I’ve been a teacher for more than a decade and I have always prided myself on my classroom management skills. So, if you had told me that, 12 years into my secondary school teaching career, I would be struggling with constant disruption and disengaged students with no respite in sight, I would not have believed you. Last semester, I had a very difficult time with one class in particular: Grade 9 Canadian Geography. I had 31 students to manage, and I tried every classroom management technique I knew: switching seats, calling home, asking for help from administration, asking my school’s child and youth worker to join my class, even assigning students to write reflective pieces where they came clean about their disruptive behaviour and how that impacted the classroom dynamic!
I am a good teacher, and every single one of those students was awesome, but nothing helped and their learning suffered—except on the days when a small handful were away on a field trip. Even just three or four absences made the class significantly more manageable, because when classrooms are well-managed, students learn better.
In Ontario, class sizes will soon rise by six—or more—students
This wasn’t the first time I’ve had a large number of students in one of my classes, although the dynamic of this specific class was particularly tricky. Overall, the experience has left me incredibly apprehensive about the proposed changes to education in Ontario.
As part of the Conservative government’s “Education That Works for You” plan, released earlier this year, average class sizes are slated to rise across Ontario, from 22 to 28 over the next four years, with the key word here being “average.” That means most classes will increase by six students or more. And in large school districts like mine, classrooms that are now capped at approximately 34 kids (I won’t get into how this number is calculated, it’s complex) could take on an additional six students. Even though I pride myself on being able to handle large classrooms, I simply cannot imagine managing the behaviours of 40 students, let alone ensuring each child gets the attention they need to set them up for academic success.
I am seriously worried about the welfare of my students, the welfare of your children.
E-learning won’t help. In fact, it may make things worse
Making class sizes bigger and forcing students to complete a minimum of four online learning courses both have one major, detrimental effect: It reduces the number of caring adults in schools. These are the people who provide rich learning opportunities for the most marginalized students across the province—and who make it possible to have a diverse range of classes.
Online courses, while helpful for some kids, won’t make up the shortfall. In fact, making e-learning mandatory for all secondary students will have dramatically negative impacts. Online courses target a specific kind of learner and offers narrow opportunities for success: kinaesthetic and face-to-face learners won’t receive instruction in ways most effective for them. Lastly, many poor students across Ontario do not have access to personal computers or reliable internet at home and with cuts to teacher-librarians in schools and public libraries, resources are limited to ensure success in mandatory e-learning.
Students will miss out on specialized courses
And then there’s the matter of specialized classes, which will likely be on the chopping block due to low average classroom size (in other words, they would too-dramatically skew Ontario’s new average classroom size). Before obtaining my Master of Education in Social Justice Education, I received my Bachelor of Fine Arts in Dance and taught dance as a high school elective for nearly a decade. During my years as a dance educator, I saw exactly what specialized courses like dance provided for marginalized students in the neighbourhood where I work (one of the city’s neediest). ESL learners found new ways to communicate, those with learning disabilities thrived in a class that valued more than just their writing or math skills, and students with mental health issues found healthy outlets in which to express themselves.
I had students say to me that they wouldn’t have come to school on a specific day if it wasn’t for dance class. At the risk of appearing hyperbolic, enriched programming saves lives. But specialized classes such as dance, or robotics, or music or transportation technology simply cannot facilitate 35 or 40 students due to safety and/or the actual size of the classroom. Instead, growing class sizes will lead to the cancellation of specialized programming and a reduction in learning opportunities for the students of Ontario.
My students, your children, deserve better than this. There will always be students who persevere, but is that what we want as a province? For students to just get by? Larger class sizes and taking away the arts doesn’t make students more “resilient,” as former Ontario education minister Lisa Thompson has suggested. It punishes them. I want your kid, and all kids, to have rich learning experiences because I know first-hand that this is how we create happy, caring, compassionate, intelligent, creative and hardworking members of society. And I know we can’t do this online, without specialized programming or in classrooms with one teacher and 40 students.
Roopa Cheema has been a teacher in the Toronto District School Board since 2007. In 2013, she won the William Waters Scholarship in Urban Education.