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The Challenge of Specialist Support Teachers – Learning Assistance, ESL, and Special Education – In Multiple Roles:
A PSA / BCTF Research Discussion Paper


This discussion paper has been produced by BCTF Research with input from the ESL, Learning Assistance, and Special Education provincial specialist associations. It is not a policy document from either the BCTF or the PSAs. The paper seeks to explore the issue of specialist support teachers working in multiple roles, often in resource-team models. Having articulated the issues and context, an attachment to the paper lists five projects which BCTF Research has started this school year. These projects are designed to offer more information and support to both classroom and specialist support teachers.

There are fears that projects such as these implicitly condone the erosion of specialist support in ESL, Learning Assistance, and Special Education. Both the BCTF and the PSAs are deeply troubled by cuts in specialist support staffing, and by the “multiple-role” consequence of the cuts. But we believe that recognizing what is occurring does not equate to endorsement. The discussion paper is therefore endorsed by the three PSAs listed above as a way to initiate debate. Neither the BCTF nor the PSAs support the erosion of specialist support staffing and roles in the B.C. school system. Our intention is to critique the cuts and to support and defend the roles and work of all teachers in an inclusive education system. BCTF’s research clearly shows that many specialist support teachers now have responsibilities outside of their area of specialization and expertise, and that many students and classroom teachers have reduced support from Learning Assistance, Special Education, and ESL specialists.

So this discussion paper introduces some of the issues and dilemmas faced by specialist support teachers, and essentially asks what the BCTF can and should do about supporting its members, both in classrooms and in specialist support roles.

We ask that you consider this as a starting point to consider how the BCTF and its PSAs should advocate for appropriate staffing and supports using specialist ESL, Learning Assistance, and Special Education staff. We also ask you to consider how we can support all teachers to meet diverse student needs in the context of staffing cuts and reduced services to students.

Comments about the paper can be sent to: cnaylor@bctf.ca, or to your PSA.

Madeline Pohlmann, President, Special Education Association
Dr. Beth Sparks, President, Learning Assistance Teachers’ Association
Megan Wilson, President, English as a Second Language PSA
Charlie Naylor, BCTF Research

The challenge of specialist support teachers
– Learning Assistance, ESL, and Special Education –
in multiple roles


Prior to the 2002/03 school year, most school districts recognized and organized discrete specialist support areas. Learning Assistance, ESL and Special Education teachers worked, for the most part, in one of the three areas. Some exceptions to this norm were made, and teaching roles were combined, but mainly in small schools and in rural districts where demographics and geography made separation of roles impractical or impossible. The provincial contract of 1998 specified several specialist-support-teacher ratios, so that the numbers of specialists in some areas like ESL and Learning Assistance were linked to numbers of students. This contract remained in force from 1998 until the start of the 2002 school year. With the legislative and contractual changes at that time, such ratios were abolished, as were targeted funds for the High Incidence categories of students designated with special needs. Some school districts interpreted the abolishing of ratios and targeted funding to mean that they could employ fewer specialist support teachers, and more discretion (arguably resulting in reduced service) was allowed in terms of services to students in High Incidence categories.

These were not the only changes to affect the capacity of specialist support teachers in ESL, Learning Assistance, and Special Education, in terms of either teaching students or supporting classroom teachers. Regulations that increased class sizes, with minimal limits on class composition, accompanied by inadequate funding levels, forced all districts to generally increase class sizes and to place higher numbers of students with special needs and/or ESL students into some classes. Close to 2,000 teachers were laid off in 2002, with close to another 1,000 laid off in 2003. Teacher layoffs were proportionately greater than decreases in student enrolment. Comparing Ministry of Education Standard Report 2089 for 2001/02 with 2002/03, FTE student enrolment declined from 584,063 to 575,948, a decline of 1.54%. FTE Educator numbers declined from 34,501 in 2001/02 to 32,309 in 2002/03, a decline of 6.35%. Provincially, there were 18.9% fewer Special Education teachers in 2003 than in 2001, and 20.3% fewer ESL teachers.

