Looking ahead to 2018 — nationally and professionally

By H. Mark Ramsankar

I became the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF) President in July 2017. These first few months have been exciting, fast paced, trying yet fulfilling. So much has happened in such a short period of time. What is of interest is the speed at which time has travelled. Six months seems like a long time yet here we are; closing out another year and heading into a new one. So, what have I learned in this new role and what might be ahead as we travel into 2018?

In 2017, the well-being of our schools was the theme of CTF’s pre-AGM Canadian Forum on Public Education, and youth mental health was the focus of our 2015 federal election campaign. These remain our focal priorities as we continue to advocate for safe and caring schools across Canada. A key issue of concern for Canadian teachers is the mental health and well-being of our students and teachers. Given the incredible diversity of Canadian classrooms and schools; providing the necessary supports and services for students identified with special academic needs and facing mental health challenges are absolutely critical. Sadly, resources and supports continue to lag in this age of austerity.

Our national collective bargaining conference in June 2017 found our Member organizations indicating and reporting an increase in the number of incidences concerning violence in Canadian classrooms. Education is a dynamic sector in all our provinces and territories. Outside influences on Canadian classrooms are very real and generally beyond a teacher’s influence or control.

The critical lack of supports and resources for children with serious behavioral issues has led to a rise in violent outbursts placing students and teachers at risk. Our schools need stronger funding bases and resources for special education, a comprehensive approach to supporting children’s mental health as well as health and safety protection and training for all school personnel. Teacher survey reports released by the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association and the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario speak clearly to this issue.

The change in student demographics, class size and structure, the rise in violent incidents in our classrooms, the growing demands for recording and reporting student progress, 24-7 access to teachers along with the unprecedented growth of corporate intrusion/interests are straining our teaching and learning environments across Canada.

Member organizations also said the number of episodes reported does not come close to the reality of violence teachers face regularly at school. This may be due to a stigma to reporting acts of violence in the classroom. The result is that teachers can be reluctant to report because they perceive it may reflect poorly on their worth as an educator. We need to continue advocating for resources and the support necessary so teachers can teach the way they want to teach to continue meeting the needs of their students and to reduce the day-to-day stress of the classroom.

CTF is justifiably concerned with Bill S-206, a private member’s bill which is currently at second reading in the Senate, effectively calling for the repeal of Section 43 of the Criminal Code of Canada. If passed, this wrong-headed approach will impact students’ safety and the teacher’s ability to work directly with students. Section 43 is the only protection teachers have against prosecution when they are carrying out their duties in the complicated, unpredictable climate of today’s schools.

In April 2017, Senator Céline Hervieux-Payette spoke to the CTF Board of Directors about Bill S-206, the bill she introduced in the Senate which has since been taken over by Senator Murray Sinclair. Board members took the opportunity to inform the Senator of the negative impact the repeal could have on the safety and security of all students and personnel in schools. CTF is fundamentally opposed to any form of corporal punishment but recognizes the need for physical contact with students and, at times, the need for physical restraint to ensure their safety and the safety of others. We believe and hope she heard our message. Senator Hervieux-Payette promised to reexamine the bill with the Justice department in order to address the concerns of teachers. 2018 has CTF continuing to closely monitor Bill S-206. Debate was adjourned on December 7, 2017.

Copyright in Schools is currently another focus of our advocacy work which will continue in 2018. The current legislation is viewed as an international example to model yet concerns by the publishing industry have once again brought it forward as an issue. As the federal government is currently reviewing the copyright legislation, content creators and the industry sector have been busy lobbying the federal government for changes. CTF as part of the Education coalition has been lobbying against the proposed changes but for maintaining the fair use/fair dealing provisions established by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2012. If creators succeed in a revised federal legislation in their favour, we can all expect to see increased copyright fees that will siphon education funds away from students and schools and into the pockets of publishers. This will seriously harm teachers’ ability to access and use resource materials in Canadian classrooms.

I invite all CTF Members organizations and Canadian teachers to pressure their federal representatives throughout the coming months to maintain the fair use/fair dealing provisions in our education system. It’s important to have our voices heard at every opportunity.

The power of close to a quarter of a million voices and the collective voice of our profession are what drive our advocacy efforts. You as teacher leaders are the drivers of CTF through your professional organization. Through this work, we can continue to strengthen our world class public education system.

