Sunday, 12 January 2020

Finding a Patch of Sun

As the sun rose on the shortest day of the year our little dog managed to find a fleeting patch of it and opened his solar collector ears to get as much as possible.  In a matter of minutes it was gone to be replaced by days of grey fog over Christmas; there was something in that moment.

If you get to fifty without any scars you're not doing it right, and I have my fair share of scars.  I found myself struggling through another Christmas season feeling like the weight of the world was on my shoulders.  With a couple of weeks away from the emotional deficit that is Ontario education these days, I got some perspective and decided to try and make a conscious decision to find that patch of sunlight rather than dwell on the darkness.

The return to school started well enough, but you're not just battling your own negativity, you're also facing it in your students and colleagues.  With the end of the semester approaching and the system under attack from the elected representatives sworn to look after it, everyone is terse, but I was finding that my bonhomie was working.  I was able to calm and direct students, and when a colleague was rather unprofessional with my wife, I was able to help her through that too.

Yesterday was an epic shit show though. I got to school only to have my cell - which I'd forgotten in my classroom in a rush to get to the information picket the afternoon before - ringing off the hook.  It was my wife saying a snow plow had backed into her.  I rushed home to find the back window of the car blown out, glass all over the road and the 'C' pillar bashed in.  The plow had not only hit her, it had then pushed the car two feet sideways before stopping.

Alanna was ok but the kid driving the plow didn't say a word.  His supervisor showed up and then the OPP.  It was all very amiable, but in retrospect this was them trying to manage an obviously at-fault accident.  The OPP officer (who never gave us his name) gave us an incident report number and that was that.  The township guys shovelled up the glass and  I followed Alanna over to the repair centre in Fergus to discover we were already $500 in the hole for a deductible.  They then said it might be a week before they even start working on it, and we only have 7 days of rental car coverage.  Nice to know our second most expensive car insurance in Canada rates don't begin to pay for an accident that was in no way our fault.

Even with all that we were getting our sense of humour back as I drove Alanna to school.  As we approached the last traffic light before school I was in no rush and doing about 50kmh/hr.  I must have seen something in my peripheral vision because I suddenly found myself standing on the brake without knowing why as a mid-sized sedan blew through the red-light perpendicular to us.  I think we missed it by about fifteen feet.  At 50km/hr we were moving at about 13.9 metres per second.  Had I been moving at only a couple of kilometres per hour faster we would have been t-boned by that big, V6 sedan in our small hatchback and our son would have been an orphan.

None of this registered in the moment.  We were both already pretty shaken up by the morning and this was simply more nonsense piled on top.  We went to school and I got there about half an hour before my first class.  I spent most of that time sitting with my wife listening to the discussion with insurance.

With no breaks for the rest of the day I found myself unable to engage with my students effectively.  I told my seniors what happened and they went about their culminating projects and tried to give me some space.  I didn't tell my junior classes, but our head of student support dropped by and when I told her what happened she offered to cover my class so I could get some head space.  It was nice to hear someone acknowledge how traumatic a morning like the one I had was.  I didn't take her up on it and didn't pursue leaving.  I'm anxious about asking for compassionate leave because I don't have the greatest history when it comes to getting support while in crisis.

The next day I apologized to my junior students for being so short with them and found my way back onto the beam again.  After a weekend of biblical rain the sun rose on Sunday morning and the world had the colour turned up to eleven.  I just have to keep working on getting back to that small patch of sun, even when the world seems full of ineptitude and chaos.

Saturday, 14 December 2019

Dirty Vocational Subjects Sullying the August Disciplines

"just tell me what STEM is. Above all, I want to know how science, a byword for all knowledge, and mathematics, the great harmonies of the universe—two august disciplines that have defined education since antiquity—yoked themselves to the vocational field of engineering and, worst of all, to “technology,” which could mean almost anything from space mirrors to VSCO girls."

... I can't tell if Virginia is being faceitious or not.  Probably not.  Brains are paramount in academics, they may as well be in jars.
I wonder what Matt Crawford would say about this dismissal of manual intelligence.

