I spent a long time trying to write a post on why I support this week’s strike. Perhaps because I work in an extreme situation (17 of my 27 students have moderate to severe learning needs), the results were less than satisfying. All I ended up doing was painting my school and students in a harsh light—not my intention. The focus just didn’t seem right, and I couldn’t seem to get it right.
Here is one thing I love about my school: you don’t have to figure out everything on your own. Everyone supports each other in a way that is foreign to me. For example, no one has said to me, “Your kids did such-and-such-bad-thing.” (As a Grade 7 teacher, I’m used to that.) In this place, every student is everyone’s student.
So enter my outstanding colleague Sooz Svennson. She happened to send me the letter she’d written to her MLA. Sooz has spent most of her career working in high poverty schools, and she operates from a place of compassion. She has graciously allowed me to print excerpts from her letter here:
I do the impossible for the most deserving students and families in a community with the lowest per capita income in B.C. I teach in one of Nanaimo’s inner city classrooms amongst a staff of dedicated teachers, educational assistants and a principal who has both compassion and leadership.
I invite you to walk our hallways for a moment and venture into my room. According to a recently released report from the Vancouver Island Health Authority that made the front page of the Nanaimo Daily News, March 3, 2012, poverty has become noticeably worse. I offer you two realities that need a brighter and warmer light cast upon them: the factual side of what kids experience (the statistics), and the heart they show in living those stats. I am fortunate to see the resilience of many and to fall head over heels into advocacy. Here’s the comparison between Nanaimo poverty statistics and the Provincial averages:
Children living on income assistance in Nanaimo: 7.8%; B.C. average: 4%
Children living on income assistance in Nanaimo with a single parent: 5.9%; B.C. average: 3.2%
Reported child abuse cases for children in Nanaimo aged 0-18: 11.1 per 1000; B.C. average: 10.9
From where I stand on the classroom stoop, welcoming my crew every school day, I see much more than just statistics. I ask each one to enter not just as ‘kids’ but as ‘students’ who are becoming more aware of themselves as learners and as apprenticing citizens. 67% of our students are living in poverty, with 118 on our lunch program and many coming early for a breakfast. 61% of our students live in either single or blended family situations. Grandparents raising grandchildren and great grandchildren are our heroes. I could go on. The suffering is palpable.
The real outside world stomps through my room every day, all day, despite my efforts to better fit my teaching to a diverse crew of learners. High transience has students coming and going as rents go up, relationships dissolve and fortunes change. Transitions are not always smooth, and school may in fact be the safest place to be. Calm for many can be disconcerting. Anticipating conflicts and using words to problem-solve is a gift. Survival mode is familiar to many. Reactions come on fast and strong reverberating through the room as old traumas are triggered. Lessons often come to temporary halt as relationships are tended to and mended with ‘mom talks.’ My word has to mean something to hold my class together. I do not make threats. I do not speak in anger. The only card I carry is my disappointment. The tie that binds us is genuinely caring about one another. It is felt.
This is what I had hoped the Minister of Education, George Abbott, understood before he came up with the heavy-handed Bill 22. I see too much potential in my students to not wish for a negotiated settlement and a restoration of rights as determined by the BC Supreme Court. From 2001-2007, 600 Special Education teachers were cut, while 1000 more students requiring their expertise were added to the existing load. It continues. Class size and class composition are very real concerns for teachers seeking to meet their students needs. I speak from experience in an extreme situation.
I choose to serve the most deserving. I will not sit back to hear of how the minister plans to compensate some teachers when their classes go over thirty. How will those learners be compensated for the compromises they will make? My class of 21 is already compromised. If only a third of a class functions near grade level, how is each member of that class to be best served if, as Abbott suggests, caps are discriminatory? It has become absurd. Education is where hope waits for us to stand up and speak our truth. My classroom is sacred ground deserving of the greatest respect. I tether my hope on being permitted to teach to the prescribed learning outcomes for all my students because it is the right thing to do.
Thanks to Sooz and all my other colleagues who are fighting for workable, sustainable classroom conditions—so that all kids have a chance at a great education.