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June 1999

Guest Column

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Our Forgotten Heroes

 By Avis Glaze

When I was asked to reflect on my role as a Royal Commissioner and the results of our work for Professionally Speaking, I decided also to mention briefly one of my major preoccupations as an educator today. That preoccupation is teachers – how they are perceived in society, their daily lives in schools and the pivotal role they play in bringing about meaningful educational change.

After listening to hundreds of Ontarians share their vision of education for Ontario, we felt that there was a need for system renewal in a true spirit of continuous improvement. We concluded that key strategic projects and carefully chosen intervention strategies had the capacity to accelerate the process of transformation.

In the Royal Commission’s report, For the Love of Learning, we identified four engines or levers of change – Early Childhood Education, Teacher Professionalization and Development, Community Education and Information Technology – and made 167 recommendations. We were convinced that, if acted upon, these levers had the potential to change qualitatively the kind of schools, teaching and learning that are at the heart of the education system.

We painted a picture of the education system we envisaged – one that was grounded solidly in research findings. We discussed the primary and the shared responsibilities of schools. We identified the characteristics students need for personal, interpersonal and career effectiveness, and responsible citizenship in the new millennium.

Action has been initiated in some areas and recommendations have been or are being implemented. These include the establishment of an Implementation Commission, the Education Quality and Accountability Office, school councils, the College of Teachers, new province-wide curriculum, provincial report cards, education finance reform, secondary reform, enhanced use of information technology, teacher education, community college education review, apprenticeship reform, and changes to special education and the identification, placement and review committee (IPRC) process.

Secondary education reform is well under way with many of the specific details that we suggested – teacher advisers,
community service, the expansion of career and co-operative education, literacy testing , four-year program, additional math and science courses, prior learning assessment and the annual education plan, to name a few. A renewed focus on guidance and counselling, with an emphasis on program delivery and the concomitant accountability for effectiveness, has already been communicated through Choices into Action.


While I am delighted with this list, I remain optimistic that some day other recommendations, particularly those related to early childhood education, adult education, teacher education, equity imperatives, daily physical exercise, parents’ charter, third language acquisition, inter-ministerial co-ordination of services for children and fair compensation for trustees, will be considered.

For me, the establishment of the College of Teachers is a great source of pride. The Registrar, Council and staff deserve special praise. Many of us who have had the pleasure of visiting the College, noticing the calibre and diverse backgrounds of its employees and the professionalism inherent in the operations and its surroundings, do appreciate the fact that what has been established in a short time is truly commendable.

This is a tribute to the profession. The Commissioners envisaged nothing less. The establishment of the College as a self-regulatory body signifies that the teaching profession has come of age in Ontario, particularly in relation to other professions.

I encourage the College to continue to refine and protect the standards for the profession and to promote the cause of education. It is also necessary for the College to continue to work at its primary challenge – that of bringing educators at all levels of the system to a common understanding and appreciation of how the College benefits them, the profession of teaching and their sense of professionalism.


In For the Love of Learning, the Commissioners wrote with passion about teachers – their professionalization and continuing development. This, we thought, was the single most important key to any possible improvement in the quality of schooling. We identified the characteristics of a good teacher, referred to teachers as our heroes and argued that they should be everyone’s heroes.

We said that many felt unappreciated, disrespected, the focus of attacks, and caught in an almost warlike situation. We talked about the reasons they went into the profession and their dedication to their students. We wondered how they manage to do their jobs as well as they do, with the myriad problems they face on a daily basis, the seriousness of their responsibilities, the never-ending new obligations imposed on them, the need to keep up with their subjects, new research findings and the explosion of knowledge.

Given all of this, we felt strongly that Ontario teachers deserved recognition for their dedication and achievements.

Some countries choose to demonstrate their appreciation for teachers not only in words but also in tangible ways. A case in point is Taiwan. In that country, elementary and secondary teachers do not pay income tax. I hasten to caution, though, that it takes more than extrinsic measures to bring about educational improvement.

We did not shy away from mentioning that students told us, in no uncertain terms, that there are teachers who are unresponsive, indifferent, mechanical, inflexible and responsible to no one. Some, they explained, had "retired on the job." And, although we felt that one such teacher is too many, we also asserted – based on our personal experiences in the system – that not many teachers fell into this category.

Because of the emphasis we placed on the need for accountability in education throughout the report, we suggested that educators must be accountable for every student who falls through the cracks.


As a profession, we are engaged in an intensely moral and enduring enterprise. As public educators, we promote democratic principles and contribute to the life chances of individuals. We nurture one of the strongest drives – the need to learn. We therefore cannot give in to the demoralization that is a reality in some jurisdictions today. Admittedly, sometimes we feel like Sisyphus pushing the big boulder up the hill only to see it roll back to the bottom. But, as professionals, we cannot succumb to cynicism or despair. It is our duty to improve the system from within.

On the eve of the millennium, let us seize the opportunities that present themselves. Let’s remember that two key ingredients for system improvement are skill and will, and that if we wait for perfect conditions, we will never get
anything done. I am confident that we have the expertise to assist our students to soar to new heights of performance and achievement.

But there is a caveat for the public, politicians and policy makers. Recently, two prominent American educators asked why the reform movement has failed miserably in the United States in spite of the billions of dollars spent on education since the "excellence movement" of the ’80s. They suggested that it is not true that there is a conspiracy of the educational establishment to maintain or defend the status quo or that teachers are allergic to change, but that the advice of those who know education best is essential for decision-making around educational improvement.

Like the Ontario Royal Commissioners, they concluded that governments and policy makers worldwide ignore teacher input at their own peril because no real change will take place in education without the efforts and good will of teachers.

At the same time, in order to have credibility with the public, we must demonstrate that we are willing to participate in and embrace meaningful change, eschew self-interest and focus on causes outside of ourselves. Teachers cannot do it alone. Alliances and coalitions among all stakeholders are necessary to create the kind of system that we desire.

I encourage educators to focus on accountability in its many forms, to be results-oriented, to be advocates of children who live in poverty, to respect the rights of parents to participate fully in their children’s education and to ensure that schools best serve the needs of students. Share widely the exhortation of the United Nations that children should have the first call on a nation’s resources in good times and in bad.

A student who wished only to be credited as G.K. wrote an essay, entitled "Teachers are the Reason Why…". It’s too long to reproduce here, but I’ll quote the last few lines as my tribute to Ontario teachers in this time of rapid change and transformation:

"……Teachers are the reason why airplanes fly, computers program, ballets are danced, novels are written, cancers are researched, lawsuits are won, skyscrapers are built, and ‘art’ decorates refrigerator doors. Life’s biggest accomplishments occur because somewhere, sometime, someone touched our lives – and it all began with a teacher!"

Avis Glaze is associate director of education for the York Region District School Board and a former Commissioner on the Ontario Royal Commission on Learning.