11 Ways My Job Has Gotten Harder

A glimpse at the job of a Nova Scotia high school teacher

Leo McKay
Leo McKay
Feb 16, 2017 · 8 min read
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Plan for a typical Sunday in my classroom

I have been a public school teacher in the province of Nova Scotia for twenty-three years. So far, I have barely commented on the Nova Scotia Teachers Union’s dispute with the McNeil government. I have not felt particularly militant in this dispute, not because I do not think there are major problems facing classroom teachers, but because so many of these problems have gone on for so long that I’ve just gotten used to holding my tongue.

The McNeil Liberals did not invent the current problems facing classroom teachers. Like all the problems in all areas of government, one regime inherits from the one that came before it. But their bull-headed approach to their relationship with the NSTU has caused the worst rupture in labour relations in the memory of anyone currently teaching.

One of the difficulties in understanding what teachers are so upset over is that, for a profession that many on the outside tend to view monolithically, the conditions of teachers from one subject area to another in the same school are remarkably different. There are also differences between schools, between boards, and between grade levels. In the discussions that have been taking place in teacher Facebook groups during the past couple of months I have often been struck by how many times a teacher identifies and explains what they consider their main challenge, and it’s something I’ve never heard of before nor even understand.

What I do know and understand well are the conditions of my own job. I am an English teacher at Cobequid Educational Centre in Truro. In the more than two decades I’ve been doing that job, workload, responsibilities, and expectations have increased dramatically. Below I outline some of the specifics.

  1. Reduced number of prep periods

When I started teaching, my school was on a 6 day cycle. On 5 of those days, teachers had a prep period, a non-teaching period in which to do other work (marking, photo-copying, lesson prep, whatever). We are now on an 8 day cycle and teachers have a prep on 4 of those days. Half of our teaching days now do not have any built-in prep time.

2. Increased Class Sizes

Academic English classes at my school have gone from about 25 students per class in the early 90s to about 32 per class now. That is a 28% increase. This on its own means a significant increase in demand on teacher time. Every one of those students produces assessments that require marking outside of class time. Also, larger classes generally require more patience and more energy to manage. Convincing 25 teenagers to focus on schoolwork is considerably easier than convincing 32.

3. Increased number of classes, increased number of total students taught

When I started teaching, high schools in Nova Scotia were not semestered. We taught our classes year-long. The switch to semestering more than a decade ago has meant a switch from 5 classes per teacher per year to 6 classes per teacher per year, to 7 classes per teacher per year. Coupled with the increase in individual class sizes, this has meant that a typical English teacher at CEC has gone from 125 students per year to 180 or 200 students.

Please follow me through some simple but important math here.

A short literary essay of 5 or 6 paragraphs in length takes about 4.5 hours to mark if the class has 25 students in it. For a class of 32, that marking time goes to 6 hours. So, since 1994, teachers have gone from having 5 classes of 25 to 7 classes of 30 or more.

This means that, when I assign a single essay to all of my students, a marking task that in 1994 took me 22.5 hours outside of instructional time today takes me 42 hours.

Most grade 10 teachers at CEC assign 3 essays to their students. So total essay marking time, per teacher, has gone from 67.5 hours in 1994 to 126 hours in 2017. And essay marking is only one of the things that make up teacher workload outside of class hours.

4. Changes in assessment policy

Assessments used to be a single shot deal. Students got one chance to prove what they knew. Get a low test score, bomb an essay, your mark goes down. You missed the learning.

The switch away from summative assessment to formative assessment means students are often given multiple attempts to meet outcomes. The educational reasons for doing this are solid, but they mean more work for the teacher. In the past, I only marked essays once. Now I regularly mark the same essay from the same student twice.

5. Changes in attendance policy

There is currently no attendance policy for students at the high school level in the province of Nova Scotia. This means that, though there are some obvious positive incentives for students to come to school (getting and having time to practice work, for example), there are no immediate negative consequences when students do not attend. Teachers are now required to catch students up on missed work, and to provide alternate assessments for people who miss class, regardless of reason or excuse. This takes a lot of teacher time. In some of the classes I teach, it is a common practice for some students to attend one day a week, during which I am expected to do my best to help them get caught up on work they missed while they were absent. In most cases, students have no actual reason for not attending. They just did not feel like coming.

