HALIFAX — Meg Ferguson loves her job, but she isn’t quite sure why anyone else would choose to do it — at least, not right now.
Her passion shows on her face when she walks into the band room at Auburn Drive High School — a room with music stands in semicircular rows, acoustic panelling on the walls, and Ferguson’s desk tucked into a corner.
She’s one of about 10,000 public school teachers in Nova Scotia whose profession has recently been under heightened scrutiny. They’ve had a tense relationship with the province since an unprecedented strike in 2016-17, followed by educational reform adopted earlier this year — the government’s response to lagging test scores.
But Ferguson has been at the front of a classroom since well before that.
She’s been teaching music in and around Halifax for 23 years, and if her zeal has declined over those two decades, she must have started with a lot of it.
“I’m usually here at 7:00, band rehearsals start at 8:00, they’re done at 9:00, school starts at 9:25,” she said, describing a typical day.
“Lunchtime is usually a bunch of kids in the music room either for extra help or just jamming or playing or hanging out here having their lunch.”
Lessons continue in the afternoon (she’s teaching Sociology and English this year, in addition to music classes), and after the bell she stays for more rehearsals, marking, and preparing for the next day.
“I usually make myself leave at 7:00 ’cause I feel like I need to cap the 12 hours, and then sometimes I take stuff home,” she said.
Ferguson said she’s always put in a lot of hours and the time commitment alone does not necessarily bother her, but the demands of the job have changed in recent years and she worries about teachers being able to keep pace.
“We’re much more aware of the students’ needs … We know better now that the child isn’t misbehaving because they’re a jerk, it’s because they’re bored or they have attention problems or they have special needs and they don’t understand what’s happening,” she said.
“So all of that takes more time to prepare for and do research … I need more time to try to figure out how to meet those needs.”
Ferguson said that the era of “chalk and talk” — the teaching style wherein the teacher writes on a chalkboard, students take notes, and then the class talks about the notes — is ending. It’s a one-size-fits-all approach, and the new educational philosophy favours more individualized attention.
Nova Scotia’s Department of Education is in the first stages of a five-year plan to implement an “inclusive education” model that addresses that change.
Education Minister Zach Churchill introduced the plan earlier this year, promising to hire more specialized teachers and more support staff. The first phase had a goal of filling 191 positions for the start of the school year; the department hired 190 new staff by the start of October.
For some families, the inclusive model has been too little too late, and they’ve moved their kids to private school rather than wait for changes to take effect.
Ferguson said she’s on board with the aims of inclusive education. She recently reworked a “chalk and talk” lesson into an interactive one, creating a faux archeological dig for her Sociology students.
That took her three days in the summer to organize — it isn’t something she can do for every lesson.
She said she gladly leans on the support of resource teachers (who are trained to handle special learning needs) to help with individualized lesson plans, but there are only two at Auburn Drive. The school has close to 50 teachers and about 800 students; those two resource teachers aren’t always readily available.
Paul Wozney, Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU) president, said he expects most teachers across the province are feeling similar pressures.
“In terms of impacts that you probably are feeling as a teacher regardless of what you teach in Nova Scotia: workload, the complexity of student needs, the relative lack of resources to support diverse student needs,” he said in an interview.
Nova Scotia teachers are promised about 10 per cent of their time for marking and preparation, according to their contract, which Wozney said is not enough considering the changing demands.
“There’s no violation of any contract, that’s not what the issue is. But you know instead of working to provide people more than the minimum, it’s become a race to the bottom.”
For both Ferguson and Wozney, the classroom challenges that teachers have been recently facing have one particularly glaring consequence: they’re deterring people from the profession.
“I can’t imagine how (young people) would be inspired to be a teacher, become a teacher, let alone stay and teach in this province. And it’s sad because it’s such an amazing profession,” said Ferguson.
Wozney said he has “real concerns” about a teacher shortage. There are new challenges in the classroom, and he worries that the public perception of teachers has suffered ever since the strike two years ago.
“Students don’t want to be teachers in Nova Scotia anymore,” he said.
“Really teachers have been thrown under the bus time and again by this current government and that really is having an impact on young people making decisions about what they want to do with their lives.”
Enrolment in Bachelor of Education programs doesn’t seem to be suffering. Spokespersons from Mount Saint Vincent University and Acadia University both said that enrolment has been on the rise for the past five years, with Acadia reaching capacity for the past two.
Still, as students graduate from those programs, they’ll be entering the profession “at a tumultuous time,” according to Wozney.
Education Minister Zach Churchill doesn’t see the same problem.
“That tells me that despite whatever moments of tension can exist between the teachers union and the government and whatever feelings that come to the forefront during those moments of tension that we know are there, I think people know that teaching is a meaningful line of work.”
It’s been a meaningful line of work for Ferguson, and continues to be, but that isn’t always enough.
“I have considered not teaching … which would break my heart because I love it.”
Education, which is always at the forefront of public debate in Nova Scotia, has been discussed with added fervour this year following major reforms by the provincial government. This month, StarMetro has looked at some of the new and recurring concerns with the system. Catch up with part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.
Taryn Grant is a Halifax-based reporter focusing on education. Follow her on Twitter: @tarynalgrant