As Catholic teachers, we are proud of the role we play in preparing students to be active members of a prosperous and caring society. Our publicly funded education system is among the best in the world, with impressive student achievement and sincere efforts to improve equity and inclusivity. However, some students are still not being adequately supported, and more work can be done to implement the tools and practices that have been shown to create welcoming, productive learning environments.
We believe that by giving our schools the resources they need, we can remove barriers to learning and make our education system the best in the world. Here we outline a few of the key education initiatives that we believe deserve more attention.
Violence and Harassment Against Teachers
For several years, our Association has been raising the issue of violent incidents experienced by teachers – including everything from verbal harassment and threats, to physical assault, to incidents involving weapons. Our teachers have noticed these incidents increasing in frequency and severity, and they do not feel that policymakers and school administrators are taking the matter seriously.
In spring 2017, the Association partnered with Pollara Strategic Insights, one of the country’s leading polling firms, to carry out a comprehensive survey of our teachers to better understand the scope and scale of the problem. The results, which represent the perspectives and experiences of a statistically valid cross-section of members, paint a disturbing picture. Almost 90 per cent of respondents said they have experienced or witnessed some form of violence or harassment during their career, many of them multiple times. Eighty-five per cent said that the incidence of violence is increasing, and 80 per cent said that incidents are becoming more severe. The data also show a general lack of awareness of the procedures for reporting a violence incident, as well as reluctance on the part of administrators to acknowledge and deal with the issue.
Using the survey results, the Association developed a series of recommendations. The goal is to have the government standardize and streamline the process for reporting a violent incident, ensure there is proper awareness and training among all school staff, and make the necessary investments in programs and professional supports to meet the needs of all students and teachers. Addressing violence in the classroom remains a key priority for the Association. Teachers cannot accept any more delays or half-measures. For the good of everyone in our school communities, the time to act is now.
Early Childhood Education and Care
Parents should be able to provide for their families and give their children the best possible start in life. This is why we advocate for affordable, accessible, publicly funded early childhood education and care (ECEC).
Evidence from around the world shows that children who have access to high quality ECEC are better able to develop the cognitive and non-cognitive abilities that will help them at school and throughout their lives. Benefits exist for all children, but are particularly pronounced for children from low-income families. Furthermore, affordable child care enables parents to work or attend school; they can take on more hours, accept a new job, or learn a new skill. Not only does this reduce poverty, it also generates economic growth and tax revenues.
Few topics in public policy enjoy more broad-based support than the need for investments in ECEC. Even many fiscal conservatives agree that the benefits outweigh the costs. Governments must act urgently to expand the availability of ECEC, and Ontario’s Catholic teachers are proud to add our voices to the call.
For the most part, parents, teachers, early childhood educators (ECEs), and principals agree that this program is better preparing children socially and academically, leading to better outcomes later in life.
The program is most effective when it is delivered as designed - a teacher and an ECE in the classroom working together with four- and five-year-olds in a play-based learning environment. Research has shown that one of the main reasons students are benefiting from the program is that staff teams are united around the mission to support these young children and families. ECEs bring specialized knowledge about early childhood development, while certified teachers bring high levels of skills and training related to pedagogy and the delivery of curriculum.
Large class sizes, and Kindergarten – Grade 1 split classes, are not true to the original design of the program; they diminish the program’s integrity, and jeopardize outcomes for students.
We must keep the program true to its original promise. Government and school boards need to create the conditions for teachers and ECEs to provide the best possible learning environment for every student in every class.
As we learn more about individual learning styles and the various challenges faced by our students, we are constantly expanding the range of accommodations and supports we provide. But to attend to the educational, social, and behavioural aspects of each student’s development, all while dealing with expanded accountability requirements, teachers need the time and space afforded by reasonable class sizes.
Smaller class sizes enable us to adapt our teaching styles, on an ongoing basis, to better suit our students’ needs. We can use creative, hands-on assignments, which often is not possible when there are upwards of 30 students to be managed. We can take risks, explore complex ideas, and give students the opportunity to undertake meaningful collaborative projects. As we implement 21st century learning, with its focus on higher order thinking and creativity – skills which cannot be fostered or assessed using the desk-based methods necessary in large classes – it will become even more important that we are able to use our time and resources most effectively.
Obviously, smaller classes make for better working conditions. But this does not mean teachers are working less. In fact, experts agree that we often work more when classes are smaller, because we are able to give each student individual attention.
Special Education and Children’s Mental Health
Ontario is realizing gains from the increases in funding for special education over the past decade. In some instances, the increase in the percentage of students with special needs who are performing at or above the provincial standard (on Grade 3 and 6 EQAO tests) has exceeded improvements of the student population as a whole.
There are, however, some issues with respect to staffing and classroom composition that are limiting our ability to serve students with special needs. With the reduction in dedicated special education teachers, classroom teachers are now responsible for much more reporting, assessment, and paperwork. These additional demands mean less specialized, skilled interventions for students. We can help provide the best possible learning environment for students with special education needs by establishing clear benchmarks for the caseloads of special education teachers, and ensuring that schools follow the lowest class size limits set out in the Education Act.
Almost 80 per cent of school boards spend more on special education than they are allotted by the government, due to a funding formula that does not accurately reflect the number of students with special education needs in respective schools. As boards continue to manage their ever-tightening budgets, special education programs and staff are being eliminated to save money, as opposed to being expanded to address need.
Children and adolescents are more likely to experience mental health or addiction disorders than any other age group. In Ontario, 15 to 20 per cent of children and youth have a mental health need, but they are less likely than adults to receive adequate care.
Undiagnosed or untreated mental health issues are a significant impediment to student engagement and achievement. By providing mental health supports in schools, where children and youth spend much of their time, we can reduce stigma, help students with mental health issues feel connected to their communities, and deliver more responsive services.
Teachers want to offer the best opportunity for students with mental health issues to succeed; however, we are not in a position to provide specialized services and supports. Schools need professional staff with specialized knowledge and skills who can work with students to address their mental health issues, which will undoubtedly improve their well-being and achievement.
Position papers and briefs on other key education issues