Class composition: it's worse than you think, writes teacher

"I’ve watched my students stress over lessons that they don’t understand because they don’t speak English.  It’s not fair," writes teacher Ashley D. MacKenzie.

Special Ed teachers Patricia O'Sullivan (left) and Home Ec teacher Tammy Prince
Special Ed teacher Patricia O'Sullivan (left) and Home Ec teacher Tammy Prince (right) with her two sons on the picket line in Burnaby Wednesday morning - photo by Mychaylo Prystupa

This week, Christy Clark went on record with saying that class composition is her number one priority. This makes me ridiculously excited. Because as a teacher myself, class composition is my number one priority too.

But I think our Premier and I look at class composition a little differently.  See, I actually know what the deal is with that piece of jargon that both my union and government like to throw around.  It’s about people. Students. The teens that I’m tasked with teaching and keeping safe.

Classroom composition is the mix of students in my class: typical students, those with learning disabilities, and English Language Learners; those who come to class ready to work and learn in a typical classroom environment, and those who need consistent extra support.

It’s tough to manage. And, no, I’m not whining. I’m not stomping my feet and throwing a tantrum about how hard my job is. I’m stating a fact: teaching has become much harder than it used to be, with real consequences on students’ education.

Here's what Tammy Prince, a Richmond teacher had to say on the picket line on Tuesday:

“In two of my classes last year I had 18 special ed students in a class of 30, with limited amount of support,” said Prince, in front of a Burnaby school.

“Kids got boiling water poured on them.  Kids got cut.  It’s really hard to supervise that many children by yourself, or even with EA support, when there’s that many differences and levels in one class,” she told the Vancouver Observer.

The whole thing sounds like a wild exaggeration about the state of B.C.’s schools.  But it’s not.  

10% of students now have special needs

There are now 57,000 B.C. students with special needs, according the education ministry.  That's 10 per cent of all 550,000 public school students.

But four years ago, when I was still working in an office, when I hadn’t been in a high school class since my graduation in 2001, I didn’t know that. I would have rolled my eyes and ignored stories like Tammy’s.

Because, really, I wasn’t in school that long ago. Things couldn’t have changed that much.

But they have.

If you’re over the age of 30, today’s classes would look very different to you. 

Back in 2001, Inclusive Education was more or less universally adopted.  Today, students are no longer separated into mainstream and special needs classes. With the exception of some students with disabilities that will prohibit them graduating with a high school diploma, all students are in one big group.

That means that I get to teach students on the Autism spectrum.  Deaf students.  Dyslexic students. It means that I get to teach students who have difficulty understanding written and verbal communication, or putting their own thoughts into writing or speech. That I get to teach students with mental health concerns. And students who self-harm, or harm others.

And they’re amazing kids.

But I never dreamed I would have nearly non-verbal autistic students in an academic course without the support of an Education Assistant. I didn’t consider having to re-teach every single lesson to students with comprehension difficulties – two minutes after having just taught it to the class. I didn’t think about how I would approach the student who was carving into their skin with a pin during class, nor did I wonder what I’d do when I found out that a student had previously threatened teachers with violence – twice.

More from Ashley D. Mackenzie

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