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3 Reasons Why: The public education system is failing our children

There are 3 major problems with the publicly funded education system in Ontario: White supremacy, capitalism, and teaching training programs of Ontario.


First, it is a white centralized and dominated system from its construction to its execution and the team of educators making up the system. Being a one-dimensional system, it lacks perspectives and ability to grow into the needs of the actual representation of the diverse Canadian population. Second, the school boards of Ontario are operating like businesses with its main clients being parents but ultimately like every other publicly funded system in this country, the government being the one and only client to “please”. With that mindset, the children, OUR children are at the bottom of the pyramid and simply succumbing to everything and anything with no voice and nor power. Thirdly, I think to an extend Ontario teachers aren’t going into the profession fully ready for what is to come, compared to the preparation teachers receive in other education-leading countries. Added to the fact that many end up in positions of leadership, and yet are still educators therefore may not hold all the skills to manage such a huge system.


White Supremacy and Education


Renowned author, academic, lecturer, racial and social justice activist, Robin Diangelo wrote and published one of my favourite reads, White fragility. It is a great novel highlighting the defensive moves that white people make when challenged racially, characterized by emotions of anger, guilt and fear which makes cross-racial dialogues difficult. Acknowledging and accepting how the world began is an important step to deconstruct certain constructs that are getting in the way of rebuilding equitable and accessible systems designed to serve everyone. Our current education system like many others were built on stolen lands, with the exploitation of people of color. The racial frame since the world began has been that whites believed to be superior in culture, achievement and viewed people of color as less. Anybody that wants to believe that this social construct hasn’t impacted political views/decisions, the making of our social, economic, and cultural norms is choosing to be a fool. Diangelo described it well when they highlighted that “social institutions (education, medicine, law, government, finance, and the military) are controlled by whites, white dominance is remarkable and taken for granted” (Diangelo, 2018, pg.34). At the end of the day, the white racial frame is perpetuating both negative understandings of people of colour and positive of whites and their institutions. The alone, is why I am deciding to be analytic and critical of these same systems today.


I’ve been working as a social worker in Public Education in Ontario and have had the opportunity to see both how the public versus catholic systems operate (both publicly funded by the way). I can easily tell you that it is a white dominated system that doesn’t see or desire to see further than what they know (or think they know), which Diangelo described above. There is a glaring underrepresentation of BIPOC Education leaders in Ontario Public Schools adding to the lack of overall diversity in terms of educational backgrounds in leadership. Leaders (Directors, superintendents, principals, etc.) that I have seen were all teachers, white, often older, and dominantly male (and yet it’s a female dominated profession). I’ve been the only black person either in the whole board or in my role working with children and their families. This even more shocking in rural areas, as a kid told me one day that he didn’t know that black people could be therapists (yes, in 2021 this was said to me). I can say that the current board lucked out and somehow hired 3 black people: 1 social worker, 1 health & safety and 1 Speech & Language Pathologist! We thought about creating a BIPOC support group! But then again, that may arise of anger in some white folks in their fragility. When little black kids see me in hallways and lock eyes, it’s like they’ve witnessed the presence of a unicorn and their hearts fill with a sense of belonging and safety. When you try to explain this to white people, it’s a personal attack to their entitlement… “Well, we don’t see colour Lethicia” … ummm yes you do Nancy, you are not colour-blind.


Statistics have showed that 90% of school administrators in Ontario are white, middle-class in contrast to 29% who self-identify as BIPOC. The teaching workforce in Ontario isn’t remotely close to the representation of the demographics in Ontario or Canada as a whole (Abawi, 2021; Pollock, et al., 2014; Turner, 2015; Statistics Canada, 2016). The Journal of Education Policy and Leadership Studies published an interesting article on some of their findings on the subject. First, the barriers to representation: "the prevalence of Whiteness as a social and cultural norm is permeated from teacher education programs into school boards and informs gatekeeping mechanisms, specifically, access to permanent teaching employment and leadership positions. Whiteness is normalized throughout educational institutions and informs the culture and norms of the teaching profession and thus informs what discursively constitutes a ‘good’ teacher" (Morris, 2016; Solomon & Daniel, 2015; Pinto et al., 2012; Solomon et al, 2005). This mechanism can go as deep as into a whole new conversation about immigration and how difficult it is for minority populations to come to Ontario and “prove” their credentials to the Ontario Teacher College. Another reminder that “our” way isn’t established to be the “right” way because it isn’t the “white” way. The deconstruction of teacher-hiring policies in Ontario is essential to the advancement of the system and for real equity and inclusion to be obtainable.


