John Walker, a teacher at Millwood Elementary, spoke at Law Amendments today. Photo: Jennifer Henderson

It may read Teacher Appreciation week on the calendar but none of the dozens and dozens of teachers who appeared before the Legislature’s Law Amendments Committee today are feeling appreciated.

John Walker, a teacher for 26 years and father of four, wore a sign with “zero” around his neck to protest the zero per cent wage increase he’s had in the past three years. Walker told the Committee he’d be willing “to take a bullet” for his kids at Millwood Elementary, then backed it up with a scary story from two years ago .

“While RCMP were going through the school with rifles looking for a suspected gunman, I was in a locked-down classroom with 25 Grade 4 students — two of whom had Asperger’s Syndrome — for two hours. My students were scared to death.”

Police found a duffle bag full of guns and ammo outside neighbouring Millwood High School in Middle Sackville and two people were arrested.

That was just one of many dramatic stories teachers told politicians on the all-party Law Amendments Committee in a last-ditch attempt to convince them classroom conditions have deteriorated to the point where immediate action, in the form of more money for mental health services, supports for special needs students and smaller classes at the junior and senior high level, is the key to labour peace.

“This contract does nothing to address classroom conditions for our kids in a meaningful way,” said Timothy MacLeod, a high school teacher in Sackville with 23 years experience. “I have 38 students in Grade 11 biology this year. I work in a lab with antiquated equipment that was designed for 24 students. Last year, over half my  Grade 11 class required adaptations because of their various learning needs.”

The biology teacher choked up as he told the politicians about working with his students in the aftermath of a suicide by a classmate. A veteran resource teacher from Bible Hill, Colchester County offered politicians a graphic picture of just one issue she has encountered.

“I have students in my classes who masturbate,” said resource teacher Shari Abriel. “We had to come up with a plan so we came up with a room where students can relax and de-stress and understand what behaviours are acceptable and unacceptable.”

Bill 75, which the government is likely to pass in early next week, imposes a four-year, three per cent wage contract on teachers who have rejected three previous offers. It does include a Council on Classroom Improvements. The Council members, to include nine teachers appointed by school board superintendents as well as representatives from the government and Nova Scotia Teachers Union, will decide how to spend $20 million over two years to improve classroom conditions for teachers and students (those largely forgotten in the process and who did not appear before Law Amendments today). Many teachers said they can’t wait and don’t trust the process since Bill 75 eliminated a previously agreed-upon dispute resolution mechanism.

“The Council, or the Committee, was supposed to be a partnership so Bill 75 is a big disappointment,” said Joan Ling, a member of the Nova Scotia Teacher’s Union negotiating committee. “Unless the government amends the bill to restore the dispute resolution mechanism, the Council will have no value and the NSTU will not support it. We will be making a constitutional challenge if this bill passes.”

Although it’s uncertain what grounds the union has for a constitutional challenge, NSTU president Liette Doucet has said the language in the bill restricts future job actions around supervising student teachers and attending staff meetings. That could leave the union with strike as its only weapon once work-to-rule has been de-fanged.

Most of the 400 people who signed up to plead with the Liberal government to throw out Bill 75 will not be heard. Education Minister Karen Casey was nowhere to be seen. Only one parent came forward earlier today to say the bill does nothing to help children like her son for whom she hired a private psychologist and a private tutor to overcome a learning disability (dyslexia) so her son could read. The intervention worked.

Despite motions introduced by both NDP and Conservative members of the Law Amendments Committee to extend the session to hear everyone who asked to speak, the committee’s Liberal majority voted down the idea. Discussion will end this evening and the bill will be voted into law before or during tomorrow’s first ever strike by public school teachers in Nova Scotia.

How mad are they? Teacher John Walker raised his voice when telling politicians how much he had enjoyed work to rule because it had allowed him uninterrupted time to teach instead of entering data into Powerschool, the computerized program teachers must use to grade students on a variety of benchmarks as well as take attendance.

“The children arrive at class any time between 8:25 and 9:05, which means I usually stop my teaching five times in the first hour to go to a computer older than I am to record who has come in late,” complained Walker. “Ten million dollars for PowerSchool: you are wasting your money. When it comes to report cards, I’m embarrassed to explain to parents a “D” in Math means D but a “D” in Social Studies means Developing Well. There’s been too much change in report cards and it’s dumb.”

Other teachers were equally angry as they told committee members the lack of a province-wide policy on attendance or discipline makes them targets for abuse from students.

“They don’t have to come to school and we have no way of making them,” said Shelley Morse, the vice-principal at Aldershot Elementary and a former president of the NSTU. “Students don’t have to pass in assignments and then when a parent or the School Board calls to ask why a student isn’t going on to the next grade, the student can’t be held accountable. There are no consequences and many of them know it.”

Morse says committing more money for mental health services to deal with behaviour problems and hiring more teachers to reduce class size in junior and senior highs are not in Bill 75. If they were, she doubts teachers would be marching in the streets around Province House tomorrow as close to one thousand are expected to do.

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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  1. Read
    and then write/email/call your MLA and demand change starting September 1 2017.
    And then write to your school board member and ask them what she/he knew about the work conditions and what did they do. And ask if the Superintendent provides an annual written report regrading the issues raised by those who appeared at Law Amendments.
    And then call media people and urge them to spend more time covering the issues in our schools…..not a word on CBC The National on Thursday evening.

    1. Totally agree with this. How sad is it that the media is only now waking up. Where were they in the last year?

  2. Teachers are speaking out in the best interests of their students. The government needs to step up and tell us how it will address what needs to be done to fix our system.