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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 19, Number 6, April 2007

The BCTF hits the road

by Yvonne Eamor

A school in Terrace has $6 left in its learning resources budget. In Cranbrook, two suicide intervention programs have already been implemented—for an elementary school. And a trustee in Prince George says the school board is afraid to dip into its surplus for fears it won’t have the money to pay for more unexpected downloaded costs.

These were just some of the stories the BCTF heard on a province-wide tour that succeeded in placing the public spotlight on the shortcomings of Bill 33 and the lack of funding for public education. At each stop, the BCTF executive heard virtually the same message: the legislation isn’t working; resources are lacking; public education needs to be fully funded.

President Jinny Sims told a Victoria news conference that, "we have thousands upon thousands of students sitting in overcrowded classrooms. We’re hearing the same thing everywhere we go: passing legislation without funding is worse than having no legislation at all."

Victoria math teacher Tara Ehrcke helped author a report on the implementation of Bill 33 in her school district and she says it’s very clear. "There are significant violations of Bill 33 in middle and secondary schools. We don’t think this is the spirit of the legislation."

Resource teacher Joanne Finnegan notes the erosion she has seen over time. "It’s a culmination of not enough assistance time, not enough psychologists, too many students over too many areas, the needs of kids are going up, and larger classes. It’s a frustrating experience and I can’t see an end to it. I can’t do my job to the best of my ability."

Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association President Debra Swain says there have been some gains under Bill 33, "but not enough. We wanted to give the whole process a chance and we took a wait-and-see approach to see if there was a difference. But, we’ve been through the first round and it’s simply not enough."

Sims says, "No amount of training or experience prepares you to teach a class of 26 with six identified and seven who would’ve been identified if the government hadn’t changed its special needs criteria, and then another five students in the grey area. I could take you around British Columbia and show you where such situations exist and where the classrooms are."

Janice Neden is a Kamloops teacher and president of the local Learning Assistance Teachers’ Association. Over her 29-year teaching career, she’s seen the role of learning assistance teachers undergo dramatic change. "Initially, the focus was on direct instruction. Now it’s become more of a significant portion of time dealing with a growing government bureaucracy. We spend lots of time with IEPs, meetings, and a lot of notetaking. The support I can provide is not enough to meet the needs of teachers or students. A teacher’s teaching environment is the student’s learning environment. You can’t separate them."

Neden says her job is like "a triage. You take the ones most at risk. The number of students I can work with in a given day is nowhere near the number who deserve my attention. I have to prioritize."

What she sees down the road is worrisome. "We’re losing experience we can’t afford to lose. New teachers coming in need a lot of mentorship to fulfil the demands of this role. What I see is more accountability on the horizon, and more demands to fulfil the bureaucracy. What is missing is the focus on students."

Speaking in Kamloops, BCTF First Vice-president Irene Lanzinger says the provincial government talks about putting students first, "and we agree with that. But to do that, we need the resources to do the job. We need reasonable class limits and reasonable class composition. When you have students with special needs, sometimes they take a lot of your time. There are other kids who need extra time and help, but they don’t have the label of special ed."

Kamloops Thompson Teachers’ Association President Mark McVittie is dealing with another issue: Bill 33 is having a detrimental affect on students in north Kamloops. "This area represents only 20% of the district, but it has 45% of the elementary classes with more than three students with special needs. Students in north Kamloops are not less important than the students of south or west or Barrier or Clearwater or other areas, and they should have the same resources and same access to services."

In Cranbrook, counsellor Chris Olson finds that society is presenting problems of its own and legislation isn’t helping the province’s teacher-counsellors. "Students are finding life so much tougher than we did when we were in school. They’re coming to us with more problems, and those problems are of a more severe nature than we were seeing even five years ago. An elementary counsellor has had to implement two suicide intervention programs for Grade 2 students. That would’ve been unheard of just a few years ago."

When critical incidents occur, Olson says the school becomes "the hub of the community and that’s when support comes out for those students. While that’s a small part of the role we play, it’s becoming a progressively larger part of our job." But there are no extra resources to help out.

