OPINION: Here’s why the education system is breaking down



I have listened with a heavy heart to the political spin surrounding education. It seems everyone has an opinion. Just because we all went to school does not make everyone an expert.

I have witnessed the developments in our educational system from within — and now as an outsider. Teachers are dedicated, caring individuals who put students’ best interests first and foremost in everything they do. Prior to my departure from school administration, I saw the increased demands being placed on teachers. The slow burn began 20-plus years ago.

I, like so many others, have to take part of the blame for the difficulties teachers are now facing. You see, we all should have been more vocal in advocating for and against add-ons and changes that we felt would not directly benefit student learning. This is not to say changes are not good; however, too many changes happening too often make things unmanageable. Every new initiative on its own has merit — some more so than others. The key is in the weeding to create a more manageable situation for all.

Never in my lifetime could I have imagined Nova Scotia’s teachers voting to strike — with a resounding 96 per cent willing to take a stand and say: NO MORE. Our students and teachers deserve a better learning and teaching classroom environment. I could not agree with them more.

The education system has become “big business.” However, what sets it apart is that if the education system fails, we all fail. The future of our province sits in the classroom. Plain and simple, that is where the financial assistance has to be placed.

As school boards and the Department of Education increase in size, the interaction between top and bottom has become less and less personal and more top-heavy. The pyramid has reversed. The schools on the bottom are crumbling under the weight, and teachers have been trying to fix the cracks. They need help. No one individual or department is to blame. All are well-meaning; it’s just too much!

As of late, I often get asked what is wrong with the education system; what do teachers really want? There is no simple answer, but this is my mini-response — and possibly, at times, my rant in a nutshell:

Teachers first and foremost want a fair and manageable workload. They want respect for the job they do in what has become a less-than-ideal working/learning environment.They deserve, like others, a fair wage. Teachers pay taxes also.

When asked how we got to this stage in our education system, I tell people it’s complicated.

Below, I would like to share some thoughts, right or wrong, on what I feel might have helped create the inner turmoil so many teachers have expressed in the massive strike mandate they gave their union, as they finally take a stand for their students. The following policy changes over the last 15 to 20 years have created the perfect storm in education and in our classrooms today:

Age of entry: For primary students, it was lowered to allow four-year-old children to enter into a structured classroom environment. Developmentally, many are not school-ready and are at a disadvantage. This policy feeds into the next one.

A no fail policy: By the end of June, the Primary students are moved on to Grade 1. The problem is, not all have mastered the outcomes for Primary, but they must be moved on.

The motive behind this “no fail” policy — not retaining/holding/repeating, whatever you call it — is not wanting to damage a child’s self-esteem. But moving into Grade 1 while not having mastered the Primary outcomes places students in a position where they very quickly realize they are not as good or as smart as their classmates — and this, in my opinion, impacts children’s self-esteem and confidence more negatively. This can feed a sense of frustration for a child.

Meanwhile, the Grade 1 teacher, in essence, now has both Primary-level students still requiring Primary outcomes and students ready for the Grade 1 outcomes.

The same thing happens in each successive year from grades 1 to 6 at the end of June. In each successive grade, you begin to have more and more students below grade level in reading and math, and it really starts to show in grades 3 through 6. This becomes a bigger and bigger problem for both students and teachers, who are trying to teach to the outcomes for each grade level. Mastering the outcomes at each grade level is essential to taking the next step in a child’s education. A strong foundation is paramount to student success.

Teachers are now, in each successive grade, juggling to meet the needs of students at reading levels as much as three to four years apart. Not an easy task. More and more students require adaptations or IPPs (Individual Program Plans) in order to achieve success. All students deserve the teacher’s one-on-one support, but it is now becoming almost impossible. Some students will have the support of resource teachers or hopefully EPAs, if they are lucky. All these adaptations and IPPs require lots of meetings and preparation.

Furthermore, because students often are frustrated with not being able to do the work in the grade level they are in, along come behavioural problems — these distract and cover for “not looking stupid” because that is how they see themselves.

By now, you are probably beginning to see what the classroom teacher is up against. Keep connecting the dots. There is more.

Total integration: Every child has the right to attend a regular age-appropriate classroom in his or her neighbourhood school. Although there are many positives with this model, it is not without its pitfalls. Without the extra resources (both human and material), no teacher can possibly feel anything but overwhelmed and frustrated.

