Retired teacher Deborah Stipdonk sees youngsters going unsupervised, parents left in a bind and she’s skeptical that academics outcomes are improving as a result of losing 10 days a year of classroom time.
NWT Teachers’ Association President Fraser Oliver sees grateful and relieved educators and sustained learning standards as the territory has stepped back from previously having the highest total classroom hours of any jurisdiction in the country.
The Northwest Territories is in its third year of the controversial Strengthening Teacher Instruction Practices (STIP), a move negotiated by the teachers’ association and GNWT. It’s intended to allow educators to spend that time on items like preparing report cards or enhancing their teaching skills.
Stipdonk taught for over 25 years, most of that time in Fort Simpson, where she continues to reside and where the maximum STIP allotment has been trimmed from the school calendar. She recalled from her time leading classrooms that she was hard pressed to complete the lessons within the school year before STIP ever existed.
“The curricula is jam-packed,” said Stipdonk, who’s now concerned for her grandchildren entering the school system. “This movement is not increasing literacy. There’s no way, no how.”
She’s not alone in her misgivings. According to feedback gathered by Yellowknife Education District No. 1, approximately 50 per cent of parents didn’t like the reduced class time due to STIP. Concerns included lesser instruction and possible diminished achievement by students.
However, math marks have improved at most Yk1 schools while English and French language arts have remained steady despite classroom hours dropping by 20 to 33 hours per year, depending on the school, according to the Yk1 school board.
“As a district we have not seen a decrease in student achievement,” stated Tina Drew, chair of the Yellowknife Education District No. 1 (Yk1) school board, who added that the district has limited STIP to no more than one-third of the maximum time allotted.
Several other school board representatives in various NWT regions didn’t respond to requests for comment for this article.
Few full weeks of school
Looking at the elementary school calendar in Fort Simpson, there are only several weeks out of the entire school year that are a full five days after accounting for STIP and professional development days, which remain separate, Stipdonk noted. She extrapolated that a student who goes from kindergarten through Grade 12 missing 10 days of school per year due to STIP will ultimately be shortchanged almost three quarters of a school year.
“I’d be shocked if it shows this has improved student performance as they said it would in the beginning,” Stipdonk said. “We say it’s important for kids to go to school, otherwise they’ll be so far behind, but somehow that rule doesn’t seem to apply for teachers’ absences.”
Oliver, who’s in his 39th year in the teaching profession, contended that few schools in the NWT have adopted the full 100 STIP hours and classroom time remains above the minimum required instructional hours. The NWT formerly exceeded every province in terms of class time.
“And yet we were not seeing the student achievement numbers like they were seeing down south,” said Oliver.
He also noted that junior kindergarten, which boasts 86 per cent voluntary enrolment in the NWT, is a relatively new development that is augmenting education.
‘It just isn’t sustainable’
Teachers invariably cope with intensive obligations early in the school year and during report card periods, according to Oliver.
“If you can place personal planning days during those times when there’s demands on teachers’ time, you kind of then can increase teacher wellness during those times,” he said. “When you’re working seven days a week and often working well into the night to be prepared for the next day, it just isn’t sustainable… STIP has really made a positive impact on the wellness of (teachers) and preparing (them) for the challenges of the classroom in a positive way.”
Stipdonk agrees with the need for more preparation time for educators due to a requirement across much of the North to teach a broad spectrum of subject matter to different grade levels. There’s also a relatively high proportion of students with academic or social struggles, she acknowledged.
“Teachers are working pretty flat out… I think teachers need a whole lot more support in what they’re doing,” she said, adding that hiring more staff would be a better solution because it would keep children engaged in school rather than giving them the odd day or half-day off.
Those irregular half-days and days off due to STIP create a hardship for parents scrambling to find babysitters or daycare, Stipdonk asserted.
“That’s a huge problem. What I’m seeing as a grandparent, just looking around, is kids in grades one and two being left alone at home by themselves,” she said. “There’s not enough child care.”
Some working parents must decide whether to use their annual leave from work to cover for these STIP days, or take leave without pay, if they can arrange it, she added.
A Department of Education review released in February indicated that STIP calendar changes indeed had a negative impact on some families. The department recommended “work with broader community to ensure student dismissals are planned, coordinated and avoided where possible to address scheduling challenges faced by families.”
Erin Currie, chair of Yellowknife Catholic School board, said schools across her district align STIP days so that older students are available to care for their younger siblings.
Oliver acknowledged that child care is an obstacle for some parents, but he emphasized that students will be better served in the years to come.
“If you can make me a stronger teacher, it’s going to reflect in my students,” he said. “I think it’s a small price to pay (for parents) for ultimately what we’re going to see in the long run when we’re going to see changes in our kids’ achievement.”
He added that educational outcomes extend beyond STIP. He pointed to attendance rates as a culprit in addition to trauma and neglect in some students’ homes. He said he’s familiar with youth coming to school sleep deprived due to being forced to work. Other students are arriving for class hungry.
The Department of Education is putting mental health counsellors in some regional schools to address some of these issues.
“STIP is part of the solution, but we have to look at all the other things as well,” Oliver said.