Class size and composition—it’s one of those terms that had meaning before the teachers’ contract negotiations really got rolling.
But now it rolls of tongues so often and with so little explanation that for those without intimate knowledge of a school or education issues—the taxpayers—it seems just the inevitable conclusion to the phrase: “This isn’t just about salaries.”
To the teachers’ credit, the complaints that the issues have been sidelined are fair.
Whether intelligent spin doctoring from government, unintelligent strategy from the union or mass conspiracy on behalf of a teacher contract dispute weary media, there’s no denying neither class size nor composition is making headlines.
But it’s a bit tricky for individual teachers to talk about either issue.
Depending on circumstances, it can be hard to stand in front of a camera and label the students one will return to teach the next day as a having “composition issues.”
At the end of the first week of the B.C. teachers’ full-scale strike, however, two new teachers and one with two decades of experience managed to spell out, quite eloquently, why class size and composition are important issues in B.C.’s public school system.
They responded to questions from the Capital News at Wednesday’s strike rally next to the School District 23 administrative office.
Jim Strachan is a Kelowna Secondary School physics teacher with two decades of experience
So you teach physics—isn’t that the tough subject?
“I’d like to think anyone can do physics. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist. I’ve seen a lot of people get through who had a shaky start and not a lot of self-confidence who are pretty successful kids.”
How big are your classes?
“Well, they vary in size. The advanced placement physics classes are a little smaller, but the regular physics classes, I have one that’s 34 (students) and one that’s 33.”
What would be an optimal size?
“When I started teaching in Kitimat in 1992, we had language in our contract, fixed language, that science classes were to be no more than 24 students. That was also the same in home ec classes and shop classes.
“I also sit on the health and safety committee in our school and our shop classes have sizes in the 30s right now—and it’s actually borderline dangerous. We’re quite concerned that an accident could happen within the shops and the government, having removed that language from our contracts, has facilitated larger and larger class sizes and nothing’s been done about that, even with regard to safety.”
What about composition issues?
Well, as a science teacher, particularly as a physics teacher, I don’t have the same composition issues as a lot of people will because…not everyone who takes a high school class is going to take physics; but I do see it everywhere in the classes everywhere else.”
Is it harder for the kids to learn because of the size of the classes?
“Oh absolutely. I don’t even have enough desks in my classrooms for the kids. I have a lab with counters and I have kids sitting at the counters to use the counter as a space to write on because they don’t have enough physical apparatus for the kids to sit down.”
What happens when they take a test?
“We find ways to make it work. We shuffle it around and everyone gets a chance to show their goods in whatever room we can find.”
What would you like to see come out of this strike?
“The big thing that I find as a first affront is the whole idea that, going forward, the government wants to put forth a law that I can’t talk with my colleagues about our job site and labour.
“If you changed the word teacher and teacher union to Catholic or Jewish person, then that would be such a clear affront to human rights that no one would stand for it. That’s the first thing I would like to see.
“The second thing I would like to see is for classes, particularly at the younger levels, to get more support. We need more support in there. We need smaller classrooms and our teachers need a load that is manageable.
“For them to be able to continue to do the job they do, we need to enforce their strengths—and that’s simply not happening.”
Michole Gouthier is a middle school teacher on call. She was hired this year.
How many times do you work per week?
“Three to four.”
What size are the classes on average?
“Over 30, I think. The smallest class I had was a 29. I have worked at the elementary level and the smallest class I had was 18; but that was an ANF school…It’s a high need school with students coming from all different backgrounds and low socio-economic status. …There were really only one or two that were (pause)…there were a lot of behavioural issues, different disabilities and special needs and only one CEA (certified education assistant) in the class.
“(But) typically I work more at the middle level—so Grades 7, 8, 9. So that’s typically 32, 34 students.
What is that like in terms of learning environment?
“It’s difficult to teach all of the students and give them the instruction that you want to give each type of kid because there’s so many diverse learners out there. Everyone learns at a different level, different pace, different style. That’s especially difficult coming in as a (substitute teacher).
“You don’t know the class, so you don’t know which kids are on IEPs (individual education plan).
“The thing I do when I first enter a class is talk to the CEAs, but it’s difficult to do when you don’t even know the kids names. We’re going in very new to this and having to get through the day with the resources we’re given.”
What would you like to see come out of this?
“Obviously, I’m new to this, but I think what I stand for and I fight for is everything that the teachers before me have fought for. So all those veteran teachers in the ’80s fighting for smaller classroom sizes and more help in the classroom and then having it all taken away. They just like to see us go back.
“I think smaller classroom sizes is the route to go because we’re able to pay attention to every individual student and provide that teaching instruction they need.
“…You feel like you need more hands the way it is. You’re always multitasking and always trying to check in and make sure that the students are doing well. I would love to see smaller classroom sizes.”
Jessica Graham is a high school shop teacher on call, hired six months ago
How many times do you work per week?
Four to five.
How many kids in your classes?
It’s supposed to be 24, but most of the classes I’ll teach in have 28, 30 with eight special needs students and one special needs teacher helping out.
“So it’s very dangerous and very overwhelming when you go in; especially as a TOC as you don’t know where everybody’s level’s at. Like with special needs students, can they use a chop saw? Are they at that level?
“Most of the time, the helpers, or the CAs, can’t actually use the chop saws and stuff; so you’re relying on a lot of the special needs students and doing all of their work for them and then having to watch the class on top.
“I did a five month stint at RSS (Rutland Senior Secondary) and had a contract with them and my classes were very large. It was overwhelming to the sense that if you’ve got something happening over here with the chop saw, you’ve got 28 other students and you’re watching one making sure they don’t cut their finger off.”
What was your background to get into that?
“I did the trades and technology degree at BCIT in Vancouver and then I have a ticket in carpentry. I ended up working with some youth when I was just in my trade. I really liked teaching them a skill they would be able to use at home.
“They would come back and say ‘I helped my mom fix a cabinet at home yesterday. She didn’t know what she was doing. Thanks for that skill’ and stuff.
“So I really, really enjoyed teaching youth, and construction is really cold up north, so I decided to go into teaching.”
Did you picture it turning out like this?
“Yes, I pictured it turning out, well, with how much I love it; but not (pause)…there almost needs to be five of me in a class to make sure that while they’re working on the table saw, someone can be watching them on the band saw. There’s only one chop saw and 29 people; it’s too much. They have to wait for me so it takes a long time to do one project.”
What would you like to see come out of the strike?
I would like to see smaller class sizes or more CAs helping out in them, or it doesn’t have to even be CAs, another teacher in the classroom. You can’t give undivided attention to that many kids without having somebody helping you out.”
Are the pay issues big for you?
“They’re not my main focus. I would prefer to see the money go into something more beneficial to the students.
“My focus is more resources to make it a better learning environment so when they graduate they’re all on an equal level.
“And it starts down at the level where I don’t necessarily teach, but see the outcome later with Grade 3 learning levels graduating because they’re pushed through a system that doesn’t have the funding to work with individual kids at individual times.”