I have to take a week off work which, as you can imagine, hasn’t been without its share of mental angst. Each day I wonder if I should be working on something, à la Christmas break, but then, also à la Christmas break, I decide: nah, and consequently I’ve been living in a state of just barely tolerable background guilt. Of course everyone would tell me, “Don’t feel guilty! You are supposed to be taking a break!” But the truth is, I would really be doing my future self a huge favour if I took advantage of this extra down time to do some mental work in the form of marking or planning. So I suppose I don’t feel guilty about not doing any work, per se, I feel more guilty for my future self who will inevitably be cursing my current self when it is sitting in front of a mountain of marking and planning and term one reports. So, naturally, instead of doing work I decided I’d write a blog post.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be working on the “front lines” in education. I lay awake last night musing about how every single person who works for the Ministry of Education is working towards what we ultimately do in the classroom every day. Every government big-wig, every trustee, every superintendent, every HR person, every administrator – they’re all working for what happens right in front of me day in and day out. They’re all working for the decisions I make, the actions I take, and the words I speak. And yet, somehow, I am the one with the least amount of pee breaks. If what I do is so important that these thousands of people work for the sake of it, why am I left all alone in the trenches with the rations and the head lice (literally)? If anyone has to show up to work on a daily basis, it’s us, the front liners. I could teach an entire year’s worth of curriculum in an empty factory without any resources, if I had to. It wouldn’t be pretty, but I could do it. In fact, I know of a lot of people who teach in some pretty barren conditions, without technology, resources, or even a classroom, in some cases. Someone posted today in the French Teachers’ Facebook group that her office is in a bathroom, and her desk next to a toilet. Those are getting pretty close to trench conditions.
The most frustrating part of being on the front lines is that those who aren’t forget very, very quickly what it’s like. I’m fortunate enough to have a fantastic Learning Support Teacher who admitted that after a year and a half she’s already forgetting. I can respect people who admit that. Unless you’re in the thick of it day after day, you don’t know how absolutely all-consuming it is to be solely responsible for twenty-five or more children all day long, all month long, all year long. When determining how much time off work I needed, my doctor asked me to rate my energy output at work on a scale of one to ten, and I said without hesitation, “TEN DEFINITELY TEN” and showed her all of my fingers to make my point. And I wasn’t just trying to get more time off. I really do feel that being in front of twenty-seven writhing, yelling, arguing, fighting, chatting, complaining ten-year-olds requires my ten out of ten. If I am feeling even one percent not myself, it’s utter hell. If I’m one hundred percent, it’s kind of fun.
What adds to the pressure is that, unlike other non-teacher Ministry employees, we are the ones who have to look the children straight in the eyes. Sometimes we have to look at them and tell them that they’re failing, when really it’s the system that’s failing them. We have to tell them that they aren’t functioning, when really it’s the system that’s not functioning for them – because every child is capable of learning, and every child is equipped with what it takes, but not necessarily the way the system asks them to do it. And even when we get to look a child in the eyes and tell them that they are succeeding, the system whispers but not enough and demands enrichment and next steps that, of course, must all be implemented by the teacher who would just like five minutes for a coffee. And because by nature we teachers are dedicated, giving beings, we work and work and work to repair the system, to hold it together, this system that places sometimes more than thirty children in the custody of one teacher who maybe didn’t get any sleep last night, or is going through a divorce, or has chronic back pain, or even a substance addiction, and who is just one goddamn human being. And the system demands that that one teacher differentiate and accommodate and modify to no end so that it appears as though the system is functioning, when really it is just the teacher forever patching it up by buying materials out of pocket, staying late, and tolerating way more than even a police officer would tolerate from a citizen. (Truly – just try spitting on one or calling one a bitch and see what happens. I doubt you’ll be filling out a THINK sheet.)
I don’t usually like complaining without a solution, and as far as I can see the only solution lies in our collective bargaining rights. Our current contract (that it feels we just finally negotiated) ends in ten months, and we have to be ready to fight the good fight. Too often I see teachers who are apathetic or just “happy to have a job” or feel that job action does more harm than good. But you can’t believe in minimum wage, health & safety regulations, and overtime pay, but not support union action, lest ye be called a hypocrite.
I remember a few years back when we were going through job action and we cancelled all extra-curricular activities, including the graduation dance. As a grade eight team we decided that we couldn’t in good faith put one on given the democratic disgrace that was Bill 115, and we were forced to look the students in the eyes (once again) and tell them we wouldn’t be organizing it. The students were of course outraged and even pitted us against the Catholic teachers who had already negotiated a contract thanks to the “Me Too” clause. Another teacher, however, decided that she would put on the dance herself, despite our position, for the sake of those children. Cancelling that dance was awful for us, and I think more tears were shed by the staff than the students. But we knew that a grade eight dance was a blip on the continuum of educational reform. I understand why that teacher felt compelled to provide the dance for the students, having taught them once, especially since she promptly retired the next year and didn’t really have anything to lose. The thing is, because we stopped putting on the graduation dances, the parents took over, and it ended up being a win-win situation since the parents were happy to be a part of the process and the teachers were happy to be able to focus on the graduation ceremony itself and not have to chaperone a dance until 11 pm the night before the last day of school.
I’m not trying to pit any teachers against each other – that’s the very last thing we need. But I have to be frank when I say that if you’re not supporting our union, you’re really not helping to make things better, in the grand scheme, even though maybe it feels more altruistic at the time to tell the students currently sitting in front of you “yes” instead of “no”. And I’m not going to say that I agree with all union decisions and actions, because some of them have been downright bogus. But I do strongly believe in our collective bargaining rights, and as the front line workers we really have the power to make change, if we stay unified.
We live in an age where mental stress is the new physical stress. Physical health and safety regulations are relatively new, believe it or not, and I for one am extremely grateful that they ensure safe working environments for all of us (sometimes to a fault – why can’t I store my bins up there??). I think we’re entering an age where we need to fight for our mental health and safety, because I see it suffering everywhere, from the students to the teachers to the administration. A therapist told me that teachers currently make up his greatest clientele, and that tells me that our working conditions, be they physically safe, have become too hazardous to our emotional well-being. I don’t know the national stats, but when I think of the people I know first hand, more seem stressed out than not. Many take medications for anxiety or depression. We can’t keep keeping calm and carrying on because it’s not working, as much as we’d like that cute saying to fix things. Because we are one of the largest (or the largest? I forget) unions in Ontario, we have the power to set precedents for other work environments, and I’m sure conditions must be similar elsewhere. We can be on the fighting, and winning, side of labour history, and let’s not forget this come bargaining time.