Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Grieving Through a Disordered Mood

I haven't posted for a while because last week I lost someone very important to my life. My aunt passed away after a short battle with liver cancer and I have been struggling a bit with it. 

Normally under such circumstances I tend to make myself as busy as possible to try and forget about it. Once I kick into work mode, the pain and distraction of grieving melts away like an inattentive child's popsicle on a hot summer's day. So I tried it this time, and it failed.

What is it about grief that makes it different each time one experiences it? There have been many people who have gone in my lifetime, most tragically and most young, yet they all affect me differently. Some were present or former classmates, others older family members, one was a fellow poet and one was my best friend. I miss them all. But my aunt's death has been very different from the others.

This is the first time I lost someone after my diagnosis of depression and anxiety this past May. In this sense I live in a totally different world from the one I inhabited previously. In the past, the chemical balance of my brain wasn't being managed the way it is now since I became a consumer. The weird fluctuations in mood and temperament are highly unusual to me and I've had to get away from everyone to take a bit of time inside my own head to start to sort through it all. My friends have noticed my weirdness but have been good about it. I'm not so sure I feel at peace with it, at all.

However, now that this is my new reality I have to learn how to cope. I know there are others out there who read this blog and have similar stories. It would be great if we could start a discussion in the comments on this topic. Grief is always hard and I'm learning it might be even tougher when one is newly learning how to cope with a mood disorder. 

We bury my aunt on Friday. But I can't bury this emotional turmoil. I hope by speaking openly about it, this conversation might positively help someone else in the future.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Brief Break From PS&R Blogging ...

I've been very happy about the increased readership for PS&R the last few weeks, so thank you to all the new readers and welcome to the blog! I encourage you to subscribe to it -- simply click on "Follow" on the top menu bar and receive notifications when a posting has been added.

I'm currently sitting in the US Departures area of the Vancouver International Airport, mere moments from being called to board my flight for San Francisco. I am unsure how ofter I will have access to the internet while out of the country, so this is adieu for now. Look for the next blog entry on Sunday, unless the gods conspire to give me a bit more time before then.

Have a good rest-of-week and a fabulous weekend everyone! I'll check back in a few days from now.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Canadian Winter of Youth Unemployment

In today's Globe and Mail, Gwyn Morgan argued the most dangerous force in the world is the large number of unemployed youth across the globe. In making his argument, Morgan wrote the main protesters driving the Arab Spring revolts in the Middle East and North Africa are disaffected, jobless young people who live in societies where youth unemployment runs as high as 40 percent.

Without a doubt, their plight in oppressive societies in which they have limited class mobility, few or no avenues for significant political engagement and high levels of corruption could lead them to take to the streets in protest. But levels of youth unemployment are high in the Western world, too. Could the lack of job prospects also lead to social unrest in North America and Europe?

Morgan doesn't think so. On the situation in Europe, he writes:

"... financial woes have driven youth unemployment to more than 20 per cent. Spain’s jobless rate among young people is twice that, comparable to that of the Arab world. But there’s a crucial difference. Low European birth rates have progressively lessened the proportion of youth in society, and the longer-term outlook is for worker shortages as baby boomers retire. By contrast, there are sixteen Middle Eastern and North African countries where at least six out of every 10 people are under 30 years of age."

Since demographic trends in North America are very similar to Europe's, it's fair to extrapolate Morgan's perspective would also more or less fit our situation here in Canada.

Youth unemployment rates are unacceptably high in this country. Ontario has the biggest challenge, with 15% of its young people unable to find work. There is a growing group of unemployed/underemployed, highly educated people increasingly expressing their disenchantment with the current state of affairs. These individuals see their investments in higher education providing ever-diminishing returns for themselves and their peers. More and more have returned to the nest, unable to find decently compensated work that provides enough capital for self-sufficiency. Others have given up and gone back to school for something to do, only to find themselves further in debt and just as unlikely to find work after graduating with a professional degree, advanced degrees or a post-undergrad college certificate.

This, of course, says nothing about the young people who have dropped out of the workforce, are no longer enrolled in school, or who never completed a high school diploma and/or a post-secondary program. Official statistics only tell part of the story. These uncounted youth, equally disaffected, have just as many reasons to be disgruntled by current economic conditions as their brethren with academic credentials. When you add these various populations together, a sizeable proportion of Canada's under 30 crowd are losing the economic battle due to a combination of stagnant job creation by the private sector, public sector employment cutbacks, baby boomer reluctance and/or financial inability to retire, escalating education standards being demanded across the board in hiring practices, restrictive employment regulations by government in certain sectors, and ongoing global economic uncertainty.

Morgan's implied belief that skills shortages will lead to improved employment opportunities for youth down the road ignores the fact that older workers are working longer and harder, thereby blocking younger workers from accessing employment. These older workers are also continuously upgrading themselves (through an added emphasis on skills development training by industry), which helps them remain employed. How does a young person fresh out of college or university compete with that? How do they find work if skills learned in school atrophy or lose relevance after years of unemployment or working low-paying jobs in another sector to try and make ends meet? Worse, how is a young person facing socioeconomic barriers or a lack of educational opportunity supposed to compete on anything approaching an equal footing to others, no matter the age of their competitors?

