February 11th, 2020
Dear Greg Lawrence, Lyle Stewart, and Gordon Wyant of the Saskatchewan Party,
Today, as we vote on sanctions, I reflect on the conditions within our classrooms in Saskatchewan. I think about the way things are and how far that is from how they should be. Mostly, I think about how much I love my job and care about each and every student that I’ve had the privilege to teach. I worry daily that I am not doing enough for them, but with the current conditions there is no way I ever could be.
This is not about money – even though educators should care that our salaries are not increasing at the same rate as the cost of living, thus reducing our spending power. This isn’t about the ploy to give us $1,500 of our own surplus health plan money that would then be taxed. It’s a little bit about not covering our 1.5% wage increase last contract and forcing divisions to cover the cost, leaving 24 out of 26 divisions with a deficit budget. But that’s only because this decision ultimately resulted in less teachers and educational assistants in our classrooms. We’ve accepted 0% before. We didn’t become teachers for the money. We are merely asking for decent working conditions. We want to work in an environment where we do not feel overwhelmed, understaffed, and muzzled. We want to work in a system that allows us to meet the needs of all our learners. We want each student to achieve to the best of their abilities. We shouldn’t have to ask for this and we certainly shouldn’t have to fight for it.
I dream of working in a learning environment that I would want for my nephew, own children, friend’s children, your children, and all the children in Saskatchewan. That dream starts with a discussion around classroom composition. We need a contract which ensures that the kids who need support get it, in turn helping all children have the learning environment and supports they need to succeed. Something so crucial to the success of our province should be on the bargaining table, yet the Saskatchewan Party refuses to discuss it. We don’t need another committee to tell us that there is no money (read: education is not a priority). If we want a healthy Saskatchewan, education should be high on the list. We don’t need another committee to tell us what we already know: chronic underfunding has left education in a dire state.
Education Minister Gordon Wyant said himself, “our students need our teachers in the classroom.” I couldn’t agree more. Yet, even though enrollment has increased by 20,000 with 6,000 additional English as Additional Language (EAL) learners, less than 200 classroom teachers have been hired and only 21 EAL teachers. We lack educational psychologists, educational assistants, counsellors, speech therapists, and occupational therapists in our schools. While some divisions lack these roles in terms of numbers, others do not have the means to hire these professionals altogether, leaving students with unmet needs that teachers are trying to fill with no additional time or resources.
Imagine a split class of 30 students. Some are First Nations with relationships that we need to mend from previous injustices. Others are EAL with past trauma and limited English proficiency. There are a handful of students on Inclusive Intervention Plans (IIPs) who may or may not have diagnoses – anything from Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Learning Disabilities (LDs), Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD), etc. Others are struggling but are waiting to be assessed, and thus they are not being supported by outside agencies or being represented on intensive support lists. Some have been assessed but there are no available school professionals or outside agencies to provide support. A couple of students have behavioral plans and violent outbursts that evacuate the classroom and compromise staff and student safety. We have students who are homeless and haven’t had lunch for days. We have students with Child Protection Services (CPS) involvement, those on the run from abuse, and those with mental health and addictions in their immediate lives. There are students with medical needs that need to be monitored. We have students who threaten to bring weapons to school and others who we worry about sending home at the end of the day. There are the students who rarely attend. Academically, there can be up to 8 levels of reading, math, and writing in one room. There is no educational assistant in this room and minimal outside agency support. It’s just one teacher, being asked to manage it all.
This isn’t fictitious – this is the new norm. Do the math: teaching 30 students in a 7-hour day equates to about 14 minutes with each child. Trying to meet these complex needs within that time frame is mindboggling, without even planning for the curriculum. Between the extra-curricular activities, trying to teach all outcomes to all children despite the aforementioned concerns, rewarding positive behavior, deescalating violent outbursts, creating classroom materials, marking assignments, implementing differentiated instruction and adaptations for all three tiers, lesson planning and goal setting, following multiple behavior supports plans (often with conflicting strategies), documenting our every move, taking data for behavioral support plans, assessing each and every outcome and indicator, lunch duty, increasing parent engagement, and so on, you start to realize the absurdity of what we expect our teachers to do.
I wouldn’t be surprised if you stopped reading. I also feel like it’s too much. It’s no wonder that close to 50% of teachers quit within the first five years. Enrollment is up, inflation is up, but why aren’t our priorities keeping up? We can’t keep guilting teachers to do more and be more with less. In this system, we will never be enough. I became a teacher because I believe in inclusion, but our funding model is leaving everyone behind.
You have the opportunity to change the trajectory of education in Saskatchewan. The financial decisions you make will impact the future of this province. We need a stable fiscal plan for education and that includes discussing classroom composition and making our students the top priority, as they should be. Yes, we need responsible spending as taxpayers work hard for their money. But prioritizing education is money well spent. The government needs to be held accountable for student success and the standard of education in this province. Teachers are burning out and that should scare us all. Teaching conditions are the learning conditions of our students and our students are the future of this province!
Kourtney Gorham, B.Ed.