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Op-ed: Where have all the teachers gone?

Alberta’s students deserve the best. Unfortunately, our ability to attract and retain teachers to work in public schools is being eroded.
Jason Schilling is the president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association and a teacher from Lethbridge, Alta. | Photo courtesy of ATA

Dedicated teachers are exiting the province and exiting the profession because of how untenable working conditions have become. With an influx of new students into classrooms in recent years, teachers are facing a workload that feels overwhelming, impossible, and unrelenting. Not only are class sizes large, but the unmet needs of the students are tremendous.

The government routinely shares that Alberta has one of the best education systems in the world, and we do. However, while the government takes the credit, teachers and school leaders are doing the work of propping up a system on edge. That work is becoming more and more complex and challenging.

Work intensification and the moral distress of seeing students struggle without getting access to the supports they require are wreaking havoc on the teaching profession.

This school year has seen another very large increase in the number of students across the province. School divisions in Edmonton and Calgary alone are seeing an addition of up to 16,000 new students. Rapid growth in the student population has been going on for years. Sadly, the funding of our schools has not kept up.

The most recent data from Statistics Canada paints a dire picture. Alberta’s schools are by far the lowest funded, per pupil, in the country. As a result, we have a significantly higher ratio of students to teacher than every other province. Public education in Alberta would need an increase of 1.2 billion dollars to bring Alberta just to the Canadian funding average.

Every student in public schools deserves to have their learning needs met. It is irresponsible and, frankly, quite shocking that Alberta students are dead last in Canada when it comes to funding.

I know that teachers are not alone in this concern. Recent public opinion polling the ATA conducted showed that 72 per cent of Albertans believe class sizes are too big, while 68 per cent of Albertans believe the government is not spending enough to support our public schools.

What does this lack of funding actually look like on a day-to-day basis in our schools and classrooms? Students crammed into overcrowded classes with the number of students too often creeping up into the high 30s and low 40s. A lack of resources such as textbooks and teacher guides to support newly introduced curriculum. Too many classes without educational assistants and too many students going without the extra support they require to succeed.

It is easy to see how this sustained neglect to adequately support schools is impacting the people who work in those schools. Increasingly, teachers and school leaders are feeling a sense of despair when they cannot meet the needs of their students on a daily basis. This feeling of hopelessness is driving great teachers and school leaders, who want to do their very best for our students, away from the profession. Currently, there are several school jurisdictions across the province with job postings that are going unfilled.

The issues in education are quickly becoming normalized and that’s not right. It doesn’t need to be this way.

We need to move the narrative away from the idea that public education is an expense that we cannot afford. We cannot keep asking our public education system to do more with less. By underfunding our public schools, we are failing a generation of students who will one day be our province’s leaders.

As the legislature returns this fall, it is my hope that our elected officials will look at education as an investment in our students and their futures. We have an amazing resource in Alberta of teachers who are educating the leaders of tomorrow. We can’t afford NOT to properly fund public education in Alberta.

Jason Schilling is the president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association and a teacher from Lethbridge, Alberta with 25 years of experience in the classroom.