The youth of Canada live in a country with democratic principles written into its constitution. The need for armed revolt is not high. However, social unrest like we've seen in the Middle East may yet find a uniquely Canadian expression if young people here cannot fairly compete to gather the fruits of their labour past generations have enjoyed. 

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Quick Comment on 9/11

I've been in transit this weekend and have mostly been off the internet. I haven't seen any television. I have only read a few things in the newspaper, courtesy of my BlackBerry data plan (thanks Fido!). But I'm sure discussion and coverage of the tenth anniversary of 9/11 has been all over the place. 

There are only two things I want to add to the discourse:

- As I made clear on Facebook today, while I consider the loss of life a personal tragedy for those directly in relationship with the victims on that day, I also think the deterioration of our democratic rights and freedoms under the guise of security is an unprecedented pillaging of our heritage that we may never fully reverse. This long-lasting byproduct of the "war on terror" shall haunt us for a very long time until and unless we get very serious about reversing its ill effects. The fact the Harper government wants to bring back many of the old provisions of anti-terror legislation (with the support of the original Liberal architects of the provisions), and we have no way to effectively stop it, means we have a very far way to go to learn the lessons 9/11 should have taught us as a nation.

- Margaret Wente's ridiculous assertion that "[d]espite many warnings and much alarm, a backlash against Muslims in North America never materialized" has to be one of the most offensive things I have seen written anywhere about the aftermath of 9/11. I could go on a rant to make Rick Mercer proud right here, but suffice it to say that the quality of life Muslims experienced on September 10, 2001 is quite different from what it is today. For any person with the privilege, access to information and (purported) intelligence she has to write this tripe amounts to the worst kind of anti-Muslim revisionism -- a literary misadventure that treats the assaults, desecrations, racism, slander, wiretaps, unjust arrests, increased survelliance and decreased personal security Muslims confront daily as a figment of their overactive imaginations. The Islamaphobia that has become one of the most challenging social issues any citizens of any description face in contemporary Canada is as obvious as the growing length of Wente's nose anytime she writes about any topic involving "the other" in this country.

It's been ten years now. The time for overblown memorial ceremonies is over. Let the families continue to grieve in dignified privacy, and let's get on with the task of making our democracy safe for everyone who lives within our borders. That is the true debt we owe to 9/11's dead.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Why Two Years of Teachers' College Is Not Better Than One

The McGuinty government is proposing the extension of teacher's college from one year to two years in an attempt to look hardcore on education. This election promise is perhaps the dumbest education-related proposal the "Education Premier" has yet come up with since first winning office.

I was enrolled in the Concurrent Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Education (Con-Ed) program at Queen's University in the first year of a major overhaul -- for the first time, the experience and background of an applicant would be balanced in importance with academic achievement. It was one of the hardest programs to gain entry to in those days, as only 1 in 8 applications were approved straight out of high school.

Without those changes I would not have been accepted. Period. My marks were decent (an 80.3% average in my OAC courses, just good enough to be named an Ontario Scholar), but hardly outstanding for a Queen's applicant. However, my experience was off the charts in comparison to most people trying to get in, and that was the great equalizer. Had I applied the year before, when marks were the only determinant of entry, I wouldn't have even been given a second look.

What the Con-Ed program administrators had figured out was this: a brilliant mathematician can never clearly explain to a struggling C+ student how to apply complex concepts the scholar understands with little difficulty. In fact (as I found out later, when I had to teach math after I graduated), the student who fought for a B all the way through school is a far better math teacher, because they understand what it means to struggle and have handy tips and tricks to overcome some of the difficulties such students encounter with the subject matter. 

In Con-Ed you take education courses throughout undergraduate studies, then spend the final year at teacher's college with a reduced course load. A Con-Ed student also has the opportunity to have supervised practica throughout their first degree program, usually in May. This allows a prospective educator (known as teacher-candidates) the chance to practice what they learn, work in a school environment, and figure out if this profession is really for them. A few of my classmates realized through this process that they were in the wrong field, and they switched programs. This is a good thing for the education system as a whole. 

Everybody's an expert on teaching because everyone attended school. There is nothing more irritating as a teacher than dealing with people who think they can do the job better than the obviously inadequate person teaching their future physicist/Olympic athlete/doctor/lawyer/insert-six-figure-earning-career-here. My retort is simple -- if teaching was so easy, then why aren't you doing it yourself?

Oh, right, it's a ridiculously challenging, all-consuming, stressful and under-appreciated profession. It requires empathy, subject matter knowledge, attention to detail, the patience of Job, a good sense of humour, irony, self-control, excellent instincts, the ability to work alone, the ability to work collaboratively, public speaking and facilitation skills, sacrifice and an unrelenting belief in the students they see every day in all manner of mood and temperament. 

That's why spending an extra year in school makes absolutely no difference to the quality of education your students will receive. An extra year in university will fatten institutional coffers but will not additionally expand the brains of teacher-candidates. Ultimately, a teacher makes it or not in the crucible of day-to-day work with students. The profession demands of its best practitioners intangible skills that the technocrats in the Ministry of Education and Training will never be able to quantify. One year is quite enough to learn the basics, then be thrown to the wolves.

The idea of two years of teachers' college is not going to improve the quality of our teachers. Attracting quality people to the profession is the only way to deal with that issue. And it's best addressed through modifying admission requirements rather than keeping teacher-candidates in school (and in debt) longer.