The Ontario government took a courageous step in October when it announced that it would go ahead with full-day kindergarten.
Supporting Members’ Professional Growth in Times of Change (Professional Services)
Ken Georgetti, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, believes that the programs and services unions provide in addition to collective bargaining are the heart and soul of the union movement. ETFO recognized this early in its first decade and has consistently supported members in their professional lives as well as negotiating and enforcing collective agreements. Members have responded positively; without fail they have found ETFO’s professional learning resources and programs to be the best available. Today ETFO is known nationally and internationally for its efforts.
The ultimate test was undertaking this work at a time of incredible tumult in the profession. In the past 10 years the expectations placed on Ontario’s elementary educators have been revised year after year with head-spinning frequency. Supporting members in these times has been challenging, but ETFO has done it with vigour.
Responding to change in the classroom
Since 1998 a whole new curriculum has been implemented in all grades, with great speed and with few supports. Elementary educators did not experience the multiyear phase-in afforded our secondary colleagues. ETFO stepped up to the plate, producing professional resources and providing training for members as they struggled to do a seemingly impossible task. That they succeeded was due to their own hard work, professionalism, and tenacity – and to ETFO’s assistance.
Many of the new curricula had more expec- tations than there were days in the school year. Recognizing this, Professional Services staff produced resources to help teachers identify areas of overlap so that they could integrate multiple expectations. Our document, Building a Teacher’sPlanner, and our planning work- shops are among our most popular and most successful.
The new curriculum was particularly problematic for teachers of combined grades because combining expectations and teaching a common lesson became much more difficult and in some areas impossible. After holding focus groups with these teachers, ETFO produced a position paper, Split Decisions, and used it to lobby successfully for change. Because these issues remain significant, the federation is developing an additional qualifications (AQ) course for teachers of combined grades.
During this same period, a new report card was introduced, soon followed by another, and in some district school boards, yet another. It was a part of a significant change in student assessment. Once again Professional Services staff assisted members by developing resources and providing training in the collection, interpretation, and use of data. Our work in responding to assessment issues spanned the organization. Collective Bargaining staff ensured that teachers’ working conditions were respected and that they would have access to the tools and the training they needed to complete report cards. Professional Relations Services staff provided advice about the legalities of the reporting process and about responding to pressure to change a mark or comment.
Programming for special needs students also underwent significant change, much of it dictated by the response of school boards to the new funding model. More special needs students were integrated into regular classrooms with fewer accompanying resources. In many boards, classroom teachers assumed greater responsibility for the completion of individual education plans (IEPs). Recognizing the increased demands on these teachers, ETFO hired staff and developed its own Special Education AQ course and special education resources.
Supporting teacher professionalism
The Conservative government’s plan for mandatory teacher recertification was perhaps the greatest challenge to teachers’ professionalism during this period. The professional learning program (PLP) required teachers to attend 14 professional development sessions over a five-year period in order to keep their certificates. ETFO members refused to participate but found it difficult to pursue their own self-directed professional learning because many traditional providers were offering only PLP courses. ETFO offered its own programs and showed members how to track their own self-directed and PLP-free professional learning. The campaign against mandatory recertification involved all areas of the organization and every member, and was ultimately successful.
Surprisingly, there was a significant bright spot amid all of this misery. In our first year, the Ministry of Education provided the federations with funds to offer summer curriculum courses for teachers. These courses, offered by teachers for teachers, were immensely popular. When 5,000 teachers applied for 1,500 spots, the ministry provided additional funding.
ETFO worked with OECTA, AEFO, and OTF to offer these programs annually until in 2002 the government insisted that they be tied to the PLP. Our response was “Thanks, but no thanks!” Instead we found resources, hired staff, and offered our own Summer Academy program. These courses continue to be popular: this year some 2,500 teachers attended ETFO courses in all corners of the province. The election of a more education-friendly government in 2003 may have slowed change in some areas, but it increased the pace elsewhere.
The Liberal government’s oft-stated goal of having 75 percent of grade 6 students achieve level 3 or 4 on provincewide tests has resulted in an unprecedented focus on literacy and numeracy. However, unlike its predecessor, the current government has focused on consultation and providing resources. When the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat (LNS) was created, it initiated focused literacy and numeracy plans, and it put significant resources into the system – in fact, more than at any other time in Ontario’s history. Teachers received extensive support and training, so much so that at times they wanted it to stop. How quickly things change!
