry] that they might get beat up."
With reports from James Bradshaw, Timothy Appleby and Anthony Capuano
Violent acts

Examples of violent incidents involving Toronto public school students:
February, 2006 - A high-school student was in a laneway behind the school passing a rifle back and forth with another student. Shots were fired into a window at the back of a house.

February, 2006 - Two female secondary-school students were in a conflict over a boy. One girl brought a knife to school and used it to threaten the other girl. Police investigated and cautioned the girl with the knife. The school issued a 20-day suspension.

April, 2006 - Five secondary-school students robbed another student of his MP3 player at the back of the school. The victim was searched for money but only had 25 cents in his wallet, which the suspects took. All five students were arrested and charged with robbery.

September, 2006 - A male secondary-school teacher entered the staff washroom and caught two students engaged in a sex act. Both students were taken to the office and the administration called the police. Even though the sex act was determined to be consensual, criminal charges were laid against the male student because of the age of the female. The school was to discipline the female student.

March, 2007 - A male student at a high school tried to drag a female student into the washroom to perform fellatio. She broke free and ran to the principal. When arresting the male, police found 10 dime bags of marijuana.

May, 2007 - A student brought a BB gun to school and shot at two students. The student was charged by police.

September, 2007 - Several boys were allegedly involved in the sexual initiation of a female high-school student, who told a teacher about the incident. Police are investigating.

November, 2007 - A secondary-school student assaulted another student with a knife on school property. Police arrested the student and told him to keep away from the school. The principal issued a 20-day suspension pending possible expulsion.

Source: The Road to Health: A Final Report on School Safety

Thursday, January 10, 2008

School Safety

Below, I am posting the latest news about the Toronto District School Board and its culture of concealment. One would be naïve, however, to think that the failure of administrators to report assaults is unique to that board. I remember an incident in my own career a few years back when the vice-principal informed me that a student would be joining my English class three weeks into the semester. I was told that the student had been a victim of bullying in one of her classes, and therefore her entire schedule was being rearranged so she would no longer be in the class where the bullying took place. When I asked the vice-principal why this student was being victimized a second time by having her schedule disrupted, she said, “Lorne, I’m trying to save this girl.” When I asked why the people responsible for the bullying weren’t being punished instead, she claimed that she didn’t know their identities, something I found hard to believe. Two days later, a guidance counselor confirmed to me that the v.p. had been lying in claiming not to know their identities. Similarly, you will read of administrative cravenness and ineptitude in the story that follows. I have put the most pertinent parts in bold print.

Report describes 'culture of fear' in TDSB
Hundreds of assaults go unreported

January 10, 2008
The Toronto District School Board should consider purchasing and using firearm-detecting K9 units, according to one of the recommendations of the School Community Safety Advisory Panel report - a document that paints perhaps the grimmest picture yet of Toronto's public schools, rife with hundreds of violent, often unreported, assaults.

The panel's final report - set to be released in a few days, but obtained by The Globe and Mail yesterday - weighs in at almost 1,000 pages and describes not only numerous violent incidents but a pervasive culture of silence among students, staff and principals when it comes to reporting those incidents.

"This culture of fear, or culture of silence, permeates through every level of the TDSB," the report says.

"There is a community-wide crisis of confidence in the ability of the TDSB to ensure violence-free and weapons-free environments in all of its schools," it says.

The panel was set up by the TDSB after the shooting death of 15-year-old Jordan Manners last May at C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute in North York. The final massive report comes after the panel, headed up by respected criminal lawyer Julian Falconer, asked for and received several budget and timeline extensions.

The report's findings show a shockingly high number of violent school incidents.
Since Jan. 13, 2006, the panel says it found 177 violent incidents in schools across the district -- they include gun incidents, robberies and sexual assaults. The panel found there were guns in select schools across the city "in non-trivial numbers."

At Westview Centennial secondary school near the corner of Jane and Finch, the panel found that one of every three female students said they have been the victim of sexual harassment at their school over past two years. Almost 30 per cent of female students at the school said they had experienced unwanted sexual contact over that period of time.

Twenty-nine female students said they had been victims of major sexual assault at the school.

At C.W. Jefferys, almost 20 per cent of female students said they had been the victims of sexual assault, the report said.

One of the most shocking side effects of the panel's investigation over the past few months was the discovery of the alleged sexual assault of a female Muslim student at C.W. Jefferys. The final report sheds more light on the incident, which took place in October, 2006.

According to the report, several students approached a female teacher to report that a Muslim girl had been sexually assaulted in the second-floor boys washroom by a group of boys.

"The students came forward because they were concerned that the boys involved were targeting girls who were unpopular and isolated," the report says.

The female teacher and the students told a vice-principal about the alleged attack, but neither police or her parents were informed, the report says.

As more students heard about what happened, however, the female student was further harassed by other students, although steps were taken to curb abuse, the report says.
The female student was eventually transferred to another school at the request of both her and her father. But no steps were taken to remove the alleged attackers from school, the report says.

The former principal and two vice-principals at C.W. Jefferys have been charged under Ontario's Child and Family Services Act with failing to report an alleged sexual assault on a student, Toronto District School Board education director Gerry Connelly confirmed this week, before the final report's release.

