The funding cuts to education, as announced by the Ministry of Education, led to the laying off of 99 teachers in the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board. In the past few weeks, I've shot and interviewed a few of them to raise awareness of the harmful impacts these cuts have on our kids, our kids' teachers and the entire education system. This is Seema Narula's story.
Tell me a bit about yourself and where you come from.
I grew up in Burlington, went to university in Guelph, lived in Japan for three years, Toronto for four years, and finally moved to Hamilton 10 years ago.
When did you first know you wanted to become a teacher?
I think I always knew. From the age of 13, I was volunteering at camps, and then taught swimming lessons as a lifeguard for most of my teens. In my early 20's I traveled to Japan and taught English there for 3 years in high schools. When I returned to Canada I taught ESL for a time before heading to teacher's college. It seemed logical as all my prior employment was all leaning towards being an educator.
What was your last teaching position?
Teaching Grade 9 Applied French at Sir Allan MacNab Secondary School (currently).
Can you tell me about the steps that you took along the years that got you to that teaching position?
I had to apply to teachers college twice. The first time I did not get accepted. On the second try I was accepted to York University for a special Community Focus Teacher's College Program that took place in Regent Park (Toronto) to become an elementary school teacher. I was fortunate to get a Long Term Occasional teaching placement at the school I did my teaching practicum at. I worked there for two years before moving to Hamilton. When I moved to the Hamilton board I did not know anyone, and did not have anyone to vouch for me. So I volunteered in schools for 2 years, while working full-time in a community development position, where I partnered with high schools to support youth. During that time I was also upgrading my qualifications to be a more marketable teacher. I took my French qualification, and my high school qualifications so that I could teach English and Social Sciences at the high school level. I took a few other additional qualifications at the same time like Guidance to help me support the youth I was working with to better navigate the school system. I was unsuccessful in getting a recommendation with the elementary panel during the two years that I volunteered. However, once I got my high school qualifications, I was quickly able to use the connections I had built in working my position in partnership with high schools in community development to get recommended for an interview to become a supply teacher for the secondary panel. By then I was 34 and pregnant with my first child, giving up a secure job to finally try out my hand at teaching again. In between having two kids I worked various Long Term Occasional positions in combination with day to day supply work. The last few years, as my kids became more independent, I started doing more consecutive Long Term Occasionals as a French teacher. This is inevitably the position, which helped to get me a permanent job, which I finally secured in February of 2018. I was first hired with the board in 2011 and graduated Teachers College in 2007.
Can you share one of the proudest moments of your teaching career?
Watching students overcome various life obstacles and cross the stage during graduation. I always tear up. This year one of the teams I helped to coach came in first during the Louder Than A Bomb Poetry Slam Finals competition. It is that particular school's last year of being open (the school will close at the end of June), and the last poetry slam team they will have. Many of the students on the team I had taught the semester prior and I understood the difficulties they had to overcome in their day to day lives, and the resilience they possess, and the power of their words. I was so proud of them for speaking their truths and then winning it for their school!
From your experience as a teacher, how will the funding cuts to education, as announced by the Ministry of Education, affect students?
Many students have expressed their concerns about e-learning. I have had several students try e-learning only to later drop-out because it was not for them. Many students have expressed how they do not have access to the proper tools to access e-learning i.e. internet or laptop. Students classes and electives will be cut. Increase class sizes, which means that students will have fewer opportunities to access to teacher and get one on one time for support. Fewer teachers, means fewer clubs and extra curriculars will run. Fewer classes means more cramped spaces as class sizes increase. Fewer teachers means teachers will be pulled from their "expert/specialized" subject areas to teach in subject areas they are no longer experts in. This will impact student learning as these teachers go through a learning curve in learning a new curriculum and developing their courses. Uncertainty and instability for students who develop relationships and trust with teachers, only to have them leave.
How did it affect your personal life? What are your plans for the future?
I try not to think about it. It really stresses me out if I do. I have my family, and bills to pay like everyone else. I'm confident that I have employable skills and that I could find another job and career path, but when I start to think about those options now it can create a lot of anxiety. I don't want to think about it until the picture of how my employment will be more clear. I'm used to not knowing, and the anxiety that comes with not knowing, where/what you will be teaching with each semester. As a result of knowing myself and taking care of my mental health, I have reduced my employment to work 2/3 instead of full-time. It is a major paycut, but I do it because I don't know what I will teach with each semester or where I will be and it has been like this for year. I could no long keep up the pace of work, course development etc. without it affecting my mental and physical health. By reducing my course load, I feel much more able to manage the uncertainty of not knowing where and what I will be teaching.
What action can I take to help the teachers?
Help to raise awareness with the public. We are not a bunch of slouches that finish work when the students go, and that do nothing during the summer. We work 40+ hours a week teaching, planning, marking, and volunteering our own time to coach and run clubs and extra-curricular activities. We take courses, teach summer school, and plan during our own time in the summers to better ourselves as teachers. People who hate on teachers should spend a week or two in our shoes before saying that "teachers have it easy". I agree we have good jobs, that pay well, with benefits, and like other industries we also endure cuts. But cuts like these are extreme and negatively impact our students, and my kids! This isn't about our wages, this is about the education system as a whole! Please help to educate people about this, stand up for teachers. Vote wisely during the next federal and provincial elections. Send letters to your MPPs, minister of education and the premier.