BCTF Second Vice-president Susan Lambert says "when the workload is so great that teachers can’t attend to the individual needs of kids, it’s a crushing anxiety. In some classes, students are receiving three minutes of attention an hour. Is that the type of class you want for public education?" She says the "system is in a fiscal crisis and needs attention."

During a visit to Williams Lake, Lambert heard more stories of how Bill 33 has failed students. "It’s a recipe for the serious erosion of quality public education," she says. "It’s an empty boast that the government is spending more money than ever on education. It has no meaning and it’s superficial window dressing."

Cariboo-Chilcotin Teachers’ Association President Sheila Wyse says the tour gave her the opportunity to focus on local funding issues and other problems. "I’m hoping that our trustees will now pick up on it and see they need to speak out, as well. I think they were a little nervous about the BCTF tour so it was good that it has opened a door and we’ll continue to talk more."

Wyse says the lack of funding "is like being asked to make a choice between being hit with a stick or a baseball bat. The trustees need to go back to the provincial government and say the way education is funded now isn’t working."

Lanzinger met with a number of Prince George trustees to discuss BCTF concerns. She told them, "teachers are not seeing the improvements they were promised. They still have untenable workloads." The trustees were interested in teacher morale, and Lanzinger said, "until we resolve the working conditions issues, we’re going to have a problem around morale. Teachers are tired of fighting. Morale is high when teachers feel they do a good job, when they can go home at the end of the year and say, ‘I didn’t reach every kid and every day wasn’t perfect, but I did a good job with that group.’"

Lanzinger feels the trustees learned something. "I think they went away with a greater understanding of where teachers are right now. They didn’t ask for the meeting to tell us what they thought, they asked for the meeting because they wanted to hear the perspective of teachers."

She also heard from Prince George learning assistance teacher Bonnie Lamb who spends more time on paperwork and less time with students. "You know you can give so much more to students if you have time in front of those students, working with them in specific interventions. But there are just not enough hours in the day anymore."

Lamb cautions, "If you don’t support students now, especially in the early intervention, you’ll be supporting them later when they’re on welfare. It’s short-sighted not to educate your population."

Lanzinger concurs, "the government needs to improve legislation, and needs to guarantee support for specialist teachers."

Another meeting with trustees took place in Terrace, where financial woes forced the board to choose between a four-day week or school closures (the four-day week was implemented). Parent Laurie Mutschke says it’s difficult for kids to switch gears after a three-day weekend. "And a kid who is unsettled could be sitting next to my kid and could be the one disrupting the class, taking time away from the classroom teacher. If a child happens to be away for illness, rather than missing two days, it could be four days."

Grade 7 teacher Cathy Lambright told the local media that "the majority of my colleagues teach classes with more than four kids with special needs. There are just too many children with special needs who require services. It’s difficult to look around at the faces of students who need support to read, and know they’re not able to get that support."

Lambright points out that if the government’s goal "really is to be more literate, then we need to give them more support. I’m from a school that has $6 left in its learning resources budget. We’ll have to fundraise and go back to the parents and ask them for more money. Every time we lose funding for whatever reason, it impacts on every one of those little faces in my room. I see those faces at Safeway, at Wal-Mart, and some are now having their own children and when they don’t have the opportunities to grow because we haven’t been able to help them, shame on us."

Lanzinger says to "truly put students first, we have to have the resources to make sure every child gets what they need. We’re pushing for good public policy, so that truly, we can put students first. We’ll fight forever until we get it."

The BCTF president who didn’t let fog stop her participation in a Nanaimo news conference (she had to contribute via cell phone), says the tour underscored the fact that public education is suffering. Sims says, "It’s absolutely atrocious today that we are not providing for students with special needs. We have a government that has a growing surplus, yet they’re not spending the funds needed to address our students’ learning conditions."

Sims takes a personal look at the situation when she considers her grandchildren. "I have three beautiful grandkids going to school in 2007 and I see their learning opportunities are less than what my daughter had when she was in a similar class 24 years ago. That’s the dose of reality that comes home."

Yvonne Eamor is the BCTF’s media relations officer.

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