July 14, 2020

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In adversity, educators look for new opportunities


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On March 31, the question on the minds of more than 16,000 Manitoba public school teachers — and countless parents and students — was answered. They will not be returning to the classroom any time soon.

Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen, on the advice of senior public-health officials, announced that classes in the province’s K-12 system have been suspended indefinitely. While far from the outcome educators were hoping for, it is understandable, prudent and not unexpected.

Prior to the press conference where he announced his decision, Goertzen held a teleconference with representatives of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society, the Manitoba School Boards Association and the province’s independent schools. He informed us of the impending announcement and gave us the opportunity to share our perspectives and to ask questions that would be top of mind for our members.

This exchange permitted our organizations time to prepare messaging that would help clarify the matter, and ease the minds of many for whom the suspension of classes has been a stressful but necessary change.

Manitoba Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen has cancelled K-12 classes indefinitely. (John Woods / The Canadian Press)

Manitoba Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen has cancelled K-12 classes indefinitely. (John Woods / The Canadian Press)

Along with the suspension of classes for the foreseeable future, we discussed the possibility that the school year might extend into the summer. To our relief, the minister indicated that the summer break would be important for students and their families, as well as teachers — perhaps moreso this year than ever.

Another matter for discussion was the much-anticipated graduation celebrations of the class of 2020. Most of us look back on our own high school graduations with considerable fondness, and it touches us deeply when a group of young people works so hard and so long for their moment, only to have it snatched away.

All of us, the minister included, agreed that it will be of great importance to find ways of honouring the achievement of our Grade 12 students.

I came away from this call with three things:

First, relief in the clarity of a decision made, even if that decision means the school year as we traditionally know it has come to an abrupt end. As a teacher myself, I know educators and students form deep and enduring bonds. With the opportunity to say face-to-face farewells now lost, there is a very real sense of mourning out there. We need to acknowledge that.

Second, I valued the empathy with which the minister and his colleagues have approached the mental health of students, families and teachers. Summer has long been a time of essential renewal in a climate such as ours. To take it away under the current circumstances and extend the school year would be devastating after the most isolating and surreal spring in just about any Manitoban’s memory.

Last, I came away with a deep appreciation for Manitobans at large. On each and every day of this crisis, we have come together even as we are required to stand apart. We are more and more united in a sense of larger purpose. We are working for each other. We are holding each other up.

"Nothing can replace the impact of teachers in their classrooms. Yet, as they forge ahead in a COVID–19 world with the aid of technology and no small amount of grit, I am humbled by their spirit."

Education partners and governments will naturally spar over matters of mutual concern, and so they should. After all, debate and democracy go hand in hand. What this unprecedented situation is teaching us though, in the words of American behavioural research professor Brené Brown, is that "clarity is kind." Ambiguity is the enemy of action, and in times like this we need to act, together — with the betterment of all at heart.

Nothing can replace the impact of teachers in their classrooms. Yet, as they forge ahead in a COVID-19 world with the aid of technology and no small amount of grit, I am humbled by their spirit. With almost no notice, and within a crucible of intense pressure, teachers are using the tools at their disposal while creating more than a few new ones.

In the face of adversity they have launched a colossal and inspired effort that benefits all Manitobans. We continue to look to parents and guardians for their ongoing support. Rest assured, Manitoba’s public school teachers will continue to take the lead.

As Premier Brian Pallister said last week, our children are depending on us to do the right thing. "We owe them that," he said. When you work with young people on a daily basis, you understand the need to deliver on that promise.

It is my hope that the community of education partners continues to engage in discussions and to work together. That we continue to be clear in our shared intention to give children every support needed to succeed. And that we arm those who support our children to deliver a school year which, while most certainly unprecedented, offers unprecedented opportunities for all of us to learn and grow.

James Bedford is president of the Manitoba Teachers Society.

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