Saturday, May 31, 2014

Why I'm on the picket line

I will never forget my first days teaching in a public school in British Columbia. It was 2004, and I had just left a job at a small private girl’s school to work in a large public high school. I went from class sizes of about 18 to class sizes of over 30. From a school where the adult to student ratio was one to eight, to a school where sometimes I wondered where the adults were. From quiet to loud, spacious to cramped, clean to messy, orderly to chaotic, easy to hard. That’s how my job changed.

I left for philosophical reasons – I believe in public schools and had always wanted to teach in the public system. I took some risk leaving my private school position, which was almost full time, unionized with decent pay and benefits, and where my classes never exceeded about 22 students and many were in the 15 – 18 range. I left to join the on-call list in a public district and was lucky enough to land a half time contract after six months.

I had entered a post-degree teaching program in the fall of 2001. “Jobs galore” was the message at our first all-student plenary session. But it wasn't five short months after when the government introduced Bills 27 and 28 and I was standing on the lawn of the legislature with my future colleagues decrying the stripping of class size limits from collective agreements. And by the time I finished in 2003, our local public District was not hiring. So I reluctantly took a position in the private system.

Looking back at that dream job sometimes I wonder why I let my principles get the best of me. I had my own classroom - a computer lab. I had a full time technical support worker assisting me when I needed. Spring break was two weeks and Christmas break was three. And I had lots of fun on the fall “out trip” when I was paid to escort the students through the sites of Victoria. “Classroom management” was a distant memory from a course I had taken. My students were well behaved, engaged, and motivated. I did not have a single student requiring adaptation for an Individual Education Plan, and my English as Second Language students all received tutoring, assistance and regular ESL classes. That was not something I had to worry about. I had the luxury of devoting all of my non-teaching time to lesson preparation, learning new ideas and teaching techniques that I could introduce to my students, and careful assessment of student work.

The contrast with my first public school position could not have been more stark. There were crowded hallways, constant disruption in class, challenging behaviours, and many students behind grade level with learning difficulties. I recall walking down the main hallway, where students hang out and eat their lunch, and being taken aback by the crowded space, and most noticeably - the total and complete lack of adults.

At the private school, there was an adult to student ratio of one to eight. This meant there was never a time, in my recollection, that any public space had fewer than two adults in it. The public high school was the opposite. Crowded hallways were often devoid of any adult presence. It was not two years into my position there that I encountered, in the main entryway to the school, four students engaged in a physical fight surrounded by a group of about 100 of their peers. As I descended into the school lobby from the upper stairwell I looked around and could see not a single other adult. It was only good fortune that three of the four students fighting knew me and so I felt confident to intervene. Otherwise, I would have been scared.

There was a lot of bad behaviour in the hallways at break time - homophobic put downs, inconsiderate remarks, throwing garbage on the floor. But one of the things I learned very quickly is that if I stopped to intervene every time I encountered an incident, I would never make it to the lunchroom to eat. And so I, like many other worn out and harried teachers, intervened when it was essential but learned to let go for the student throwing the gum wrapper on the floor. After a time, you get acclimatized and it all starts to feel normal.

Inside the classroom, the changes were different but just as palpable. All of a sudden, at least a third of my attention was always needed to monitor student behaviour. Of my daily utterances to students, many were now in the “sit down”, “please be quiet”, “I need your attention” variety. There was a seismic shift in my own mental capacity from focusing on student needs to focusing on student behaviours. My after class hours were consumed with meeting students to provide individual help, seemingly endless stacks of marking, and trying to figure out how to teach the student with elementary level reading skills in my Grade 9 class, or the student who was barely there and traumatized by a family death, or the student with mild intellectual disability who required a whole different curriculum to meet their needs. Precious time was left for learning new technologies, revamping my lessons, or planning field trips. With 210 students on my roster per year, that just wasn't possible.

Few with any experience in our school system would dispute the benefits of smaller classes and with ensuring that each class has a manageable number and range of special needs. The simple reality is that as class sizes grow, adult attention per student diminishes, and student behaviours are harder to manage. Some point to the times several decades ago when class sizes were forty or even fifty students. Those were also the times of the strap and when students with disabilities were housed in segregated facilities. Is that where we want to go?

If we want a caring, nurturing, safe environment in schools, we need adequate adult supervision. If we want teachers able to devote their time to teaching and learning activities, we can’t overwhelm them with over sized classes. Again, the math is simple. If we double the size of an English 12 class, the teacher will need to halve the number of essays each student writes for feedback because there are only so many hours in the weekend to do the marking. In an eighty minute math class, after homework take-up and the daily lesson, there is only 30 minutes left - that is one minute per child. No wonder parents who can afford it hire tutors.