6. Electronic grade records

We enter student grades into PowerSchool, and those grades are immediately available to parents and students. The fact that parents and students can access up-to-date grades is both positive and desirable. But this availability has increased teacher workload. We now get more questions and more specific questions about individual student assignments than ever before.

7. Email contact with parents

As with electronic grades, parents can now ask teachers questions in an easy and instantaneous manner. It is not uncommon to get a question from a parent about a recently entered assessment on a Sunday afternoon, moments after the grade is entered into PowerSchool, before the student has got the assessment handed back. Again, the mere fact that parents are able to easily contact teachers is both positive and desirable. But the volume of parent contact we have now was unimaginable 20 years ago. We’ve had this responsibility added to our workload without any other tasks being taken away to compensate.

8. Assessment “accountability”

Department of Education and school board policies around PowerSchool make it mandatory for every assessment to be electronically linked to every relevant outcome it measures. In general, this is probably a good idea. It keeps teachers aware of the important link between their assessments and the outcomes of their course. But again, it takes a significant amount of time. And this task has been added without anything being removed from our plates to compensate.

Many schools (not mine, not yet) require teachers to assess not only the assignment, but every individual outcome for that assignment. In other words, students receive a main mark on an assessment, and 3 or 4 or 8 other individual marks, one for each of the relevant outcomes measured by the assessment. This practice is based on no research, has never been shown to achieve anything worthwhile, and produces data that no one has ever used for any educational purpose. Depending on the course and the teacher’s workload, this can take a significant amount of time.

9. Adaptations

An educational adaptation is a change in teaching method and/or assessment for an individual student. An adaptation is intended to address the individual learning needs of that student. An adaptation requires that, to some degree or another, the individual student with that adaptation be treated individually in the classroom, rather than be subject to the exact same instructional method or assessment as everyone else in the class.

When I started teaching in 1994, my school did not have a single student with an adaptation. We now have about 60% of our students on an adaptation. Most of our students are now on adaptations.

This means that a teacher with 200 students to teach over the course of the year will have about 120 of those students who have individual learning needs that must be addressed by the teacher. The teacher must read and be familiar with 120 individualized adaptation menus and figure out how to best deliver instruction and assessment, taking into account individual learning needs of more than half the people in the room.

I support the use of adaptations in the classroom. Using adaptations has made me a better teacher. But teaching a course load in which 60% of my students need individualized attention has meant a significant increase in workload and responsibility, and nothing has been taken off my plate to compensate.

10. IPPs

An Individual Program Plan is for students whose learning needs require more than adaptations can provide. An IPP is essentially a separate, individualized curriculum targeted and delivered solely to a single student who attends a regular classroom.

IPPs are good. I support the use of IPPs. In general, IPPs enhance the classroom experience for all children. But the number of students on IPPs has been increasing and the resources for effectively teaching those students have not kept up. The recent changes to IPPs (made in October 2016) make the task of delivering an IPP a significantly more difficult job. Those October 2016 IPP changes triple or quadruple the amount of work a classroom teacher is expected to do per IPP without any reasonable gain for student or teacher as a result of the extra effort.

11. Suspensions

Back when I started teaching, a student who was suspended from school was also suspended from learning. Teachers are now required to provide work packages to students on in-school and out-of-school suspension. This can take a significant amount of time. Last semester I almost always had at least one student on in-school or out-of-school suspension. At one point I had three students out on suspension for the same week. I do not teach a course that lends itself well to easily providing work packages. What I teach requires me there in person to teach it. Putting together a work package for a student to do outside the classroom is extra work. It’s work I did not have to do 20 years ago. And even though I completely support the educational reasons for this practice, like other things I’ve mentioned, it has added to my workload without a corresponding reduction in workload elsewhere.

Those are my top 11 items.

I do not list them as a plea for understanding, a plea for sympathy, or as any other form of plea. For those wondering what’s behind all the teacher frustration in the current negotiations, I’m posting this piece as a flashlight that might help illuminate my little corner of this complex issue.

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