As one of those vocational teacher types the 'august disciplines" have yoked themselves to, I'm once again thumped in the head with just how classist the education system is, but it was a bit of a shock to see WIRED advocating it.  I wrote about how there really is no such thing as STEM, at least in Ontario classrooms, in September.   Nice to see WIRED weighing in on the pedagogical smokescreen that is STEM, though I don't think they disentangled it very effectively.

Good to remember that not all academics are so prejudiced.

Mathematics (aka: 'the great harmonies of the universe') and science ("a byword for knowledge") are pretty much all STEM are about when it comes to application in the classroom.  There has been no real movement on technology and engineering in the high schools where we are.  All STEM has done is paid for math manipulables and fund science.  Technology and especially engineering are still an afterthought at best.  If you've been fooled by the STEM smokescreen to think that there is any collaboration between those august disciplines and the filthy vocational classes, you can relax, because there isn't.  If you want to be an engineer in university, take science and maths courses, because that's all there are in most high schools.

If you've ever wondered why technology students (and their teachers) feel disenfranchised in their own schools, WIRED has made that adundantly clear in this month's edition.  We're less than, we get it.
An op-ed piece on how the august disciplines that have defined education since antiquity have yoked themselves to vocational fields, along with a cover article about one of those vocational types who dropped out of engineering to make things.  WIRED's come here go away editorial stance is a bit hard to follow.
You'd expect academic types in The Atlantic to rip on skills based education in favour of their own university disciplines, but WIRED ripping on engineering and technology?  I'm at a loss to understand the end game there.  The philosopher in me wants to pull out Aristophanes' Clouds and take a swing at the hallowed halls of academia while the technician wants to point out that people were apprenticing in the trades millenia before anyone was throwing square hats in the air, if we're going to talk about what has defined education since antiquity.

STEM is indeed nonsense, and I don't disagree with a lot of what Virginia says about how the STEM smokescreen has gone down, other than to say that STEM never really happened at all for those of us at the bottom end of the educational value spectrum.

... because there isn't.  It's a just SM, as it's always been:

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Easy Money

Superpower...  and then gave it away.

There is a strong undercurrent of animosity about what teachers get paid and a lot of misinformation about teacher average pay. Like anything, it's more complicated than it appears. Here's my stab at trying to explain how Ontario teacher pay works, though the people complaining about it probably aren't interested in any facts:

The latest Ontario secondary teacher salary grid from my board:
To get your foot in the door on this grid you need to have spent 4 years in an undergraduate degree and then another 2 years getting your bachelor of education. If you've ever had any trouble with the law you're already out of contention. You need to have a clean criminal record to be a teacher.

Your average cost for a university degree in Canada these days is about $6500 a year.
So you’re about $40,000 in debt before you even get a whiff of that ‘super’ teacher pay. Ontario is (of course) one of the most expensive places in Canada to get your post-secondary education:

So that $6500 Canadian average turns into almost $8000 a year and your Ontario teacher is typically sitting under about fifty grand in debt to get onto the grid.

Six contract sections don’t exist for new teachers these days. From what I've seen, you’d be hard pressed to find any Ontario teacher under 30 years old who has six contract sections (full time equivalence - six sections is a full year of work). It’s fair to expect most teachers to take 5-6 years to get to full contract these days, many give up on the process. There are a number of teachers who, for various reasons, never get to six contract sections and are part time throughout their career.

It takes the typical Canadian
student 10 years
 to get out
from under student loan debt,
so I put that in too - but didn't
count the ongoing debt required
to pay for your teacher training.
Remember that salary grid? To get up the sharp end of it you need to have an honours degree in what you’re teaching and then take additional qualification (AQ) courses after teaching experience to earn your ‘honours specialist’ and get into the top ‘level 4’ section of the salary grid.

A number of teachers never get there because they don’t have the university background or aren’t willing or able to spend thousands more dollars when they aren’t teaching to get additional qualifications. You can look up any teacher on OCT to see what their qualifications are and whether they’ve spent more of their own time and money to get additional qualifications:

So, to get up to the top end of the teacher’s salary, currently $96,068 in my board, you need to have dropped at least fifty grand on university degrees plus another couple of thousand on honours specialist additional qualifications. Most teachers don’t stop there and get other AQs in other specializations as well (I have 2 other subjects I've AQ'd in as well as my honours specialist).

