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March/April 2018

As I sit here collecting my thoughts, I can’t help but reflect on the conversations I have had with many of you since my last Up Front. The messages and thoughts that have been shared with me are consistent. Teachers are dedicated to reaching students and providing them with the education they need and deserve. Those same teachers are frustrated by the impediments they feel prevent them from doing exactly that. Anyone who has spent time in our schools will have reached a conclusion that there are significant and real concerns over student mental health, inclusive education, violence in our schools and a lack of curriculum supports that has framed many a discussion in many a staffroom these past few months. Yet through it all, I have encountered a universal determination to continue to do the best job possible for our students. The frustration of our teachers stems from knowing that were there changes, additional supports,  a more direct focus on ensuring that the primary task asked of teachers was that which is most important, then our students would be one step closer to receiving the quality of education that they rightly deserve.

Imagine how much more effective school administrators would be were they provided an environment where they could perform as true instructional leaders. Consider the impacts on our students were school counsellors and school psychologists allocated such that they were able to provide more extensive counselling services. What would be the impact on our most vulnerable students should there be a more effective model for student support services? For just a second ponder the difference it would make if IRTs were allocated as per need – if other supporting personnel were available as per student needs. And while you are considering this, think about the impact it would have on our students if class size and class composition were at a reasonable level.

We all know that teachers change lives every day. But we also know that teachers in our province are asked to do more and more with less and less. In recent years we have seen how expectations have risen, demands are higher and yet we have not seen a corresponding increase in supports that are needed if the system is to function as it should – for the benefit of our province’s students.

I am constantly astonished by the degree to which some parents are prepared to accept larger class sizes, more complex classes for their children when research clearly indicates that it will have an impact on their post-secondary success and future earnings. The OECD defines a challenging classroom as being one in which greater than 10% of the students are outside of the dynamics of their peers. I would suggest that very few of our classes wouldn’t be considered to be challenging. I am left to assume that these parents believe that the delivery of education has not changed since they were in school.

The fact is, it has changed dramatically in the past ten years. While class sizes have been raised, we have also seen increases in the number of students with serious learning and behavioural problems that have been integrated, again as a cost-cutting solution, into regular classrooms with insufficient or no supports. This means that they are less likely to get the attention they need and deserve, obviously continuing to fall further behind.

The NLTA supported the new inclusive education model when it was first introduced in 2009. We assumed that resources would be provided to ensure proper implementation and success. That did not happen. In fact, class sizes and the complexity of diverse needs have only grown. With diverse needs comes behaviour problems. I am sure parents would be shocked to learn that in the past two years the NLTA has received 93 reports of serious incidents of violence against teachers in our schools. In 2008 the government of the day instituted lower class sizes and mandated a review of that allocation model in 2011. That cabinet-mandated review never occurred, and class size caps were conspicuously absent from the mandate of the recent Premier’s Task Force on Improving Educational Outcomes.

Do we think increasing class sizes has helped us deal with the many issues noted above? I would suggest that the answer to this is obvious – no.

Do we think that the education of our children and youth is important enough to be a top priority? Again, I would suggest that the answer to this is obvious – yes.

Can you improve educational outcomes by creating larger and larger classes with students with vastly different ability levels?

What is the vision for our schools? Do we want schools where students thrive as individuals and are valued for being unique and capable of expressing themselves? Overcrowded classes with too many students with special needs are not an environment where students thrive, where teachers are able to support their learning, their character development, their social-emotional learning, and their dreams. Our schools should not just be good enough. Our schools should be outstanding. Our schools must be excellent and supportive places where all students thrive.

Many of these concerns were referenced in the Premier’s Task Force Report. By the time you read this, the Provincial Budget would have been released. I have been, to date, hopeful that the recognition of the challenges coupled with implementation of the recommendations through a consultative process with our members will have a positive impact. There is an expectation of real change that was brought about through the report. It was released with significant fanfare and I would certainly hope that the implementation of many of the recommendations will be followed through on. If not, this report will simply be another in a long list of reports that held promise – but unfortunately unrequited results!

Until next time…