Job action continues here in British Columbia. I am managing to continue to read a lot and will eventually get around to blogging about my favourite summer reads, but these days, I am mostly writing letters and sending them off to government. Here is my most recent attempt at persuading our leaders to do the right thing.
Dear Mr Fassbender and Ms Clark,
I’ve been privileged to be a teacher for about 26 years now. Over the years I’ve seen many different kinds of changes. A huge one, Mr Fassbender, is that childhood is not the same as it was when you and I were young. More importantly, in the last few years I’ve grown more and more distressed by the impacts underfunding public education have on this system.
When I was still a very green and new teacher I was lucky enough to get a full time contract after only six months as a TOC. The Vancouver School Board had money for professional development to help me learn things I needed to know and didn’t learn at university. The school board offered numerous daylong workshops for how to teach ESL learners, sessions for how to develop literacy programs, workshops on ways to support special needs learners, workshops on the best ways to teach mathematics and numerous other programs. A TOC was provided for me as I was supported in becoming a better teacher. Sure I went to additional workshops and took courses in the summer, but what is important here, is that there was district support and funding available to help me become the best teacher I could. Over the years I’ve seen the opportunity to facilitate good teaching diminish until it dwindled away into nearly nothing. Now new, exhausted teachers are expected to go to after school workshops, if these sessions are offered at all.
When I was still a new and very green teacher I had special needs kids in my classroom. One was so obvious we didn’t even need to have him assessed. Another had been in a car accident and had lost part of her frontal lobe. One had turrets syndrome. (Imagine if you can, trying to teach a class of kids while a little 7 year old stutters out the F word on a regular basis) I also had a grade three boy who we all suspected was a sociopath. It was dangerous to leave him unattended on the playground.
Itinerant specialist teachers were there to support these kids and provide advice to me and my amazing special ed assistant who was there more than half time to support these learners. She was paid to spend extra time after school to work with teachers to plan programming for these kids. Still, when she wasn’t there, it wasn’t easy. In addition to these special needs kids, it was a complicated mix of children. Some came from very wealthy families and others from single parent families where poverty was present. Of my 25 grade 2 & 3 students, 20 were only children. There were even a few ESL students.
In those early years, our union ended up going on strike and giving up salary increases in order to get guaranteed ratios for ESL teachers and other non-enrolling staff to support our most vulnerable learners.
My students and I reaped the benefits of this. We had a full time teacher librarian amid the 10 non-enrolling teachers who supported the mixed population of learners. In the new school I moved to, my class consisted of mostly ESL learners and a mixture of kids with other special needs. My class size went down for every special needs learner and was capped at three. Teaching is meaningful challenging work, and with the support of the non-enrolling specialists, I felt like we were doing a pretty good job.
Then, Christy Clark, education minister at the time, stripped the clauses from our contract that guaranteed non-enrolling ratios. In the next few years support for special needs kids dropped considerably across the province. You have the statistics so I don’t have to give them all to you. Over time we lost more than 25% of teacher librarians. When school starts again, it will be over 30%. At my school, with slightly less students, we have more special needs kids with more complex issues, and half the support we once had. Teachers teach classes at maximum size with up to 7 or 8 designated special needs kids. Not only is there inadequate SEA support, there are no specialist teachers to supervise and provide guidance. Because of cut backs to school psychologists, there is always a wait list for kids to get tested to figure out what is going on for them. And then, even after they have a diagnosis, the support is so inadequate, they might not get what they need anyway.
Today I feel sorry for the new teachers and their students. Teachers end up living in poverty for years working as a TOC. Then when they land a contract and want to become better at their craft, they don’t have the resources that were available to me. I feel especially sorry for all the children whose education has been limited by the elimination of school libraries and other specialist teachers to support them all.
I write you this letter to implore you to acknowledge that a huge mistake was made when class size and composition, and language guaranteeing ratios for nonenrolling teachers was stripped from the contract. It was a shortsighted decision to say the least. Please do the right thing, drop the E80 clause and accept the court's rulings so that students and teachers can get back to what we all want to do - teach and learn.
I will be retiring in the next few years. I tell you this because unless this government changes its attitude towards public education, I will then go to work in the nearest liberal riding to work hard to defeat you. I won’t be alone. The losses for the Premier in her Vancouver Point Grey riding and for Margaret MacDiarmid in Vancouver Fairview have shown teachers like me, that if we put the work in, we can accomplish real change.
Teacher Librarian @ Charles Dickens School