N.B. teachers forced to 'triage' students due to lack of resources, minister hears

Connie Keating, president of the New Brunswick Teachers' Association, said the clear message from teachers is that classroom composition is where the government needs to start in making any changes. (CBC - image credit)
Connie Keating, president of the New Brunswick Teachers' Association, said the clear message from teachers is that classroom composition is where the government needs to start in making any changes. (CBC - image credit)

Teachers used an hour-long meeting with Education Minister Bill Hogan this week to push again for smaller classes and more resources — and they gave him some stark examples to illustrate their case, according to the president of the New Brunswick Teachers' Association.

Some teachers likened their classrooms to emergency rooms, where they have to use a "triage approach, sadly, where just the neediest … are getting attention," said Connie Keating.

"And, you know, they hope that everyone else can cope and it will work out and … be OK."

A Grade 1 teacher shared that she has nine newcomer students who are just learning English, seven others who require speech language therapy, one who is non-verbal and two others who have autism, yet she has "very limited support," said Keating.

Hogan invited English prime teachers to an optional virtual consultation on classroom composition. "We look forward to the conversation and hearing classroom teachers' perspectives and ideas regarding improving classroom composition," the email invite, distributed through principals, and obtained by CBC News, said.

French immersion teachers were not invited.

The meeting comes on the heels of two weeks of public meetings that saw dozens of angry New Brunswickers slam the plan to replace French immersion with a new 50-50 model, where all anglophone kindergarten and elementary students would spend half their day learning English and half learning French.

Hogan noted at the beginning of the meeting with teachers that it wasn't a consultation on the proposed changes to French immersion, said Keating, who did not attend but was briefed by staff.

There's "lots of speculation" about the timing of the meeting, and whether the government is trying to shore up its reasons for adopting the new model for French-second-language education or trying to retreat from it, Keating said. But she declined to offer an opinion, saying that's a question for the minister.

Glad government is listening

"At this point we're certainly glad that … they're listening to what the learning conditions are for our students and the conditions that teachers are working under.

"And, you know, we continue to impress upon government that … we need to slow down and we have to address classroom learning conditions before any, you know, further changes can be made."

About 350 teachers and principals from kindergarten to Grade 12, who teach a range of subjects, including some who have taught French immersion in the past, joined the call, according to Keating.

'Additional pressures on English prime teachers'

In a statement, Hogan said one of the issues that came up repeatedly during the public meetings was class composition. "We wanted to follow up on that immediately," he said.

"It's by hearing from the teachers directly that we will we be able to learn about the strengths and challenges within our system and how they can best be addressed. As such, we are focusing on English Prime teachers — as a group of individuals who are in the classrooms everyday, experiencing these issues."

Ed Hunter/CBC
Ed Hunter/CBC

Hogan, who worked within the education system for 35 years, said the province has been talking about classroom composition concerns for about 20 of those years.

"When we look at how learning plans and behaviour support plans are dispersed throughout the anglophone school system, an overwhelming number of children with additional learning, social, emotional or behavioural needs are placed in English Prime classrooms. This has resulted in unbalanced classrooms and additional pressures on English Prime teachers," he said in an emailed statement.

"We know there's more work to be done which is why staff sought out a session with English Prime teachers — to hear about their own experiences within the classroom and how they can be best supported in providing every child a chance to reach their full individual potential."

Composition is place to start

Class size came up "over and over" during the meeting, according to Keating, who has been a teacher for 25 years.

She said during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, some grade levels had a reduction in class size.

"Personally, I was a teacher during that time and I can tell you that with greatly reduced numbers, you know what your students' needs are [and] you have the time to intervene with each one."

Another issue that came out "very clearly" during the meeting is the "real need" for qualified professionals and certified teachers, such as speech language pathologists, resource teachers and guidance counsellors, said Keating.

She noted the government has done several studies over the years, including the Porter-Aucoin report, which found New Brunswick's inclusive education policy is under-resourced.

It needs to listen to its own reports and to teachers, who are on the front lines, she said.

Asked whether changes to French immersion are the solution, Keating said the "very clear message" from teachers was that "classroom composition is where we need to start. And classroom composition connects to our learning conditions.

"I don't really think that it's a matter of, you know, French immersion or English prime, and that we really need to be careful that we're not creating an unintentional divide here."