Catharsis in BC education: A warning

What would you do if your task was to remove resources and supports from one of the most vulnerable populations in our communities? How would you do this without drawing the ire of those within those communities? And would it be possible to actually convince those very people to advocate alongside you for the elimination of those resources and supports?

Public education, in particular the education of students with special needs has become the low hanging fruit to pay for BC budget shortfalls. The BC Liberal’s New Era, which began in 2001 eliminated two billion dollars in tax revenue from the provincial budget. Someone had to pay for those tax cuts, and the education budget was quickly plundered. Contract stripping, school closures, and shrinking budgets soon became the norm. An intentional crisis in public education was created, and continues today.

In 2002, teachers decided to take the government to court to challenge the illegal stripping of class size and composition from their collective agreements. As the case slowly made its way through the courts, the outcome was unpredictable. With this uncertainty still looming in 2012, the BC Liberal’s rolled out a Plan “B” to capitalize on the crisis they created.

Perhaps the best encapsulation of this plan is found in the words of then Student Achievement Superintendent Rod Allen, “no labels and no medical model. In a 21st century personalised world, I’ll tell you what a special education looks like, if you can tell me what a ‘normal’ education is.” Allen was focused on the “decategorization” of special education. The holy grail of cost savings.

Clues are found in Allen’s words as to how the Ministry planned on gaining the support of parents, the public, and the related advocacy groups for his vision. The use of the word ‘labels,’ as derogatory, implied a discriminatory practice existed. The use of the word ‘normal’ implied there was a hierarchy of value in place. The ‘personalised world,’ removed social cohesion as a goal, into one of self-centred, egocentric desire. Every student should be following their own individual passion, all the time. Allen was setting up a conflict within education. A conflict with teachers, and the BCTF.

Perhaps, Allen was playing to the powerful lure of human desire to seek catharsis. We generally associate catharsis with the arts. The most successful composers, authors, poets and play writes have all been masters of it. A typical format is the three part drama, composed of introduction, conflict, and resolution.

It is commonly understood as a pull into the deep emotions of sadness and melancholy. The conflict is always followed by the emotional release in the resolution. An invisible weight is lifted off our shoulders. We experience a sense of renewal, and release of negative emotions. Sometimes, it awakens in us a new understanding, or an epiphany about ourselves and the world around us.

Catharsis does not just live in the arts though, and to our own peril, we often overlook how politicians, elected, or appointed can also be masters of its allure. It is this, that I believe Rod Allen tapped into.

A Shakespearean tragedy, an epic Steinbeck novel, Martin Luther King’s ‘I had a Dream,’ or, Obama’s address to the 2004 DNC, are all enduring works of catharsis in three parts. The scripting presents a deep sadness or frustration, an injustice that is holding us back. It slowly rises to a state of conflict, speeds up, quickens our hearts. In the final act; “…do we participate in a politics of cynicism, or do we participate in a politics of hope?” we find resolution. We are inspired into action.

Understanding, and being able to manipulate the feelings of catharsis in others is a powerful tool in the art of persuasion. When one experiences it, their reaction is often physiological, and visceral. It is this promise of release, epiphany, and rescue that Rod Allen, and the Ministry of Education so effectively used to bring us to this precipice we find ourselves at today.

Within the month, the BC NDP plan on implementing the flawed funding model review recommendations released in December 2018. A prevalence funding model compounded with the current teacher bargaining mandate of concessions, will remove and erode services to the students and families of those with special needs. Yet many of those to be most affected are advocating for this erosion of those learning conditions in our schools.

Why, because in 2012, under the revived banner of inclusion, the Ministry of Education began reiterating the disproven message that such class composition language was discriminatory, and barred students with special needs from classrooms. They employed government contractors, consultants and various Ministry tables to perpetuate this mistruth into the public sphere, and they became masters at positioning their message into the frame of the three act drama.

The act of introduction began with the message that special education was not working in the province, and that the model was broken. It was undeniable, that things were not working. The manufactured crisis ensured the system would start to break down. Children, parents and families were struggling. So were teachers. It was easy for everyone to agree we needed to do better.

The act of the conflict however, started to splinter teachers away from parents and the public. The Ministry of Education started the propaganda campaign that teachers and their collective agreement language were the reason things were not working. Teachers started to be told they needed to ‘decriminalize’ their classrooms, and embrace an attitudinal shift. Phrases became common such as ‘all students deserve inclusion,’ implying teachers had a different vision. They did not. Teachers were berated, attacked, painted as less than, if they could not achieve everything for everyone without reducing class sizes, and increasing their workload.

Today, we are still in the second act. Though, the third act of resolution has already been written by the Ministry. It offers us a promised land. A feel good dream of no labels, and no needs. Where only strengths matter, and weaknesses are not something to improve upon. There is no reason to address the things that hold students back, such as taking the extra time and using 1:1 support to teach a child to read. Technology can do that for them now.

This three act drama leaves teachers conflicted. To believe in educational transformation and a new model of inclusion as the Ministry believes, means believing in the further elimination of funding and supports for students. Yet, to speak out, to claim you are unable to meet student needs without these supports, is to admit you are the broken one. The one that needs to be transformed.

The result is that today, over 50% of teachers on long term medical leaves in BC are struggling from mental health issues. Recent research into stress contagion in classrooms has made the link between teacher and student stress. Our schools are increasingly becoming unhealthy places to be, for teachers, and students.

The German journalist Andrian Kreye has a warning for us though. “The problem with catharsis, though, is that it will always remain an empty promise. There is no paradise, no salvation, no ultimate victory. Progress, be it biological, scientific, or social, is a tedious process of trial and error. If we work toward an unobtainable goal, much effort is wasted, and the appearance of false prophets is almost a given. Catharsis thus becomes the ultimate antagonist of rational thinking.”