Nanaimo Classroom Teachers Focus Group Report
Ten Nanaimo teachers were brought together in a Focus Group in early January, 2003. They were asked to respond to the following three questions:
- Describe your school (size, grade levels, cultural and special needs mix, socio-economic status etc), your experience as a teacher, and your current teaching position/role.
- Describe the work that you did in the last few years in terms of connections with students with special needs, and/or with ESL students.
- What changes in your work with students with special needs/ESL students have happened during this school year, and how have these changes affected students’ learning? What do you consider actually or potentially positive or problematic in these changes?
Responses to each question are shown below.
Describe your school (size, grade levels, cultural and special needs mix, socio-economic status etc), your experience as a teacher, and your current teaching position/role.
Ten classroom teachers attended the Focus Group, four from secondary schools, six from elementary schools. While there was a mix of north to south sites represented, the general socio-economic level of schools reflected in this group was somewhat higher than might be expected from a fully representative group. Most of the participants were very experienced teachers, with over twenty years of teaching experience, while two participants had been teaching for five and ten years respectively.
There appear to be have been significant differences in these teachers’ experiences, linked to two factors: socio-economic level of the community served by the school, and, for secondary teachers, whether the teacher taught core academic subjects or taught primarily in elective subject areas. For the teachers in poorer school communities, the prevalence of students with special needs seemed higher, and the difficulty in meeting students’ needs much greater. Secondary teachers who taught in primarily academic subject areas had few students with special needs in their classes. Those who taught in elective subject areas reported higher numbers of students with special needs in their classes this school year than last year.
Fewer differences were as clear in relation to ESL students, as more ESL students appeared spread across socio-economic levels. However, the minimal level of designated ESL students in Nanaimo’s secondary schools (9% of the total designated ESL population) perhaps reflect the limited comments concerning ESL from secondary teachers in the Focus Group. More comments and discussion were directed at ESD (English as a Second Dialect), which reflects the numbers of aboriginal students in the school district.
Describe the work that you did in the last few years in terms of connections with students with special needs, and/or with ESL students.
- Some teachers reported consistent support for ESL and ESD students over time, while other suggested declining levels of support.
Some participants stated that, in elementary schools, there was a reasonable level of support offered over time from district staff who offered some support for ESL/ESD students. Others reported gradually reduced levels of support for ESL/ESD students over several years, with a series of incremental cuts to service.
- Some teachers reported being more than “maxed-out” with the numbers of students with special needs in their classes, while others said they rarely taught such students.
“Maxed-out” referred to the maximum numbers of students with special needs permitted in any one class, in accordance with previous contract language — which has been removed from the current contract. (Clause 20.2.2 in last school year’s contract set a normal limit of two students with special needs in any one class, with a third permitted while waiting for appropriate placement.) In spite of the contract language, secondary teachers of electives also reported a tendency in earlier years to place more students with special needs in their classes, even with contract limits theoretically limiting class composition. One participant stated that each year there would be an increase either in the number of elective classes offered or an increase in the number of students with special needs in the same number of elective classes. Teachers also observed an increase in students they believed to have special needs but who were never designated as such. In contrast, one participant stated that in 25 years of teaching she had never had a Special Education Assistant in her classes, primarily because she taught mainly academic subject areas in the more senior secondary grades.
- Some teachers reported incrementally-deteriorating services for students with special needs over time.
This comment perhaps best reflected the experience of teachers working in schools in lower socio-economic areas. While classroom teachers in these areas noted the reduced services for students, they also stressed that they felt increasingly isolated and less supported over time. There was a combination of factors which in their view appeared linked to reduced support for both students and classroom teachers. One issue was the sporadic or inconsistent nature of support, with specialist support teachers’ time limited or reduced. Similarly, participants saw the only consistency in SEA time being that it would be reduced from year to year. While supports were reduced, meetings related to including students with special needs seemed to increase in frequency but decline in utility. One teacher said “there was no support for me,” while another stated that all the meetings about how to support inclusion were like “fingers in the dike,” with lots of talk but not much action.
- Special Education Assistants’ time in classes was sporadic and limited.