As classroom teachers, we must tell the story of today’s Canadian classrooms in 2018. What are the realities we face and how does lack of support combined with inclusion and the creation of inclusive classrooms impact learning environments and Canadian students’ opportunities to learn? Teachers understand the essence of learning is founded in the relationships between teachers and students. Support for nurturing and developing these meaningful relationships and maintaining safe and healthy learning environments is the work ahead in 2018.

(H. Mark Ramsankar is the President of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation)

PM and First Ministers urged to focus on child and youth mental health

In a December 1st letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the Canadian Teachers’ Federation urged him and the Premiers to focus on child and youth mental health at their First Ministers’ Meeting on December 9, 2016, in Ottawa. Child and youth mental health has been identified as a top priority by Canadian teachers from across Canada.

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December 1, 2016

The Right Honourable Justin Trudeau, P.C., M.P.
Prime Minister of Canada
Langevin Block
Ottawa, Ontario
K1A 0A2

Dear Prime Minister,

As you prepare for the upcoming First Ministers’ meeting and the rich dialogue at this important gathering, I am writing on behalf of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF) to urge a focus on child and youth mental health. In 2014, CTF surveyed over 5000 Canadian teachers regarding their top priorities; 95% of respondents rated child and youth mental health as their top concern. This is a staggering, yet all too believable, response that should not be ignored.

When you meet the First Ministers, CTF asks you, on behalf of the 231,000 teachers we represent and the millions of students they teach, to provide for adequate mental health care for children and youth in a renewed Health Accord. At the present time, despite Canada’s relative international prosperity and progressive values, many Canadian communities lack adequate resources to provide the preventative and interceptive resources needed to support child and youth mental health and well-being. In isolated communities and for minority populations, the challenges are often further exacerbated by distance, linguistic barriers, and lack of understanding about culture or group.

CTF and its provincial and territorial Member organizations would welcome the opportunity to participate with governments at all levels in discussions about improvements to mental health services for children and youth. Children and youth in Canada have a right to health care and that must include readily accessible mental health care.

In 2012, in collaboration with the Mental Health Commission of Canada, CTF explored the issue of mental health and well-being in schools through a pan-Canadian survey. Over 3,900 teachers responded to the survey including 2,324 elementary school teachers and 1,603 secondary school teachers. The purpose of the survey was to gain a better understanding of the classroom teacher perspective on issues related to student mental health and well-being in Canadian schools, including factors that act as potential barriers to the provision of mental health services for students in their schools (such as stigma for example).

Barriers identified in the 2012 CTF survey included the following:

  • 85% of teachers agreed that a lack of funding for school-based mental health services was a potential barrier, including 59% who “strongly” agreed;
  • 78% of teachers agreed that an insufficient number of community-based mental health professionals was a potential barrier, including 45% who “strongly” agreed;
  • Three quarters of teachers (75%) agreed that a lack of coordinated services between the school and community was a potential barrier, including 38% who “strongly” agreed;
  • Two thirds of teachers (67%) agreed that a lack of referral options in the community was a potential barrier, including 34% who “strongly” agreed.

One teacher respondent summed up the situation we know too well:

  • It is sad when you know there is a concern, or the student tells you there is a concern, you’ve followed the proper protocols, and for whatever reason (lack of services, family declines services for child, fear of stigma, etc.) the student does not get the help they need.

CTF and its 17 Member organizations in each province and territory would welcome opportunities for further dialogue and collaboration to help all Canadian children and youth lead healthy lives in order to achieve their full potential. We wish you a very successful First Ministers’ Meeting and sincerely hope that the mental health and well-being of Canadian children and youth will feature prominently in your deliberations and, ultimately, in a new Health Accord.

Yours sincerely,

Heather Smith
President, Canadian Teachers’ Federation

Cc Provincial and Territorial Premiers
CTF Board of Directors

Dinner Together

By Andrew King

When Robert D. Putnam penned his renowned essay “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital” 21 years ago, he looked closely at the correlation between the drop in bowling clubs and falling democratic participation. Today, it’s our increasingly connected digital world that is disrupting our social fabric.

