Shortages, pandemics and a lack of last resorts…
By Stacey Rudderham, Co-Chair, Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education
I have been mulling and fuming for weeks, trying to find a way to express the very real grief I am feeling for our teachers and EAs, bus drivers, students and others in our public education system in Nova Scotia. I see an awful lot in messages written to me and hear a lot more in the discussions I have with parents, teachers and others, and I feel we have hit a level of crisis I did not envision. Maybe I didn’t see it coming, because I hoped errors and misguided decisions in the past would have been corrected by now.
Five years ago, while my family was enjoying the PTA’s Breakfast with Santa, the Premier and Minister of Education locked our kids out of schools across the province, citing the reason that, due to work to rule, teachers would not keep our students safe. The teachers continued to cook, and serve food, wash dishes and clean tables with parents… while, in a state of shock and feeling heartbroken over such alarming accusations. This repeated anti-teacher message I heard 5 years ago, and the gut punch I felt at that time, a premonition if you will, was what compelled me to join Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education. I feared a harm that would have immense and real impacts in our public education system and would be hard to reverse. The results are showing themselves today, clearly, and very loudly. I knew this harm would drive a wedge between teachers and students, and their parents. It was a harsh strike against the frontline workers in our schools and eventually a direct hit to the passion of those in the teaching profession, as well as those considering this career path.
I was so impacted by the damaging and unfair labels used by the Premier that it compelled me to take part in the group’s press conference and participate on rally day at the Legislature to lay out my fears of the situation created by the Premier’s messaging. I said in my statements he had no business spreading such damaging accusations. He was talking about the very people who have taken on the responsibility of teaching and inspiring our youth, finding a way into their minds, motivating them to want to be in school, and to want to stay in classrooms learning. He was talking about our friends, neighbours, and family members.
I knew that morale among teachers would be permanently cracked by this terribly misguided and tragic attack on teachers if they didn’t hear more from those of us who knew better and saw what teachers do for our children. I said that due to his irresponsible and misguided tactics, some parents will blame teachers for unavailable resources and supports. The same resources that teachers were pleading for. Teachers would lose the support of, and the collaborative opportunities with, parents who were easily swayed by the divisive finger pointing. This became a starting point for me. So much more has gone wrong since that time. And it is getting worse.
While so many of us continue to believe in and support teachers, we are not always louder than those who do not. And we are not loud enough regardless – as long as these problems exist, we cannot be quiet. Further cuts since 2017 are having deeper impacts. Until we are acknowledged, and our demands for better for our children from government are recognized, the loss felt by our teachers, is also felt by our students. Parents will feel it as we watch our kids and their educators struggle. We cannot continue to expect teachers to fix the education system when the education system is essentially working against them – it is not their job to fix what politicians and bureaucrats have broken. Their job is to teach. And, like all of us, they cannot do their best work in an environment of divisive and demeaning behaviour as established by our last government. These conditions persist today.
During law amendments for Bill 75, teachers, one after the other, came forward to speak about classroom conditions. From supplies and materials they were purchasing themselves, to textbooks that were decades old and in short supply, to over cap classrooms, to students without sufficient classroom supports or even timely assessments. We learned about poverty, inequity, violence, and trauma in classrooms and even stories about teachers being the only safety net for students dealing with mental health issues, including thoughts of suicide. Nothing has changed. Teachers are still dealing with all of these issues, and more in their classrooms.
So many of the issues confronted by teachers are not being sufficiently confronted by the departments that exist to do so. Healthcare, Justice, Community Services, etc. Our public schools are a microcosm of our society, and what we see broken there speaks to what is broken in society. We have a lot of staff and Ministers and Deputy Ministers and other bureaucrats out there paid to deal with these issues. Meanwhile teachers feed hungry children, provide them with school supplies and even clothing. They have been advocating for the students facing obstacles with invisible disabilities, while they themselves are struggling to successfully teach in a full classroom of students with multiple diverse abilities. They counsel children suffering with emotional struggles. Despite all this, they are confronted with drug use, fights, and sometimes are targets of intimidation and abuse in their classrooms. All while they are trying to teach our children.
Their opportunity to publicly enlighten the rest of us about classroom conditions was short lived and ended when the law amendments public input session was cut short in 2017. They have been confronted for speaking out, faced threats of discipline, and their employers have muted them again and again. Teachers are consistent in their advocacy, despite further cuts and bad decisions, but they are also consistent in their inability to talk openly about it without risking consequences. Parents can’t know or fully understand, as we are intentionally left in the dark by bureaucratic and political will. As far as most of us can tell, from looking at the surface, things are going well as a whole. Media won’t act on the other side of the story without a whistleblower. But to teachers that means deciding to end their teaching career. And media also insists on repeatedly giving airtime to a self-proclaimed expert who has never taught in an NS Public School, has no children in public school and has not directly faced any of the problems our teachers face on a daily basis. We do not need any more politicized opinions weighing in – we need teachers to be heard and their real concerns addressed.
After the Premier attacked the reputations and maligned the character of teachers, he cut off their hope to try and fight more for the students they fought for. And he did so with legislation. Legislation that should protect the citizens of this province, not harm their children’s education. He broke up their union, turning administrators into corporate managers. He stole parents’ diplomatic voices by abolishing our elected school boards. A culture of secrecy has dominated education as the department is slow to release reports, if they are released at all, administrators remain silent, ministers do not respond. Parents have less access to solutions and information, and issues remain unresolved. And many teachers left the profession, choosing to retire early rather than show up for more cuts and bruises.
