'Nowhere to turn': Teachers left alone to deal with special needs, fed up with system

Educators in Newfoundland and Labrador are fed up with the implementation of the inclusive education model at their schools — a system that sees students with various special needs placed in regular classrooms with little to no support.

One teacher handling classes where more than half the students require extra attention

Mary Foley teaches in a community where foster children with severe needs outnumber the students with regular needs. (CBC)

Mary Foley lived in a bubble for 38 years.

Her tiny school in Conche, a small town on Newfoundland's Northern Peninsula, was a heaven on earth, where all community members took a vested interest in the children and fostered their growth.

When the school closed this year, Foley began substituting in the region. Her bubble quickly exploded.

"These students are coming in with a multitude of concerns and issues," she said. 

"And I'm sorry, the regular classroom teacher cannot provide what they need."

Inclusive education — a method that sees students of various needs in the same classroom — has opened Foley's eyes to a different side of her profession. 

Inclusive education not working: teacher panel 

During the first segment of the three-part series, Inside the Classroom, 30 educators from across Newfoundland and Labrador discussed issues they face.

The teachers were asked if they thought inclusive education was working in their respective schools.

Silence fell across the room as host Ramona Dearing finished the question. Not one hand went up.

The idea of inclusive education was introduced to the Newfoundland and Labrador school system in the 1990s. The goal was to reform special education, end the segregation of special needs children and encourage socialization amongst their peers.

Angela Dawe, a junior high teacher on the northeast Avalon, said she goes home at the end of the day feeling defeated. (CBC)

While many teachers on the panel agreed with the goal of inclusive education, they said the realities do not match the intentions.

"I can't possibly divide myself 31 ways," said Angela Dawe, a junior high teacher on the northeast Avalon. 

"I leave my classroom many days, I go home, and I feel defeated… That's a horrible way to feel as a professional that deeply cares about the well-being of my students."

Resources major issue

Several teachers described classrooms with multiple students on individualized education programs (IEPs) and no additional staff to assist them.

They are mandated to deal with the most intensive needs first, before moving down the line.

I could not address the needs of that class because the support was not there.- Russell Stockley , elementary school teacher

Some children, however, have issues that can take up a teacher's full attention.

Russell Stockley, an elementary school teacher in central Newfoundland, said he's been in situations where, in a class of 20 or more, nearly half of those students were on IEPs.

Some of those kids deal with behavioural issues that demand his full attention. And yet, Stockley is the only staff member in the classroom.

Russell Stockley, an elementary school teacher in central Newfoundland, said recently, he was the only teacher in a class where more than half the students had exceptionalities. (CBC)

"I could not physically do it on my own," he said. 

"I could not address the needs of that class because the support was not there. The resourcing was not there."

Job is no longer about teaching

While the other teachers' complaints echo one another, Foley's situation is unique.

She now substitutes at a different school on Newfoundland's Northern Peninsula, in a class where more than half her students are in foster care.

The children come with a litany of emotional and behavioural problems, taken from dysfunctional homes in Labrador and resettled on the island.

The inclusive education model means the foster children, who require extra attention, are in a regular classroom with other students.

When her school closed, teacher Mary Foley retired, only to return to the profession as a substitute — and she was floored by the situations she landed in at different schools. (CBC)

As a substitute teacher, Foley said she sometimes feels like a social worker thrown into a job with dire consequences.

She said she feels it is no longer possible to be a teacher without the proper resources being added to the classroom — trained professionals who could help deliver the educational, behavioural, and emotional support the children need.

"I'm telling you, there's nothing worse than to sit in a classroom and be a teacher to children who are hurting, who miss their home, who miss their mother and every other need along with it," she said. 

"But you know something? You have nowhere to turn. And that's not right."

About the Author

Ryan Cooke

Ryan Cooke works for CBC out of its bureau in St. John's.

With files from Ramona Dearing