Some of the report's recommendations are almost as sensational as some of the findings.

"The TDSB should take immediate steps to ensure that adequate security measures are employed to ensure all potential storage areas for weapons (including lockers) are the subject of regular non-intrusive searches," the report says.

Consideration should also be given to random usage of TDSB-owned K9 units that specialize in firearm detection, the panel advised.

The panel also recommended the provincial government amend the education act to create a mandatory reporting obligation for all school staff when it comes to such violent incidents.

Schools with high suspension, expulsion or dropout rates should be staffed with full-time social workers and youth workers, the panel advised - TDSB should also hire 20 new full-time social workers dedicated to high-priority schools.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Nemesis is Sometimes a Sweet Thing

As much as I would like to claim personal magnanimity and say I take no pleasure in the misfortune of others, the story from today’s Globe and Mail that I am reprinting below made my day in its exposure of administrative duplicity. As anyone who has taught for any period of time will know, management, ranging from school to senior administration, frequently has a seemingly endless capacity for concealing things that reflect badly on their schools. I attribute this to the likelihood that the people who are attracted to management tend to be political, and I mean that in the worst sense of the word. In any event, my prediction is that unlike teachers who might have done the same thing, these administrators will not lose their jobs. In fact, one of them mentioned in the article has already retired. But that double standard is perhaps the basis of a future post.

C.W. Jefferys staff charged with failing to report alleged assault
From Tuesday's Globe and Mail
January 8, 2008 at 4:36 AM EST

Days before the release of a report on safety in Toronto schools, three senior staff members at the high school that spawned the inquiry face troubles of their own.
The former principal and two vice-principals at C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute have been charged under Ontario's Child and Family Services Act with failing to report an alleged sexual assault on a student, Toronto District School Board education director Gerry Connelly confirmed yesterday.

Disposition of those non-criminal charges, however, will likely wait until the courts deal with the six young people charged in the alleged sex attack, in which a 14-year-old Muslim girl told of being assaulted in a school washroom.
Principal Charis Newton-Thompson and vice-principals Silvio Tallevi and Stan Gordon face fines of up to $1,000 if convicted. Ms. Newton-Thompson and Mr. Gordon are on paid leave; Mr. Tallevi has retired.

The sex charges stemmed from the investigation into the death of 15-year-old Jordan Manners, shot last May inside C.W. Jefferys, a 900-student high school near Keele Street and Finch Avenue West.

Two males aged 17 at the time of the killing face charges of first-degree murder.
Jordan's death prompted creation of a panel examining school safety issues, led by criminal lawyer Julian Falconer, whose findings are expected to be aired early next week.

Among other things, the panel learned of the alleged attack on the girl, in which she is believed to have been lured inside a school washroom in October, 2006, and forced to perform oral sex on one or more boys while the others kept watch.

The six youths have been charged with gang sexual assault, forcible confinement and conspiracy to commit an indictable offence.

The CFSA charges, in turn, reflect allegations aired at the panel hearings that school staff became aware of the washroom incident but failed to report it to police or the Children's Aid Society, as the law requires with allegations of physical or sexual assault.

"Following policy, we sent the three administrators home and notified the police," Ms. Connelly said yesterday. "Now they've charged the three a

Saturday, January 5, 2008

What do Writers and Teachers Have in Common?

With the Writers Guild strike showing no signs of coming to an end, largely due to the studios’ refusal to restart negotiations, I have been thinking of the parallels that exist between writers and teachers. Surprisingly, we have much in common.

1. Without writers, there would be no entertainment industry. Similarly, teachers are the lifeblood of education, a self-evident truth to most, but often an apparently arcane concept to ‘the bosses.’

2. The entertainment bureaucracy, including studio heads and production companies, is most reluctant to adequately remunerate writers, without whom their lavish (some would say profligate) lifestyles would not be possible. Again teachers, gross financial disparities aside, are rarely rewarded even with praise or sincere acknowledgement by boards and administrators, who seem eager to take most of the credit for success and none of the blame for failure.

3. Both writers and teachers need to be creative, imaginative, even inspired to succeed in their professions. What masquerades as imagination in both the entertainment and education chain of command is frequently merely uttering platitudes and 'buzz' words or following trends,

4. The upper echelon of both the entertain industry and education is rife with demoralizing arrogance. (See #1, 2, and 3 above, and just try talking to them.)

5. Writers and teachers, when they are doing their best work, can have real impact on people. Bosses ‘take meetings.’

6. When they retire, teachers and writers can take some satisfaction in their body of work. Mercifully, many of the bosses lack the capacity for real self-reflection, sparing them the realization of how they have wasted their lives.

Friday, January 4, 2008

The Search for Meaning – Realizing a Sense of Community

One of the biggest arguments for the existence of taxpayer-supported schools, as opposed to private schools, is that, due to the diversity of social and economic classes present, students learn about the realities of our pluralistic society and thereby develop a sense of community that extends beyond their own backgrounds. In many ways, inculcating this sense of community is key to developing a better world.

