Why the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Matters to Me

 

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On June 2nd, 2015, Canada produced the long-awaited Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, a document that includes 94 recommendations as well as an in-depth description of the history of the residential school as it applies to First Nations, Metis, and Inuit people in Canada.

The delivery and creation of the report was primarily anticipated and contributed to by the survivors of the residential school system and their families. While undoubtedly an important step towards intercultural healing, the incredible weight and specificity of the subject matter leaves some Canadians confused as to the relevance such an inquiry could have to our everyday lives as non-aboriginal citizens.

While still a political, cultural, and generational hot topic, the abuse and neglect endured by those enrolled in the residential school system should matter to the average Canadian for a very simple reason: everyone deserves the chance to have their voice heard and to share their story. That’s all. It is naïve to imagine that each and every one of us will have the time, energy, and desire to invest in a thorough perusal and analysis of the entire report. I strongly suggest you do read it, but in all likelihood, average Canadians will look at the recommendations with a vague sense of discomfort and, perhaps, a mental note to check their own bias and stereotypes towards FNMI people.

Instead of focusing on the politics, it would be much more beneficial to all of those involved if we would concede that we don’t know everything about Canadian history and allow the stories of a group of marginalized Canadians to be told.

It is a matter of pride as Canadians that we are kind and polite, and our responsibility as human beings to look after one another. And while there is no way that you or I can make right the things that happened in the past, we can take the time to hear the stories of those who share our land. Empathy goes a long way in this world and respect is never a bad thing. The average Canadian can contribute to the healing of those who feel broken and mistreated just by listening. There are countless avenues available to us to watch, read, or hear their history.

Instead of trying to wrap our brains around the colossal misdeeds and shocking numbers that make up the cultural genocide of the residential school programs, let’s take each individual as they cross our paths and open ourselves up to the possibility to listen. Perhaps in this small way we can help to change societal views and eliminate prejudice on a personal level.  After all, the goal of the Commission report is to facilitate improved relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians.  What better way to foster those positive relationships for the future than by building our own understanding of the past?

Educators, It’s Finally June. Buckle Up.

This is it.  Don’t get scared now.  That’s right, all of your hard-fought curriculum outcomes and carefully planned lessons don’t mean a thing anymore.  This month is less about education and more about survival.

You remember at the beginning of the year when the kids showed up with a sparkle in their eyes and you could see the blossoming potential in each and every adorable little student? No, neither can I.  While I’m sure they have all grown by leaps and bounds and achieved the goals you set for them during each reporting period, let’s be real: they have had enough of you, and you have had enough of them.  All that remains is one final report card, wrapping up a couple of units, a last concert, graduation festivities, sports day, parent-teacher conferences, a talent show, one more pizza day, two or three team meetings, outdoor school, classroom cleanups, yearbooks, a pd day, parent council meeting… and a fire drill.  Jesus, how many days are there in June again?

Looking at what you have ahead of you, I feel that it’s completely appropriate to approach the next 29 days as if you were heading into war.  Because that’s what it will feel like.  Battle.  Here are some helpful tips to prepare you for the horrors to come.  Teachers, Administrators, Ed. Assistants and Interpreters, let’s raise our battle cry.

Don’t let them see your fear

Children can tell when you’re off your game.  And, let’s face it, you are.  There is virtually no game left in the whole school.  The key here is to fake it.  Go to your happy place, put on some emotional war paint and mask the panic.  If you must cry at school, cry in the teacher’s lounge.  At least there, the kids can’t see you and you won’t be alone.  Cry in shifts.  Divide up the grade groups so that there is always someone to cover the Jumanji-esque chaos of the classrooms.  Take turns sobbing over your life choices and regretting your degrees.

Dress for a fight

Gone are the days of high heels and white blazers.  It’s time for beat up sneaks and sweat pants.  We all know what we will look like at the end of the day.  Don’t be encumbered by long necklaces that can be used against you by a particularly wily first grader.  Practical clothes are a must.  I suggest we all wear black for the month of June, both to commemorate our fallen comrades who are currently on stress leave, and to hide the tear stains.

Proper nutrition can save lives

Let’s all stop pretending we like salad.  Now is not the time for salad!  We need sustenance and a reason to carry on until the end of the day.  No more judging one another for the third day of cold pizza, or the more than occasional tin of Alphaghetti.  We eat what we can, when we actually get a lunch break.  No one will complain if there are donuts in the staffroom every day.  Admin, I’m talking to you.  It’s harder to cry with an apple fritter in your mouth.