Now, not only do you have a very diverse classroom composition of students behind in reading and math levels, but students with mental and emotional problems, students on adaptations, students requiring formalized IPPs, students with mild to severe behavioural problems (many requiring restraint when violent), students with physical challenges, and other special-needs students with varying levels of learning difficulties.

And it builds …

Discipline policy: I believe there is a direct link between the “no fail” policy and increased classroom behavioural problems, born out of feelings of frustration and lack of confidence that students experience because they can’t do the work; some just give up.

The primary response to discipline problems rests with the classroom teacher. But quite frankly, the teacher, who is trying to juggle so many balls in the air, just doesn’t have time to address disciplinary problems, as these require an immediate response. Therefore, the principal or vice-principal, out of necessity, spends more time each day putting out fires.

The option for an out-of-school suspension has, in the last number of years, been frowned upon in favour of an in-school suspension. But the in-school option requires supervision by staff, the principal, a resource teacher or a learning centre teacher.

I might add that as a result of every incident, an incident report must be filled out and entered into Power School for the Department of Education. I am not sure about the need for this. Principals used to be able to deal with school problems at school, in consultation with parents, and that was it. If schools have a code of conduct with consequences for unacceptable behaviour, with parents supporting the school, it makes it much easier. Children have to learn to accept and take responsibility for their choices and actions. We must also reward good behaviour. Unacceptable behaviour is just another distraction for classroom teachers.

So far we have the following problem areas:

  • Age of entry
  • “No fail” policy
  • Discipline
  • Total integration without the appropriate supports

Are we getting a feel for classroom composition and teacher workload yet? There is more!

Change, change, change: Change is good and necessary. It’s essential to progress and it’s how improvements are brought about.

But sometimes there is a desire to make a change to something that works, which is unnecessary — and I think teachers are feeling that is often the case in their jobs. With the many changes in the curriculum and report cards, is it any wonder teachers feel overwhelmed? Added to the teacher’s workload is all the data-entry tasks required by the school board and Department of Education. Teachers must find the time to plan lessons for the classroom, which is very diverse in learning levels and styles, to incorporate the new initiatives, spend hours on new report cards (it seems to change every other year), develop adaptations for certain students, develop IPPs for special-needs students, make phone calls to parents — and the list goes on.

I would hope that any future changes that would affect students and teachers will come about with greater teacher input. Who is more qualified to decide what our students need to succeed than the classroom teacher? Policies and new initiatives should never be made by individuals who are years removed from the school and classroom. The times, they have a changed! Spend time in the school and walk in the teachers’ shoes. Just saying!

By now, if you have taken the time to read this, you will see that what is happening with and to the teachers is very near and dear to my heart. You probably can imagine and feel how the buildup of pressure that the excess workload and classroom composition problems affects teachers on a daily basis.

I have focused on P-6, as that was my area of experience in education. (You might have noticed that I refrained from saying “my area of expertise,” as I would never pretend to know more than those working directly with children today.) Now, let’s move on to junior high and high school, and multiply in your mind the problems caused by the diversity gap in levels of learning (as mentioned above for P-6) and consider the additional issues those schools face.

Do I think the system can be fixed? Absolutely!
Will it be an easy fix? Definitely not!
Who can fix the system? All stakeholders.

By addressing the problems that have led up to the present situation, by listening to those in the trenches — taking their advice as to what works and what doesn’t — and by demonstrating a willingness to change, only then can real change be realized. Teachers have tried for far too long to be everything to everyone. Impossible — and this should not even be expected. They are asking for more time to teach and less of all the extras that distract from what they love and do best: Teach.

Having ranted enough, let me focus on how to right the ship. That begins with those at the helm recognizing we can no longer stay this course. Something has to give — the teachers have given enough and are willing to take action, to “make our schools great again” for students, teachers and parents.

The remedy starts with you, Premier Stephen McNeil, the man at the helm. All great leaders lead by example, never asking others to do what they are not willing to do themselves. A great leader is a great listener. A great leader is honest and fair. A great leader sees value in what others do and rewards them for a job well done.

Are you a great leader, Mr. McNeil? Your unwillingness to negotiate fairly in this dispute with the Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union has created the perfect storm in education in the province you say you love. Do the right and honourable thing for the children. No more spin, no more political rhetoric! Don’t play hardball with our children’s future.

Your job, Mr. Premier, is to right this ship — you are way off course with this one. If the ship goes down, we all lose. You, too, go down — no one has a life-jacket, not even you.