Unfortunately our occasional teacher and ESP/PSP members didn’t receive this same level of professional support. ETFO urged the government to provide them with professional learning opportunities and, while we have had some success, this work is ongoing.
In another significant initiative, the government eliminated the widely disliked test that new graduates had to pass to be certified and replaced it with a comprehensive system of supports. The ministry and many boards based their plans on the ideas espoused in a popular ETFO resource, ProfessionalBeginnings: An Induction Resource Guide, published in 2003.
ETFO recognized that members who were mentors to new teachers also needed support. The Ministry of Education identified our hugely successful workshop for mentors as an exemplary program. We hope to capitalize on this success by developing a Mentorship AQ course.
The government’s intention to create full- day, every day kindergarten programs will require that members receive significant support. ETFO’s professional resources, Kindergarten Matters: Learningthrough Play and Observation, will be invaluable. ETFO has also developed a Kindergarten AQ course that focuses on play-based learning. Last year, we received significant funding from the Ministry of Education to develop programs to support JK/SK educators.
After extensive dialogue with stakeholders the ministry recently released The Partnership TableReport on Teacher Professional Learning. Its recommendations about effective professional learning will have a significant impact on our work in the years ahead. Already many of our programs involve multiple sessions over the course of a year so that participants can examine their professional practice in a deep and meaningful way. Programs such as Teachers Learning Together and Reflections onPractice are more expensive and complex than single-session workshops, but our research shows that they have a significant impact on teachers, classroom programs, and students.
Perhaps the best example of the difference in this government’s view of teacher unions occurred in 2006 when ETFO received $8 million from the ministry for professional learning. This funding allowed us to provide new programs and to enhance some existing popular offerings. Among the new initiatives was ETFO’s Poverty and Education program, which focuses on supporting students from impoverished backgrounds. Additional grants from the Council of Directors of Education has allowed the continuation of this program.
That ETFO received these funds recognizes our status as a provider of high-quality professional learning. Our programs meet the diverse professional learning needs of our members. Many projects include an extensive evaluation and impact analysis because we want to gain additional insight into what influences members’ professional practice to help us with future planning.
Involving members and the broader community
The professional zeal of our members has supported our work. Over the past 10 years members have completed multiple surveys that have helped us identify areas of need and focus. Members eagerly participated in focus groups to ensure that new documents and programs were useful and reflected classroom reality. Our Summer Academy and the wide range of courses it offers is one example.
Another example is the recently published resource, ETFO Arts. Teachers told us that the focus on literacy and numeracy and the cuts to specialist teacher positions meant there were few professional supports at a time when more classroom teachers were teaching their own arts programs. Our new resource has been repeatedly praised by educators and specialists in arts education.
Member input, research, and best practices have allowed us to develop programs and resources that are more sophisticated than ever. Our services are widely recognized for their practicality and their success in supporting members and their students.
Today, unlike 10 years ago, ETFO Profes- sional Services staff are often called upon to ensure that the voice of elementary educators is heard in all areas of the education sector. We meet with officials at EQAO, the Ontario College of Teachers, the LNS, and other branches of the Ministry of Education.
Recognizing that education is far more com- plex than in the past, we have forged links with experts in medical fields and universities, and with international groups. We developed Reflections of Me, our curriculum on body image, with the Hospital for Sick Children. We undertook research on teacher working conditions with the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Staff from Ontario faculties of education are working with participants in Teachers Learning Together. And we are working with Right to Play to bring a more play-based program to students in developing nations.
We have also worked with subject associations to ensure they develop a greater elementary focus. This has allowed us to better tap into their expertise to meet our members’ professional needs. The influence that ETFO has throughout the education sector is significant, and the change that we have been able to bring about has been positive – a far cry from the exclusion we experienced 10 years ago.
In her first report to the ETFO annual meeting then-president Phyllis Benedict identified our first year as a time of change not seen in Ontario since the time of Egerton Ryerson. Looking back, it seems that every year of our first 10 years has been full of change. Each and every time the federation has met the challenge head on, never shying from a difficult task, and in the process far exceeding the goals it set for itself when it was formed.
The path to a permanent teaching job often winds through the challenges of occasional teaching.