Statistics have proven once again that levels of education aren’t the problem present within BIPOC communities, but rather the access to opportunities and opening of doors that are locked and protected by white power. In 2022, Statistics Canada published numbers that hopefully will get some attention. Out of the 1.2 million black people in Canada as of 2016, we represent a small 3.5% of the population, and an age medium of 29.6 years compared to 40.7 for the total population. Which means, we are in our core age group to be employed and working. In 2021, Black Canadians who were in this core age group were more likely than any others to hold a bachelor’s degree or higher (41.1%) than people who didn’t belong to a visible minority group (34.2%). In 2016, almost 7 out of 10 black adults had post-secondary education. Even within the reality, that we are educated and in the right workforce age, black Canadians continue to be left behind in employment rates compared to our counterparts. Make it make sense.


True Story of White Supremacy

Fasten your seatbelts… I want to tell you a story about our education system, which I have first handily witness, and then you’ll see why I am hesitant to taking the risk of letting this white society help me raise or educate my black children. There is a high school teacher in one of our catholic schools that mainly teaches religion high schoolers. This teacher has had multiple complaints made by students (the no-voice population that our system is supposed to serve) for teaching doctrines that were based on racist, homophobic, and hateful messages based in gender. A BIPOC student took matters into her own hands and stood up for herself and didn’t let the teacher continue to get away with it. A 40-page report was compiled by this student to prove how harmful the content she taught was but as well as the lack of integrity in the ways she taught it, which was sent to the Director of Education. Here’s a snippet some of the damage this teacher made according to that report

  • They told females (verbally and through actions) that male is the dominant gender, which explained why they didn’t pick on males in the classroom. They then created a currency in the classroom which was used to control behavioral obedience based on her irrational imposed rules. These rules decided who got money and who didn’t. Randomly of course, one would say, the females and/or BIPOC students in the classroom always had less money than the white males, even if they DID “behave”. Is this not the recreation of society in a small size sample?

  • They taught race theory from the angle that slaves had to be slaves and that indigenous homicides had to happen because it’s how the Lord our God designed the world to be.

  • They told girls that abortion, is a form of terrorism.

  • They would cut out liberal opinions in articles and give it to students with the conservative views solely to do homework with. Article topic: clean water on indigenous territories.

  • When students had liberal or progressive views in their exam answers, they’d be graded down… and if they wrote what the teacher believed to be the absolute truth, they’d get the marks.

  • They called females obese because their BMIs weren’t as perfect as theirs.

The list goes on and on and on…. Do you want to know what happened to this teacher? For the first 20-something years of teaching, nothing. I want you to reflect on the thousands of students she taught this way during that time. Recently, they were finally “investigated”. You want to know by whom? Probably their peers running this damn board with a high probability of having the same ideologies. You want to know what happened next? Not only did they keep her job, but they now teach high-risk students in resources/student success. This is the progressive, equitable, and inclusive schools leading educators are selling to the public. This is so scary for me. The worst part is, there has been significant emotional, and mental harm done to so many of these kids, showing up at my door every other day and nobody cares.


Furthermore, the BIPOC student who took matters into her own hands is now being shunned by other teachers and not supported in her learning as she should because of what? Outing a racist? What is wrong with this picture? This teacher is roaming around freely, continuing to perpetuate traumatic experiences both for students and myself (and probably some other staff). This is the domino-affect white supremacy has on systems. There were ZERO consequences for this teacher, and my own school administrator didn’t even have the decency to tell me “Hey, I know you’ve been involved in the process of supporting the kids associated with this teacher, so I wanted to let you know that she’s going to be coming back into the building again”. I had to find this out through a student. This is one of 100 stories. How many times does this reproduce itself throughout systems? If I don’t feel safe as an adult coming to the school, how must a 12, 15, 17-year-old whose brain and personality isn’t even fully formed be feeling? This is why the public education system is failing our children.


Education is a business and children are dollar signs

Even in a system of giving, educating, supporting, and putting little humans first, capitalism still wins. Children are dollar signs for your school boards, therefore keeping a parent happy means keeping the child enrolled with the board. It’s often less about what a kid needs, and more about how to keep parents happy while giving the Ministry desirable numbers. I want parents to know that if you are not paying close attention to your child’s actual education and what they are being taught in school, their emotional well-being and sense of belonging, your child could easily fall through the cracks. They spend 6-7 hours a day in an environment you have no control over, around adults you have not vetted, within a culture you did not partake in creating, so open your eyes and ears through the relationship you maintain with your child. You have a group of educators making decisions about your children without always having a full spectrum of understanding of your child’s needs.


