Retired Regina EA explains the complexities of modern classrooms


As teachers consider the provincial government's contract offer, a Regina woman who has spent 23 years in schools explains the realities of today's classrooms and why teachers are so focused on finding remedies for classroom complexities.

“People don't understand the dynamics of class size and complexity because it's much more intense and there are many more needs in the classroom than ever before,” Dianne Swann said.

Swann spent more than two decades as an early-grade teaching assistant in Regina and retired in February.

She said when she hears people talk about classrooms today, they usually think about what the classrooms looked like when they were in school. But Swann said they were nothing of the sort anymore.

Special needs

Years ago, Swann said children with special needs were placed in separate classrooms, but now they are integrated with the other children. Swann said that's good and pointed out that there are places for these children, but she also said there is no minimum threshold for how well they can function.

“Often they come into a classroom that is not designed to meet their needs,” she said. “It's not set up safely enough for them, so there aren't enough people to monitor (and help) them. There are not enough EAs (and) there are not enough trained professionals, which can create a dangerous situation for the student, his fellow students (and) for the staff who work there.”

Swann said classrooms today can be evacuated regularly because a student is creating a dangerous environment.

“This is the learning environment that the little ones have to go through if they need to evacuate their classroom or someone evacuates that student to ensure the safety of their peers and staff,” Swann said.

She said this is all due to cuts in staffing and special needs programs.

When she began her career, Swann said she would be assigned to a student and shadow them and help them through the day, occasionally helping one or two other students if her assigned student was working independently.

As she left, Swan said she had to help more and more children until she and the teacher were working at full speed all the time, but still couldn't reach everyone.

“It's like a high-speed fight. They try to meet all the needs of all different students,” she said.

English as a second language

Swann said there has also been an increase in children entering the school who don't speak a word of English, and she said the year-long English program has been cut and support often doesn't begin until third grade.

“In your language there is no explanation of where the bathroom is, where the toilet is or what will happen at lunch. Very often the families don’t speak English well either, so they are often deported and left behind,” she said.

“So that becomes a problem when they're in the classroom and they don't understand. Then the behavior becomes a problem and then you try to deal with it.”

Swann said one or two non-English-speaking students in a class might be manageable, but some teachers have three or five in a class who don't speak English, plus another 28 students to teach.

Stress for teachers

It can be difficult for the children, Swann said, but also for the teachers and staff who are doing their best to give the children a great education.

“It's really hard to see teachers and staff struggling and it's taking a toll on everyone because they're trying to do what they love to do but they just don't have the support,” she explained.

Even without all the children with special needs, class sizes are now huge, Swann said.

“You’re just really inferior. You don’t have the resources, you don’t have the support (and) you just physically can’t do it,” she said.

Swann said she has heard of teachers quitting en masse before they even reach the fifth year of their careers. She herself has had a number of medical problems due to the stress and frustration of the work.

“I ended up in the emergency room (and) took different medications, but I'm no different than anyone else. I see my colleagues going down like bowling pins,” she said.

Since retiring, Swann has been able to stop taking one of her medications.

With all that experience behind her, Swann doesn't believe teachers' demands during this contract dispute were unreasonable. She doesn't believe the government has any idea what's really going on in classrooms these days.

Teachers are expected to vote in May on the potential deal, which will be unveiled this week.