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Opinion Public school mystery: The case of the disappearing teachers

When my son started kindergarten last September, I worried a little bit about whether he’d be able to open his new lunch box, and a lot about whether he’d like his teacher. I want him to be excited about learning, and a good relationship with his first formal educator seems like an important start.

Teachers aren’t just coaches for the memorization of facts – they help shape children’s lives. The best of them help young people realize their budding passions and talents, as well as how to approach new ideas, and how to cope when things are difficult or confusing.

They are, one would think, an essential component of schools, but increasingly that doesn’t seem to be a given. Teachers’ ranks are shrinking in many public school systems, as fewer of them are given responsibility for more students, or they’re ditched altogether for technology. Children in Canada and elsewhere are suffering, but families’ complaints are being met with condescension, or even hostility.

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In Alberta, where supersized classes have been a concern for years, parents who made their recent worries public were served with a cease-and-desist letter by one school board. Last month, 12 families told CBC they were concerned after a wall was removed from between two classes at Red Deer Lake School outside of Calgary, creating a Grade 2 class of 47 students with just two teachers.

More than one used the word “overwhelmed” to describe the effect on their seven year olds. Once eager students, they were no longer happy to go to school in the morning, and came home full of anxiety.

The response by Foothills School Division was to contact a law firm, which advised parents this week that their “advocacy had exceeded the bounds of productive dialogue” and advised that “legal proceedings” might be the result of continuing to speak out.

The threat worked. Only one parent was willing to discuss the fallout – mother of two, Gillian Colborne, who took her son out of the school after the larger class affected his academic performance.

Some Kansas high-schoolers are also switching schools, rather than use the online tool Summit Learning. Designed by Facebook engineers and funded by Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, the platform is offered to schools for free, though some parents are suspicious about what data their children give up in exchange.

Summit students work independently on laptops for much of the school day. Anxiety became a problem for Kansas kids, too, along with eye strain, hand cramps and headaches. As in Alberta, students had trouble concentrating – in both places, they were offered headphones to block out the crowd.

“Teachers told students that their role was now to be a mentor …,” The New York Times reported about the Kansas launch of the platform. “While Summit’s program asks schools to commit to having students meet weekly in person with teachers for at least 10 minutes, some children said the sessions lasted around two minutes or did not happen.”

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Unhappy teenagers have been staging walkouts and sit-ins to protest Summit across the United States. So have students opposed to the larger class sizes and compulsory online learning that are on the horizon in Ontario.

At least 3,475 teaching positions will be lost over the next four years as the provincial government guts its education budget. Hundreds of layoff notices have already been sent out, and the plan is to increase average class sizes from Grade 4 through high school.

Many schools can no longer offer the electives that get students most excited, and last week saw high-school students across the province scrambling to rejig next year’s timetables. Four online credits will be mandatory by the 2020-21 school year, even at rural schools that aren’t being promised high-speed internet until the year after.

Shunted into classes they didn’t choose, or plunked in front of a computer without a teacher at all – neither seems likely to encourage success, especially among teenagers who haven’t mastered self-discipline. Ontario Education Minister Lisa Thompson, though, said students will now graduate with more “resiliency,” apparently set up for success in a crowded, screen-obsessed world.

But I want my son to grow up into a healthy, happy human being, not a robot designed to get to work. That’s why I care so much about his kindergarten teacher – because I still remember mine, as well as the best of the rest of them, the teachers who made school a place I wanted to be.

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