Because of all these variables, calculating what the actual average teacher salary is in Ontario is a tricky business, which is why no one has bothered, but I'll give it a go:

Your first year you're teaching as an occassional teacher at the bottom of the grid. Let's be wildly optimistic and say you're teaching six sections (full time) on a short term contract, but many aren't. From years 2-6 let's say you're getting one contract section a year and are still able to fill up the rest of your time table with short term contract jobs (again, many aren't). Let's assume you've got an honours degree in what you're teaching. In your third year you drop another couple of thousand bucks on getting your honours specialist and move up to level four on the salary grid and keep climbing year over year.

That eighty-three grand average is mighty optimistic.  It ignores the endemic under-employment in new teachers these days.  It also ignores maternity leaves and any other family or medical leaves that happen in people's lives as well as the fact that a sizable portion of teachers never get to that level four on the grid.  I'd estimate that the average Ontario teacher is making something more like seventy grand a year, with many making substantially less.

Wild eyed conservative leaning reporters will bleat on and on about how the average Ontarian should rise up against these overpaid teachers, but when you look into statistics around pay and education level, the typical degree carrying Ontarian makes about $85,000 a year. Your average teacher salary is significantly less than that:
Playing that rhetorical game and equating people who have spent years of their lives and tens of thousand so their own dollars to earn a qualification with people who haven't is a nasty bit of neo-con politics.  The people playing that game are trying to sell you on equality when they're actually selling the opposite.  We live in a society that rewards dilligence, competence and effort, don't we?  We want our dentists to be able to fix teeth, our mechanics fix cars and our teachers teach our children the skills they need to survive in an increasingly competitive world facing some very big challenges.  Professionalism matters, doesn't it?  Maybe it doesn't in our new, blue, Ontario.

The benefits and pension piece are another angle that gets a lot of air play.  I pay almost eight hundred bucks a month into my pension.  If everyone paid that much into a pension plan, they too would have a good one waiting for them.  The only difference between teachers and everyone else is that we're forced to do it.  My take home pay as a teacher only equalled my take home pay as a millwright from 1991 in 2015, after eleven years in the classroom and tens of thousands of dollars spent on training and qualifications.  I'll have a better pension when I retire as a teacher than I would have as a millwright (though National Grocer's millwrights were well looked after until they broke the union and fired them all in the late '90s).

There is another side to these conservative attacks on teaching that often goes unnoticed.  I'm always left with the vague feeling that there is some good old fashioned sexism implicit in the politics levelled against educators.  Almost 70% of teachers in Canada are women, and there is no glass ceiling in it because we're paid equally for the work we do.  I imagine this grates on the nerves of the manly conservative men who are looking for reasons to hate on the job and the unions that enabled this equity, but I gotta tell ya, most of those dudes wouldn't last five minutes in a classroom.

If you're able to handle the crushing student debt, the hatred of people who couldn't or wouldn't do what it takes to do the same job and have the resiliency to survive in classrooms (stats show that typically about 30% of people who do the degree work drop out of teaching), then teaching is a rewarding profession, and one of the few remaining that let you lead a middle class life.

If you think you can handle all that and don't mind being attacked and belittled publiclly by the very government you work for while producing educational outcomes that are envied the world over, then go for it, but don't ever assume it's easy money.  

I just spent most of the day making no money and walking the picket lines
for better learning conditions for my students while we all struggle under
an almost psychotically vindictive provincial government who seem intent
on hurting the most vulnerable students in our system.
Some stats to consider:
Ontario pays less per student for education than most other provinces while producing results that raise us into the top 10 world wide - but this is Ontario so expect to be attacked for that.
Canada is close to the world average in terms of education spending as a percentage of government spending.  Again, Ontario is the largest single system in the country, so we wag that dog too, but expect to be attacked for it.
In terms of cost we're pretty much neck and neck with the USA, but Canada is top 10 in the world, the US isn't in the top 30.  If you want to be acknowledged and rewarded for a job well done don't teach in Ontario.

What Finland is really doing to improve its acclaimed schools:
"We have learned a lot about why some education systems — such as Alberta, Ontario, Japan and Finland — perform better year after year than others in terms of quality and equity of student outcomes. We also understand now better why some other education systems — for example, England, Australia, the United States and Sweden — have not been able to improve their school systems regardless of politicians’ promises, large-scale reforms and truckloads of money spent on haphazard efforts to change schools during the past two decades.

