Note: This post is written in response to the BC Minster of Education, Peter Fassbender’s, CKNW radio interview regarding the labour dispute with the public school teachers of British Columbia (BCTF). Today I took part in a live-tweet response during his interview, and I am quite distressed at what I have heard.
I intend to use all of my skills of diplomacy to be as polite as I can be, but you will very likely notice that under the thin veneer of etiquette, my sarcasm and love of irony remain.
My sense of humour is strong – and it buoys me when times are difficult or I am feeling stressed. A good laugh is restorative – and in the work with which I choose to involve myself, I know too well the ongoing challenges of advocating for social justice and the importance of finding a way to resiliency.
I am patient and kind with people and I am a notorious avoider of conflict – but today Mr. Fassbender – you raised my ire.
There are many things you said with which I disagree – but I am going to speak to two in particular.
The first was your wondering whether students in need of special education services might be being overly diagnosed. You said, “I have a question, I don’t have the answer but my question is – do we overcategorize children?”
As public education teacher in British Columbia, as a parent of an Autistic teen, and as someone advocating for human rights for those with disabilities, I am concerned that this statement has the potential to negatively impact students and may be interpreted in a way that is dangerously misleading.
Let me explain why.
The enormous challenges faced by our public schools with the government’s systematic underfunding has made it difficult to effectively provide special education services for those students requiring it. Additionally, there are students who are in need of these services who do not meet the Ministry of Education requirements for a special education category – because they are stuck in the backlog of those awaiting assessment. So in fact – the likelihood is that number of students who are diagnosed with a disability or who are in need of special education services is actually greater that the current number of students eligible to receive them.
Why would you imply that students may be being overcategorized or overdiagnosed?
I don’t understand, and I cannot help wondering if you are only capable of thinking about the bottom line and not about the human lives attached to those numbers?
Actually, Mr. Fassbender, don’t bother answering my query – that question was rhetorical, and I will answer it myself with a couple of possible scenarios and a bit of inference on my part.
It may be that you are actually unaware that there are students who wait years for assessment, and that schools are frequently in the position that they are only able to provide a psycho-educational diagnostic assessment for one or maybe two students per year for the entire school population.
It is conceivable that you may also be unaware that the current wait time for a student to be assessed at BCCH or Sunnyhill to find out if they might be on the Autism spectrum is 18 months, and that is after they have actually gotten the referral for this assessment. I have seen this take years for some students… and for some – it – never – happens.
Having navigated this strenuous and exhaustive process with my son, I can tell you that the implication that the students are being overdiagnosed or overly categorized is disrespectful to students, their families, and the schools who are struggling to support them, and further, it is just out right inaccurate.
Perhaps you might also consider how offensive it is to imply that students are being overdiagnosed or overly categorized, when we are dealing with a public school system that has been so chronically impoverished by underfunding and a lack of appropriate services to meet the diverse learning needs of students – of all of our students.
It disturbs me greatly that you apparently have so little understanding of these difficulties, particularly when it is considered in the light of the mandate of the Ministry of Education:
…the Ministry has the following responsibilities:• setting educational standards based on the outcomes students need to achieve;• monitoring student performance and reporting the results to the public;• working with partner groups to improve student and school performance;• allocating funds for the education system; and• overseeing the governance of the system as a whole.(SPECIAL EDUCATION SERVICES: A MANUAL OF POLICIES, PROCEDURES AND GUIDELINES – BC Ministry of Education, 2013, p.6)~
Okay – fine – let’s assume that I have cleared this up for you, and I’ll move on.
Oh… but first, I must take you aside for a moment to have an earnest discussion about the stigma and lack of understanding faced by so many of our students who actually are diagnosed with a disability of some kind, whether it is a learning disability, or a mental health condition, a diagnosis of Autism or… some other special education category.
The message for these students is far too often that they are an inconvenience and that they are somehow a burden or taxing the system. These kinds of messages may not be deliberate, but they are embedded deeply within a system that lacks support for students with diverse learning and support needs. When there is not enough to go around – it is easy to point a finger to blame this group or that group and their accompanying needs for needing more than is available.
But that is wrong, and that is not how a school system should be run.
Additionally, when a comment like you made might be interpreted in a way that implies that a student like my son, who is Autistic, might actually be part of a group that is overdiagnosed – you are adding a potential layer of judgment that could harm our students. Our neurodivergent students, those who sometimes are referred to as having invisible disabilities, are very frequently misunderstood by others. They are sometimes misjudged as being manipulative or presumed to be misbehaving because they may not process or respond to the world as does a typically developing student. The last thing they need is the Minister of Education sending out the message that their sensory issues, tics, stims, anxiety, depression, language processing issues, trauma-based history, etc… are not real.
These students need our acceptance – not further shame, blame, and a shroud of doubt cast about the legitimacy of their challenges.
Mr. Fassbender, you are the Minister of Education.
You are entrusted with ensuring the children of our province get fine education… and yet you spend your energy combating those who are trying to ensure that this happens.
It is like Henry Ford shooting buckshot at the workers in his factory assembly line – and still expecting they will turn out marvelous cars. It just doesn’t make sense.
So now I come to my second point (and I feel I must thank you for hanging in there, as I know this is lengthy).
Today – on the air – you made a comment that seemed dismissive of teachers not having hired agents to represent the BCTF at the bargaining table, and in particular of Jim Iker (President of the BCTF) related to his having being a Kindergarten teacher (**please see end note). To me your comment seemed to be insulting to teachers, and in particular Kindergarten teachers, who deserve respect as they set the scene for the beginning of the public education journey for our students.
Seriously, have you been to Kindergarten? I will assume you have, and if not, I am quite certain that your children and grandchildren have, and I am going to take you back… way back, because I think there are a few things you have forgotten.
So here it is – and I hope you will take it to heart – because I think you would be doing the families and students of our province a great service if you were to get back in touch with some of these important lessons.
**A final note: “After receiving an honour’s degree in Political Science and Sociology at McMaster University, Jim enrolled at Dalhousie University in Halifax and completed his Bachelor of Education. He…chose a Grade 2/3 primary class in Topley, BC. Jim is a versatile teacher and taught kids in nearly every elementary grade—including Kindergarten. He also was a teacher/ counsellor, learning assistance, and special education teacher”. TEACHER magazine
All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten
1. Share everything.
2. Play fair.
3. Don’t hit people.
4. Put things back where you found them.
5. CLEAN UP YOUR OWN MESS.
6. Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
7. Say you’re SORRY when you HURT somebody.
8. Wash your hands before you eat.
10. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
11. Live a balanced life – learn some and drink some and draw some and paint some and sing and dance and play and work everyday some.
12. Take a nap every afternoon.
13. When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.
14. Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
15. Goldfish and hamster and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup – they all die. So do we.
16. And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned – the biggest word of all – LOOK.”
30 Days of Autism is a project designed to fight stigma, promote civil rights, and increase understanding and acceptance for those who process and experience the world differently.
© Leah Kelley, Thirty Days of Autism (2014)