Will these voices from schools be heard?
Alarm bells are ringing in our schools, and they are ringing about unsatisfactory conditions in too many classrooms in our province. If you are a teacher, administrator, educational assistant, parent or student, you have been hearing them — but is anyone else getting the message? Not government politicians, apparently, with Alberta’s premier recently saying that everyone has to share in yet more pain and to expect cuts in the upcoming spring budget.
Public Interest Alberta recently conducted a survey on Alberta’s classrooms, and our report on the findings is very concerning. Alarm Bells Ringing: Voices from Schools has revealed substantial evidence of the unacceptable conditions that exist for a considerable number of Alberta’s students.
While we do not suggest that this survey is representative of classrooms and schools in Alberta, the results clearly indicate that the problematic classroom conditions identified in the survey are negatively affecting the learning conditions for far too many children. This is not acceptable, given Alberta’s status as such a wealthy province.
The online survey was conducted in the two months after Nov. 3, 2014, and was completed by 434 individuals (62 per cent of whom were teachers, 30 per cent parents, 5 per cent educational staff and 2 per cent students). Edmonton and Calgary together accounted for 47 per cent of responses, with the rest from schools around the province.
Our summary document outlines the concerns expressed by participants, groups them into seven categories and contains brief excerpts from 21 responses chosen to specifically illustrate these issues. (The summary document, along with a more comprehensive selection of more than 70 responses, is available at www.pialberta.org).
These seven themes emerged as top classroom condition concerns in our schools today:
1. Impact of large classes combined with complexity and high needs
2. Challenges of dealing with impact of children with “behavioural needs”
3. Early learning challenges
4. English language learners
5. The need for support staff
6. Condition of schools and classrooms
7. The importance of providing the right conditions
It is important to recognize that these various factors are clearly interrelated. The larger the class size becomes, the more difficult it is to address individual needs. If the supports for inclusive education are not present, it puts more pressure on teachers to do “more with less.” Students with behavioural issues can have an impact on teachers’ abilities to meet the needs of others in the class. Increased paperwork leads to less time for preparation. Overcrowded schools add to the pressure in classrooms.
One retired principal wrote about the challenges for staff in dealing with a child with severe behavioural needs that had taken to biting staff. He said, “Recently, a teacher was bitten so badly blood was spurting out of her arm.” He said that there were no proper supports for the staff to deal with the child, so protective arm sleeves were issued.
A parent of a Grade 1 student in a class of 32 wrote in, concerned about a student in her child’s school who repeatedly punches other students when he’s upset. She wrote, “The teachers seem like they are just trying to keep their heads above water and cope the best they can.” The situation “hit” home when her daughter came home and said, “It was my turn to get punched today, Mommy.”
In far too many schools and classrooms across the province, these conditions represent clear barriers to the key goal of developing the full potential of all of our children. As a result, children are “falling through the cracks,” their needs are not being met, parents are dissatisfied, teachers and support staff are frustrated, and the promise of public education is not being fulfilled as it should be.
The alarm bells — these voices from schools — are clear indications of unacceptable conditions that unfairly limit children’s learning. Our politicians need to listen and respond. Public Interest Alberta will continue its efforts to amplify these voices but, of course, much more is needed.
For teachers, the upcoming spring election provides an excellent opportunity to ensure that their voices are heard and to make classroom conditions an important issue. I strongly encourage all teachers to do so in the important weeks to come. ❚
Harold Neth is a retired teacher who taught for more than 30 years with Edmonton Catholic Schools and also served as the Association’s district representative for Edmonton City. He now chairs the K–12 education task force for Public Interest Alberta.