Among these important lessons are:

  • Education systems and schools shouldn’t be managed like business corporations where tough competition, measurement-based accountability and performance-determined pay are common principles. Instead, successful education systems rely on collaboration, trust, and collegial responsibility in and between schools.
  • The teaching profession shouldn’t be perceived as a technical, temporary craft that anyone with a little guidance can do. Successful education systems rely on continuous professionalization of teaching and school leadership that requires advanced academic education, solid scientific and practical knowledge, and continuous on-the-job training.
  • The quality of education shouldn’t be judged by the level of literacy and numeracy test scores alone. Successful education systems are designed to emphasize whole-child development, equity of education outcomes, well being, and arts, music, drama and physical education as important elements of curriculum."

Still want to earn that easy teacher money?  Jump on in, the water's tepid.

Saturday, 23 November 2019

Bare Minimums

I've had a go at professionalism a number of times on Dusty World.  You might even call it a recurring theme.  Here I go again...

"Wha'dyou care?  You get paid whether we learn anything or not."

In one simple sentence a kid in my son's grade 10 applied math class might have just summed up everything that's wrong with Ontario and much of the Western world these days.  For the vast majority of people work is hourly wage labour, even when they're salaried.  They aim to do the bare minimum - as little as possible - and only what they're explicitly told to do in order to make as much money as they possibly can.  It's only in a world predominantly driven by this kind of thinking that a failed businessman can convince people to let him run a province like a business.

The conversations that kid hears around his home must be brutal and simplistic; take all that you can and give as little back as possible.  Capit
alism likes to play the Darwin card where it describes itself as the engine of competition that develops excellence by rewarding strength and destroying the weak.  You're poor because you're lazy or stupid.  You're rich because you're driven and smart, but that isn't the way of things...

Teaching is a profoundly challenging profession that demands
a lot from you because you're dealing with complex people.
If you don't like people, you'll struggle to do the job.
Where does professionalism stand in all of this?  When I told people about that comment at the recent ECOO Conference, the teachers there rolled their eyes.  There may be a tiny percentage of teachers who mail it in, but I can only think of one or two in my school, the rest consistently go above and beyond in order to try and reach their students in as many ways as possible.  Teaching is the kind of job that you make too difficult for yourself if you're not dedicated to doing it as well as you can.  The most miserable teachers I know are the ones with that minimalist approach who aren't very good at it as a result.

Learning isn't a linear production line where you can find economic efficiencies by grossly simplifying things.  It's a complex interaction between many people at once.  A good teacher is always going to be looking for ways to reach as many of their students as they can, partly because doing the job any other way makes it nearly impossible and partly because doing it well feels fantastic.  It's one of the reasons that class sizes really do matter; there is only so far you can stretch before you break when you're trying to differentiate and reach dozens of students at once.  Any profession has this level of complexity, but many of them are being managed by accountants with little or no understanding of that complexity.

A recent article by the Washington Post chases down much of the success enjoyed by certain education systems (our's included) in the world...

"We have learned a lot about why some education systems — such as Alberta, Ontario, Japan and Finland — perform better year after year than others in terms of quality and equity of student outcomes.

Among these important lessons are:

  • Education systems and schools shouldn’t be managed like business corporations... successful education systems rely on collaboration, trust, and collegial responsibility in and between schools.
  • The teaching profession shouldn’t be perceived as a technical, temporary craft that anyone with a little guidance can do. Successful education systems rely on continuous professionalization of teaching and school leadership that requires advanced academic education, solid scientific and practical knowledge, and continuous on-the-job training."

Collegial responsibility, trust, collaboration and rational direction in management seems foreign (and probably a bit frightening) to that majority of money minimalists in the world.  Work is work, you do as little of it as possible to make as much as you can.  If you're managing, you rip apart complexity and simplify the job at hand into something so abstract and simple that it doesn't actually work, but you've maximized profit.  If you're in business (or modern politics) you put on the blinkers and aim at the next quarter; this myopia is called called efficiency.  If you're in a classroom this kind of management is a disaster because you leave most of the class behind.  You save a little money now to spend much more later.  Mr 'what-d'you-care' in my son's math class is going to be costing us all a lot of money for years to come thanks to the values he has internalized.