Teachers don’t study child development, they don’t study attachment and connection, they don’t push their knowledge beyond curriculum delivery, classroom management and getting results that the ministry will reward…. With money. If they do learn these things and I’m misinformed about it than some teachers may just have poor execution skills of all those teachings. From a first-hand experience, educators don’t color outside the lines, it’s like they follow the same doctrine and are robotized to spit out curriculum to these kids and that’s it. This is even more apparent within catholic schools’ systems, using Religion and Faith as way to avoid certain conversations or perpetuate systemic discrimination & more. In 2022, Catholic Teachers are still scared to comment on LGBTQ+ community related questions from students?


When a child is presenting outside the “norm” it’s like educators lose all their abilities. Another big issue with this concept is the idea of “liability”. School boards do not want to be liable for your complex child’s needs. If your child suffers from a mental illness, a disability and/or concurrent disorders, as much as the school wants to “help”, they also don’t want the full responsibility if something goes wrong. Approaching crisis situations from the angle of “I don’t want to be liable” doesn’t allow enough sensitivity and emotional awareness to do right by most of these high needs’ students. We want you to enrol your child because we’ll get funding, but the moment they don’t walk and talk like we desire them to, you need to come and pick them up from school because we don’t want to deal with that. In a system of reward and consequence, I’ve seen too many students get punished for having a mental health crisis or being in distress. Research has proven repeatedly, that school is a protective factor for children, and yet, the minute something goes slightly wrong, they are told to go home. That’s the opposite of protecting children. If a student who struggles with mental illness is in crisis and wants to self-harm (cutting to be more specific) in the bathroom to get through the day, they are told to go home for a week. What is supposed to happen during that week? Will they come back fixed? So, we can keep them in the building? Self-harm doesn’t equal suicide attempt. Most youth self-harm to cope, not to end their lives. Instead of offering support and care within the school (protective factor) to help them cope in different ways, they are sent home. What messages are we sending?


Educators Readiness for the profession

When I started working in Education, I didn’t know that most roles within the system were occupied by educators. It’s over time that they introduced things like Psychologist, Speech & Languages pathologist, etc. Not that long ago, began introducing social workers as well. Despite this, the leadership positions are reserved to educators. Superintendents of education are all teachers for instance. Perhaps if leadership was more diversified ethnically but also professionally, there may be different outcomes. I’ve also been interested in the readiness of teachers for the profession in Ontario versus some other leading countries in education, such as Finland. In 2014, Angelica Mendaglio, McMaster University Graduate student, published her paper on a comparative review of mathematics educational strategies in Ontario and Finland, which highlighted the key difference between them to be how the jurisdiction train their teachers (Mendaglio, 2014). Finland is renowned worldwide for their teacher-training programs as it is identified as the main success factor for student performance.


Mendaglio (2014) explained that in Ontario, to become a teacher in secondary schools, pre-service teachers must hold minimally a 3-Year post-secondary degree with an 8-month teacher training program to obtain their Bachelor of Education Degree. (This changed in 2015, to become 2 years of teacher training program). In Finland, all teachers (primary & secondary) must minimally have completed a 5-year master’s program, with a mandatory research thesis. The Universities in Finland have departments of both education (research + education planning) and of teacher training. The purpose behind this approach was well articulated in the article by stating that the core goal of their program is “to impart the ability to make educational decisions based on rational argumentation in addition to everyday or intuitional argumentation” (Kansanen, 2003, p. 90). In other words, they are training professionals to make sounds decisions based on measurable outcomes and not solely on gut-instinct, which let’s be honest, is exactly what our school boards currently do. Research-based thinking is seen as actualizing this goal, and while both theory and practice are studied during the program, bridging the two is viewed as equally vital (Kansanen, 2003). Perhaps, Ontario teacher training could benefit from this approach!


Finland puts a lot of weight on specialization and expertise of a teacher teaching a certain subject which is a major difference with teaching in Ontario. Mendaglio, who completed her master’s in mathematics at McMaster, explains to us that “In Ontario, a mathematics teacher must have a postsecondary degree, but not necessarily a degree in mathematics; the qualifications to teach mathematics come from completing a certain number of postsecondary mathematics courses, not necessarily from fulfilling the requirements of any mathematics program.” (Mendaglio, 2014). She becomes quite critical of this phenomenon as she believes that in “the absence of a mathematics degree, there is little assurance that a teacher has a well-rounded experience in mathematics; they have demonstrated specific knowledge in only a few mathematical niches.” (2014). After reading her article, although focused on mathematics, I wonder what other subjects our Ontario teachers are teaching without the proper formal and rigid training as the one present in Finland that is contributing to their immense educational successes. I truly invite you to fully read her article, as she embarks on a journey to talk about the huge differences present even within the curriculum delivery in secondary school levels that are drastically more advantageous to their student bodies, more accessible and more equitable in learning strategies. I think we have a lot to learn from other countries!


