education

Dear Albertans; an Open Letter to Everyone

Dear Albertans,

A few weeks ago I wrote an open letter to Jim Prentice. It generated a lot of conversation, both from people agreeing with my sentiments and others who hold the opposite view. That’s exactly what it was supposed to do.

The more I thought about the letter and the response to it, the more I realized that we needed to be sparking a different conversation. Not a conversation about Jim Prentice and what he should or shouldn’t do. He is, after all, one man (albeit a powerful one) at the pointy end of the stick. Easy to blame the stick when it whacks the wrong thing, harder to have a conversation with the hand that’s wielding the stick.

And fellow Albertans…we need to have that conversation. We need to ask ourselves if we’re truly pointing that stick in the right direction, and, more importantly, if we even have our hands on it any more. I suggest that we don’t, because if we did we wouldn’t have seen half of the scandals, financial abuses and bad policy decisions that have plagued this province in the past few years and seem to be continuing.

So, in the spirit of the previous letter, here are my Top 5 pieces of advice for Albertans to help get us back on track.

1. You know when you’re driving and you go to merge or change lanes, and someone slows down to let you in? Give them a damn wave. Not only is it courteous, it’s an acknowledgement that there’s someone else on the road. And that someone did something nice for you. They weren’t so absorbed in their own self-importance that they couldn’t see your need to safely continue on your journey, and give their brakes a tap.

2. Speaking of acknowledging other people on the road…we need to talk about taxes. I know, that’s pretty much a 4-letter word in this province. The thing is, we’ve somehow gotten it stuck in our heads that the lower our taxes go, the better off we’ll all be. And although that’s probably true for higher income earners (who worry less about the costs of things like increasing school fees, expensive childcare, post-secondary tuition), Alberta’s 10% flat tax is actually making the poor and working class worse off. There are incredibly reasonable alternatives that would retain Alberta’s relatively low tax environment while providing stable revenues for things like education and healthcare. And yes, our spending can probably be better managed, and we can and should find efficiencies wherever possible. But 40 kids being taught in the gymnasium is not the kind of efficiencies we should be going for.

3. We’ve got a gambling problem. Let’s imagine for a while that Joe Albertan is looking to settle down, buy a house and raise some kids. He’s got a decent salary, but also has a bit of blackjack habit and stops in at the local casino regularly. He’s been on a winning streak for awhile, and starts to think that this winning streak is a permanent fixture in his financial picture. So he buys the biggest house he can, complete with a big truck, a boat, a pair of quads and an RV. Life is good. Of course, as all gambling streaks go, his starts to come to an end. And he’s not even losing money at this point, just not winning any more. Just breaking even. He can’t keep up with the bills, so he has to start making some tough choices. He doesn’t build any new schools. He blows up a hospital. He stops cutting the grass and fixing the little things around the house as they wear out and break down. This goes on for awhile until he starts to win again. Then, instead of fixing things up, he goes on a holiday. He gives all of his friends and relatives 400$ worth of “JoeBucks”. He starts to build a Sky Palace.

I think all of us can agree that Joe has a full-blown financial management problem on his hands, rooted in an over-reliance on speculative income (blackjack) and a penchant for extravagant spending. Sounds strangely familiar…

4. That PC super-majority? In the last provincial election we turned out 57% of eligible voters. The PC’s captured 44% of the popular vote, which is only 28.4% of eligible voters. Which means that Albertan’s either didn’t vote for the PC’s, or voted against them, by an almost 3-1 margin. Let’s talk about the 860,000 of us that didn’t bother to take a few minutes out of our lives to acknowledge that we live in a free and democratic society, and the price we pay for that is a few minutes of our time and some thought about the future, once every couple of years. Maybe it wouldn’t have changed the results. But one day it might.

5.  Politics and taxes aside, if you really want to make a difference in your own life and the lives of people around you, then just start. Do something. Volunteer for a local non-profit. Take your beer money and donate it to a worthwhile cause this month. Join a board of directors. Clean up a stream. Say hi to your neighbour and shovel their walk. Share and comment on this blog post.

And when people slow down to let you in, give them a wave.

5 Reasons why Albertan’s shouldn’t be consulted on Bill 10 (or GSA’s for that matter)

You probably heard a lot about the controversial “Bill 10” that was due to be passed in the Alberta Legislature last week, but was pulled by the Premier before the third reading due to significant public backlash. Good thing too, besides being a bad piece of legislation it was destined to reinforce the Alberta hillbilly complex, according to Calgary’s mayor Naheed Nenshi.

The bill has been put on indefinite hold, “pending further consultation with Albertans”. Here’s a few reasons why that consultation should never happen.