Several participants used terms like “intermittent” and “ad hoc” to describe the allocation of SEAs to their classrooms, and most stated that the time allocation in earlier years was inadequate. Some identified what they believed to be a deterioration in SEA time allocation over the last five years. They also note an increasing tendency over time to place students in classes in ways that would maximize the use of SEAs, so that one SEA could work with several students rather than being allocated to just one child. Some explicitly linked the presence and appropriate time allocation of an SEA as being linked to ensuring effective academic progress for the student: “With a full-time aide the child was a learner and not a seat-warmer.”
- “There were lots of people coming into my class.”
With this statement, classroom teachers were referring to the frequent visits of counsellors, LA, ESL, Special Education teachers, and others, in support of a range of students. There appeared to be a mixed message from the way participants spoke of this. One aspect was conveyed by the term “visits,” which implied that the presence of support personnel in the classroom was short-term and sometimes intrusive. However, another message was that a range of supports existed, and that a range of people with specialist skills were offering some support both to the students in their class, and to the classroom teacher. Both messages were communicated, reflecting positive and negative perspectives. There was a sense, even so, that for these classroom teachers, such “visits” had become more intrusive and less useful over time.
- Some participants reported increased frustration with the role of the School-Based Team, while others were more positive about support from the team.
One teacher said that the school-based team did little “but push paper around,” while another described many “referrals on and on to get students designated” and therefore eligible for some support. In the view of some participants, the school-based team had become firmly established as the process that had to be used in the school for deciding individual programs for students with special needs, but that this process offered little in terms of support either to the student or to the classroom teacher. If so few supports were being offered over time, the participants felt that they were increasingly wasting their time by being involved in school-based team meetings.
Those who mentioned feeling supported included one teacher who said “They listen, sometimes have constructive ideas.” However, even this teacher concluded that, after the meeting, minimal help and support was offered to the classroom teacher, stating: “As the classroom teacher, you have to find the solutions.”
- Several participants mentioned regular and consistent supports from some non-enrolling teachers and non-teaching staff prior to this school year.
The efforts of several Counsellors were mentioned as being appreciated by classroom teachers, as were a range of other supports from LA, ESL, Special Education teachers, social workers, and First Nations Support workers. While being appreciated, these efforts were also seen as variable in terms of utility. Sometimes they were seen as very useful, at other times less so, but in the view of these classroom teachers, the specialist support teachers were there and could be called upon when needed.
In considering these data from classroom teachers reflecting on the years prior to the current school year, the messages are sometimes mixed and occasionally ambiguous when looking at the responses from the group as a whole. However, responses were much less ambiguous when connected to whether a participant worked in a school which was relatively wealthy or poor. Those teachers working in poorer schools were identifying more intense pressures building up over earlier years, with cuts in staffing and other areas negatively impacting their work.
It appeared that for some participants, inclusion of students with special needs, and providing services for ESL students, was a major issue and a strong concern, and these teachers worked in schools serving poorer communities, or taught electives in secondary schools. For others, teaching academic subjects or in wealthier areas, such issues barely impacted on their teaching. Participants stated that levels of staffing and service had declined over several years, while the needs of students seemed to be increasing. There were also a number of comments in different areas that whatever the theoretical supports, the final and substantial responsibility for a child with special needs rested with the classroom teacher. If support for the classroom teacher were inappropriate, complicated, reduced, or eliminated, then the classroom teacher’s ability to meet students’ needs was reduced, and the demands on the teacher increased.
What changes in your work with students with special needs/ESL students have happened during this school year, and how have these changes affected students’ learning? What do you consider actually or potentially positive or problematic in these changes?
The teachers in this Focus Group had much more to say about what was happening in their schools during this school year than they had to say about previous school years. Some also explicitly stated that they believe the changes this year to be substantively different than the incremental changes of earlier years, with one teacher saying, with some feeling, “It’s really different this year!”
- Increased class size and changing class composition are causing problems for classroom teachers.