Bring the weapons

The kids are more than restless.  They are insane.  There is absolutely no point in teaching them about the life cycle of the butterfly.  You know what’s a better idea?  Netflix.  Use everything you’ve got in your PG arsenal to make it through one more day.  I’m sure there’s someone on your staff who can help you bullshit your way through a connection between the Spongebob Movie and wetland science.  If you can keep them busy for even an hour, you’re laughing because after that hour is library and after library is recess and after recess it’s your turn to cry in the staffroom with a donut.

Celebrate your small victories

You know what I’m talking about.  When that kid throws his shoe at you, he hits you in the shoulder instead of the head.  Or when the girl in the back of the room throws up on her desk, you manage not to step in the vomit and ruin your beat up sneakers.  With every small win, take the time to pat yourself on the back for a job well done.  And take a swig from your “water bottle.”  Hey, do what you gotta do.

We all know this is going to be hell.  War is hell.  Stand together and we might just make it to July.  I leave you with the words of Winston Churchill, who understood what you are about to undertake.

“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

We shall never surrender.

A Letter to the Muslim Couple I Saw on the Train

In my life, there are a few decisions I have made that eat away at me and bring guilt bubbling to the surface of my memories.  Typically I am able to move past any mistakes I have made and grant myself forgiveness. In the last ten years, no other event has caused me as much regret as the brief time we shared together on a train in Vancouver.  I doubt that you even knew I was there.  I sat quietly in my seat and didn’t draw any attention to myself.  That, however, is what I wish I could take back.

You will recall (of course you will, how could you forget?) that it was late afternoon on a weekday.  The two of you, nicely dressed, middle-aged, typical transit riders, were already on board when I entered the car after getting off of work.  There were about ten other people seated at the far end of the car and, as the doors slid shut, I didn’t think anything was amiss until I glanced your direction and noticed you both ducked down in your chairs, your hands gripping the back of the seats in front of you.  That was the moment when the drunk, white man picked up his racist rant and started hurling insults and threats your way.  I watched him pace towards you and away again a dozen times.  Each time he approached your seats, he spat the most hateful, disgusting language as you cowered, refusing to meet his eyes.  I was sitting a few rows ahead of you on the opposite side of the train and had to turn around to look back at the scene unfolding behind me.  Your would-be attacker spent a great deal of time directly beside my seat and looked me over at one point, gauging my reaction, I suppose.  With each glance I stole your way, I could see that you were terrified.  Looking around the train, I saw uncomfortable, down-turned faces.  No one moved.

While the drunk stomped around and told you to go back where you came from, I considered my options.  I could confront him and tell him to stop harassing you:  I immediately disregarded this option based on his agitated state and my small stature.  I could move back and sit in front of you, a show of defiance and solidarity: Again, I thought it best not to provoke this madman further.  I could press the emergency strip above the window to summon security:  My fear here was that someone would come over the intercom and ask what the situation was.  My goal was to avoid detection and prevent myself from becoming the target of his wrath.  That same fear kept me from calling the police on my cell phone.

So instead, I did nothing.  I waited and watched you both escape at the next stop.  The drunk man got off too but turned and went the other direction, thankfully.  When the train started to move again, I watched you slip away behind me, the relief from the other riders was almost tangible.  Since that day, my inaction has settled in my mind and I have burned with the guilt of having failed you.  I could blame a desire for self preservation or mob mentality for allowing me to stay silent and still, or my youth and inexperience with such overt racism, but it doesn’t matter why I chose to let you down that day.  It is not enough that I wanted desperately to help you.  No amount of “I should have”s can salvage that awful experience for you.

All that I can tell you now is that I have learned from my mistake and I won’t ever allow someone to have their rights taken away the same way.  Whether or not you were or are now citizens of my country, you were here on our soil and deserved to be treated with the same dignity and respect that Canada should stand for.  Perhaps I didn’t fully understand the gravity and frequency of the prejudice Muslims face in a post-9/11 world.  While I don’t know how to go about mending ties, I do know how to conduct myself to make this country a better place for my child.

I am profoundly sorry that I allowed someone to verbally abuse and threaten you.  I apologize for forgetting myself and failing to act on what I felt was right.  I’m sorry that you had to experience something like that in a city that should be welcoming and inclusive and a country that prides itself on being kind and open.  I will not let fear dictate my actions again.  I know that there are others out there who are willing to stand up for what is right.  Be assured that now, I am one of them.

The Art of Educational Interpreting

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I have the very good fortune of working with a variety of skilled Sign Language Interpreters.  I don’t believe that there is a better environment to witness such a varied spectrum of ASL skills than in an elementary school. The range and energy required to be a proper conduit of information to the children can be astounding.  I count myself lucky that I get to watch and learn from some of the best in the business.