Research project findings

In the 2002/03 school year, BCTF Research examined the provision of ESL, Special Education, and Learning Assistance in two school districts, Nanaimo and Coquitlam1. Based on the data collected in this research project, evidence was found of significant reductions in the levels of specialist support in Special Education, Learning Assistance, and ESL. ESL staffing in Nanaimo declined by 64% while ESL enrolment2 declined by 16.6%. One Coquitlam school’s Special Education staffing declined by 23%, while the school’s designated special needs population increased by 2.9%. Both these examples reflect much higher attrition among specialist support staff in the three areas than among the general teaching population. The “multiple roles” position, in which some combination of Special Education and/or Learning Assistance and/or ESL supports are combined in one job package, has developed as a direct result of these disproportionate cuts to the numbers of specialist support teachers.

A number of findings from this project indicated that the capacity of the specialist support teachers to meet students’ needs was severely impacted because their caseloads had risen to alarming levels. They were also less able to support the work of classroom teachers because there were many fewer FTE specialist support teachers. Findings from the research led to the identification and consideration of the “multiple roles” position, and indicated an exodus of specialist support teachers from their specialist support roles.

Because of cuts to specialist support staffing, many specialists are dealing with areas such as ESL, Learning Assistance, and Special Education in one job package (the “multiple roles” assignment), but they have little or no training or experience in some areas of specialization. This is reducing the quality of services to students, and, because of this and other cuts, services are being directed only to the most needy.

Both classroom and specialist support teachers are reporting high levels of stress because of the strain of meeting students’ needs with fewer resources. Some specialist teachers are opting out of the role because the demands are too great.

The picture is complex and confusing, in terms of both staffing and service delivery. Although the three specialized teaching areas took the greatest cuts in terms of service delivery, it was the younger and/or less experienced teachers in regular education positions who bore the brunt of the close to 2,000 layoffs across B.C. in 2002. Thus, while services to Special Education, ESL and Learning Assistance were reduced, few of the teachers providing Special Education services were laid off because they were more senior. Although they were still employed, however, these more-experienced teachers spent less or no time as specialist support teachers. Some moved into the regular classroom positions by choice, or because time allocations in their previous specialist support role were reduced. Thus, staffing and services were reduced in these areas.

In some districts, the model of delivery stayed the same (e.g., Coquitlam), while in others (e.g., Nanaimo), the district changed to a school-based delivery model, with fewer itinerant district staff. For teachers in districts with new delivery models, there were, therefore, both cuts and major changes in work patterns to accommodate simultaneously. Some districts reduced the FTE time allocation to a teaching area like Learning Assistance, so there was less time for the work to be performed. In such a case, one teacher might still be doing Learning Assistance, for 0.5 FTE, and might be teaching a class for the remaining 0.5 of their time. Often such changes did not reflect the numbers of designated students, so that in some cases student designations could increase but FTE staffing decrease. Reduced service allotments, but no reduction in caseload, created an increased workload for Special Education and other specialist support teachers, without the provision of the time needed to effectively manage the job.

Multiple roles

The combinations of the “multiple roles” assignments were complex. The most common example involved one teacher combining two of the three support areas. In some cases, this might be for a 1.0 FTE position, with the teacher working, say, 0.6 LA and 0.4 Special Ed. But it might also be for a 0.8 FTE allocation, with one teacher 0.5 in LA and 0.3 in ESL. In either case, the service can be identified as being provided, but its allocation is clearly reduced. A second example of this complexity is where different staff share various roles, so that three teachers provide the 1.0 FTE for Special Education, with each of the three working in other support or classroom teaching areas. The permutations are considerable, and in many districts they involve even three, four, or five multiple roles for the teacher. Rather than explore all these permutations, the key point is to provide a sense of the changes in both teacher responsibilities and service delivery.