As a mental health clinician who’s had to complete higher education, with a research component, I can tell you that there is a great deal of separation between a social worker with a bachelor’s and one with a Masters. Why? Because of the research and evidence-based practice that goes into the treatment and development of solutions in our respective specializations. Bringing our expertise to an environment like school boards, can be a huge advantage for the boards if only they tapped into it. Masters level social workers could occupy a more dynamic role within school boards if leadership (educators) utilized our skill set to support them in making those sound evidence-based decisions as mentioned above. But they don’t. If educators in Ontario used evidence-based practices, they would have understood that school is a protective factor and that perhaps we shouldn’t punish a kid and send them home because they had an emotional break-down and chose an unhealthy coping skill to get through it. You should see me attempt to explain this to a school principal. It’s like I’m speaking Gibberish and they are lost in the meaningful points I’m trying to get across. Guess what they do the next time there’s a crisis? They send the kid home… AAAAAAHHHHH I just want to scream for the top of lungs.


In conclusion, I truly do believe that being a teacher is such an important role in our society. More importantly, I think we are all teachers of something or to someone at a given moment in our lives. It is for that same reason, that I think it’s important to give teachers the training, the tools, and the wrap around they need to help our children be successful on all fronts. I’ve heard too many times some teachers say, “It’s like I can’t just teach anymore, I must be the counsellor, the parent, the friend and more. That’s not our job”. You are right, it’s not your job, but it is your moral responsibility to do right by kids. You chose to work with young minds still in development that need structure, connection, attachment, and a safe place to be all day away from home. Whether you like it or not, you are all those things and some more. More importantly, you are a safe place as a caring adult. Focus on that. Focus on being a caring adult in a child’s life, the more you do that, the better they can learn the BS you’re teaching them. We tend to forget that a curriculum isn’t important to a student, no one remembers what they learned in their grade 9 geography class. What they do remember (or should I say what their brains registered) is how to problem-solve, how to ask for help, how to work as a team, time-management, organizing thoughts, being responsible of their own outcomes, and more. THAT’S WHAT KIDS ARE LEARNING. They don’t give a shit about Algebra or whatever English book they’re reading for the essay. The relationships formed within your classroom, yourself as a teacher and the school community, is what they are socially learning the most from. So, this hardcore focus on curriculum in Ontario, has got to shift along with all the other things mentioned above today, if we want our future generations to succeed. I’m leaving you on this reflective note: How much curriculum do you think was taught during the last two years through this pandemic?


In conclusion, I truly do believe that being a teacher is such an important role in our society. More importantly, I think we are all teachers of something or to someone at a given moment in our lives. It is for that same reason, that I think it’s important to give teachers the training, the tools, and the wrap around they need to help our children be successful on all fronts. I’ve heard too many times some teachers say, “It’s like I can’t just teach anymore, I must be the counsellor, the parent, the friend and more. That’s not our job”. You are right, it’s not your job, but it is your moral responsibility to do right by kids. You chose to work with young minds still in development that need structure, connection, attachment, and a safe place to be all day away from home. Whether you like it or not, you are all those things and some more. More importantly, you are a safe place as a caring adult. Focus on that. Focus on being a caring adult in a child’s life, the more you do that, the better they can learn the BS you’re teaching them. We tend to forget that a curriculum isn’t important to a student, no one remembers what they learned in their grade 9 geography class. What they do remember (or should I say what their brains registered) is how to problem-solve, how to ask for help, how to work as a team, time-management, organizing thoughts, being responsible of their own outcomes, and more. THAT’S WHAT KIDS ARE LEARNING. They don’t give a shit about Algebra or whatever English book they’re reading for the essay. The relationships formed within your classroom, yourself as a teacher and the school community, is what they are socially learning the most from. So, this hardcore focus on curriculum in Ontario, has got to shift along with all the other things mentioned above today, if we want our future generations to succeed. I’m leaving you on this reflective note: How much curriculum do you think was taught during the last two years through this pandemic?


References

Abawi, Z. (2021). Race(ing) to the top: Interrogating the underrepresentation of BIPOC education leaders in Ontario public schools. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Leadership Studies, 2(1), 80 -92. DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.29252/johepal.2.1.80

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