Educational change and the politics of distraction

Do not train children in learning by force and harshness, but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each. –Plato

As a former teacher, part of me can’t help feeling good about teachers receiving a raise. I know how long it takes to become certified (and, these days, employed) and I understand the job. At the same time, I’m leery of the New Brunswick Teachers’ Association’s crowing about the guarantee of a fixed number of teachers for the next five years.

Let’s be clear: for all its protestations, the NBTA is not in the business of improving education. Its responsibilities include seeking improvements in working conditions and salaries for teachers and that’s about it. No wonder then that it sees guaranteeing teachers’ jobs as a victory. In light of the current state of affairs in New Brunswick’s public education system, though, this may prove, ultimately, to be a very bad deal.

Speaking from experience, I can tell you that NB teachers are extremely reluctant to criticize openly anything about the system in which they work. Teachers in New Brunswick have a Code of Ethics which prevents them from criticizing their employer. While I happen to think this provision has been exaggerated in its application, that is irrelevant. Speak to teachers privately and virtually every one I know will tell you that the system, in its current form, is, to put it mildly, in crisis. At the same time, don’t expect them to make such a contention in a public forum.

Meanwhile, the public at large must contend with a government and a department that insists that things are always getting better and better. It doesn’t matter if New Brunswick students score abysmally on international standardized tests; it is equally irrelevant that New Brunswick has a functional illiteracy rate in excess of 50%, a figure that hasn’t moved in more than a generation; pay no mind to the proliferation of interventions sponsored by UNB, ELF and any number of other organizations that are trying to compensate for the existing inadequacies of the system.

Governments, always with an eye to polling numbers and the next election, feel compelled to claim that they are on the verge of the big breakthrough that is going to turn it all around. They are supported by a bevy of educational researchers and “specialists”, eager to implement the latest greatest approach being bandied about in Departments of Education in universities, primarily and ordinarily, in the US and Canada.

The value of such initiatives to government is the time it provides for the latest upset and/or outrage about poor results or critical reports to fade from public consciousness. Implementing something new allows governments to say “wait, we’ll see the big turnaround once this program is up and running”.

When things fail to improve and public concern escalates, the trick is to implement yet another new approach. If the target is constantly moving and changing, the day of reckoning is endlessly postponed. Neat trick, unless you happen to be one of the students who muddles through the system and finds him/herself unskilled and unemployable. Such is the fate of far too many young New Brunswickers who continue to swell the ranks of the functionally illiterate in our province.

Which takes me back to this latest contract the NBTA has inked with the province. It has long been my contention that the school SYSTEM is the villain in the continuing story of mediocrity (at best) in education in New Brunswick. The successes that occur, in my experience, are the result of the efforts of individual teachers to ensure that the young people in their care learn as best they can in a school system that is often at odds with such efforts.

I mention this because that viewpoint is very much contradicted by editorials and opinions that tend to appear in media. As I read recently in the Telegraph-Journal’s editorial response to the new teachers’ contract, the problem, in large measure, according to the editors, is that teachers are not held sufficiently accountable for results. I can understand the sentiment but I know it is based on a serious misunderstanding of the dynamics of the system in New Brunswick.

Such a situation works very well for governments, providing a distraction and a ready scapegoat, thus ensuring that the difficult job of truly reforming the system never even begins. Such was my experience through my teaching career and nothing I have either seen or heard suggests that anything fundamental has changed. Governments tinker around the edges, the workings of the system become increasingly impenetrable as they are wrapped in the latest eduspeak, and students flounder their way through.

And now we have a guaranteed number of teachers for the next five years even as enrolment is set to decline. While this might qualify as a union “victory” it may prove to be a hollow one. If nothing else changes in the system as it currently stands, the same mediocrity that is evident will continue unabated. Inevitably, the question will arise: “we’ve lowered teacher-student ratios and nothing has improved substantially? What is wrong with these teachers?”

I suppose the NBTA can hold out the hope that the usual strategy of government will apply. When public concern reaches a peak, look for something else to change, something that will promise to bring about the improvement everyone ostensibly wants. And, with the latest promise in hand, public concern will fade for a time. It’s a sad and persistent cycle. Is there someone out there who has the courage to change it?

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What a week: to Malaga and back again

What a week! That might not be much of a headline but that was the best we could come up with to capture our “experience” of Malaga, Spain. This was my week to introduce Catherine to Europe so I wanted this to be a special time, one free of stress and full of wonder. Well, to echo the old adage, so much for the best laid plans.

Things began according to plan. We arrived in Malaga after some quick connections through Switzerland following our overnight flight from Montreal, rented a car and eventually found our hotel for the night. We were giving ourselves an afternoon and evening to adjust to the time change and get our bearings and it went well. We had a decent meal in the hotel restaurant and stayed awake long enough to avoid a midnight rising and accompanying insomnia. We awoke the next morning, had breakfast, and headed into Malaga for a day of sightseeing before heading to our resort for the week.