It must be stressed that this sudden shift to multiple roles in many districts without adequate time or training to manage each role is the issue of concern. Simply allocating part of a teacher’s time to ESL, for example, when that teacher has no ESL training or experience, is not likely to produce the optimum level of support for students. How can a “Resource Team” be effective if the members of the team are not trained specialists in the areas in which they are supposed to offer expertise?

The creation of multiple roles is likely to reduce supports for classroom teachers, as specialist support teachers in such roles struggle to offer support with limited time and multiple demands. Consider a teacher who used to offer full-time Learning Assistance support but who now has only 0.6 FTE Learning Assistance allocation, with another 0.4 FTE for Special Education or a classroom assignment. She or he is likely to balance the increased demands of the multiple roles by reducing contact with students and classroom teachers, both negatively impacting classroom teachers. Reduced numbers of specialist support teachers also means there are fewer teachers to complete the paperwork and documentation required if the district is audited. This means that paperwork for each specialist support teacher increases, likely further reducing services to students and classroom teachers.

A further complication brought to light by the research project was the evident concern, even disillusionment, of many specialist support teachers as a result of reduced levels of support in the three areas. Many specialists in Coquitlam and Nanaimo, where the research was conducted, felt that reduced staffing allocations would mean either a comparable reduction in service levels, or the likelihood of an increased workload to cover the deficit and maintain services at levels prior to the start of the 2002 school year. Some schools clearly decided on the former path, to reduce service to match funding and staffing levels. Others, however, appear to have chosen the second option, to cover the deficit by an increased workload and effort, often at considerable cost to individual teachers. In focus groups conducted as part of the project, some teachers spoke of doing paperwork after 10:00 p.m. at night when their children were in bed, or working most evenings and some weekends, in attempts to meet the needs of all students. There was evidence that both scenarios (reducing service or increasing workload) disturbed many specialist support teachers, and some indicated that they would no longer choose to perform this role, but seek classroom assignments instead. Some suggested that if government actions meant that the inclusionary policy received minimal specialist support, they would not bear the brunt of trying to prop up the system by staying in the role of specialist support teacher. The consequences are now becoming apparent in a number of districts, as younger or less-experienced teachers become specialist support teachers in ESL, Learning Assistance, and Special Education.

One of the teacher researchers in the Nanaimo study wrote:

The “blending” of roles, combining Special Education/ESL/Learning Assistance, means increased complexity and the likelihood of limited expertise in newly-acquired responsibilities. Continually-increasing paperwork, deteriorating working relationships, and reduced capacity for collaboration are causing lower morale among the specialist support teachers and the increased likelihood that specialist support teachers will quit the role if it becomes unmanageable. Impacts on these teachers reduce the capacity of the school and the district to meet students’ needs. While all of these impacts can be directly linked to government legislative, funding, and contract decisions, they are not all new. Cuts have been incremental over several years. What is new this school year is that more severe impacts have been felt immediately. When added to the incremental cuts of earlier years, the cumulative impact is more obvious and more severe.

The impacts on the role of the specialist support teachers are considerable, and should be of great concern to district and provincial policy-makers if such policy-makers have any interest in maintaining the province’s inclusionary policy. Inclusion needs specialist support teachers who understand the philosophy and practices of inclusion, so that they can directly teach students and support the work of classroom teachers, while also carrying out roles in assessment, collaborative planning, and communication with parents. Provincial government decisions which have a negative impact on the specialists’ ability to perform these roles mean that less inclusion will occur. The only alternative to providing effective specialist support in Special Education, ESL, and Learning Assistance, is that every classroom teacher be fully prepared for and capable of teaching to a huge range of diversity. There is no evidence that this preparation and capacity currently exist.

