This is mostly because my experiences with policy documents that took 24 tedious versions before final approval are far less exciting (to me and my readers, I assume) than the awesome math lesson I planned, or the kid who said something thought-provoking in class, the hilarious note I got from a parent, or the inspired curriculum map a colleague and I made, that expertly connected 17 gazillion subject areas into one cohesive piece.
But also I don‘t really write about work anymore because I now work as a public servant, and some of my work is of a sensitive nature, and I have a professional obligation to keep my mouth shut. (Like actually. When you go to work for the public service, you have to sign an oath.)
But I had an experience the other day that reminded me of my former ignorant innocence, and how little many people actually understand about what we who are paid to serve society’s collective interests actually DO!
And so, I thought I would take a risk and attempt to write a politically neutral explanatory blog post. I know that as a classroom teacher, I would have appreciated such a thing, especially given the stress and anxiety of the current circumstances.
So, here’s hoping I do it justice.
What We Do
If you’re an educator in the field right now, you might be wondering what the heck government workers at the ministry of education have been doing for the past month. While you’re scrambling to reconnect with your students and families during this highly unusual time, what are we public servants doing to support you and those families, the public?
First of all, it‘s important to note that unlike school boards, the ministry of education does not take “march break”. So when the announcement came about a month ago that school would not resume for the first few weeks after March Break, we at the ministry knew that work was about to kick into high gear.
Systems and Structures
The public service is comprised largely of policy folks; our ministry is somewhat of an anomaly because we bring in “outsiders” (educators from the field), either through secondments or in full time positions, to inform the policy work in education. While this is generally a good thing (because it means that people who have actually worked in classrooms, schools and school boards can help to shape the policies that guides, governs and funds the work that happens in those classrooms, schools and boards), it also means that a great deal of time is spent on conversations seeking to clarify and understand.
More specifically, we former educators in the public service spend a great many hours explaining to decision makers (who most often are NOT former educators) the potential implications of certain decisions on actual children and families, based on our particular past experiences in the field.
And then we spend at least as many hours realising that our own experience does not necessarily represent all the students across Ontario‘s 72 school boards, and that learning about our colleagues’ past experiences (which differ widely depending on their former school boards) need to be taken into consideration when making decisions that will affect the whole province.
We also spend a great many hours learning about the significance and structure of the democratic process of decision making within the public service, which is supposed to be politically neutral (regardless of whether we personally chose the government elected by the people, we are called to serve the public interest by providing our best advice — grounded in research and based on our previous field experience — to that government, who then makes decisions which we are called to initiate the execution of, through the school boards, who then presumably operationalize it all through their staff at various levels, ultimately the classroom teacher).
Checks and Balances
The last point is particularly salient, because it requires a decision making process that is multi-layered. As an Education Officer, I am in many ways at the bottom of a process that involves as many as 5 or 6 levels of approvals, often across multiple branches (or departments), depending on what’s at stake. This means that a document I draft will often have 20 or more sets of eyes on it before it ever makes it up the food chain to someone with the authority to say „yes, let‘s do this“ or „no, we‘re going to move in a different direction“.
My policy colleagues, or OPS “lifers” as I lovingly refer to them, have varying degrees of skill and patience when it comes to schooling us former educators in the ins and out of said approvals process, with all its decision notes, information notes, to-through memos and other policy “stuff” that comprise the operational tools of a democratic process with built-in checks and balances for its public service.
For those of us who are former classroom teachers or principals, and who are — to be quite frank — used to closing our classroom or office doors and doing whatever the hell we want, this multi-layered approvals process seems horrifically inefficient, and it takes us a long time to realize that it is this very process that upholds the democracy within which we seek to ensure equity for all.
In other words, it‘s painful, but necessary.
I’ll be honest, for an action-oriented practitioner like me, during the current global health pandemic, this decision making process has been even more frustrating. At the same time, I have now been at this public service stuff long enough (over three years!) that I have finally learned the value of checks and balances to ensure informed decision making, and realize that, ironically, it is precisely during times like this that we need all these checks and balances, so that elected officials don‘t make highly erratic and fear-based decisions.
