Change must start at the top, then work its way down
When policy-makers talk about funding models for public education, or about putting more money into education, they often talk about new “programs”.
Programs are useless.
As I’ve mentioned previously, programs don’t work. They are usually a flash in the pan. They’re a way for politicians to brag about the “innovative” new programming they’re funding, maybe they post something fancy on social media, and then everything returns to the status quo.
Our education system needs an overhaul, but not the type that our former minister of education suggested — He’s definitely no longer minister for good reason, so yeah, nothing like that. We need to go back further, back to the basics.
According to Statistics Canada, Government dollars make up 46% of post-secondary institution funding. This includes training and academic programs for teachers, administrators, and educational assistants.
That is where we need to start.
I admire and respect teachers
I always feel the need to add this caveat whenever I criticize our public education system, because teachers are obviously a significant part of that system. There are so many teachers who are equally frustrated with how our schools are (under)funded and operated.
There are many teachers who go above and beyond every single day, and who deserve so much more support, and better resources for their students and classrooms.
I always want to be clear that when I criticize our education system, that is what I’m criticizing: the larger governing bodies, such as our provincial government, and not the individuals within that system.
That doesn’t mean I always agree with, or even like, how teachers treat their students, but again, much of that can be traced back to how they were trained. That, as I’ve said, is where we must begin.
In Manitoba, teachers usually earn a Bachelor’s of Education degree. They must hold a professional certificate in order to teach in this province. (If there are teachers reading this, please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong. My data source is the government of Manitoba’s education regulations).
Despite the fact there are decades of research highlighting the ineffectiveness of — even harm caused by — outdated teaching methods, they continue to be taught in academic programs, and then implemented in our children’s schools.
An important name that comes to mind is Alfie Kohn, and if you’re a teacher and haven’t heard his name or read his books or essays, then please go do that now. Seriously, stop reading my articles (temporarily), and go read his first.
It is my opinion, but is one shared by many experts — and one that is well supported by the evidence — that we need to focus so much more on relationships in education.
“Students who live in caring relationships with teachers have greater academic success… Educators who have knowledge about their students are better able to teach them.” — Josette Luvmour
Due to class sizes that are much too large, and pressure on teachers to produce and prove their worth — rather than focus on actual teaching and supporting their students, the overriding focus is on classroom management and obedience.
Qualifications of support staff
Again, this is not a criticism of people working in schools — quite the opposite, in fact. It is admirable that people in Manitoba are willing to work in stressful, exhausting jobs in our schools when they are not supported enough, not given proper training, and are paid insultingly low wages.
This is especially true for rural divisions, who somehow get away with paying their EAs barely more than minimum wage. In the City of Winnipeg, the EA rate of pay is listed at $22-$27/hour, depending on education and experience. Not bad when the only qualification required is a high school diploma (I’m not kidding — I’ll get to that soon enough).
In rural divisions, however, the rate of pay is advertised at a whopping $16/hour for the same job, with the same (lack of) qualifications required. For reference, minimum wage in Manitoba is presently $11.95.
Everyone who works in public education is woefully underpaid. School support staff are also under-trained, under-resourced, and inadequately supported.
Worse though, the qualifications for working in a support position are so minimal because the pay is so low.
The province needs to make training or experience working with disabled and neurodiverse students, as well as educational assistant certification, requirements for employment. In order to do this, they must offer a higher rate of pay, commensurate with education and experience.
Certification is currently listed as “would be nice, but not required”.
This is not okay.
Our most vulnerable students, those who may need the most support, are then paired with those least qualified to provide it.
Not only is this morally and ethically wrong, it actually contravenes article 24 in the United Nations Rights of Persons With Disabilities Act.
This is not a knock on people who work as EAs. They have incredibly challenging jobs, made even more so by a system that clearly doesn’t value their role in our students’ lives enough to pay them a decent wage.
It’s not fair to anyone, neither the staff nor students, for unqualified and untrained people to be supporting complex students with complex needs.
This is especially true for students whose behaviours are not challenging, but their academic needs are, because they’re most likely to be paired with the least qualified staff or volunteers.
A child who is “well behaved” (in the school’s eyes, a.k.a. compliant) but has complex learning needs deserves just as much appropriate support and accommodation as a child whose behaviours are concerning or challenging for the adults.
A child with severe dyslexia, for example, may need support with literacy skills. An EA is neither trained nor qualified to support a student with exceptional learning needs, yet that’s who they get.
Yes, resource teachers (RTs) are involved in the planning for those students, but an RT has a huge caseload and does not have time to spend offering one-on-one instruction with every student on their caseload each school day.
In smaller schools (including our rural division), many RTs aren’t even full-time. They may teach part-time and only have half of their working day allotted to their RT responsibilities.