The view of the Mediterranean was as wonderful as might be expected. The coastline – in spite of the evident development – was suitably dramatic with its cliffs rising to meet the plateaus that led, in turn, to the hills and peaks beyond. Once we were parked we headed for the historic centre of the city and visited two places on my “must-see” list: Malaga Cathedral and the Alcazaba.

Both lived up to their billing and after some tapas for a late lunch we headed for check-in. It took us 20 minutes and as many roundabouts to arrive at the Sunset Beach Club. What looked like a decent property didn’t take long to disappoint.

Check-in was easy (on the 6th floor since the resort is built into a cliff) and we made our way to our 5th floor “cave” I’ll call it. We were almost directly beneath the registration area and the adjacent bar (lots of sources for noise at any time of the day or night) and had no direct light of any kind. Our balcony fronted on what could only be called a “courtyard” in an architect’s drawing since no one would ever dream of spending time there. Narrow and sandwiched between two towers it hinted at an outer world without actually revealing it. As for the room itself, “dated” will have to suffice. Still, we were staying courtesy of an RCI certificate so we were prepared to live with it since we had no intention of spending much time there. Once again, “best laid plans” and all that.

After dinner in the decent restaurant on the first floor, we were prepared for an early night in preparation for our adventures the next day. Alas, it was not to be.

I awoke fairly early and I knew immediately something was wrong. Because I can hear my mechanical heart valve quite easily, I immediately knew that my heartbeat was irregular. My suspicion was cardiac arrhythmia, a suspicion that was to be confirmed an hour or so later when a doctor arrived and had a look. Upon receiving that confirmation, I was whisked away in an ambulance to the nearest hospital where the prescribed regime required that I be admitted and stay until the following day. One day lost.

By the following morning, Monday, they knew that the medication route wasn’t going to correct my issue so they moved on to more “proactive” measures shall we say. I had expected it would come to that having had this problem once before and, indeed, the intervention was successful and my heart was back to beating as it should. After resting for a couple of hours, I was able to get up and, with Catherine accompanying me, make my way back to the hotel after paying the hospital bill (ouch!) and grabbing a coffee.

Back in the cave that was our room, it was approaching mid-afternoon and it seemed like a good idea to take it easy after my hospital stay so we hunkered down until it was dinnertime and once again ate in the decent restaurant downstairs. Two days lost but I figured we would be back on track the next day. Oh the folly of imagining such a thing.

Sometime in the middle of the night, I was struck by Montezuma’s revenge (I’m calling it that even if this wasn’t Mexico). What followed was another two days where the best I could manage was a brief visit to poolside on the second day of my incapacitation. Essentially, in other words, Tuesday and Wednesday – days three and four – lost.

By Thursday, I had recovered enough that, in the afternoon, we were able to finally return to the car we had parked on Saturday, and head somewhere other than the dungeon or the pool. Our destination, Mijas, turned out to be well worth the visit. Nestled high in the hills, this Spanish “white town” provided exceptional views of the hills and the sea as well as a little shopping, some excellent narrow streets, a charming chapel and, the highlight, a small bullring that we spent some time exploring.
Both of us experienced that unavoidable mixture of fascination with the tradition and repulsion when it comes to the actual activity. We were both surprised at how small the space was allotted for the bull fight. It certainly made very evident the dire nature of the predicament any matador would find himself in.

Unfortunately, after even a couple of hours or so of easy strolling, the challenges of the week caught up with me so we headed back. I was still on a restricted diet of some fruit and toast so I did with that while Catherine had takeout, yet again, from the “decent restaurant” in the hotel. While the day was not a total loss, it was definitely less than the best.

So along came Friday, the last full day we had in the Malaga area. When I had conceived of visiting this area, I had three destinations in mind: Gibraltar, the town of Ronda, and Granada to see the Alhambra. Not happening. The closest was almost 2 hours away and after the week we’d had, that was just too much to consider, especially since we calculated we would have to get up around 3 am in order to make our early flight to Lisbon, first stop on our journey home. So, back to Malaga we went.

As it turned out, we quite enjoyed ourselves. The Pompidou and Picasso museums were respectively fun and puzzling, and wonderful and awe-inspiring.
Generally speaking, it was just nice to be out and about on a sunny day enjoying the sights and the ambiance of a beautiful Spanish city. Even though severely truncated, our experience of the area convinced us it was a place well worth visiting.

Our time ended, once again, back in that same “decent restaurant”, but this time it graduated to something better. We ordered paella and both in terms of presentation and taste, it was delicious. I was still not 100% so I ate what I could but didn’t overdo it. Catherine was able to enjoy to her heart’s (and stomach’s) content. Satisfied, we were early to bed and early to rise. We returned our underutilized vehicle and made it home the following morning after some 36 hours of travel time (with an overnight in Toronto thankfully).

What a week! That was all we could say to sum up the experience. Still, we agreed we had seen some wonderful things and that, whatever else, this was a vacation we would not soon forget, one we would even laugh about someday. Such is the risk of any travel adventure. Happily, we made it home safely and all is well. Now it’s time to plan the next adventure!