Local association leaders express worry for most-vulnerable students

October 12, 2017

presidents' forum

Those attending Presidents’ Forum had plenty of items to discuss.

There was no shortage of topics up for discussion at this year’s Presidents’ Forum as local association leaders contemplated how the initial fallout from last spring’s provincial budget cuts have started to directly impact classrooms across the province.

“We’ve all been impacted in our classrooms. I use the analogy of the elastic band being stretched and that effect is being felt not just today, but down the road as well,” was the observation of Laura Skrumeda Sawby, president of the Chinook Teachers’ Association.

Carolyn Vis, vice-president of the Prince Albert and Area Teachers’ Association, noted that it’s not just the impact so much as it is the segment of the student population that is feeling this most acutely.

“It’s meant that the students who need extra help or support are the ones who suffer the greatest, because those supports are often no longer there as the result of cutting support staff. This specifically impacts First Nations and Métis students and those who are most vulnerable.”

James Siemens, president of the Sun West Teachers’ Association, has seen a similar scenario. He added that due to staff reductions in some schools, teachers are required to take on additional classes without the educational assistants and the supports they were able to previously call upon.

David Rogers, president of the North East Teachers’ Association, said the reality is that schools are still in the position of fulfilling their traditional roles in that they take all students who enter through their doors even if there are fewer teachers there to share the workload. He agreed with his colleagues that the reduction or removal of those important supports affects the vulnerable students first and foremost. Rogers added while traditionally the buck stops at the doors of the classroom and teachers have been left to teach, that luxury does not always presently exist.

Skrumeda Sawby pointed out that it’s not only teachers who are affected, but clearly there is also a trickle-down effect to the students. Sometimes these repercussions are also not necessarily seen by the public. As an example, she pointed to the change in busing routes. In the name of cost-saving measures and given the same amount of students, this means a longer time is spent on the bus.

Skrumeda Saway also mentioned that while the majority of students in the so-called middle range will manage, there’s also been a direct effect on the students who excel, because teachers don’t have the time to spend with them that they did previously.

There was a consensus among the group that teachers are the ones who will need to be advocates not only for themselves, but also for their students. This is due to the fact that parents and members of the community aren’t always aware of the reality, as teachers continue to make the system work.

“We’ve had conversations with parents about the effects of these cuts and how it’s important to be advocates for their child. There’s no doubt that teachers do such a good job of maintaining the system that it functions, but you never want to see these things affect the students. Right now what we’re only able to do is apply a Band-Aid to the problems,” Siemens said.

Despite the worrisome challenges faced by the PreK-12 education sector, Siemens is trying to stay upbeat. He insists he loves events such as the Presidents’ Forum because it offers other perspectives that he finds helpful, and he always walks away feeling good and more connected with colleagues.

Rogers said there is doubtlessly a strong sense of resilience among teachers, but he welcomes the opportunity to talk about these critical issues as a collective.

“This forum is a way to do that and we need to do more of these because it can be very beneficial.”

According to Skrumeda Sawby, who was involved in the planning of this forum, there was a conscious decision to create opportunities for local leaders to share the good things that are happening as well in order to help foster a positive climate.

“We wanted to have people leave with some strategic and powerful messages that they could share with our members in terms of engagement,” she said.

“I thought there was a hopeful vibe coming out of today. As we get ready for the year, and even with the uncertainty out there, you come away feeling like we can cope and we’ll eventually come out the other side,” Siemens noted.

As one who has seen cycles come and go during his 16 years, Rogers is pragmatic about the current situation, but simultaneously he is worried this might be different.

“It’s easy to say this too shall pass but I’m not sure that applies anymore. I think the difference now is that it’s really moved into accountability and then on to assessment, and that just makes it feel different. It’s not a matter of being able to close your door and teach like before.”

Siemens, in his colourful manner, offered that it is no longer like a pendulum but rather like the ball dropping on New Year’s Eve, “and I think people are waiting for the hammer.”