This is certainly not the fault of the EAs or the RTs, this is because our provincial government has not provided adequate funding and resources for school staff to do their job to the best of their abilities.
This results in overworked, burnt out school staff, and it’s the children who suffer most when school staff are stretched beyond their limits and exhausted.
Their teachers may be less patient and more likely to resort to punitive approaches, simply because they’re too tired to be as skillful as they normally might be.
Their EAs may be trying their very best to help them, but they don’t know how to support students with their particular needs because they’ve never been taught or trained to do so.
At most, they’ve been handed a support plan — much of which isn’t even realistic for that staff member to follow — again, because they don’t have the resources to do so.
Professional development and training
Once teachers are in their jobs, they get minimal professional development. I just took a look at our division’s calendar, and our school staff get 5 P.D. days this year. Five.
Since our Appropriate Education Programming Act (AEP) came into effect in 2005, neurodiverse and disabled students have been lumped into general education classrooms.
This often happens without any specific training for staff, and without providing supports for both staff and students.
Everyone deserves better than that, but this is essentially what many staff and students are faced with in the name of — or under the guise of — “inclusion”. Unfortunately these methods tend to set everybody up to fail.
Inequality and poverty
Speaking of being set up to fail, Manitoba has the second highest rates of child poverty in all of Canada at 28.4%, second only to Nunavut, which has a child poverty rate of 34.4%. The national average, as of 2019, was 17%.
Last year, our former Minister of Education claimed the Conservative government had reduced child poverty by 25% between 2016 and 2021. That figure may look nice when you offer it up without any context whatsoever.
In fact, Manitoba’s poverty rate decreased the least of any province in all of Canada, and we are still more than 10% worse than the national average.
This subject could be an entire article unto itself, however I did address some of these issues further in my open letter to the (now former) Minister of Education.
When was the last time (pre-covid) parents or caregivers were invited to come and observe their children’s classrooms? Outside of parent-teacher interviews, how often to teachers and caregivers communicate with each other directly?
From the beginning of my son’s education, I was given the impression that there exists a solid wall between myself and his school. I was invited in before he began Kindergarten, so that he could visit the school and become familiar.
After Kindergarten, the only time I set foot in his school was for parent-teacher interviews or IEP meetings, and the only time I heard from his school was when there was a problem.
I (still) don’t blame the teachers. If you have 30 students in your classroom, plus lesson planning, meetings, P.D., and extra-curricular activities — not to mention, perhaps a life outside of school — one person couldn’t possibly have the time to connect with each family on a regular basis.
Yet research has shown that positive communication between the school and home is one of the greatest predictors of children’s social and behavioural success at school.
When parents are included as an important part of their children’s education, this benefits both the student and school staff.
I’m not suggesting parents tell teachers how to do their jobs (I’m sure there’s enough of that already), but we do know our kiddos best.
Dear teachers, if we provide information about our child, it’s intended to help make your job easier, as well as benefit your student.
If there are concerns, please reach out. Most parents will be right on board with you and do what they can to assist. We may have some great suggestions for effectively supporting our children and may be able to provide important insights into our children’s behavioural or academic needs.
I want to make very clear that this is not simply the teacher’s responsibility. Parents have a responsibility to reach out when we have questions or concerns, rather than making assumptions. We shouldn’t let teachers to go in blind when they could benefit from information we can easily provide.
“Negative school climates occur when educators view students and their families as adversaries rather than valued partners. Students see the school as rule bound with discipline administered unfairly by adults who don’t really care about them.”— Redford & Pritzker
Long story short…
To summarize, rather than focusing on useless measures such as standardized testing, I urge our provincial government (and all policy-makers responsible for public education funding) to prioritize the following:
- Relationship-based, student-centred, inclusive education
- Update and modernize education and certification programs for teachers and all school staff
- Increase professional development and training for all staff, especially with regard to supporting neurodiverse and disabled students in an inclusive, student-centred way
- Address child poverty at all levels of government
- Improve home-school relationships: Make schools part of their communities rather than closed-off, seemingly inaccessible institutions
- Shorter school days and longer recesses!
(More to come on that last point very soon), so stay tuned…
© Jillian Enright, Neurodiversity MB
El Nokali, N. E., Bachman, H. J., & Votruba-Drzal, E. (2010). Parent involvement and children’s academic and social development in elementary school. Child development, 81(3), 988–1005. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2010.01447.x
Luvmour, J., & Luvmour, B. (2019). Relationship Based Education: Relationships and partnerships in educational environments.
Redford, J., & Pritzker, K. (2016). Teaching Traumatized Kids: How schools teach traumatized kids who struggle to learn. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/07/teaching-traumatized-kids/490214
Venet, A.S. (2019). Equity-Centred Trauma-Informed Education. W. W. Norton & Company.