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Failing grade goes to government, not schools

MARCELA CABEZAS

TEACHERS have just completed their first weeks back after the winter break. Breaks are typically a time to relax and recharge, but many educators are struggling to do so in the same way they did prior to the pandemic.

For years now, the public education system in Manitoba has been struggling with funding not keeping pace with the rate of inflation, along with governmental restrictions on the ability of school boards to levy taxes at required rates. Maggie Macintosh’s article “One teacher for 35 students: parents give school failing grade” (Jan. 11) spoke of a particular multi-age classroom of 35 students whose parents are concerned the diverse needs of students are not being met.

Sadly, this story is not unique. In my role as a local union president, I have recently spoken with many classroom teachers, student services teachers, clinicians and principal teachers. All have shared stories of how desperately our system needs more resources — right now.

The pandemic has affected our students’ learning trajectories, socialization skills and mental health. Teachers are hard-pressed to meet the increasingly complex range of students’ needs, including those of newcomer students who come with experiences of trauma, gaps in access to education and language-learning needs.

Educators are doing all they can to help the students in their care, but many, heartbreakingly, admit it is not enough. More and more students are being identified as in need of clinical supports (psychologists, social workers, speech pathologists, reading clinicians, etc.), but there are not enough professionals to meet the demand.

Large caseloads cause a lack of timely access. Adding to the challenge is a severe shortage of substitute teachers.

The problem is enormous. With precious few substitutes available to fill in for a classroom teacher’s absence, student services teachers, such as guidance counsellors and resource teachers — as well as school principals — are often asked to fill in.

With student services teachers pulled away from their jobs and insufficient numbers of clinicians available to support the system, the social, behavioural or learning interventions that are supposed to be provided to students are often not available soon enough — or frequently enough — to adequately help children in need.

Classroom teachers are left to do what they can to support myriad student learning needs. There just are not enough players left on the field to win the game.

Gone are the days of desks in rows. Today’s classrooms have tables and chairs, learning centres and communal spaces that are necessary to meet the varied needs of learners. There is only so much physical space in a classroom to ensure best practices and to accommodate learners’ needs.

This is one reason large class sizes, such as those described in the article about École Luxton School, are problematic.

But a more important reason is the amount of time the teacher can spend with each learner. There are only so many minutes in the school day to provide direct support to students on a one-toone basis. As well, many teachers face the additional challenge of teaching multiple grade-level curricula in multi-age classrooms.

With so many obstacles to overcome, educators are leaving school at the end of the day exhausted, defeated and disillusioned.

Teachers are professionals who pride themselves on helping all learners succeed. Many have shared that this feels like the hardest school year in recent times. They are feeling unseen and unheard as requests for help and supports are challenged because of a lack of funding. The emotional burden is taking a toll.

The challenges of class size and composition alluded to in the École Luxton School article are nothing new. In the wake of the pandemic, the disparity among our learners has never been more pronounced. Our teachers and school staff have been trying for years to do the best they can with fewer and fewer resources.

The public education system is reaching a crisis point.

Education funding is an investment in our children and our future as a society. We have watched this government rain property-tax refund cheques while students and teachers experience a proverbial drought. Where is the plan to replace and appropriately augment that funding?

The difference equitable, adequate funding could make in our schools, for our learners and for the mental health of educators, is immeasurable. Allowing that funding to chronically fall below even the rate of inflation deserves a failing grade, and that is on the government — not the schools, the teachers or the students.

The provincial government must ensure public education is properly funded. That is its responsibility.

Marcela Cabezas is president of the Louis Riel Teachers’ Association.

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