Then a pandemic came calling, and it became even more apparent how little anyone in government knew about what it takes to teach a class of students. Some children thrived, others struggled, many gave up. And teachers were not sourced for solutions. They were not consulted about the students who need the most help. Parents lamented, funding announced was never spent and schools were not adapted. The next message we heard was that schools are the safest place for our kids during this pandemic… for their mental well-being. So, teachers who were in the most vulnerable demographic risked exposure in classrooms where students may or may not have Covid, may or may not wear their masks and may or may not follow all health protocols. The successful implementation of those protocols, like many aspects of school, depended on parental support at a very divided time. Yet teachers still carried the responsibility of keeping their students safe by enforcing rules that some parents were not in favour of. Another divisive issue placed on teachers’ shoulders. And more hypocrisy from government who advocated for the importance of schools while treating educators as unimportant.
I am not here to simply bemoan the past or call out accolades or point fingers or give credit where credit is due. I am here to talk about what is happening now as a result of the last 5 years of our cluelessness while decades worth of gradual cuts and incrementally added pressure in the system have been blown up by the sudden and immediate abuse of and disregard for the education system’s frontline teachers over the last government’s tenure.
We had EA positions in schools cut, and former EAs were instructed to apply for jobs in the Pre-Primary program (a program that has added to overcrowding in school buildings) This allowed the government to pretend staffing numbers had not changed, even though it reduced the student supports in classrooms for those who need it most. Too many students in need are left with no support or only partial supports. I have heard of EAs in certain districts being threatened with termination if they do not take on added responsibilities that are not part of their job descriptions. Responsibilities that have placed EAs in dangerous and destructive situations. At a time when there is an EA shortage, due to stress, injury and poor pay, it seems pretty counter-intuitive to threaten existing experienced EAs. But this tactic instills a sense of fear in others. And so, students are still falling through gaping cracks in crowded classrooms without the necessary supports.
A substitute shortage that existed five years ago, has gotten worse every year. Now it is leaving schools with no options on some days, but to cancel classes when a teacher is off sick. French Immersion classes have insufficient numbers of French speaking subs available, so classes normally taught in French are not when the teacher is absent. Since the pandemic started in 2020, more and more subs are making the choice not to risk exposure in schools, and those that have stayed, have also found it harder to make ends meet as subs in general and have opted out of placements more often. I have been told there are some school environments that have driven subs to opt out of working in certain schools altogether.
Last Spring, HRCE cut 70 teaching positions in high schools across the district. At that time parents and teachers loudly called on the executive director to reconsider. Government rebuked saying no teachers were fired, completely ignoring that fact that teachers were removed from schools, and the remaining teachers had to pick up the slack. Elected school boards would have forced much more thorough considerations at the very least. The removal of Unassigned Instructional Time (UIT) meant the end of various duties performed during UIT that kept our schools safe and offered extra supports and added bodies to deal with sick days and challenging situations. It gave teachers more time in the schedule to prepare lessons for multi levels of learners in the classrooms.
To lose so many supportive and well experienced adults during Covid meant less enforcement of not only Covid measures, but also of the Code of Conduct. In September, our schools were ravaged by the destructive social media dare to vandalize and steal from schools. Since then, while many schools have seen repairs, the repeated wrecking of washrooms has left some schools with only partially working washrooms, limited washrooms and has brought forth reports of bathroom stalls completely ripped out, broken sinks, and more. Parents have complained about the state of the washrooms. Students have found it preferable to go home to use the washroom rather than face the gatherings around hand dryers with vapes and bullish behaviour. Students are creating disturbances outside of classroom doors where classes are in session in the absence of monitoring. Violence, smoking, and drug use on school property are a reality our children are facing. Teacher presence is a helpful deterrent but teachers cannot be in two places at the same time now that lost UIT has increased their in-class time.
To make up for the lack of monitoring due to cuts to UIT, job listings were posted to entice parents and others to work as student monitors in the schools. The uptake was slim, and since then we have heard that many of those hired have since quit. They faced abuse and disrespect from students, and felt the minimal pay was not worth it, especially with the lack of support provided in bad situations. Requests then came for parents to volunteer to do monitoring whenever they could. I am told that so far this has not produced the monitoring bodies needed. It is also inconceivable that trained professionals should be replaced by volunteer parents. Healthcare is also publicly funded, but we do not see healthcare facilities asking for parent volunteers to cover nursing shortages. This is not the appropriate way to manage our children’s education.
Last week we heard about a bus driver so frustrated by a lack of action from administrators over abuses and vandalism on his bus, that he took matters into his own hands and made the unfortunate decision to detain students during his next run, rather than allowing them to enter the school. This week there are multiple reports about buses being hours late or not showing up. Immediately the blame is placed on vaccine mandates. Bus driver absences did not start on Dec 1. Are we sure these shortages are not like those with subs and EAs? Two weeks ago, a video circulated of a teacher walking out of her classroom, in tears, after what we are told was continued abuse from a student without consequences to the student or support for the teacher from the school administration. Another teacher walked out of her class in tears this week. Others say they are medicated now for depression, anxiety, and other stress related ailments. I was told last week about a teacher saying they were dead inside. Is education a career path you would choose if this is the consequence to your life? While Covid continues to impact classrooms, it also added layers to the already concerning path our education system has been on. Where is the tipping point? When will we start to take this seriously?
Students are impacted by every single type of shortage. From supplies to human resources, to those who keep them safe. They are also impacted by the energy and emotional toll the current situation is taking on everyone. And right now, teachers, and others are burning out and our shortages are reaching a level we cannot keep ignoring. Admins are either overwhelmed or ordered to stay quiet on these issues in the schools. But their inaction, for whatever reason, is accommodating untenable conditions in our schools. The Regional Centres for Education’s Executives and the Minister of Education must start taking tangible action.
NOW. Before we fail an entire generation of students.