Nfld. & Labrador

Inside the Classroom: Schools not staffed to deal with behavioural issues, teachers say

Students and staff are facing violence in the Newfoundland and Labrador school system, due in large part to a lack of supports for special needs students, teachers told CBC.

One teacher recounts being choked by a student in her classroom

Mary Jo Marsden has been through the wringer in her 30 years of teaching. (CBC)

Mary Jo Marsden fought to break the grip of a student, who had his hands wrapped tightly around her neck, as it became harder and harder to breathe.

She clenched the student's wrists and gasped for air. 

Pushing her arms upwards, as she'd been taught, she used her remaining breath to shout in his face.

Alarmed, the student let go and backed away — the look on his face changing from anger to remorse.

Inside the Classroom

6 years ago
Duration 1:17
hirty teachers from Newfoundland and Labrador gathered for a frank discussion on the state of education and schools in this province. Here's a sneak peek.

"When he came to the realization he had his hands on my neck, he was devastated," Marsden said.

Inside the Classroom

On a Saturday in January, 30 teachers, principals, and school counsellors from across the province assembled at CBC News in St. John's, on their own time, to talk about a profession they love — that's laced with a number of difficult issues. The Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers' Association (NLTA) covered their travel costs. 

The town hall discussion with host Ramona Dearing was turned into a three-part series, called Inside the Classroom.

I've gone home with bite marks, and scratches, and bloody noses, fat lips, shins pummeled.- Mary Jo Marsden, retired teacher

For Marsden, a retired elementary school teacher, this incident stands out from a long list of violent encounters in a 30-year career in special education.

"I've gone home with bite marks, and scratches, and bloody noses, fat lips, shins pummeled," she said during the first segment of Inside the Classroom.

"Between physio, massage therapy, psychologists, a chiropractor ... It was just so I could do my job."

Violence common, teachers say

Kevin Flynn has seen teachers bitten, scratched, and kicked in attacks by disruptive students.

Flynn is an instructional resource teacher (IRT) — today's terminology for a special education teacher.

Kevin Flynn, an instructional resource teacher, spoke about a teacher who had to wear a garbage bag because of a student who was prone to spitting. (CBC)

Where people in his line of work often taught special needs students in a separate room, they now find themselves mixed into mainstream classrooms, where they work in tandem with another teacher to deliver lessons to kids of varying needs and exceptionalities.

The method — known as inclusive education — is seen as a good philosophy by many of the 30 teachers who took part in the forum. 

I know situations where teachers have had to wear a garbage bag in the classroom because a student has been prone to spitting.- Kevin Flynn, instructional resource teacher

However, the educators said there are simply not enough teachers like Flynn to work closely with the children to meet their needs.

The children in their classes range in the level of supports they need, from learning disabilities to severe social and behavioural disorders.

"I know situations where teachers have had to wear a garbage bag in the classroom because a student has been prone to spitting," Flynn said. 

"This is causing enormous teacher stress."

'Not thinking about the bigger picture'

Dale Parsons has a junior high class with 29 students, five of whom have exceptionalities.

He does not have an IRT like Flynn to assist him in the classroom. 

His special needs students have a range of issues from learning disabilities to behavioural and social disorders. Together, they take up an estimated 80 per cent of his time.

The remaining students are left to vie for his attention.

Junior high teacher, Dale Parsons, said people are scrambling to keep up, rather than trying to fix the root cause of problems. (CBC)

It's a problem with the system, he said — which places a child in need of intensive help in the same room as those who simply need to be taught, and does not give teachers the resources required to help anyone.

As a result, Parsons spends much of his time moving from one incident to the next, taking care of behavioural blow-ups instead of sticking to the curriculum.

"People are mopping the floor when there's a hole in the bucket," Parsons said.

"I feel we are dealing with issues on a daily basis, but we are not thinking about the bigger picture. There's a systemic issue, but we're worried about the fallout more than stopping the flow of water."

More resources needed

Mary Jo Marsden doesn't blame the student who wrapped his hands around her throat.

She was forced to take stress leave after the incident, but returned to work and finished out her career in 2016.

During her final years at an elementary school on the northeast Avalon, she saw similar violence on a regular basis.

Mary Jo Marsden, a retired teacher, described being choked by a student in class. (CBC)

She said she understands the behavioural issues students have, but she worries about the impact on other kids who have to witness these incidents.

The blame, she said, belongs to the governments that have understaffed schools around the province.

"It's all due to resourcing," she said. 

"We have not got enough resources in the system to provide the special help that we need for the variety of children that we are facing every day."


Ryan Cooke is a journalist in St. John's.

With files from Ramona Dearing