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upfront

September 2016

If you’re a teacher, it’s safe to say Budget 2016 was not an uplifting document, primarily because of how it contrasts with our view of education. Since the introduction of the budget, your Association has made it clear to government and department officials that they are not solving our province’s economic woes; they are simply transferring the provincial deficit to our schools and creating an educational deficit. If you’ve seen the NLTA posts on social media, you know that parents and the public clearly believe the provincial budget has done more harm than good to our schools.

The main victims in all of this will be the children we teach. At the Canadian Forum on Public Education this summer, Dr. Phil McRae reported on a survey of Alberta teachers which yielded some startling statistics. Over the past three to five years, 90% of teachers say the number of students with emotional challenges have increased, 86% say the number of students with social challenges has increased, 85% report the number of students who need behaviour support has increased. I haven’t included the percentage of teachers who reported increases in anxiety disorders, depression, and cognitive challenges.

A survey of Newfoundland and Labrador teachers, I suspect, would probably report similar findings. We are only too aware of the mental health challenges facing our students, but don’t discount the effects of an under resourced school system on your own mental health. There is preliminary evidence to suggest a correlation between teacher mental health and student mental health.

The theme of the 2016 Canadian Forum on Public Education was “Wellness in Our Schools: Time to Act”. The Forum identified the wellness challenges facing our schools and explored the ways we can address those challenges collectively. In her keynote address to delegates CTF President, Heather Smith, referred to a recent “first of its kind” study by the University of British Columbia that showed a correlation between teacher burnout and students’ stress levels. Researchers tested for cortisol (a hormone and biological indicator of stress) in the saliva of over 400 elementary school children from 17 public schools. Teacher burnout and stress were determined through survey results.

Investigators found that in classrooms in which teachers experienced more burnout, or feelings of emotional exhaustion, students’ cortisol levels were elevated.

Inadequate supports for teachers may impact their ability to effectively manage their classrooms, contributing to students’ needs not being met and increased student stress. Or the increasing number of challenging students as a result of increases in anxiety, behavioural problems or special needs create overwhelming teaching situations for teachers and could cause them to report increased levels of burnout.

While the researchers described it as a “chicken and egg question”, they also noted that “the study is a reminder of the systemic issues facing teachers and educators as classroom sizes increase and supports for teachers are cut.”

The University of British Columbia supports what we heard during our Panel on the Status of Public Education. As one teacher stated: “Although we as teachers try our best to accommodate every student in our classroom and meet their needs, it is just impossible. There are not enough hours in a day (or support) to get to each child. When we have a class of  27/28 students most of our time is spent dealing with behaviour issues and getting through the day with our sanity intact. At the end of the day, I don’t feel like I have done my best as a teacher!” Furthermore, parents and the public echoed these concerns in our public survey following Budget 2016.

During the budget lock-up this past April, I made it clear to Department of Education officials that measures in the provincial budget would create chaos for teachers, students and schools. At the time of writing this article numerous teachers have contacted me about the confusion, upheaval and stress caused by the loss of teachers, the increase of class sizes, and combined grades which have increased supervision, exacerbated inclusive education deficits, affected programming and made it that much more difficult for teachers to give their students the attention they need. And I haven’t even touched on the turmoil created as a result of bussing issues and school closures.Teachers, being teachers, will continue to make the system work. In many cases you even spend your own money to make it work, but it comes at a cost to ourselves and to the students we teach.

Unfortunately the message seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

The lesson for us is clear. The “make it work” approach is not working for our schools if those who make the decisions are not listening and cutting the resources you need to change the lives of your students. In less than a year we will face yet another provincial budget with more implications for our schools. Your Association, your executive, and I have no intention of giving up our fight for investment in education and for the resources you and your students need for a quality education. But we will need your voice, and from time to time we will call on you to step outside your comfort zone to make it heard. It’s too important an issue not to.

Jim