The circus of Nova Scotian education

When I was a student-teacher taking my Bachelor of Education, my English methods professor asked us all to do a piece of writing explaining our worst fears about becoming a teacher. I remember writing a piece about my fears of classroom management, using a circus ring as a metaphor: students lighting things on fire, doing acrobatics, and clowning around. We all had to share our writing and our fears with the rest of the class and I remember our prof saying that we didn’t have to worry – that we would all be fine. And for my first few years of teaching, I would say that she was right. However, as of more recently, I would say the entire education system has turned into a circus. Allow me to break it down:

The ringleader of the circus is Karen Casey, of course, with her top-down initiatives. She is a former teacher who has been the Minister of Education under both Conservative and Liberal governments. She has been out of the classroom too long and has no idea what is really going on in her circus. She is like a ringleader who has turned her back on all of the significant events, current research and only panders to the audience: voters/parents. The only thing that matters to her is proving that students are learning with no regard for the 8-year-old kid who is expected to sit for an hour at their desk writing a test that in the grand scheme of things means nothing. Teachers know who is struggling in literacy and math; we don’t need standardized tests to figure that out.

Then there are the acrobats. The teachers in the classroom, jumping through flaming hoops held by board administrators in charge of these top-down initiatives. Every year there is something new added to our overwhelming pile of paperwork that needs to be done to prove that we are doing our jobs to the public. In other jobs, you show up and do your work. In the teaching profession, you show up, do your work (teaching) and then you go home at night and do more work: marking, planning for the next day, sending out emails, calling parents, completing Individual Program Plans and Program Adaptations, report cards and the like. The job is never-ending. Summers off?? I wish. The only bonus of summer is I can set my own schedule – I can do reading to prepare for September on the beach instead of in my bed at night.

Then there are the acrobatics we do daily in our classrooms: dealing with behaviour issues that are out of control because of class composition. The size of a class is not the issue, it is who the students are. I have a very large class grade 10 English students who show up, do their work and even though the class is large, learning takes place because the majority want to learn, which forces the few kids with behaviour problems to pay attention. I have a smaller class of grade 10 English students and the class is a nightmare. Every day, I am dealing with severe behaviour issues from half of the students: kids who can’t sit still, who spend their time water bottle-flipping, and who have no capability to listen when I am trying to explain things. Within this one class, I have a range of abilities from kids who can only write a single sentence, to those who can write a paragraph to those who could likely write a novel. All of these students are expected to write the grade 10 provincial exam in June, and somehow, I have to teach the ones who can only write a sentence to be able to write a paragraph while not boring the ones who can already write full essays. And I haven’t even gotten to the 4 students on IPPs who are at 4 different learning levels. Almost every student in my class is on some sort of program, but I get one teacher’s assistant who is there to monitor one student who apparently poses physical dangers to the other students (although I have never witnessed an outburst.) When kids are doing their work in both classes, I am pulled in a thousand different directions trying to give one-on-one attention to all the kids who need help and being only one person, I am never able to help them all.

The acrobatics don’t end there. Somehow we have to do all of the things we do without many of the needed supplies. So who pays for the supplies? Teachers. We buy our own pens and pens for our students to use, looseleaf, Bristol board, whiteboard markers, even books for our classrooms because there usually isn’t enough money in the budget for that. I have even had to buy my own paper to make handouts for my students. We are not reimbursed for any of the money we use which would be thousands of dollars every year out of our own pockets. I am not exaggerating. In what other job are you expected to pay for your own pens? I would wager a bet that Stephen McNeil doesn’t pay for the pens he uses at work. I would bet that he doesn’t pay for things out of his own pocket for his constituents. That’s what taxpayer money is for, right?

Ten years ago, indexing was removed from teacher pensions. Indexing, in case you don’t know, means that as inflation goes up, your pension payments when you retire compensate for it. We did, however, have the long-term service award, a lump sum given to teachers when they retire of about $20 000, depending on what region they taught in and how long they worked. The long-term service award is like a safety net (because we are acrobats, get it?). I also like to think of it as the government paying me at least something back for all the overtime and supplies I provide them for free. If they want to take away the long-term service award, fine. But reimburse me for all the supplies I buy, and pay me for the at least 20 extra hours a week or more that I spend doing work at home.

Then there is the audience- the public and the parents. Many of whom think that they are experts in education because they all spent time going to public school.  I spend a lot of time contacting parents, especially the parents in the class of 25. Because of parents, there are a multitude of policies in place that restrict my capabilities to provide structure. For example, if a student is using their phone in class, I am not allowed to take it from them. Why? Because parents have complained to the board that it violates their child’s rights, that the teacher can’t be trusted to not look at the kid’s messages and that they need to be in contact with their child at all times in case of an emergency (How did our parents function before the days of cellphones?). So I have kids that sit in my room playing games on their phones, listening to headphones, and not paying attention. (No wonder so many of them can’t even write a paragraph. I suppose all they really need to know how to write is a sentence anyway- that is about the same length as a text message, right?) When I make calls home about cellphones or other behaviour issues, I am often told it is not their child’s fault; it is my fault because I have poor classroom management. If kids have no rules at home, how can we be expected as teachers to be able to enforce rules at school?

And now the circus ring leaders and the audience are faced with the possibility that their acrobats may stop performing, and go on strike. Teachers are sick of being acrobats for very little compensation.  We are sick of being viewed by the public as being overpaid lazy babysitters. We are sick of justifying every little thing we do for the Department of Education. We just want to be able to teach the kids; which brings me to the central part of the circus.

In the centre ring, there are the students. The students are the ones who really suffer due to our circus of a system. The ones who want to learn are held back from the students who are constant behaviour problems. The students who have behavioural problems are good kids who don’t have the supports in place that they need to have success, supports like teachers’ assistants who are allowed to help with academics (they are only allowed to provide behavioural support and only for students who can be violent). Students have their learning interrupted by teachers having to stop teaching to put in late slips so that parents can see on Parent Portal their child’s attendance in real time. There are students suffering with anxiety due to large class sizes in high schools and the anxiety of standardized tests. The students are suffering because teachers have to teach for the standardized tests instead of meeting students at their learning needs and can’t “hook” them with material that kids are actually interested in. The countries with the best test scores on the PISA (an international test that compares learning of students across the world) are the ones where the only standardized test that students do is the PISA.

It’s time for the government and parents to stop clowning around and start supporting students and teachers. Teachers are sick of doing acrobatics to appease Karen Casey and her cronies. We are sick of not being able to provide structure because it might upset a parent. We just want to teach our students and do the job we spent 6 or more years training to do. We know how to do our jobs. Just give us the support and tools we need to do them.


5 thoughts on “The circus of Nova Scotian education

  1. The 2012 PISA results will be out soon. It will be interesting to see how Canada fares…it has always done relatively well, and I put that down to its lesser reliance on standardized tests than some other English speaking countries. However, my sense is that that is changing and that standardized tests are becoming more influential – not sure if that is accurate, since I am not teaching any more. However many of the other factors you have described in your circus analogy may equally influence Canada’s international standing.

    Excellent post. Thank you!


  2. A great article. I just wish that more people could read this. The problem is that most have no idea what is really going on in the classroom . It’s time they did.


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