Nova Scotia teachers testified Thursday that classroom problems ranging from student violence to the neglect of students with learning disabilities will worsen if the Liberal government pushes through a bill that imposes a collective agreement.
High school science teacher Timothy MacLeod told the law amendments committee that he has up to 30 students with vastly differing abilities crammed into an aging lab designed to hold about 20 students, performing experiments with obsolete equipment.
He said if he and other teachers at Millwood High School in Middle Sackville had more time, they may have been able to help prevent suicides or a high-profile case where two students were arrested for allegedly transporting weapons in a duffel bag early last year.
"The rise in student mental illness issues is overwhelming teachers. Where are the supports for these most vulnerable of our students?" he asked, his voice breaking as he told politicians about helping his pupils cope with the grief of losing a classmate to suicide.
MacLeod and other presenters argued the four-year contract being imposed on teachers fails to address deteriorating classroom conditions.
"This legislation attacks the collective rights of workers. This will lead to a court challenge that will cost millions in taxpayers' dollars. Money that could go into classrooms, my classroom," he said.
The government's imposed contract would include creation of a council that will invest $20 million over two years to address classroom conditions. However, unionists like MacLeod have argued this will be ineffective because the teachers union will have little input into the process.
The teachers are planning a one-day strike on Friday — the first time the educators have walked out since the union was formed 122 years ago.
Premier Stephen McNeil has said his governing Liberals have tried to negotiate an agreement with the teachers over the past 16 months, and continuing negotiations simply permits ongoing disruption in the classroom.
The law will bring an end to the teachers' work-to-rule campaign, which began Dec. 5. The rules of the campaign stipulated that teachers should only report for work 20 minutes before class starts and leave 20 minutes after the school day ends.
In a speech Wednesday to the Chamber of Commerce, McNeil described the need to maintain a balanced budget, arguing the days of accumulating debts for future generations must come to an end.
Cherie Abriel, a resource teacher in a junior high school in Bible Hill, told the committee McNeil's arguments are unconvincing at a time when basic services to students with learning disabilities aren't being met.
"Many of them need life skills support, social skills support. I have students in my classes who masturbate," she said, adding she has difficulty finding time to come up with plans to help alter behaviour problems.
"We have no special education classroom in our school. There's no teaching program to help with those students. As a teacher focused on literacy and learning, I'm suddenly focused on life skills for these students, some of whom are non-verbal and some who are blind."
The proposed bill would establish a commission on inclusive education that will be launched 30 days after the bill is passed, with recommendations to be implemented by the beginning of the next school year.
However, Abriel said she no longer trusts the government to take concrete steps to reduce the size of classrooms and hire more teachers — the basic measures she says are needed.
Crystal Isart, an elementary school teacher, said classrooms are regularly experiencing evacuations due to outbreaks of violence — due, in part, to a lack of assistants for teachers dealing with children who have behavioural problems.
"There is lashing out (by students) at other students, throwing things at students ... and still there's no added supports in the schools," she said.
"We don't have close to enough learning centre teachers and resource teachers ... all of those teachers are just handling behavioural issues one after another."
The new contract contains a three per cent salary increase and incorporates many of the elements contained in the first two tentative agreements rejected by union members.
The salary package includes zero per cent for the first two years, followed by increases of one per cent in the third year and 1.5 per cent in the fourth, with a 0.5 per cent increase on the last day of the agreement.
MacLeod said in an interview that his salary after 23 years is about $87,000.
However, he said he and other teachers are more concerned about the lack of funding for schools.
"It started out as contract negotiations, but it's not about that any more. It's about conditions in our classrooms."
Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press