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Teacher calls on trustees to stand up for students

An open letter to the newly elected Richmond School Trustees Dear Richmond School Trustees, Congratulations on your election victory and welcome or welcome back, for those incumbents, to the crazy world of education in the Province of British Columbi

An open letter to the newly elected Richmond School Trustees

Dear Richmond School Trustees,

Congratulations on your election victory and welcome or welcome back, for those incumbents, to the crazy world of education in the Province of British Columbia. I am writing to express my sincere hope that you will work to improve the learning conditions of students in Richmond and the working conditions of your employees: the teachers, educational assistants, custodial and maintenance staff, secretaries, administrators and all support staff. I think that to be strong advocates for your constituents you will find it necessary to stand up against the demands of BCPSEA and the provincial Liberals. Here is why.

I began my teaching career in Richmond in 1990 after five years of teaching in northern B.C. I specifically targeted Richmond as the district I wanted to work in because it was known to be at the forefront in teaching literacy education with innovative language arts programs and a strong teacher librarian program. Over the years I have been part of the district as it rose to the challenge of meeting the needs of a growing number of English as a Second Language students and as it championed the inclusion of all special needs students into regular classrooms to the point that it has become a destination district for many families with special needs students. Initially support for these programs was strong. Students were provided with a quality, well-rounded education and teachers were fully supported in the delivery of these programs.

Sadly, I have had to watch and be part of the dismantling of a once strong and vibrant school district. Over the years funding cuts by the B.C. government have strongly undercut the district's ability to deliver the kind of education it once did. What mystifies me is why we do not hear about this from the school district superintendent, school administrators or Richmond School Trustees. It has been left to teachers, through advocacy and through contract negotiations to seek improvements in support for ESL and special needs students and to seek limits on class sizes and the number of special needs students in each class for the benefit of all students.

Since 2002, when the government illegally stripped teachers' contracts of class size and composition limits, over one billion dollars has been removed from the education system that should have been designated to meet the needs of ESL and special needs students and to limit class sizes. Schools in BC now have 16% fewer special education teachers, 23% fewer ESL teachers, 26% fewer teacher librarians, 8% fewer counselors and 10% fewer Aboriginal Education teachers ( a total loss of over 1400 specialist educators). The number of BC classrooms with four or more special needs students increased by 25% from 2007 to 2010. Teachers in Richmond do not have the support we need to deliver the kind of education we want to and should deliver.

Since that time ESL students have received fewer hours of specific instructional support than they once did. ESL teachers must spend more time filling in reports for the province to justify funding for ESL students. Teachers have less access to Resource Teacher support to help with creating individualized education plans for their students. It seems that the number of students with special needs is growing. Every year new students with special needs are dropped into our classrooms without prescreening and immediately social, behavioural or educational needs become apparent. One would think that obvious needs would be quickly supported but instead teachers have to plead and fight for this support. It can take months and sometimes years before the need is acknowledged and even then support might only amount to a period or a partial day with an educational assistant (EA) in the classroom. Sometimes it never comes. In the mean time the teacher is left in the very stressful and frustrating position of having to manage that student's needs as well as try to provide for the needs of all the other students in the class. All students in the class are affected.

Educational assistants themselves have faced increasingly frustrating, overwhelming and sometimes dangerous workloads because they are the front line when working with these students. Educational needs are losing importance due to the growing number of students with medical, social/emotional and behaviour management needs. These EAs, who have actually seen their work hours cut due to reduced funding, face increasing instances of managing angry, out of control students, dealing with epileptic seizures, working with difficult autistic behaviours, handling toileting and feeding issues, being hit, kicked, pushed, bitten, spat upon, and all for a very low salary. An added strain on the system this year seems to be a recurring shortage of substitutes to fill in for assistants who are ill or on courses perhaps because few wish to train for such a difficult and low-paying job. Often EAs feel pressure to come in to work knowing that the teacher will be left with no support in the classroom.

Why is this happening? Because the provincial government chooses not to adequately fund education. Though the courts have ruled that teachers have the right to bargain class size and composition issues the government has refused to do so and has chosen to address the problem of special needs and ESL students through a small pot of money that school districts will have to apply for thus maintaining their micro-managing control while refusing to return funding for these needs to 2002 levels. According to its media releases the government's plan is to put money into technology rather than into funding teachers, EAs and program support. I fail to see how more computers, smart boards and i-phone access will address the needs that we face.

Yes, education costs money. That is a painful fact for taxpayers. The value that our society has placed on educating all students in an inclusive setting does not come cheaply. At this point our schools are running on bare-bones budgets. The fat has long ago been cut away and over the years a substantial quantity of the meat has been lost as well in the form of specialist teachers, educational assistants, custodial staff and program support. If you feel that teachers' salaries are the cause for the high cost of education, well, BC teachers rank 8th in terms of salaries paid to teachers in Canada and on average have the lowest standard of living of teachers in Canada due to the cost of living in our province.

If you believe that children will be the job-holders, taxpayers, problem-solvers and community members of the future then you should be concerned about the current provincial government's attitude towards education, towards teachers and towards its responsibility to fully meet the needs of BC's children. Children, schools and teachers in Richmond and in BC need your support. I am looking forward to seeing what you will do.


G. Smith

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