One teacher described a class of 34 students, significantly more than last year, and how such a number forced changes in pedagogical approaches: “You just can’t do some things in a class of 34 that you could do with a smaller class.” For teachers in Science labs, there were dramatic changes, with “much less hands-on” and more demonstrations by the teacher. For those subject areas named by one participant as the “soft” sciences, such changes were major. “Soft” sciences were defined as elective Science courses with a less-academic focus. With more students in the labs, safety was an increased risk factor. One participant said that when additional students with special needs were “packed in” to such classes, as they had been this school year, both pedagogy and safety suffered, and the needs of students with special needs were less successfully met than in previous years. Students with special needs were included in such electives because of the electives’ reduced academic content. But with smaller classes they were also engaged in the “hands-on” nature of the courses (where students conducted experiments in labs, for example) which was appropriate to their needs. By increasing the numbers of students overall, and the numbers of students with special needs, the “hands-on” attraction of the courses for such students has been reduced. In the view of these teachers, changing the class composition by increasing the numbers of students with special needs is therefore reducing the quality of education for the students and forcing the teacher to change teaching styles.
- Participants felt that fewer students were being designated within Ministry high-incidence categories, but that this reduction did not reflect the reality in their schools.(1)
Teachers in this Focus Group saw a consistently greater level of needs in their schools, and believed that many students with special needs were no longer being designated in high-incidence categories. In some cases, teachers reported a conscious decision by some schools not to designate unless there were supports available to match the designation. For most, this was seen as a survival mechanism. They explained that with higher class sizes and reduced levels of support, the fear existed that much more was being expected of the classroom teacher, and they simply could not do it all. Designating students with mild or moderate behaviour problems, for example, took time for meetings and discussion of approaches which were not likely to be followed anyway because of the pressures of increased class size, changes in class composition, and reduced support. If they could not deliver what would be ideally planned as a result of designating the student, why bother designating the student in the first place? A similar approach was described for Gifted students in another school, with designations being described as “too much trouble,” and no services being provided.
Teachers were somewhat baffled that at the same time as fewer students appeared to be screened for designation by the district, all Kindergarten students were being screened as part of a UBC Early Development Institute (EDI) project. While the nature of the screening may be different, it appeared ironic that external research funds provided for screening one group of students while funds allocated to the district did not allow for similar levels of screening.
- Some participants believed that ESL/ESD (English as a Second Dialect) support is either being reduced or eliminated in their schools.
Several participants spoke of staff who worked in Learning Assistance or in some other non-enrolling support role in previous years, and were now also being allocated responsibility for ESL/ESD support in addition to their initial role. Such blending of roles meant less service in situations where there were fewer people in the roles, and/or reduced time allocation for each component of the blended role, both of which scenarios were happening this school year. The same support services provided by non-enrolling teachers could not be offered with fewer non-enrolling staff, and ESL services were among the first to be reduced or eliminated. Reductions in ESD services were noted which could negatively impact aboriginal students. In one school, a teacher reported that some aboriginal students who once received ESD and Learning Assistance now only received Learning Assistance, and even that at a reduced level than before. ESD programs include culturally-appropriate approaches to the aboriginal students enrolled in the programs; therefore, the removal of ESD services was seen to reduce the focus and use of culturally-appropriate materials and approaches for these students.
- Participants felt that specialists in blended roles are not able to focus on all the parts of their new jobs.
This was not stated as a criticism of the specialist support teachers, but as a reflection of perceived realities in schools. Classroom teachers saw the specialist support teachers as being “incredibly stretched,” and doing the best they could, but all that could be managed were the worst crisis scenarios. The district’s new model of school-based specialist supports removed many highly specialized itinerant staff with a particular area of focus and expertise. In the new model, non-enrolling teachers now have responsibility for some combination of LA, ESL/ESD, and Special Education. Staff who were trained and knowledgeable in one area such as LA or ESL now have jobs which include areas for which they have never been trained and in which they have no experience. For them, and for the school in which they work, decisions have to be made about the best use of their time and skills. In some cases, this means dropping a focus on the gifted, or reducing ESL, or increasing the focus on Learning Assistance. That staff within schools are making such decisions may be a reflection on their need to manage as best they can with less support, but it appears to be encouraging arbitrary school-based decisions concerning which services are offered in schools.
For classroom teachers, the issue of blended roles and reduced staffing means that they have less support from specialists, and less access to expertise. The distinction between support and access to expertise is important, as both affect classroom teachers in different ways, but both isolate the classroom teacher from support and advice. This is because classroom teachers used to have access to, say, an ESL specialist, but the person now responsible for ESL in a particular school may have no training or expertise in ESL. If classroom teachers have less support (specialist support time, access to adaptations, appropriate pedagogical approaches, team teaching, modified curriculum resources, etc.) and observe less expertise in a given area, their view of the utility of specialist support appears to be significantly reduced. Participants implied that at some point, either the support works and is of use to the students in their class, and to them as classroom teachers, or it has such limited utility that it can be removed.