Educational Interpreters: Like regular interpreters, only crazier

In addition to being perfectly comfortable going full-tilt, interpreting a grade six lecture on the solar system or the history of aviation, Education interpreters frequently find themselves standing at the front of the gym, interpreting an assembly.  This may not sound crazy, but when you are charged with interpreting the Kindergarten class’s rendition of “Itsy Bitsy, Teeny Weeny, Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” for the whole school and a large section of the parent community, the crazy comes out.  They find themselves thinking deep thoughts and really delving into the meaning of some of the craziest things.  “What does Taylor Swift really mean by Shake It Off?”  It isn’t uncommon to walk in on a group of interpreters engaged in a philosophical discussion about the sounds of farm animals.

Educational Interpreters:  Like regular interpreters, only more exhausted

It is amazing to see an interpreter stand at the front of a class of brand new signers, Deaf children who have very little language, and practically stand on their heads to engage them.  While ASL uses much more pronounced facial expressions than hearing people typically would, Educational Interpreters take the cake for being animated.  It is incredible how high someone’s eyebrows can go up on their forehead.  Bigger signs for littler people means more stress and strain in the long run.  Man, these interpreters need all of the massages they have coming to them.

Educational Interpreters:  Like regular interpreters, but with more convoluted daily schedules

When there are multiple classes and many differing needs to support in a school setting, the life of an Educational Interpreter can be downright confusing.  With regular classes, music and gym involving different students, prep for assemblies and special presentations, and meetings, it’s a wonder these terps get any time to eat.  Normal days don’t stay normal for long and soon interpreters are being pulled from their regularly scheduled programming to interpret conflict resolution or other surprises.

Educational Interpreters: Like regular interpreters, only more amazing

I have witnessed some of the most incredible pieces of interpreting come out of my school.  From the most theatrical, full-scale performance of an opera, all the way down to story time for children with limited sign, Educational Interpreters consistently go above and beyond what is expected of them.  Without committed individuals in the school system, the students would be missing out on a valuable resource.

There is no substitute for a qualified Educational Interpreter.  They are marvels to watch and I am humbled in my ASL abilities by the depth of their knowledge.  Educational Interpreters, I salute you!

History of disability in Nazi Germany

The 27th of January marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.  The Nazi concentration camp saw the systematic murder and genocide of a staggering number of the six million people killed during the Holocaust.  While people around the world take the time to mark the event in their own thoughts and memories, I find myself pausing in remembrance of the people with disabilities who were among the dead.

The Hitler regime carried out a campaign of the forced sterilization of the “Useless Eaters” of the world.  This included the Deaf, blind, and those with physical or mental disabilities.  Eventually, 375 000 people would be sterilized by the Nazis to avoid polluting the Aryan gene pool with hereditary diseases.

by 1941, Nazi doctors performed upwards of 70 000 “mercy killings” on people with disabilities.  Those who were not killed were subjected to experimentation.

This darkest chapter in the history of disability serves to illustrate not only the terrible consequences of fear and ignorance, but also as a comparative tool to help us evaluate our present societal beliefs and values when it comes to people with disabilities. When I have bad days where advocacy doesn’t seem to be enough, I can take comfort that I am fighting for rights to equal access and education, instead of the basic right to life.

Forming Meaningful Connections Through Play

The most crucial step in any new relationship is establishing a trusting bond and meaningful connection with the other person.  This is true of any relationship including those within the classroom.  Having your students trust you is essential for any and all work that you do together.  Consider the establishment and nurturing of trust an investment in good behaviour that will, hopefully, see a decrease in negative behaviours as well as validating your position as a trusted adult in times of crisis.

In my experience, the initial connection can almost always be made the same way, regardless of disability or language barriers.  Certainly the medium and content will vary depending on the age and cognitive or motor functioning of the student, but I believe that the principle remains constant.  I have found this method particularly effective when engaging with young children who have limited language and children with trust issues.  Granted, the process can be slow and set-backs are to be expected, but the rewards outweigh any frustration you might experience.

How to spark a connection: Find out the student’s interest and pull interaction out of them.

After general observation of a student in a classroom or group-play situation, it usually becomes apparent what the student finds most engaging in that environment.  For example, for pre-school aged children, Lego, a ball, or a colouring page might hold their interest.  The activity is often an individual task that invites parallel play.  At this stage, it is important not to overwhelm the student but to insert yourself into their play slowly.  Sitting beside them may be as far as you can go at first, but by gently pushing the boundaries of their comfort you should be able to join in by handing them pieces of their game or rolling a ball towards them.  It is important to be as animated and open as possible without overwhelming the child.  This process may take several days or even weeks, depending on how engaged the student is to begin with.  Perseverance is key.

