Education workers battle rising demands and stagnant funding

Labour | Stephen Whitworth

It’s been a wild school year in Saskatchewan education. The drama started back in August, when the Provincial government announced a new pronoun policy forcing school staff to get permission from parents before using a student’s preferred pronouns if they’re under 16.

The policy, which critics say could result in LGBTQ2S students being outed to potentially abusive, transphobic parents — a very real experience in the Queer community — was widely criticized for violating the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Scott Moe’s government apparently agreed, because it invoked the Notwithstanding Clause — which can suspend some civil rights for five years — to protect it. [1]

This unfolded in the context of simmering tension between Saskatchewan teachers and the government. Although the teachers’ contract expired at the end of August, negotiations on a new deal stalled over issues including overcrowded classrooms and support for students with increasingly complex needs.

It didn’t help that the government launched a billboard campaign many said misrepresented Saskatchewan Teachers Federation bargaining positions.[2]

Meanwhile, ongoing civil and criminal cases against some Saskatoon Christian school staff accused of abuse continue, giving, for many, a black eye to the entire concept of faith-based education.

On top of all of this, hiding in plain sight, is the simple fact that schools across Canada are less safe than they’ve ever been.

Rising Violence

It’s probably easy for a lot of us to forget that schools aren’t just places of learning. They’re also workplaces staffed by trained professionals.

These professionals deserve a safe workplace.

“There are definitely physical risks when you’re entering a classroom with a large number of students, and some of those students struggle with behavioral regulation or emotional regulation,” says Saskatchewan Teacher’s Federation president Samantha Becotte.

“We have more teachers across the province experiencing higher levels of aggression or violence,” Becotte says. “[There is] definitely physical risk within the classroom.”

Violence is a recurring concern for everyone interviewed for this year’s Working With Risk feature. Whether in classrooms, hospitals, libraries or care homes, Saskatchewan’s labour leaders flagged it as a growing problem for this province’s workers.

Kent Peterson is the newly elected president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (Saskatchewan). CUPE Sask members include educational assistants, school administrative support workers, maintenance staff and some bus drivers.

Peterson says CUPE Sask workers across sectors face increased workplace violence.

“The nature of our members’ jobs is that they’re public facing,” says Peterson. “They’re public services. Anytime you’re dealing with the public, there exists the chance for violence.”

“Whether we’re talking libraries, CBOs, education, health care, municipalities, universities… those members are experiencing violence at work, and it’s the employer and provincial government’s jobs to make sure our members are safe when they go to work,” he says.

The potential for assault is just one facet of workplace risks  in schools.

Saskatchewan classrooms are not designed to accommodate an ever-rising number of students. In many cases, they’re just physically too small.

Adding more desks, tables, chairs and other furniture into a room that isn’t built for it brings its own set of problems, says the STF’s Becotte.

“Even if you just think about the physical space of a classroom — and this would actually be more of an OH and S concern compared to the violence and aggression —  but when you have a classroom of 35 students and they have 35 desks but the class was actually only built for 25 students, it gets very crammed,” says Becotte.

“There’s a higher risk of tripping on someone, or people knocking into each other, and that’s a common issue in classrooms,” Becotte says.

“You’re crawling overtop of people sometimes,” she says.

Stress And Burnout

Another problem for education workers is skyrocketing stress levels.

Twenty-first century schools have more going on than ever. Aside from the growing prospect of violence and the challenges of teaching in overpopulated classrooms, there’s the simple fact that most teachers care deeply about their students and want them to succeed.

Working against that success: a sprawling variety of individual student needs that demand extra attention.

There are students with different learning styles. Many students are recent immigrants, new to the English language. Imagine having to use Google translate because there’s a shortage of English as an additional language (EAS) professionals. Well, teachers don’t have to image it. They live it.

And of course there’s a spectrum of special needs to address, including sensory sensitivity, autism, speech and language problems and physical disability.

Every student deserves to have their needs met so they can learn and grow. And teachers and education staff — who got into the profession because they love kids and value education — are getting beaten up by the sheer impossibility of doing everything that needs to be done.

That’s why burnout is a very real danger, says Becotte.

“Emotional stress comes with seeing students struggle and not being able to do anything about it because of limitations with time or resources,” says Becotte. “I have heard from teachers who have said they go home and cry at the end of the day because they know the kids deserve more and they just can’t be everything to everyone.

“Teachers talk about triaging needs and doing what they can to meet the more significant ones and get some kids what they need but, I mean, it’s an impossible task to deliver a high-quality education to all of the students with all of the complex needs with the limited resources that so many teachers have in classrooms,” Becotte says.

Becotte warns that all this impacts both recruitment and retention of teaching staff.

She says as many as two out of five teachers last fewer than five years in the profession.

“Students who are in education programs come into their field experience and they say, ‘this is not what I expected, this is not for me.’ Some of them don’t continue, some of them end their education degree and don’t enter the profession. And some do, but I’ve seen studies — not necessarily Saskatchewan — but upwards of 40 per cent of teachers who begin a teaching career don’t make it to their fifth year.”

All of this helps explain the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation’s hardline on working conditions in recent contract  negotiations. The union has repeatedly demanded solutions to classroom complexity and conditions be put into its next contract. That hasn’t happened, at least not yet.

“We are looking at it from teachers’ working conditions,” Becotte says. “That’s a traditional staple within a labour agreement.

There are several ways to tackle classroom complexity, says Becotte.

“We could look at the workload they are being assigned,” says Becotte. “We could look at student-teacher ratios. We could look at the number of students who require additional supports. We have put forward lots of different options.

“Our opening proposal was comprehensive in that it covered a lot of different things, as well as supports like mental health counsellors, educational assistants, speech pathologists and physical therapists. When you don’t have those professional supports, then it adds to the teacher’s workload,” says Becotte.

“The teacher’s ability to be successful in their job is directly tied to students’ ability to be successful in their learning,” she says. “If we’re supporting teachers in their work and providing better working conditions, that is giving students better learning conditions as well.

And if not? That’s not just a risk for education staff — it’s a risk for all of Saskatchewan.

1. If we’re being frank, the pronoun rule appears to be a wholly political response to a summer byelection result that showed Sask. Party support slipping in one mostly rural riding. In short, a carrot tossed to social conservative voters in Lumsden-Morse to boost sagging Sask. Party support. But that’s a rabbit hole for another day.

2. STF president Samantha Becotte has announced her bargaining team will bring what it’s calling the government’s “final offer” to its members for a vote (Education Minister Jeremy Cockrill  calls it a “tentative agreement”). The proposal, which Becotte told CBC was “not a good faith, tentative agreement where both sides have agreed to the items within,” will be either ratified or rejected by teachers May 8 and 9. In a not-so-faintly damning move, he bargaining committee is not giving a recommendation on how membership should vote, either way.