- The less severe the exceptionality, the less the support.
This has been noted in other focus groups, where the term ‘raising of the bar” has been used. Some participants noted that in their schools, supports for mild or moderate behaviour students were being removed this year, but had been provided in previous years. Similarly, supports were being reduced in almost every area of Learning Assistance, ESL/ESD, and Special Education, so that only the most severe cases were supported. Participants were concerned for two reasons. The first was that supports for mild or moderate behaviour were seen as important to prevent the escalation of more severe behaviour, and were therefore effective and useful. The second reason was that by “raising the bar,” the school system is essentially reducing educational opportunity for many students. With an inclusionary policy, students are physically included, but inclusion means much more than that. If supports are so restricted that only the most extreme cases can access them, then the system is essentially reducing opportunities for many students, excluding them from learning effectively, and making the policy a sham.
- Teachers do not have much more to give, and students are “falling through the cracks because too much is being asked of teachers.”
Several of the participants said they were not “sure of all the labels” of designation for students with special needs. Sometimes they are not sure if a given student is actually designated or not. Teachers in this Focus Group indicated that a difference between this year and last was that there appeared to be an acceptance that some students will “fall through the cracks” caused by less effective support systems. They also stated that some of these students will likely leave the school system prematurely, when they might have stayed with better levels of support. Several teachers in this Focus Group stated that they did not have much more to give, and that while they regretted students’ dropping out, they could do little about it:
“There are lots of times when the kids are not getting rescued by the AO, by the counsellor, by me. I just don’t have it to give. Those we could once ‘resuscitate’ are now drifting off, fading away. I have no idea where they’ve gone.”
- Participants considered the School-Based Team as “Triage.”
This unusual metaphor implied that the school-based team divided students with special needs into three categories: the first being those who needed help immediately, a second group who could wait for service, and a third group who were beyond help and would not receive service. While the literal interpretation of the metaphor perhaps appears exaggerated, the concept suggests a radically different mode of operation that that intended for school-based teams. Instead of a collaborative and responsive unit addressing a wide variety of needs, the teams had, in the view of these classroom teachers, become an emergency response unit, only catering to the most desperate of needs. The teachers believed that even if teams were only addressing the most serious cases, there were few supports to meet most identified needs in those cases before the team. Because of this gap between needs and available supports, classroom teachers in this focus group believed that school-based teams were becoming increasingly ineffective, and that they were less likely to ask for access to the team this school year. One participant said “they tell us when to come, not the reverse.”
The apparent demise of the school-based team’s utility to classroom teachers offers another area in which models and structures of supports for students with special needs, and for teachers, appear increasingly fragile and problematic. Ideally the team offers collective expertise and solutions with resources to promote students’ effective learning, accompanied by supports for the classroom teacher. But as the triage metaphor demonstrates, addressing the most severe crisis is far from the ideal. If the capacity of the team to provide supports is much reduced, can the team still function in a spiral of reduced collaboration, less support, fewer adaptations, less specialist support and SEA time?
What is currently described as triage may, if continued, make the school-based team an irrelevance which can be removed, downloading responsibility for students with special needs to the classroom teacher. This would reduce the effectiveness of services for students with special needs, as the collective planning, consultation, and programming process utilizing a wide range of expertise would no longer exist.
Linked to the reduced capacity of the school-based team to support classroom teachers was the limited, or in some cases non-existent, support for the writing of IEPs, or for implementing recommendations in the IEPs. What appeared to be an increasingly common question among these classroom teachers regarding IEPs was “Why bother?” In the view of several participants, there seemed little point in wasting time writing a plan when there was little chance of following such a plan because the time, resources, and support staff would not be available at levels that could make an IEP work in practice.
Taken with other data from the group, the comments suggested that some of these classroom teachers were feeling increasingly isolated and unsupported, to the extent that some were feeling much more negative about inclusionary processes. They stated that the cuts in staffing left classroom teachers with all the responsibilities and problems associated with inclusion of a diverse range of learners, but removed once-provided supports.