How to build a trusting relationship: Start from this jumping-off point and run with it daily.

Once your student is comfortable engaging with you in this way, try to expand their play repertoire by adding or modifying their games to include new features.  Try adding more Lego blocks, use different colouring tools or paper, or try different sports equipment.  The key is to keep the student engaged with you and enjoying your time together.  While not particularly academic, these activities pave the way for asking the student to participate in classroom activities.  What might begin with parallel play with lego in grade 1 can lead to research projects and spelling practice in grade 5.

How to sustain your connection: Continually invest in appropriate ways.

If you are lucky enough to have a student for any significant amount of time, it is easy and important to reaffirm your role in their life on a regular basis.  I like to try to introduce my students to new topics that I think would interest them and help them discover.  This doesn’t always have to be academic.  If I know that a student likes a particular movie or video game, I can suggest something similar or related for us to look into together.  If a student is interested in planets, I can introduce them to stars or black holes.  In this way, I am forming an association between fun discoveries or play and positive feelings.

How to throw it all away in an instant: Stop investing or abuse the relationship.

Unfortunately, it takes much less time to lose a child’s trust than it does to build it.  By demanding more of the student than you are willing to put into the relationship, the trust may crumble and leave them jaded about adult relationships.  Other common sense things to avoid include embarrassing the child or becoming lazy with your interactions.  These are certain to earn you defiance and hurt feelings.

As always, maintaining appropriate boundaries with the child can be slippery.  Ensuring that your role with the child is clearly defined is essential to building trust.  Setting this up right from the start will help avoid confusion later on.

Imbalance of Power

A while ago I mentioned that I would be approaching my role as an Ed. Assistant a little differently this year.  In the past I have allowed others to take advantage of me professionally and I set out to put an end to this pattern.  Now that I have a few weeks of school under my belt, I felt that an update on my progress would be warranted.

There have been a few situations that I found myself in recently where a superior has asked me to perform a duty outside of my scope of practice.  The first time it happened, the new Principal at my school asked if I could interpret for her.  I found it easier than anticipated to say no to her request and she was apologetic and kind about it.  I didn’t find it necessary to pull out the Collective Agreement card and quote my union rep.  Instead, I have been left feeling empowered and confident in my relationship with the Principal and my ability to express concerns around my role.

Unfortunately, I had the opposite experience with my teacher.  There have been a few instances this year that he has asked me to step outside of my role for various reasons and each time I have been firm and told him that I wasn’t comfortable with the job he asked of me.  To be fair, last year I often gave in to his requests, completing a job that wasn’t mine.  It seems that he isn’t happy with my attitude shift and resents that I am no longer willing to take on these extra responsibilities for him.  I made sure to explain my reasoning and offer alternative arrangements and modifications that would enable me to support his request within my scope of practice.  This too was unsatisfactory and I found myself the recipient of the cold shoulder for much of the day yesterday.  He even brought it up a couple of times and made it seem like I was refusing to do an assigned task out of spite or stubbornness.

One of the great lies when working as support staff in the field of Education is the “team approach” within a classroom.  It has been presented to me by many teachers before that they run their classroom not as my supervisor, but as my equal.  We each bring skills to the table and we are a team.  No one is greater or lesser.  This is complete crap.  You can never be equal to someone who is your immediate supervisor.  Even if it isn’t felt all the time, as soon as an issue comes up, believe me, the balance of power shifts back and lines are drawn in the sand.

Don’t get me wrong.  This is the way it’s supposed to be.  I don’t hold it against teachers for completing a University degree.  I understand where I am on the totem pole.  The issue I have is with teachers who tell support staff that they are equals and then turn around and hold their position over us when problems arise.  I think that the reason I didn’t have a problem letting the Principal know that my roles and responsibilities are clearly defined is that we have no history together and she approaches our professional relationship as it is: she is my boss and doesn’t pretend to be a friend.  I’m sure that my teacher and I will work out this speed bump but his trust may be permanently bruised.

A Judgemental Field

One of the most glaringly negative things about working in support and, specifically, the school system is that I find it to be an incredibly judgemental field.  Everyone sizes up everyone else involved in the care and support of children.  I must admit that I am not immune to this and confess that judging those I have worked with is something I have struggled to overcome.  In a school, we can hear whispers of it in the hallways and the staffroom, parents, teachers, support workers, all commenting on each other and questioning motives and qualifications.  It borders on insanity.

