Recently the Ontario Education Minister decided that larger class sizes in public schools were actually good for kids because they build resilience. While the Doug Ford government in Ontario may be a special kind of stupid, governments in other places, while not stating it as blatantly, have shown a callous disregard for what teachers, parents and students have to say about what’s needed in public school classrooms.
If, like me, you haven’t been in school yourself in nearly 40 years, and if you haven’t had your own kids in public school, you may think, “What are teachers whining about? Back in the day, Miss Belchington had 30 kids in my Grade Nine class and she kept us all in line with a stern glare. And we turned out just fine!”
Here’s the news: public schools have changed since you were in Miss Belchington’s class. A lot.
I finished high school 37 years ago, and I’ve been teaching for 23 of the years since then, but most of my teaching has not been in the public school system. For the last 13 years I’ve been teaching in an adult-education program where we serve young adults, many of whom have dropped out of the public system or failed to find success there. My knowledge of today’s public school classrooms comes from talking to my own students about their school experiences, and from observing the classrooms of my own two children, who both graduated recently from a public school in the centre of our small Canadian city. It also comes from talking to friends who are teaching in the public system.
Putting all these pieces together, I’ve learned a few things.
The main thing I’ve learned is that there are a lot of kids in class today that weren’t there 30 years ago. They’re all good kids. And the reasons why they’re in school are all good reasons.
But the presence of those kids means that the dynamic of the classroom has changed.
To illustrate what I mean, let me take you into a fictional ninth-grade classroom, somewhere in North America, and introduce you to three theoretical students. None of them were in the classroom when I was in Grade 9, exactly forty years ago in 1979. And the presence of these new kids on the block changes things.
1. Emily is severely hearing-impaired. She uses assistive technology to understand what the teacher is saying, and requires accommodations, including a separate room and extra time for testing, to complete her classwork. Intellectually, she has above-average ability, but apart from the things she just can’t hear, she has some gaps in her education due to material she missed earlier in her education.
In 1979, Emily wouldn’t have been in Grade 10 with me. She would have attended an institution across town called the School for the Deaf. Like a lot of specialized schools, the Newfoundland School for the Deaf no longer exists; it closed in 2010. The movement in schools over the last 20 years has been towards inclusion — bringing students like Emily into the regular classroom rather than segregating them in separate classrooms and buildings.
Inclusion is absolutely a good thing. People with disabilities need to be able to participate more fully in society, including in school. But when hearing-impaired Emily, and Shaina with her wheelchair, and non-verbal autistic Josh, are all in the classroom (sometimes with student assistants) along with 27 other students, more is required of everyone — the teacher, the disabled students, and the rest of the students. Inclusion without adequate support doesn’t help kids with disabilities; in some cases, it further marginalizes them as teachers and fellow students see them as a problem or a distraction.
2. Abdel and his family came from Syria as refugees in 2016. English is his second language, and he’s learning fast, but he requires an ESL teacher although he is in the regular classroom for part of the day. Abdel also has PTSD because of the loss of his home in the Syrian war and his experiences in a refugee camp, but nobody has diagnosed this because of the language barrier.
In 1979, Abdel wouldn’t have been in my Grade 9 classroom — he would have been back in Syria. When I was growing up in Newfoundland we had virtually no immigrant population. Even in other places, where there was already a diverse population 30 years ago, immigration is on the rise.
3. Robby is bored with school. He loves working with his hands and is great at anything mechanical, but he hates book work. He has some learning disabilities — dysgraphia and dyscalculia — though neither is severe enough that he’s ever been identified for any accommodations. Robby just knows that he hates school. But he loves helping his uncle, who owns a garage, tear down and rebuild engines.
In 1979, Robby started the school year in my Grade 9 class, but he dropped out in November. His uncle had a job opening at the garage, and Robby went to work. Today he owns the garage and is making a good living as a respected member of the local business community.
2019 Robby doesn’t have the options that 1979 Robby had. He can be a mechanic, sure — if he graduates from high school and does a course at a vocational school. Society has changed: there are far fewer jobs available for people without formal education, and we require almost everyone to have a high-school diploma for entry level jobs. Robby’s dream job of fixing cars has changed too: so much of the work now involves computers that he needs a different skill set.
Because society and the labour market have changed, we’re keeping a lot of young people in school who used to leave before completing high school. That includes Robby, who’s bored in a desk, and Janelle, whose anxiety makes it hard for her to get through the classroom door each morning, and Jessica, who’s unexpectedly pregnant at 15.
Keeping more kids in school is not just a good thing — it’s a great thing! But accommodating kids who find traditional learning a challenge, and kids with mental health issues, and young single moms, and all kinds of other students who once would have dropped out, also creates new challenges for that classroom teacher with her 30 students.
Inclusion is good. Immigration is good. Preventing drop-out is good. But none of these things can be successfully achieved without cost.
The cost can’t be teacher burnout and lower quality of education for kids. That doesn’t work. The cost has to be a greater investment in public education, smaller class sizes, and more resources to meet the varying needs of the classroom of 2019 — along with all the new kids on the block.