A while back I had an article published based on an environmental questionnaire I developed to help the reader determine whether he or she has that sense of community along with the realization that even small steps can effect big changes in the world. What follows is a slightly amended version of that article:

… As a world community, we need to realize that each of us makes daily choices and decisions that either worsen or lessen our negative impact on the world, and that the power of individuals working toward a common goal is not to be underestimated.

To help clarify your own outlook, take the following questionnaire:

Environmental science tells us that idling cars contribute tremendous amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. Instead of idling your car for five or more minutes while slowly approaching the window of your favorite drive-through, are you willing, once a week, to make coffee at home and put it in a readily available thermos cup? You can still enjoy your caffeine fix, yet at the same time save some money, time, and air quality.

At least once a week, are you willing to use a clothes drying rack instead of the dryer? This readily available inexpensive device requires only three or four minutes to arrange one’s wet clothes on. The benefits: reduction of hydro usage, the saving of money, and, especially in winter, adding some much-needed moisture to the air inside the home.

When the time comes to replace your lawnmower, will you consider an electric, as opposed to a gas powered model? Studies suggest that the latter, operated for one hour, emits pollution equivalent to driving a car about 160 kilometers.

Will you replace your conventional light bulbs with energy efficient fluorescent ones? They can be a real money saver over the long run and improve our air. It has been estimated that having at least one such bulb in every Canadian household would be the equivalent of removing 60,000 greenhouse gas-emitting cars from our roads.

Will you carpool to work at least once a month?

Will you turn down the temperature on the water heater (a task simple for even the most technically challenged, a group I sheepishly admit to being a member of)?

Are you willing to regularly turn out the lights in unoccupied rooms?

Will you alter the power settings on your computer so that the monitor, the largest consumer of power on the PC, turns off after 5 or 10 minutes of inactivity?

When the time comes, are you willing to buy a smaller, more energy efficient car?

If you were renovating or building a new bathroom, would you be willing to substitute a low-flow toilet that uses only 6 litres of water as opposed to a conventional one that uses 13 litres per flush? This environmentally sound technology will likely also save you over $100 per annum in water costs, by the way.

Your Score:

If you answered yes to 7-10 of the questions, the chances are that you are environmentally aware and are willing to take steps to reduce your ‘environmental footprint.’

If you answered yes to 4-6 of the questions, you are probably moving in the right direction and should read more about environmental issues at websites such as David Suzuki’s (www.davidsuzuki.org).

If you answered yes to less than 4 of the questions, you are probably more concerned about your own immediate comforts and conveniences than you are about the health of your children, your grandchildren, and the future of the planet. Try to start cultivating a sense of community.

Readers will probably have noticed that most of the measures found in the questionnaire entail very little personal sacrifice or inconvenience. In adopting several of them, our lives can go on pretty much as they always have. However, over the course of time, we may discover that we are profoundly changed because our relationship with the world has changed. Indeed, perhaps the greatest collateral benefit of embracing conservation is the forging of a sense of community, the awareness that what we do has an impact, not just on ourselves and our families, but on the larger world as well. With it may come the understanding that despite the environmental shortcomings of our governments and our businesses, we have within ourselves the power to make a real difference.

The final question to be answered is, “Are we willing to exercise that power?”

Thursday, January 3, 2008

The Search for Meaning – The Possibilities

As I mentioned in a previous post, the job of teaching can be an all-consuming one, often with few psychological rewards. In my first year of retirement, I intentionally avoided making any long-term commitments on my time since, for the first time in many years, I had the prospect of unstructured time. During that year, I did some house redecorating, a great deal of reading, honed my crossword puzzle skills, started this and my book review blog, and worked on a small research contract. All in all, not a bad introduction to retirement. Since the fall, however, (once a teacher, always a teacher – I think I‘ll always regard the fall as the start of the year!) I’ve begun to consider the real possibilities and opportunities that the freedom of retirement provides. In October I started to do some volunteering.

During my working life, for the most part the only volunteering I did outside of helping prepare an annual meal that my wife organizes for a local shelter and drop-in centre was within the context of the teaching profession. I sat on committees both within the school and with the local branch of OSSTF; I never regarded those activities as particularly altruistic, given that they were designed to benefit the very profession I was a part of. As well, I never felt, given the time commitment that committee work entails, this was a particularly good use of my time, and afforded little in the way of personal satisfaction. I found the same to be true of a civic-minded committee I joined that sought to make a difference in the election of municipal politicians – ultimately it seemed to me time wasted. However, one personal benefit was the confirmation that I am the type of person who craves more hands-on, immediate results from my actions. God love those who enjoy the world of minutia, rhetoric, and glacial progress I identify committee work with, but it’s clearly not for me.

The volunteer work I am doing now is very hands-on and physical – helping to sort and pack food in a foodbank. Its immediacy is something I really enjoy, and I intend to stay with it in the long-term, but I am still looking for other meaningful activities to be a part of. My next posts will reflect some of the research and reading I have been doing in pursuit of that goal; I hope that these posts will not be seen as exercises in self-indulgence. I intend them only as a very small means of helping people see the many opportunities that exist for making a difference in the world and finding meaning in life.