Since graduating with a BEd from University of Windsor’s Faculty of Education in 1972, Hilda Watkins has been on a mission: to do what it takes – locally, provincially, nationally, internationally – to make working conditions better for teachers, and learning environments better for students. From her own elementary classrooms in the Greater Essex County District School Board, all the way to the President’s Office of the Ontario Teachers’ Federation (OTF/FEO), her activism has been tireless.
ConnectED spoke with Ms. Watkins, recently back from a spate of conferences, and just having wrapped up a live radio interview. Despite her busy schedule, her enthusiasm, concern and focus are clear.
Across your career you have taken on more and greater roles as an advocate for education. What was it that drove you to become so involved in education outside the classroom?
Watkins: I was born and raised in Windsor. Coming from such a strong labour community, I naturally have some roots in labour, but what really galvanized me were the cutbacks that occurred back in the late 90s when the Tory government proceeded to virtually gut a significant portion of the education system.
I realized that what I wanted to do as a classroom teacher was becoming more and more difficult. I saw the struggles my colleagues were having, and that kids weren’t getting what they deserved from our publicly funded education system. So that is what really encouraged me to go forward and try to make a difference at a different level, not just locally, but to try to make a difference provincially for our kids.
What career achievement, to date, do you hold most dear?
Watkins: When people ask me what is my profession, I proudly say teacher - and everything that I have done so far is aimed at making a difference for school kids. One of
the specific things that I do hold dear, though, is the job action in Greater Essex a few years ago [2003-2004], a job action that resulted in significant improvement to the working conditions of teachers and, therefore, the learning conditions of kids.
What was the job action?
Watkins: We [the Greater-Essex Teachers’ Local of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario] were negotiating our collective agreement. We were threatened with lockout by the School Board. We stuck to our initiatives and our collective bargaining goals were not compromised. In the end, we achieved significant gains for the teachers and, in turn, the students.
What key changes in education have you noted over your 30+ years as an educator and advocate?
Watkins: There have been several key changes, and not necessarily for the better. I’ve noticed that there is now far too much emphasis on standardized testing, which directly equates to less spontaneity in the classroom – less time to seize that special moment and to allow the students to set the agenda. You know, sometimes students will bring in something or they’ll broach a topic, and teachers can seize that moment and have a special learning opportunity. These opportunities are becoming fewer and fewer, however, because of the density of the curriculum.
As well, teachers are becoming more “generalists” because there is less overall support in the system. For example, although right now our provincial focus is on literacy, you’ll notice that most of our schools do not have full-time librarians – most of the elementary schools anyhow. Also, due to fewer support workers in the schools – whether they are consultants, EAs, office staff, caretakers – there are impacts on safety issues, too. The more eyes we have in the building, the safer our kids are.
There are impacts on safety issues, too. The more eyes we have in the building, the safer our kids are.
There are many initiatives in our schools that teachers are expected to fulfill, participate in and bring forward. I’m not saying that the initiatives, in and of themselves, are not good, but time is a factor. The more you put on a teacher’s plate, the more that takes away from the classroom and, then, the more that negatively impacts students. Teacher workload has increased significantly.
What do you think is the greatest challenge for publicly funded education in Canada in the next decade?
Watkins: The baby boomer population is coming of an age where their health issues are going to increase. So I fear education is going to be competing for funding with healthcare. Also everything I’ve read lately indicates that we’re going to have to put some more dollars towards the environment, so I think we’re going to be competing with that, too. What I think is going to be the greatest challenge, however, is the issue of privatization of education. I think we need to keep an eye on privatization in a number of areas, whether it’s in the form of tax credits for certain groups, in e-learning, in the form of a proliferation of education providers. I think any of these options compromises the quality of our publicly funded education system. Part of the comfort that parents have, currently, is knowing that their students are being taught by qualified teachers who are members of the Ontario College of Teachers – a body whose mandate is to serve and protect the public interest. So if there’s a growing component of privatization, then that security is no longer there.
Do you think that Education programs across the province are producing well-prepared teacher candidates?
Watkins: Yes I do. Having been very involved locally, I got to work with some of those brand new teachers. I think [Education faculties] are producing well-prepared teachers. I also think the government has stepped up to the plate in introducing the new teacher induction program. When teacher candidates graduate, they’re excited and they’re ready to go; they’re anxious to get into that classroom and change the world – I know that that’s where I was too – and they can do so, but they still need some support. They do need mentoring. So are they well prepared? Yes: prepared for where they are in their careers, but we can’t just cut them off immediately, they do need support.
Any suggestions specific to your alma mater, the University of Windsor Faculty of Education?