The concept of professionalism can seem nebulous to the money focused minimalist majority.  It's important to recognize that this money fixation isn't necessarily a rich/poor distinction but an addiction shared by both extremes of the socio-economic spectrum.  The people who most idolize the wealthy are the poor and uneducated.  Even with that adoration, the gulf between rich and poor continues to expand as people struggling with money fantasize about joining their heroes in the one percent (the same people who are causing them to struggle).

How do you get wealthy?  By focusing on money beyond all else - as much as you can get while giving as little as you can, but what really matters is if you're already minted.  That's when you get into politics to protect your economic advantage.  Amazingly, it takes very little to convince people struggling in the system who idolize your wealth to then vote you into power.

Your place in this socio-economic spectrum largely depends on your circumstances, not on your plucky attitude.  The rich retain more and more wealth even as it moves further away from the rest of us because the system is designed to make money out of money more than it is to make money out of work.  Professionalism can act as a cure to this disease, but so few people are able to access it in a 21st Century where automation and overpopulation conspire to minimize human value that the idea of doing a job as well as you can without money as the primary goal seems antiquated.

What's left?  Do as little as you can for as much as you can.  A 50 in grade 10 applied maths is a fantastic return on investment if you have to do almost nothing to get it.  You've learned your parents' value theory well kid, they'll define you for the rest of your life.

Watch the middle class and professionalism melt away before your eyes.  Your arms are indeed getting shorter as your pockets get deeper - unless you're one of the ultra-rich who have gamed the system for your own benefit, and then gamed politics to convince that burgeoning majority of undereducated poor people to support your obscene wealth.

Professionalism still lurks out there in the corners, and you better hope it survives.  The professional doing the brakes on your car is (you'd better hope) doing the job to the best of her ability, not as fast as she can in order to maximize a pay cheque.  The professional nursing you in hospital is (you really hope) doing the best job he can in ensuring your care, not the cheapest one possible.  The teacher in your child's class (you sincerely hope) is doing the very best they possibly can to reach your alienated, confused and profoundly ignorant child so that they don't have a future dictated to them by your money myopia.

Professionalism is a way of looking past the blinkered and culturally emaciated world of money for work that the very rich and the very poor on both sides of a vanishing middle class are fixated on.  When you're a professional you do the very best job you can and society recognizes that value by looking after you because you give back much more than you take.  In any professional practice you're going to spend your own time and money improving your craft, that's what makes it professional.  To the 'training is what happens to me when I'm at work' crowd, that grade 10 math student's comment echoes their own experience.

The most frustrating thing is that anyone in pretty much any job could be a professional.  When I worked in an oil change shop in university, I quickly found my way into the role of service manager because I took the technical work very seriously and was always looking for ways to improve.  I read technical manuals on my own time and did more advanced work after hours in and out of the shop in order to improve my skills, and as a result had a perfect technical record.  When I was in IT it was the same thing - spending my own time and money to improve my craft.  I've always had trouble separating work from who I am because if the work is worth doing, it's worth doing as well as I can.  For too many Ontarians that sounds like a sucker's game, and that thinking has turned us all into suckers.

For the vast majority of teachers in Ontario there is no start and finish time, there are no weekends or holidays.  You'll find teachers spending their holidays and weekends at conferences and training, and you'll often find them working on a Sunday morning or Thursday night, marking or prepping lessons, not because they're on the clock, but because what they're doing matters much more than that.

I've gotten on planes and seen flight attendants who obviously take their jobs professionally and as a result I've had a wonderful flight that would have been misery otherwise.  I've seen mechanics who take the time to do a job right, even as their employers and customers whine about every penny they just spent to be safe in their vehicles.  I've seen professional drivers who take pride in their efficiency and effectiveness who you'd never see texting behind the wheel.  Professionalism should be something we're all able to access in order to find our best selves, but to make that happen we have to get off this insane money train we're on before it burns the world down.

Wouldn't it be something if everyone were a professional in whatever they did, and they were respected financially for that effort by society instead of being driven to do less for less to make a tiny percentage of us pointlessly wealthy?