Autonomy in the schools

You won’t see all 18 students in Mrs. Lindsay’s Grade 3 class sitting in their desks, pouring over the same story book during their language arts session.

You won’t see all 18 students in Mrs. Lindsay’s Grade 3 class sitting in their desks, pouring over the same story book during their language arts session.

Scattered around the West Park Elementary School classroom at tables, on the floor and at desks, students are involved in a variety of literacy activities.

Each week students get to chose most of their reading activities. On Wednesday, one student read aloud to a classmate at a small table; a group of four practiced their writing by making homemade Pokémon cards; a few wore headphones to listen and read along to a story on their laptop; some did a reading exercise with an education assistant; four others gathered with their teacher to talk about a book on baby beavers Nipissing and Nipigon.

Students either quietly concentrated on their computer screens, chatted together, answered questions, wrote or read.

“When I started there were still a lot of traditional ideas towards teaching. Students in desks, in rows, all the time. Everyone doing the same activity,” said Brianne Lindsay who has been teaching for 10 years.

Anyone would recognize the printed and cursive alphabet sequence posted on the Grade 3 classroom wall, and possibly the mini library tucked into the corner of the room with plastic tubs filled with books.

But shaking up classroom activities has grabbed the attention of students.

Lindsay said giving students more choice in the tasks they do in class is very important. They came up with the idea to create their own Pokémon cards which allowed them to be creative while working on their writing skills.

It does take some time in September to get students familiar with the literacy system and classroom expectations, but it has plenty of advantages, she said.

“I get to have very specific time with students to work on their instruction and everyone is engaged in an activity they want to do.”

She said students learn in different ways and progress at different rates and the system allows her to meet each student at the reading level he or she is at.

“Students flourish in this environment. I see success every day from them, which is awesome. It makes me want to keep doing it and find better ways to help them in others areas.”

Sharing ideas with other teachers is one technique used in Red Deer Public Schools to build momentum in the classroom.

“We are so much better together than if we are a silo in our classroom. We learn from each other. You see so many great ideas that are happening around the school. It’s contagious. Collaboration time we have is invaluable to our programming and our planning,” Lindsay said.

Bev Manning, school board chair with Red Deer Public Schools, said the district’s teachers work hard and it’s the job of the school board to support the work of teachers.

“If you believe you can do it, then you can do it. You have to believe that every child in that classroom is teachable and can learn. We need to work with teachers. We need to give them the support they need to help them to understand this is a job that’s important and they can do it,” Manning said.

Her endorsement comes as educators must adjust to rock-bottom oil prices and brace for the impact that will have on funding for education in the upcoming provincial budget.

“We’re certainly not expecting an increase, but we’re just hoping we’ll be able to maintain operations as they currently are,” Manning said.

“It’s going to be a difficult road no matter what, but teachers are still working hard in the classrooms.”

Contact negotiations for teachers will also start down a new path. Instead of each of Alberta’s 61 school jurisdictions negotiating with its own teachers, now the Teachers’ Employer Bargaining Authority (TEBA) made up of provincial government and school board representatives will negotiate with the Alberta Teachers’ Association.

TEBA is made up of six school board trustees — none of them from Central Alberta — and eight government representatives. TEBA will negotiate the big ticket items like salary and other provincial issues.

Individual school boards will only be allowed to negotiate local issues which have yet to be determined.

“It will likely not be anything of great significance. When the government takes the money part of out it, what is there left to bargain?”

Manning said Red Deer Public Schools is not alone in its stand against the new provincial bargaining model.

“Our board has been pretty clear that we support local bargaining. It has helped us work through problems together and just made for a better district all around. When your teachers and district is working well together, kids flourish.”

She said some school boards were more agreeable to relinquishing negotiating power. But local bargaining was developed to address unique jurisdictional issues.

“What we need in Central Alberta is so different than what we require in Northern Alberta.

“I have to continue to pound my fist and say — local bargaining, local bargaining, local bargaining. But having said that, we are being dragged along kicking and screaming into the provincial bargaining realm,” Manning said.

She said Red Deer Public feels like it has lost a huge part of its local autonomy.

“We’ve lost something very precious and very valuable to us.”