Watkins: I recently had a conversation with Dr. Pat Rogers, and I was very interested and very pleased with what she had to say in terms of [the University of Windsor Faculty of Education’s pre-service] entry requirements. For a long time I was concerned because the entry requirements seemed to centre on high averages, high grades. Certainly, however, in my experience, high grades do not necessarily equate to good teaching practices. I’m definitely glad to hear that the entry requirements – the weight on that “magic percentage” – have been changed, and that the candidate’s profile is now carrying a significant amount of importance in the application. I’m also very pleased that diversity is a factor in entry into the profession because certainly Ontario has a very multi-cultural population and it’s important for the teaching population to represent the general population. I have also had some interaction with the TELC committee [the University of Windsor Faculty of Education’s Teacher Education Liaison Committee]. In this committee, I see a great mentoring system, I see a lot of dedication, and I think that serves the students well in their practicum. Initiatives like that are a positive for public education.
What do you feel is the largest single challenge facing education globally? And how can we, in Canada, help?
Watkins: You know, this makes me struggle – I could talk on this topic for a long time. I’m going to say that the single largest challenge facing education globally is access to quality publicly funded education – but you know, a lot of this is wrapped up in larger social justice issues. And so maybe I should retract that and say it’s a social justice issue, because social justice encompasses what I want to address. It is in terms of social justice that I see access to quality publicly funded education being an issue. We need to break the cycle of poverty. To do so, we need to ensure education for all. In some countries, girls still have difficulty going to school and literacy is below a Grade 3 level. We also need to address the issue of poverty related to AIDS, especially in African countries where you have kids raising kids, or grandmothers raising kids. We need to be cognizant of human rights. We certainly need to do something about violence. So I would say social justice is the largest challenge facing education globally. If we can do something about the core social justice issues, then we can do a lot to make the world a more friendly and literate place. Literacy and education can help break the cycle of poverty, and address many other issues that that are out there, too.
In terms of how Canada can help, well there’s a lot of ways Canada can help. Canada can help by forgiving some of the debt of poorer countries, and by making some of the medicines for HIV/AIDS more readily available. But I think Canada also needs to look at itself. I think it is deplorable and unconscionable that in a country this rich – and worse yet, in a province this rich – we have the poverty that exists in our First Nations communities. It is inexcusable, absolutely inexcusable.
We want young children to be educated, but how can they be educated if they’re hungry, if they don’t have proper housing, if they don’t have proper water? The discrepancy in the assistance that they get and the assistance that others get is inexcusable. In recognition of the challenges facing First Nation Communities. OTF/FEO has sponsored one of the Honourable Lieutenant Governor James K. Bartleman’s “Summer of Hope” literacy camps for a five year period. Additionally, OTF dedicates a significant portion of our budget to the provision of international assistance for colleagues, students, and various global educational initiatives.
Do you have any favourite memories from your time at the University of Windsor? Any particular practicum or classroom anecdotes or memories?
Watkins: I do have one. I will never forget: It was during my practicum – it was my first practicum to be honest and it was at a lovely south Windsor school – lovely staff, great associate teacher, very welcoming principal – I was placed in grade eight, and I quite enjoyed it. The principal came in and he watched me teach. After he watched me teach he said to me, you know, you are going to make an excellent primary teacher. Now, how did he come to that conclusion? I’d have to say it was gender bias. You know, this speaks to how we pigeon-hole and sometimes rely too heavily on our preconceived notions, because certainly my first teaching job was grade eight out in the county. I spent the majority of my career teaching junior/intermediate. I never taught primary. So I look back at that and I smile – not that I was out to prove anyone wrong – I was not. My certificate said primary/junior/ intermediate, and when I graduated jobs were scarce so I would have gladly taken any job, but I wound up very happily in junior/intermediate.
Do you come back to Windsor often?
Watkins: I come home at least once a month...
Your family didn’t relocate?
Watkins: No, my son is home with my two puppies.
Do you find the back-and-forth tiring?
Watkins: It’s hard, but not so hard when you have a passion for this.... It’s a hat that I’ve chosen that I have been wearing for the last eight years, to make working conditions better for teachers and learning conditions better for kids
Hilda Watkins earned an Honours BA (English) from the University of Windsor in 1972, the same year she was awarded her BEd, also from the University of Windsor. In 1995 she completed a Specialist Certificate in Special Education from the University of Western Ontario. Always a dedicated and committed Junior/Intermediate, Special Education and Speech and Language teacher, since 1987 she has become more and more involved in local, provincial and national teaching federations. In August 2006, Ms. Watkins was elected President of the Ontario Teachers’ Federation.