Herein lies the research of Phil McRae, Executive Staff Officer with the Alberta Teachers’ Association and a professor at the University of Alberta, whose work is focused on tech and its impact on education.

Dr Phil McRae

Dr. Phil McRae, Executive Staff Officer with the Alberta Teachers’ Association and professor at the University of Alberta

During his eye-opening presentation, Growing Up Digital, at the Canadian Forum on Public Education in Montreal, Dr. McRae revealed how the 24/7 reality of smartphones and tablets is having a profound effect on our health, and children set to suffer the most.

“We have to take a long-term look at tech and children, both positive and negative,” said McRae, who revealed how being permanently online is taking a toll on our health and general wellbeing.

In presenting the pros and cons of what is today’s connected reality, McRae used what could be considered the staple of family life, dinner together, to make his point: that our need to be online is robbing adults and their children of real, human connection. Research shows that 73 percent of parents use their online devices during dinner, a moment needed for sharing and communication.

“Neglect is now a bigger issue than abuse in North America,” said McRae, who stresses that we as a society need to learn how to balance technology in our daily lives, and that includes schools. We “must make tech a fabric in the classroom,” but it cannot replace social interaction.

Look no further than the playground, where parents are using up to 30 percent of children’s playground time looking at screen devices. Talk about a distracted generation.

Addicted to tech?

If parents were spending a third of their time at the playground using drugs and alcohol, we would immediately talk about addiction. This isn’t the case with tech.

According to McRae, doctors are reluctant to label excessive tech use as addiction because they worry it would create stigma and it would be very expensive to treat. If medical treatment isn’t the path to wellness, then what do we do? A call to “bring back boredom” is one of McRae’s ideas.

“One of the things that leads to creativity is boredom,” he said, adding that “creativity, motor skills and emotional empathy” are crucial to development. But tech must play a role. McRae says that more research is needed to know exactly how much time spent on phones and tablets can be considered advantageous, and at what age device use should begin.

The best advice he offered to close his presentation was to be balanced; be mindful; and be present. Good advice to a packed room tweeting every word.

(Andrew King is the Media and Communications Coordinator at Education International)

Wellness without barriers (July 12)

By Bernie Froese-Germain

Janet Ramsay (Terry Fox Elementary School) discussed her involvement in the development of a new CTF teacher resource called “Mental Health Stigma: Challenging it together!” which aims to increase students’ comfort level when talking about mental health. Teachers can use this “student voice” booklet with their students to develop critical thinking skills by examining preconceptions and misconceptions about mental illness; explore stigma around mental illness to help eliminate or reduce it; develop empathy and understanding regarding how mental illness affects people and communities; and create a dialogue of understanding to build a community of acceptance, compassion, and inclusivity.

The Canadian Centre for Gender & Sexual Diversity intersectionally promotes diversity in gender identity, gender expression, and romantic and/or sexual orientation in all its forms on a national level through services in the areas of education, health, and advocacy. CCGSD Director Jeremy Dias talked about his personal experience being bullied noting that “without advocates such as teachers and other educators, he wouldn’t be here.” This work is very much about social justice and human rights. Our role is to reach out to those who are suffering and to lift them up. Dias talked about various campaigns and resources of the Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity such as the Day of Pink campaign and the GSA Action Handbook. We need to go beyond tolerance and acceptance to celebrate trans people and reflect them in curriculum.

Lisa Weintraub (Centre ontarien de prévention des agressions) stated that COPA champions the rights of francophones outside Quebec and also defends and promotes the rights of all children. COPA’s focus on the prevention of violence against youth is founded on a feminist and anti-oppression approach. Research has found that children with adverse experiences (poverty, emotional abuse, physical or sexual abuse, alcoholic parent, a parent in prison, etc.) are at greater risk of developing serious health problems in adulthood; conversely, those children who have a better start in life (fewer negative experiences) are more likely to live a longer healthier life.

Mary Simon (Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami) said she believes education is a core foundation to build on in Inuit society. Teachers have one of the most important jobs in our communities and need to be recognized for that. Over the past 60 years, there have been dramatic social and cultural changes impacting on Inuit mental health including the residential school system. The impact of these changes continues to resonate through Inuit communities – trauma in early childhood carries over into adulthood (intergenerational trauma). In terms of human resources while the ideal is to train and equip local Inuit people as mental health professionals, the reality is that given the urgency of the mental health crisis there’s a need for both non-Inuit and Inuit individuals. Simon concluded by saying that the ITK wants partners to support them in the work they’re doing in education (to create a system that embraces Inuit culture, language, identity) and in mental health.

