Yesterday, the Ontario Minister of Education announced the government’s plans for education changes in the next few years. Education is, of course, a major line-item in the budget and always the target of cuts when a government wants to save money. While I agree that efficiency is worth looking for and eliminating wasteful spending should be an ongoing process, I fear that some of the impulse for these regular cuts comes from a deep-seated belief that teachers are lazy or overpaid. Or something. This upsets me because, I promise you, I’m not in education to get rich and no one survives for long in a high school if their main focus is summer vacation. Worse, I believe that some of the changes the government is proposing will, at a minimum, result in worse learning and will, more than likely, harm students, especially our most vulnerable students.
In fact, I was chatting with my principal last week and talk turned to one of our most reluctant students. He has years of haphazard attendance in his school records, and all the days of missed school have left him with learning gaps that have caught up with him in high school: he’s currently failing most of his classes. Truth be told, he’s currently not attending most of his classes. In fact, he’s pretty much only attending my class.
“Why do you think he’s coming to your class when he’s skipping everything else?” asked my principal.
Well, I have some ideas. He comes to my class because we as a school have agreed to put our most experienced teachers in classes with our most at-risk students. I am not the school board’s cheapest employee, but when I walk into the classroom, I bring to bear everything I know about classroom management, curriculum, respectful learning environments and reluctant learners. I bring a Masters Degree, 20+ years of teaching, experience working with both at-risk and ESL students, an Honours Specialist in Special Education, and a commitment to ongoing PD and my own pedagogical reading. He comes to my class because I work to implement a pedagogy that meets students where they are and supports them as they move forward.
He comes to my class because our school has decided that at-risk students have the best chance to learn when their classes are small. Currently, the average high school class size may not exceed 22 students. The new Ministry of Education policy increases that to 28. Of course, classes of 28 and even 30 already exist, but with a required average class size of 22, we can work as a team to find the wiggle room that allows students with the greatest needs to be in smaller classes. He comes to my class because the small class size means I have time to get to know every student in meaningful ways.
He comes to my class because I never – not ever – say anything negative to him about his learning. When he returns after missing a day of school I say, “I’m glad to see you.” I don’t even say “I’m glad you’re back” because I don’t want to emphasize that he was gone. I’ve read his school records, and I’ve learned a bit about him. So, I practice positive phrases out loud with others, working to get the right words for this child into my brain and out of my mouth. He comes to my class because I call home every time he’s absent and leave a message saying that I missed him. He comes to my class because I’ve called home to leave a message about how well he’s doing when he comes.
He comes to my class because when he writes a sentence in his notebook, I have something positive to say about it. If he stops at a word, I’m next to him to encourage the next one. If he can’t write today, I’ll help him write tomorrow. He comes to my class because what he says matters.
He comes to my class because the room is full of books he can actually read, books that aren’t dog-eared, yellow-paged and falling apart. He comes because I’ve begged and borrowed in order to provide books that are in reasonable shape to show my learners that they are worthy of good books. I’ve asked what he’s interested in and chosen books that might catch his attention. I check books out of the public library because he can’t get there. I offer him books at multiple levels and chat with him one-on-one about what he’s reading. I never suggest he’s not good enough or reads too slowly. He can put down books he doesn’t like or can’t follow. I never make him read something he’s not ready for. He comes to this small class because I can pay attention to his learning needs.
Not only does the Ministry of Education plan to increase class sizes, they also want to require four e-learning classes for every student to graduate. No doubt this will provide cost savings to the government, and I’m sure there will be benefits for some students, but students like him need every minute of positive human contact they can get. He comes to my class because even though the class is small, I have an EA in the room every day. Between us, we can catch most students before they give up, assignment after assignment. We provide positive support so that they can overcome obstacles that might otherwise stymie them. We can see when they are having a bad day and help them cope with that; we notice when they are having a good day, and encourage them to shine. He comes to my class because we are physically present so we notice him and his peers.
He comes to my class because I was allowed to move to a cozy room with comfortable tables that let him stretch out a little. We have windows for natural light and plants growing along the window ledge; some days the students help water. He comes to my class because I have shelves full of all kinds of books to support learners of all kinds at all levels and walls adorned with vocabulary words, anchor charts and celebrations of reading. He comes to my class because the librarian provides us with a few Kindles so that students who struggle to read the words on a page can listen while they read. That same librarian pulls another student out for 15 minutes a day to provide one-on-one English language support. She comes to my class, too.
He comes to my class because I let him eat. Our breakfast program provides food – Cheerios and raisins or maybe some apples – that I put out most days. Many of my students grab a bag to snack on as they read or write. Some of them, probably including him, don’t get quite enough at home. So they come to class.
He comes to my class because we are a community of learners. Because I use every student’s name every day. Because other students speak to him during our activities. Because we listen when he talks. Because his voice matters.
He comes to my class because we have decided that he, and others like him, are worth it, even though they require time, energy and resources from our system. In fact, if you talk to teachers, you’ll find that we need more services for these students, not fewer. The changes the Ontario government has put forward – e-learning and larger classes are only two among many – will no doubt reduce the education line-item in the budget, but in the long-run they mean that students like him are less likely to come to class. I’m not convinced that the savings will be worth it.