Reason #1. People should be consulted on things that both impact them and they have either an informed opinion about or lived experience with. Being an LGBTQ youth in high school is a pretty niche experience. The formation of Gay-Straight Alliances in high school does not impact me, I don’t have lived experience with, nor (until I took the time to do some research), is a topic that I had an informed opinion about. Which leads me to…

Reason #2. If you DID take the time to get informed, you’d learn that, among many other startling statistics;

  1. LGBTQ youth are up to 3.4 times more likely to attempt suicide than other youth.
  2. Students who are harassed due to sexual orientation are more than three times as likely to attempt suicide than a student who has not been harassed.
  3. An estimated 28% of completed suicides are by LGBTQ people.
  4. Substance abuse is estimated at 2-4 times higher in LGBTQ populations than the normal.
  5. 86% of surveyed gay and lesbian students in one study reported being verbally harassed and abused at their high school.

Reason #3. The first two weren’t enough? How about the government’s record on doing timely, meaningful and engaging consultation processes that result in significant action on social issues? Oh. Right. We’ve done so well with, say, child poverty.

Reason #4. Assuming that the government decides to ignore reason #1 and actually does “consult Albertans”…what exactly is that going to look like? What kind of questions would you ask? Below are a few samples.

Q1. True or False: LGBTQ teenagers are people with rights and freedoms. (Hmm. They’re definitely people, but I’m not so sure about them having rights and freedoms. Is there a “Not Sure” option?)

Q2. On a scale of 1 (not important) to 10 (very important), please rate the following statements;

  • That Alberta’s high schools are safe and inclusive environments for all students.
  • That we take reasonable and effective actions to protect LGBTQ youth from harm associated with discrimination.
  • That the Alberta Progressive Conservative party can continue to deny that it is, in fact, 2014.

And, finally, Reason #5. The very fact that the topic of GSA’s is being debated in the legislature instead of…oh, just about anything else…. is a sad commentary on how far we have to travel (approximately 40 years, according to the above cartoon). Sending Bill 10 out for “consultation” reinforces the notion that there’s something to consult about, which, if you’ve been paying attention to reasons 1-4, you probably realize there isn’t. There is no balancing of right’s to be done here. The protection of vulnerable teenagers against suicide, mental illness, substance use, homelessness and discrimination IS NOT something that can be stacked up against a parent’s right to choose if their kid gets exposed to reality while in school, or for certain religious school boards to hold fast to a quickly sinking ship.

I’m not against consultation. In fact, I firmly believe we don’t do enough of it. And there should be a conversation on this issue, starting with students and then probably including their teachers.

Just not with me…or the average Albertan.

Relationship is an action.

I recently had the distinct pleasure of facilitating a workshop at the Calgary City Teacher’s Convention. The workshop was The Resilient Classroom, and the conversation that flowed around the room for 3 hours was awesome, and a little frightening.

Working with teenage addicts, I all to often get to see the dark side of being a youth these days, and the challenges that some of our young people face. I’ve always assumed that I get to work with the anomalies, the kids who’ve been severely traumatized, abused, neglected, bullied, etc. After spending the morning with a bunch of teachers I realized that what I see in treatment is but the tip of the iceberg.

Teachers were describing kids being diagnosed with anxiety disorders at the age of 8. SERIOUSLY? What is there to be anxious about at the age of 8?

Not just anxiety, but isolation, depression, bullying, anger, ADD/ADHD, promiscuity…the list of challenges our young people face appeared to be endless and universal, with different areas of the city experiencing slightly different challenges based on the demographics of the families that lived there.

We talked an awful lot about the importance of belonging. How and why do students belong in their school and classroom? Do they belong because they score well on tests? Because they can memorize some facts and regurgitate them to the teacher? Because they do as they’re told and never challenge the establishment?

We came up with 6 ideas to implement the idea of “belonging” into the classroom. The first of these ideas is that relationship is an action, not a feeling. We tend to assume that students will feel a sense of belonging to their school, regardless of what we do to foster or discourage it. Because nothing screams “you belong” more than a building full of cliques, standardized testing and the opportunity to feel inadequate when you don’t know the answer to the out-dated question.

Of course relationship is an action… why else do we go on dates with someone while falling in love? Love is an emotion, relationship is a set of interactions. And how can you possibly feel like you belong to something, if you don’t have a relationship with it?

And how exactly do you foster a strong relationship with your students? I don’t know, because I’m not you, nor am I one of your students. But here’s a few things to think about:

  1. Authenticity. Be real. It’s ok. Talk about real issues, set aside your “expert” hat for a few minutes everyday and connect with a couple of students in a human way. 
  2. Share space and time. And by this, I mean really SHARE the space. Sit down for lunch together.
  3. Invite participation. Yes, students are forced to be in your classroom. Being forced to do anything sucks, whether you’re 14 or 40. The least you can do is invite them to be a part of creating a shared vision of what your time together is going to look like.

A pretty common theme among the young people that I work with is that they “hate school”. I’m sure if I polled their teachers over the years, there’d be some pretty strong feelings about the young person and their effort/attitude/behavior as well. Underlying it though, is a sense that they don’t “belong” in the school. I’m not the only one who believes this, and thankfully more and more schools are looking at this idea. For the first 10-days of the 90-day treatment program, all we do is invite belonging….by building relationship.

Which leaves me with a final thought to wrap up this blog post. I’ll tackle the other 5 ideas to create belonging in the classroom soon.

Does a child need to belong, in order to be loved? Or be loved in order to belong?