I am not naive enough to think that people don’t talk about me when I’m not in the room.  I’m sure my flaws have been poured over by many a coworker or supervisor and expressed negatively to people I know.  It is sometimes difficult to rise above the gossip and assumptions and focus my energy on something positive.  I have had parents complain to me about each other or teachers or administration or support staff on many different occasions.  It is often hard to know how to handle the negativity that can spread like wildfire within a small community like a school.  Here are a few things that I try to remember when faced with these kinds of situations:

1.  We all have the best interest of the kids at heart

This is true 99.9% of the time.  Nobody but that .1% is exclusively there for their own personal gain.  Even though we often have different motivators and perspectives, in the end, we are there to ensure the children receive the best care and education possible.

2.  We all have our weaknesses

While I may have a short temper sometimes and be super grumpy when someone tries to take advantage of me, I have many redeeming qualities that make me good at my job.  This applies to most everyone you meet in a school.

3.  Toxicity is easily stopped

If we stop playing the games and hating on each other, we can be happy!  Removing negative people from your circle of friends and developing strictly professional relationships with them can assist in stabilizing a negative environment.

4.  Treat yourself like present day William Shatner, not 1970s William Shatner

What I mean by this is, don’t take yourself too seriously.  Be able to laugh at yourself and have fun.  Some humility goes a long way in making people like you more.  People are less likely to make fun of you or put you down behind your back if you can show them that you aren’t all ego.

 

New School Year

This will be brief but I wanted to post a quick update about the new school year and how everything is going.  I have been back in the classroom for two weeks now and it has been good to be back.  My school has a new administration team so it has been a bit of a learning curve as we all get to know each other and how everybody works.  I have had some minor issues with being asked to step out of my role as an Ed. Assistant, both by my teacher and the new Principal, but I have managed to stay within my job description and say no when I needed to.

The kids are great so far.  All of them seemed to have grown so much over the summer and they are much more focused and excited to learn at the moment.  I have had lots of ideas for classroom materials and modifications and I am happy with my contributions to date.

All in all, I’m happy to be back at work.  It will be nice to (finally) get paid this week and maybe I can find some down time this weekend to focus on myself.  I need to get back into the swing of things!

Have a great week!

Respecting Autism

Autism Spectrum Disorder

I have a limited influence on the way that the kids in my class interact with the curriculum. It is the teacher’s responsibility to determine how much work to give the students, what type of modifications to implement, and whether or not a behaviour plan is necessary. I can provide suggestions and feedback about what works and what needs improvement but at the end of the day, I don’t get a whole lot of say in the IPP.

The only exception to this rule is when I work with a student who lives with autism. Whether it is a lack of familiarity with the spectrum or simply a preference for keeping their distance, I have found that many teachers tend to leave me to my own devices when it comes to supporting these exceptional students. It took me several years to determine why it is that I enjoy this particular type of work so much but I think I have finally figured it out. With the other students who require support, I am trying to help them fit into the environment as much as possible. I encourage them to sit at their desks, to complete the assigned tasks, and to demonstrate their understanding of the subjects. With children who live with autism, it is the opposite. I am constantly adapting my own style, the work, and the environment to fit THEIR needs. It is a much more fulfilling way to work!

I am never bored with autism. There is always something more that I could be doing to assist and support the student’s learning style to allow them a greater chance at success. I love coming up with new adapted materials or plans and letting the student show ME how they want to learn.

Of course, there are always those who will come up against me and insist that the student needs to fit into the mold with the rest of their peers. To a large extent, I disagree. It is great if we can find the natural supports within the classroom and facilitate friendships as well as learning. It is great if we are able to provide a safe environment where the other students are not afraid to learn about autism and bond with their classmate. Apart from that, I feel that autism deserves some respect and should be allowed to manifest in a safe way that is beneficial. If the student with autism engages in self-harming behaviour, of course I will do what is appropriate to decrease it. But if they are simply stimming to calm or focus or release tension, I don’t agree that the “behaviour” needs to be curbed.

I am also learning that communication doesn’t have to happen the way that WE want it to. Art, signing, pex, story boards, or other methods of non-verbal expression should be encouraged, not stifled. Let communication happen and more will follow.

Unfortunately (is that weird?), I don’t have any students this year who have autism and it has been a few years since I have. I will have to live vicariously through my co-workers and wait for the next exceptional student to come into my classroom. I wonder how all of the other students would do if they were allowed to learn in their own way instead of being forced into a mold. We might be surprised by the results.