‘Whatever Happened to Learning Being an Adventure?’

Before writing a word about the workplace conditions of Nova Scotia teachers, there is something I need to say: everything I know about the Nova Scotia school system is based on having passed through it as a student in the 1970s.

In other words, I know bupkis (to borrow a term from an Ontario labor lawyer) about the Nova Scotia school system in 2016. My sister, who both has kids in the system and works as an EA, told me so. And I believe her.

Things are truly, madly, deeply different.

Empty Nova Scotia classroom (photo via Twitter)

Empty Nova Scotia classroom (photo via Twitter)

LocalXpress has been running articles by teachers that have given me a glimpse into their classrooms and they sound like complex places. And then I found this blog, Teachers of Nova Scotia, where teachers post anonymously about their experiences. It is curated by a group of teachers, including Ben Sichel, Gale Doyle and Rae Brown. Sichel told me:

This site was started because we had a sense teachers felt frustrated with what was going on in their classrooms, but many felt reluctant to speak publicly about it. Many feared being disciplined if what they said was construed as criticizing their employer in public. There is also the fear of identifying a child or children in your class with any particular detail or story about your class.

As the labour-management dispute has gone on I think many teachers have become more comfortable speaking out in public, but the fear remains. It is legitimate too – I have heard of teachers who have been disciplined for crossing the line. This site aims to give people a platform to inform the public of their classroom conditions while still staying anonymous.

Coincidentally, as I’m typing this, I’m listening to the CBC speaking to a local federal public servant who has not been paid for months because of that glitch with the Phoenix pay system, but who does not wish to be identified for fear she could jeopardize her job.

I understand the idea behind a politically neutral public service, one that can implement the directives of any government, but does that mean a completely muzzled public service? Are we really well served as a society when the only information we receive about government initiatives comes to us from the initiating government?

If there’s a silver lining to this labor dispute, I think it’s that the curtain has been drawn back and we’re actually getting to see into the classrooms. For people like me, who don’t have children in the system, it’s been really eye-opening. So many factors are at play–there’s poverty, there’s mental illness, there’s the move to “inclusion” which means classes are made up of children of sometimes wildly varying ability. This is not a criticism of inclusion, a conclusion I think some commentators are too quick to jump to, it’s a criticism of the way inclusion seems to have been implemented–without proper funding. As one of the teacher’s quoted below says:

Does this mean that we should not value inclusion? No. It means that it’s not free, and the government needs to put funds in place to ensure all children have the chance to learn.

Instead of trying to guess what it’s like to be a Nova Scotia teacher in 2016, or to extrapolate what it’s like from my own experiences, over 40 years ago, on the other side of the desk, I think just I’ll let them tell you:


Big Brother

I feel afraid to speak out [about] the problems in our schools today. We are told our board is watching what we post [on] Facebook and disciplinary action is taken if we say something, suggest something out of sorts…Maybe 25% of my day is spent teaching, another 25% ensuring I am tracking students in my data binder to prove ‘I am accountable’ and 50% attending meetings, duties, emails, formal assessments which do not directly correlate to classroom teaching or learning.


If you want to be mad about something…

  • The Department of Education has implemented a program of inclusion without adequately funding it. This means that, if your child’s teacher is lucky, an educational assistant placed in a classroom for the benefit of a child with a learning disability will spend most of his or her time assisting in the management of the child with undiagnosed severe behavioural difficulties so that the class as a whole can learn, some of the time. If your child’s teacher is unlucky, it means that there are multiple children with undiagnosed behavioural problems, there is no educational assistant, the class is chaotic, he or she spends 98% of their time managing behaviour, and little learning is taking place. Does this mean that we should not value inclusion? No. It means that it’s not free, and the government needs to put funds in place to ensure all children have the chance to learn.
  • The class caps publicized by the government are not real. There are “soft caps” and “hard caps”. The “soft cap” is the number the government talks about as being its cap for each class size. The “hard cap” is the actual number not to be exceeded. It’s still being exceeded in a large number of cases. In others, when it’s not being exceeded, split classes are created. Parents have reported class sizes of 40 and 50 at the high school level. In many schools, there are not enough textbooks for each child. In some, there are not enough desks for each child to sit down. In some cases, parents report that the number of students exceeds fire regulations.
  • 38% of food bank users are children
  • In 2014, the provincial government cut ALL funding to the Metro Food Bank for the 2016-2017 year.