Democracy During COVID
For me, this past month in the public service has meant reviewing policies like Growing Success 2010 (our provincial assessment policy) and brainstorming with other former educators in the Ministry for hours and hours, to anticipate which pieces of the assessment puzzle might be affected by the current remote context, and beginning as quickly as possible to develop potential contingency plans that would preserve the integrity of the school year as best as possible while not penalizing students from Kindergarten to Grade 12, in consideration of all the various possible realities those students are currently living in, for circumstances over which they have little or no control.
While my former colleagues in school boards all had a week off for March break, and then — in many cases — two additional weeks without classroom duties, to obsess over the COVID crisis and worry about what comes next, we public servants at the Ministry of Education were busily convincing senior decision makers of the merits of one direction over another when it came to things like report cards, expected hours of engagement with students online or through other methods of communication once “school” started up again, how best to support students with special education needs, what to do about number of hours required for teacher candidates to graduate, considerations for mandatory graduation requirements like 40 hours community service, Ontario’s Secondary School Literacy Test (OSSLT), etc.... and a plethora of other puzzle pieces that continue to emerge almost as quickly as we can dream them up ourselves. (And all of this on top of our regular work, only some of which can realistically be set aside during this current situation.)
For a system that serves about two million students, it’s no small task.
I myself have also been involved in helping to coordinate (and in some cases deliver) some of the initial virtual support for our province’s 160 000 + teachers.
With the desire to engage partner input from Ontario’s 72 school boards and 11 school authorities and their federation representatives, the task of preparing and delivering these initial supports (webinars, teleconferences, website with resource links, etc.) within the context of a democratic public service is almost unfathomable.
Things that typically require 18 months or more to operationalize have been set in motion within a three-week turnaround.
In order to accomplish such an impossible timeline, many of us have been working 12-14 hour days and many weekends for the past month.
I share this information not to complain, but to provide context. The work I’ve been involved in over the past month has been engaging, exciting, stressful, exhilarating, fulfilling and exhausting. As I joked with my partner recently, I haven’t worked this hard since I was a classroom teacher!!! (Don‘t get me wrong - public servants work hard, but in my experience, the pace and intensity is typically — though not always — lighter than in a school.)
But the context is important, because when I was in a classroom, I know I would have assumed that we were the only ones bearing the brunt of this crisis when it came to supporting students. I know back then, I would have thought that the ministry was doing little or nothing to support us.
I met my former self several times this week at some webinars we ran for educators: Both in the ones I was co-facilitating, and in the ones I was attending to learn and support, we elected to keep the chat feature of our video tool open and active, to allow people to share and participate more fully. With attendance as high as over 400 in some sessions, this meant a steady stream of commentary, and a Q and A pod that took us nearly an extra hour to clear, as my team of four facilitators stayed on after the session to respond as best we could to questions that some of us didn’t yet have definitive answers for ourselves, or that had already been answered centrally, but somehow the information hadn’t yet trickled down to the classroom educator.
While much of the commentary was positive and the questions legitimate, we also faced a lot of misguided anger, including a comment from one tired teacher who wanted to know when the ministry was “finally going to do something”, and another who demanded within nine minutes of the webinar ending, to know why her question, which she’d asked three times, had not yet been answered. (This latter one during a webinar with over 400 people in it, and only four facilitators.)
Hard Work All Around
Those of us who are former educators from the field know how hard teachers, school administrators and board personnel are working at this time.
You are being asked to perform miracles, often while managing your own stress and homelife drama during this time. And we see you performing them brilliantly! With small children on your lap, you are reaching out to your students and their families. While fighting for space and internet bandwidth with your spouses who are also working from home, you are crafting engaging activities using tools that you had never even heard about a week ago. While worrying about your own children‘s schooling, you are making sure that the education of your classes proceeds somehow.
If no one has told you lately, you are appreciated. If the kids and the parents can’t see it, or haven’t had the energy to tell you, let me tell you now: You are valuable, your work is important, and we know you are doing the best you can within whatever context you find yourself in.
But (yes, there is a but), please know that “the ministry” is also working hard to support you in the context within which we all find ourselves. For me, that context is within the mental-emotional oscillation between being grateful for my job and paycheque and pining for the loss of my partner’s, in a space that is smaller and shoddier than my ideal but bigger and with a nicer view than those of many others who are suffering.
And I haven’t slept more than 5 hours a night in over a month, because I wake up at 4 a.m. every day to fret and worry if I’m doing a good enough job.