- This year some students with special needs are receiving service at the same or better level than they were receiving last year.
Participants described “pockets of excellence,” where some students with special needs were accessing a productive and useful combination of adapted or modified programs, and SEA and specialist support, so that the students were engaged in learning. However, such pockets appeared very limited and unrepresentative of supports for most students with special needs. Where such pockets existed, they reflected the fact that schools could provide a positive inclusionary experience when the right combination of supports were in place. While participants welcomed this, they were very concerned that such pockets were isolated exceptions rather than the norm for all students.
- Focus group participants felt that staffing cuts, redeployments, and reconfigurations are reducing collegiality, collaboration, and efficiency.
Fewer classroom and specialist support teachers, changed roles for specialist support staff, reduced SEA time, more part-time work by both teachers and SEAs, and blended roles, were all mentioned, as were changes in staff numbers, deployments, and configurations. Participants felt that such changes were negatively impacting their work. It took longer to know who was in a role, and whether that role included, say, Learning Assistance or writing an IEP. There appeared to be less continuity in roles and time allocations this school year, so that many classroom teachers and specialist support staff were taking much longer to work out who did what, and whether any supports were available. Patterns and relationships developed over time were disrupted as district/itinerant specialist support staff were cut or redeployed into school-based supports, or as SEA time was cut. Cuts, redeployments, and structural reconfigurations (which person was delivering which service) appeared to be affecting both services and relationships as schools struggled to provide services to students. In one situation, a teacher stated that the views of those staff who were new to a particular process or school, were “less accepted” by those who had been in the process or school for a longer period. Changes in staffing levels, deployment, and configuration seemed to be negatively affecting teachers’ ability to collaboratively address the needs of students, and to significantly slow down processes which in turn slowed down the delivery of supports to both students and classroom teachers. One example was provided of a Learning Assistance teacher who had responsibility for producing a large number of IEPs, with the result that she saw no students until months into the school year.
There was very mixed evidence of changes in Special Education and ESL from participants in this Focus Group. For some, changes are similar to changes that have occurred in other school years, and are a predictable part of working as a teacher. These teachers worked mainly in schools which served middle or higher socio-economic communities, and/or taught mainly academic subject areas in secondary schools. For others, who taught in schools serving lower socio-economic communities, the changes are more significant, with increased class size, more students ,and fewer supports.
What appears most disturbing, however, are the comments which indicate a crumbling system of support for inclusive education. Inclusion is a provincial policy, yet these comments indicate that some pivotal support structures appear to be diminishing rapidly. Whatever the model which theoretically exists, these classroom teachers believe there are more students with special needs than are identified, a belief supported by provincial data which show 8% fewer high-incidence designations this school year. They identified problems with reduced support structures, from assessment to IEP planning and writing, school-based teams, access to specialist support staff and SEAs.
Several warning signs were provided by teachers in this Focus Group, especially from those who work in lower SES schools: the responsibility for inclusion is being dumped onto them as support and resources are reduced or withdrawn. They are dealing with this responsibility in a variety of ways, but often by rejecting processes which force them to spend time in meetings but which offer no subsequent supports. Some comments indicated classroom teachers were becoming more assertive about placements or support, which may also be the early signs of a reaction against inclusion.
The inclusionary system is not collapsing, but there are questions as to whether it can be sustained with fewer supports for, and more demands on, classroom teachers. The teachers in this focus group appeared to be saying that provincial and district policies have not changed, but many structures, people, and systems that previously made such policies workable have been reduced or eliminated. As less support is offered, more is expected of the classroom teacher. After years of gradual cuts, some are simply saying that they have little more to give. One stated “I hardly noticed Christmas this year, I was in such bad shape, exhausted.” Much of this exhaustion was the result of reduced supports for inclusion. Unless supports are increased, there may be an increased likelihood of teachers’ assertiveness turning into a backlash against inclusion.
(1) Data from Ministry of education Standard report 1585 (Special Education Enrolments) indicates that there has been a provincial decline in high incidence designation of 8.2% in 2002/03 compared to 2001/02. This is more likely attributable to non-designation of high incidence students, than a real decline in the numbers of such students.