A quick comparison of private and public school class sizes show striking differences. Here is the data for my home community of Victoria:

Private schools:

Glenlyon Norfork: 18 - 20
St. Margaret's School: 14 - 20
St. Michael's University School: 18 - 20
Queen Margaret's School: 18
Shawnigan Lake School: 14 -15

Public schools - averages of:

18 - Kindergarten
21 - Primary Grades
26 - Intermediate
27 - Secondary

Pretty much any advertisement for any private school will indicate “small class sizes”.

But class size isn't the only difference. Last summer I took my daughter to a summer camp at St. Michael’s University School. It doesn't have a building, it has a campus. The beautiful landscaped gardens included hanging flower baskets. The music room was stocked with instruments and designed for it’s purpose. The grounds included a nice outdoor amphitheatre.

I believe I deserve a raise, but just like other teachers, that isn't the main reason I voted yes to strike. A society is measured by how it treats everyone. This includes the poor, the disenfranchised, the ordinary. In British Columbia, these children get overcrowded and underfunded. The children who need it the most - the hungry, the hurt, the struggling ones - get the least. In contrast, the one's whose parents can pay get better.

The “public” in public school does not just mean providing a building with some tired teachers to deliver a curriculum measured on some standardized tests. A good public school system will provide high quality opportunities to every single child. While our public schools have many wonderful programs and many dedicated teachers, the sad truth is that there are also overcrowded classrooms, children falling behind, and a workforce exhausted from trying to fill in the gaps.

The class size provisions that were illegally removed in 2002 are only a fraction of what is needed to move towards a genuinely high quality public education system. But they are a necessary start. I hope we stay on the picket line long enough to win them back, and I hope parents and citizens who want the best for every child join us in that struggle.


  1. Tara, thanks so much for writing and sharing your experiences spanning the private and public systems. For me, teaching has always been a motion of heart first. Ideally, it is humanistic and helps our students to understand their place and responsibility in a democratic society...and to empower every student to stretch and grow. My priority is with my students and with learning. However, with chronic underfunding and disregard for the law by govt, it doesn't seem that their values are aligned with mine.

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  3. The current BC Teacher’s Strike is important for restoring reasonable class size and composition to our Public Schools, but I am most afraid because the actions of the BC Liberals in this fight attack the very heart of Canadian Democracy, and Charter Rights for all Canadians ( whether Union, non-union, public or private).

    The Liberal government’s continuing refusal to respect the Charter Rights of BC teachers ( in essence, the Charter Rights of ALL Canadians), and their refusal to respect two Supreme Court Rulings, and their use of taxpayers money, in what is, in essence, an attempt to dismantle the people’s own Charter Protections.

    "Griffin’s ruling in the Supreme Court decision between the teachers and the govenment described part of what was at stake in this legal case as being Canada’s democratic structure itself, “which requires that governments must act legally, within the supreme law of the country, the Constitution.”

    Discussing the historical context for her decision, she wrote that political forces often desire “to consolidate and gather more power and to seek to diminish any restraint on that power.” Conversely, she wrote, “A democratic system has institutional checks to counter that tendency and to safeguard against tyranny.”

    She cited the moral and legal context for her determination as government conduct that could be placed somewhere on a spectrum between negligent “wilful blindness” and a clearly wrong “abuse of power.” And without substantial penalties for such actions, she argued, it was simply “too tempting” for governments to dismiss and extinguish the basic civil rights of the governed.

    How much more dire a warning about our government could a high-ranking representative of our judiciary give us? " 1.

    Also; as there appears to be so much diversionary tactics from the real issues at stake by manipulating the public into thinking this fight is about teacher’s wages; perhaps a little real Math would help there:

    As any grade six student knows, you do not calculate percentage totals of two different variables by adding them.
    An 8% raise on salary, and a 6.5% raise on benefits DOES NOT EQUAL a 14.5% raise as the government claims teacher’s are asking for.
    A % is out of 100. Two variables ( salary plus benefits) cannot be added to get a % total.

    Similar to two items of $100 each, for sale at 8% for one, and 6.5% for the other; you don’t TOTAL them to get 14.5% off at the cashier.
    You would get $14.50 of $200. That means you have an average between the 2 variables of 7.25% in total. (in ref to a wage increase %, spread over 5 years as proposed, that is not even cost of living).

    Clearly, presenting this sort of Math in explanation to the Public regarding Teacher salary wage ‘demands’ is HIGHLY SUSPECT, given Liberal history in dealing with the BC Teachers.

    alarming this gov disrespect for our countries highest law; our constitution, and in it’s deliberate manipulations of facts.

    1. Rob Wipond