Naomi Buck is a Toronto-based writer.
Although elementary school is a distant memory, a few teachers still stand out. Among them is Mrs. Hendry, a tower of Scottish authority who ruled over Grade 1 with her helmet-like perm and scratchy woolen skirts. Having sized me up as a student who had far too much to say, Mrs. Hendry put me on special assignment: to correspond with her mother, who lived somewhere in the Scottish Highlands.
Good thing Mrs. Hendry wasn’t living in Doug Ford’s Ontario. Under the new premier, deviations from the Ontario curriculum – once he has finished messing around with it – will be prohibited. “We will not tolerate anybody using our children as pawns for grandstanding and political games,” Mr. Ford said in a statement.
Certain professions lend themselves to the abuse of children, grandstanding and political games (priests and politicians come to mind) but teaching is not one of them. Teachers are, at best, people like Mrs. Hendry, who spark curiosity, take an interest in students as individuals and impart an enthusiasm for discovery and knowledge.
As Mrs. Hendry’s most willing pawn, I learned where Scotland is on the globe, and that at least one person there shared my love of words. My correspondence with Hendry Senior culminated in a padded envelope containing a carved wooden porridge spoon – a gift that improved my attitude toward school (and porridge) for good.
Good teachers use the curriculum as a scaffold with which to build an edifice. Under Mr. Ford, Ontario will have no edifices, just a scaffold, re-engineered to reflect the grievances of cranky parents, the insecurities of social conservatives and the Premier’s personal convictions. Because, with his ascension to Queens Park, Mr. Ford has become an expert on education. The man who, according to this newspaper, dealt hash as an extracurricular in high school before dropping out of university, now feels empowered to declaim on education in Ontario, namely that it has gone astray. It’s time to get “back to the basics.”
And what are Mr. Ford’s basics? In the case of Ontario’s sex-ed education program – one of several that he says needs revamping – they’re best reflected in the curriculum of 1998, which omits such complicated issues as consent, homosexuality and gender identity. Mr. Ford wants to restore innocence to elementary school, to reinstate Mums and Dads as the rightful guardians of their children’s hearts and minds. But wait: Aren’t those the same Mums and Dads who, according to Statistics Canada, put their 5-11-year-olds on screens for an average of 2.3 hours every day? Largely unsupervised?
Breaking news: the horse named Innocence has left the barn. And it’s not such a bad thing. In its place, we have schools where kids can show up with two Mums or two Dads without fear of outright persecution. Where kids aren’t forced to identify as male or female if they don’t feel like it. Where, rather than being taught the fine art of leg-clenching, girls are taught that they have the right to say no.
Rest assured, Ontario parents will be more than happy to share their thoughts with the Premier; as a generation, we’re not known to be shy. But if Mr. Ford wants to make good on his promise to shrink bureaucracy and cut $6-billion in government spending, he might want to skip the “largest consultation ever in Ontario’s history” with its town halls, online surveys and visits to ridings and just talk to school trustees and superintendents, who receive large daily doses of parental opinion.
Being one such parent, I’ll venture my thoughts here: that discovery math belongs six feet under; that the French Immersion program is bloated with students and starved of qualified teachers; that the lunchtime supervision policy in some Ontario schools borders on criminally negligent; that understaffing dooms the integrated classroom; that the “pedagogical” use of screens in the classroom is often anything but. Those are the views of one parent. Mr. Ford will be receiving hundreds of thousands more. And then he’ll be looking for quick fixes.
They will elude him. As long as he continues to sow divisions – between parents and teachers, between the government and teachers’ unions, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and human rights activists – Mr. Ford will reap nothing but rage and strife. Solutions will only be found in concert with parents, students, policy makers, teachers, administrators and (perish the thought) experts. As he promised to do in his inaugural speech, the Premier will have to listen to the people: all the people, not just the ones he likes. Maybe what Mr. Ford needs is less bull horn and more porridge spoon.