A word from the PSAs

We believe that the findings generated from the BCTF’s research study in Nanaimo and Coquitlam reflect what is happening in many B.C. school districts. The study leaves us with deep concerns about the future of B.C.’s inclusionary school system. Such concerns stem from the significantly-reduced levels of support identified above. Of particular concern to us as provincial specialist associations and as a union is the capacity of our members to meet the needs of students and classroom teachers. While there are many facets to this concern, we believe there is some urgency to addressing the issue of multiple roles. Many of our members are facing practical dilemmas of how to realistically and effectively manage the work in such roles.

This discussion paper does not cover every issue or concern faced by our members, but attempts to contextualize some issues that we believe are significant, and which we want to address in terms of the multiple roles that have become increasingly prevalent this school year.

Three PSAs (Special Education Association, Learning Assistance Teachers’ Association, and English as a Second Language PSA) are working with BCTF Research staff in five projects during the 2003/04 school year. The focus on the multiple roles is one of those five projects, which are listed at the end of this document as an attachment. We propose two parts to the multiple-roles project. This discussion paper is the first part, where we introduce the issue of the multiple roles and the context of its development and prevalence in most school districts. The second, and major, part of our work involves improving access to web-based information and resources that we hope will support our members to manage their multiple roles. We also hope that professional development materials and activities will be developed based on these resources.

By providing information to our members on ways to work in a multiple-roles assignment, we must stress that we do not condone or support the radical changes that have been forced on our work by the provincial government. The BCTF Research project has offered a significant critique of the changes that have occurred in school districts, including the practice of combining specialist roles. The PSAs will continue to discuss and critique the changes, considering whether and how such changes impact students and teachers. But we also believe it is important to support our members professionally as they engage in unfamiliar roles. By combining the expertise and understanding of the three PSAs we can share resources and strategies with all our members.


This paper is intended to initiate debate on the multiple roles of specialist support teachers in B.C.’s public schools. The rapid and widespread emergence of such roles is reducing the capacity of teachers to meet students’ needs, and is reducing supports from Special Education, Learning Assistance, and ESL specialists to classroom teachers.

The three PSAs and the BCTF are proposing meeting this challenge in part with an initiative that offers improved access to information and the potential of professional development for our members, and for all teachers. How can we as PSAs and as a union provide meaningful support for students and classroom teachers in a system radically changed by government edicts and actions? This paper does not contain all the answers, but we hope that it contributes to the discussion.

March, 2004


1 www.bctf.ca/IssuesInEducation.aspx?id=5794.
2 Student enrolment data from Ministry of Education Standard Report 1586C, 2001 and 2002.


BCTF Research Projects to support teachers in inclusive education

Project 1: Identifying existing web-based resources and facilitating access to such resources for teachers
PSAs linked to Special Education, Learning Assistance, and ESL would identify useful resources which might assist teachers with understanding the diverse needs of students and which offer ideas and strategies on how to teach them.

Project 2: Developing web-based resources supporting teaching and PD for inclusive classrooms
Invite the PSAs linked to Special Education, Learning Assistance, and ESL to submit proposals for preparing web versions of existing resources.

Project 3: Adapting curriculum and pedagogy to meet the needs of all learners
This project would include adaptation for teaching both students with special needs and ESL students. It would include the writing of two resource documents, one for elementary and one for secondary, that could be used for Professional Development and in-service training, which would be targeted at newer teachers.

Project 4: Developing Inclusive Education workshops
Phase 1:
Needs Analysis, during which a focus group of three Local and three PSA Presidents will identify the “top ten” workshops they believe would be most useful to meet the needs of their members.

Phase 2: Workshop design and piloting. Seconded teachers will identify existing resources/ workshops on the “top ten” list, and add new resources, prior to designing two pilot workshops. They will also evaluate the process and the workshops so that the remaining eight may be developed during the following year.

Project 5: The multiple role of the Specialist Teacher
Many specialist teachers are finding that their work now includes aspects of Special Education, ESL, and Learning Assistance. This project will provide funding for three PSAs (Special Education, LATA, ESL) to identify common and disparate approaches so that teachers in multiple roles might consider strategies for supporting learners who are new to their workload.

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