They will all crash and burn

Four times in the last two weeks I have had to refer students for mental and emotional issues. It is epidemic in our schools! They come to me sobbing, full of fear and anxiety, terrified of failure in all respects, overwhelmed by course demand, workload, parents divorcing….they are broken kids! I find them huddled in the corners of the halls unable to function or hiding in the washrooms. And I am just a teacher who cares, who can hug them, talk them down and try to get them the support they need. And these are not even the ones I am teaching this year! What is the school system doing to these kids that they have no coping skills or resilience by the time they get to high school? What happens when they get into university? Well, let me tell you.

They will all crash and burn on some level, mostly because they have never had to adhere to deadlines before and can not time-manage. Many of them will burn out in their first year or radically change their path. Some will rethink their goals and continue; some will quit; some will stick to their path but suffer from stress and anxiety. Whatever happened to learning being an adventure? What has happened?


Everyone’s a critic

Everyone feels qualified to comment because they went through a school system at some point in their lives. We are accountable not only to our employer and to the students, but to the parents, to the public, and to people who rant that their tax dollars pay our salary. They feel free to question why we do or do not do things in whatever way without an ounce of training or insight into best classroom practice, all while misunderstanding the nature of our classes, duties, workdays and benefits. If I had spent my 8 years of post secondary education going to med school or law school, no one would ever publicly, and maliciously question my salary or the way I choose to run my classroom. Instead I chose a profession that makes all others possible.


Consequential validity

…I want to put the provincial assessment program to the test of consequential validity. Consequential validity is the analysis of how tests affect the people involved; do they do more harm than good, so to speak. Does the data gathered justify the effects of testing? What indeed, are the effects of testing: Cost: Printing. I have run my hands over the lovely paper in the testing booklets many times, and wished my school could afford that quality of paper. Or that we could print in colour. Postage. Each student’s name, provincial number and birthdate are printed on the front. Guess who checks all those—me! The unused booklets for children who have left the school must not be used for new children who have shown up. Instead, we order new ones. Postage. And return the unused ones, I assume, to be shredded. Postage.

I’m a resource teacher at my school. I spent one afternoon with one of the brightest students in my school because she had missed the morning administration of the assessment for religious reasons. She needed a quiet place to write that assessment and access to a member of the teaching staff. Me. Those are the rules. During the math assessment, she asked me to check the translation of a question (allowed). The question was so ridiculous, she couldn’t believe it. We both fell over laughing when we realized, that, yup, that’s what it says! (the confidentiality document I signed prevents me from telling you what it said.)

As I mentioned, I’m a resource teacher. My job is to support students with needs and their teachers. This year, because of the many required assessments and other documentation, I did not start doing my actual job until mid-October. I cannot think of a better example of consequential validity. And it’s going to start again in May, and will probably go deep into June. Our school year comprises ten months. I can already wave good-bye to three of them.



I have a smaller class of grade 10 English students and the class is a nightmare. Every day, I am dealing with severe behaviour issues from half of the students: kids who can’t sit still, who spend their time water bottle-flipping, and who have no capability to listen when I am trying to explain things. Within this one class, I have a range of abilities from kids who can only write a single sentence, to those who can write a paragraph to those who could likely write a novel. All of these students are expected to write the grade 10 provincial exam in June, and somehow, I have to teach the ones who can only write a sentence to be able to write a paragraph while not boring the ones who can already write full essays. And I haven’t even gotten to the 4 students on IPPs who are at 4 different learning levels. Almost every student in my class is on some sort of program, but I get one teacher’s assistant who is there to monitor one student who apparently poses physical dangers to the other students (although I have never witnessed an outburst.) When kids are doing their work in both classes, I am pulled in a thousand different directions trying to give one-on-one attention to all the kids who need help and being only one person, I am never able to help them all.


Ask me

Ask me how many new initiatives I have been asked to implement in my classroom over the eleven years of my career so far. Ask how these initiatives have taken my time away from face-to-face interactions with students, and how they have (or haven’t) improved the experience of students.

Ask me how often someone tells me that I am doing a good job, how often I feel valued and appreciated for all that I do. Ask me how often another new initiative makes me feel as though I am hopelessly inadequate.

Ask me about my class sizes and composition – how many students I teach who are too anxious to stay in my room, how many different mental health issues I am juggling within a single class, how many developmental disorders. Ask how many of my students are coming to school hungry or hurting, how many are not reading at grade level but expected to do word problems in Math, how many have never written a full test under “normal” circumstances but will be required to write a provincial exam with very little in the way of special supports. The list goes on.