(Bernie Froese-Germain is a researcher with the Canadian Teachers’ Federation)

Wellness from coast to coast to coast (July 11)

By Bernie Froese-Germain

Increased collaboration and coordination between the education and health sectors are key ingredients in working towards greater wellness in our schools. This was one of several themes cutting across the presentations.

According to Janice Graham-Migel (Canadian Counselling & Psychotherapy Association), one of the ways wellness challenges are being addressed in Nova Scotia schools is through programs such as the Comprehensive Guidance & Counselling Program and the Comprehensive School Health Program. She stressed the important role of distributed leadership and collaboration in these programs, noting that “schools cannot meet the challenges alone so it is necessary to tap into the collective wealth of expertise that is available in the broader community.”

A perspective on mental health and francophone minorities was given by Caroline Vézina (La Société Santé en français). Over 200,000 francophone Canadians living in minority settings suffer from a mental disorder every year. As language plays a key role in analysing personal experiences and speeding recovery, language barriers can have a negative impact on healthcare access and quality of care – “When I’m sick, my bilingualism is the first thing to go”. She stressed the need for school- and community-based mental health initiatives across Canada which place youth front and centre. Cooperation is at the heart of this approach – working in silos is a thing of the past.

Research findings on student mental health and well-being were presented by Myles Ellis (CTF). In a survey of nearly 4,000 teachers conducted by CTF in collaboration with the MHCC in 2012, teachers told us that numerous barriers exist to the provision of mental health services for students including an insufficient number of school-based mental health professionals. Most teachers also believe that stigma and discrimination pose a major barrier to getting students the mental health services they need. While teachers feel they are part of the solution, they expressed a need more assistance in the schools by mental health professionals whose expertise would complement that of teachers.

The role of employee assistance programs (EAP) in assisting people with mental health problems was the subject of presentations by Czar François (Solerah) and Gail Enever (OTIP). EAP utilization rates around the western world are approx. 4-5% when 20% of Canadians suffer from mental health issues. In the education sector EAP utilization rates are approx. double at 11%. The stigma associated with mental illness can lead to discomfort about speaking with an employer about a mental health problem; people believe it will block career advancement. EAP awareness is critical to program effectiveness – awareness campaigns to train managers to spot signs of mental health problems and approaches to combatting stigma need to be part of any EAP program.

(Bernie Froese-Germain is a researcher with the Canadian Teachers’ Federation)

Getting to know thyself: being an everyday advocate for mental health

By Bob McGahey

Mark-Henick-highres-600x400Last night at the Canadian Forum on Public Education, participants had the opportunity to hear from Mark Henick. Mark honoured us by sharing his moving personal story of living with mental illness leading to a number of attempts to take his own life. At 13, Mark made his first attempt at suicide while sitting with his grade 8 guidance teacher – luckily, the teacher was able to intervene. Mark’s final attempt on a bridge in Sydney, Nova Scotia was fortunately interrupted by a passer-by who stopped on the bridge and took the time to speak with him. The stranger in the light brown corduroy jacket eventually caught him when Mark chose to let go of the rail, then dragged him back over the railing.

From that moment on, Mark pursued his goal to be like the “stranger in the light brown corduroy jacket”. He impressed upon us the need to also act as the helping stranger to those around us. Building on the introduction by Ed Mantler from the Mental Health Commission of Canada, Mark reminded us that, like any illness, the recovery from mental illness is a sometimes long and winding path. Those with a mental illness need the same compassion and understanding that we would give to those with any other form of illness or disability.

It is safe to say few who listened to Mark’s story were not affected. The open discussion of suicide is timely given the challenges faced by Canadian children and youth. We were all challenged to change the way we might be thinking about suicide and mental illness and to be leaders in the change.

To watch a similar presentation you may wish to watch Mark’s TEDx talk which today has over 2 million views.

(Bob McGahey is Director of Advocacy and Labour Rights at the Canadian Teachers’ Federation)