Terry Piper, Dean
Since September, I have been travelling to school districts throughout Newfoundland and Labrador, visiting superintendents, assistant superintendents, program coordinators, principals, teachers - in short, anyone who was willing to talk to me about education in the Province. I undertook these visits, not to build up air miles - Air Labrador doesn't have a frequent-flyer plan that I'm aware of - but to put into situational and human context the issues about which I had read in the Royal Commission report and which are implied in Adjusting the Course. I had another reason, and that was to try to learn first hand how the Faculty of Education is viewed by our colleagues in the profession and to find out how our programs are meeting the real needs of the Province.
I probably should have written a travelogue as I wandered from Stephenville to Port-aux-Basques to Deer Lake and Plum Point and Flowers Cove, from Fortune and Grand Banks to Clarenville, Gander, Milltown and English Harbour, and even further away from St. John's to Goose Bay, Wabush and Labrador City, and to many other places which remain fixed in my memory - Cormack, for instance, where sixty-some children in an all-grade school work in a computer laboratory which would be the envy of any school anywhere and which was made possible by the efforts of parents. But even though I was often reminded of the Kingdom by the Sea, I am not Paul Theroux and Newfoundland is not England. And so I went, I saw, I talked and I listened, and when I got into my rented four-wheel drive as the weeks turned wintry, to drive to my next destination, I dictated my thank-you letters and my impressions for Susan to transcribe later, notes which would give my memory a boost when I couldn't recall whether I met the Norwegian-speaking children at Balbo Elementary or at the Lake Academy.
This rather long preamble is partly a way of stalling, of putting off the moment when I have to stop scanning the memory bank and start extracting generalizations which impose order on the abundant experiences, impressions, and perceptions which are stored there. There are many possible ways of organizing the "input data," but I have chosen four generalizations that I believe best capture my observations to date.
1. Newfoundlanders care about education. Evidence is easy to find. I have never seen smaller operating budgets than I found in the school districts in this Province, and yet most of the schools are reasonably well equipped. Of course, they could always use more books in their libraries, computer hardware and software, classroom assistance for children who need a little extra help, but visiting schools in this Province, one would not immediately guess that this is a "have-not" Province. That is because communities have taken on the responsibility of looking after their schools, or trying to ensure that their children do not go without those technological and other resources which are necessary if they hope to compete for university places or for a diminishing number of jobs, jobs which require very different skills than they did a decade or two ago.
In Cormack, for example, I saw a computer laboratory completely equipped with customized tables and shelves lovingly built by parents for the K-6 school. These same parents also raised the money to buy computers to supplement those bought by the District. At this same school there is a beautiful playground nestled in the trees, constructed and maintained by parents. Cormack is not unique, either. Everywhere I travelled I saw evidence of strong support for the schools. I saw parents working in libraries and in classrooms and lunchrooms, assisting children with special needs, or helping teachers who needed an extra pair of hands. I also found that school personnel greatly appreciate the participation of the community.
2. Curricular change is needed. This is a point on which I have heard little disagreement, but there is also little disagreement that many of the assumptions underlying the recommendations for change are simplistic if not faulty. The recurring theme is that the Department of Education fails to take account of the geographic and demographic realities that impact our schools. Dr. Crocker says that we need to focus on the "traditional" areas of language, math, science and technology. I agree (and so do most of the teachers I've talked to), but how can a high school with 78 children offer advanced placement physics, English, or advanced-placement anything?
Another concern expressed across the Province is that greater emphasis on the traditional ("core") curriculum should not come at the expense of art and music. The threat to these areas is a result of our assumption that we need to spend MORE time on these subjects when what may be needed is better time. This assumption, as has been pointed out to me repeatedly, is simply false. No additional amount of time will result in greater learning outcomes if the quality of the time spent is poor or inappropriate for the task or the student. This issue sometimes surfaced in discussions of teachers' perception that the Department is trying to do away with field trips and other diversions from "time on task." They point out that it is the "non-core" subjects such as music, theatre, physical education, and French which will suffer most under this policy. They also express discomfort over extending the time we spend at anything without a clearer idea about how successful it is. They also express the worry that the retention rate, greatly improved in nearly all districts in recent years, will begin to drop again if schools return to an "all work and no play" mode of operation.
3. Teachers know that change is needed and are prepared to participate in the process. As a recent arrival in Newfoundland, I was a little surprised to find so much accord on this subject, having got the impression that many in the profession were at odds with the government's stated intentions for revising the curriculum. What I learned is that there is widespread agreement on the need for change, but, and this is a very important qualification, what is being questioned is the mechanism or process. Teachers believe, rightly, I think, that as the people most intimately acquainted with the problems in the schools and those who will ultimately be responsible for implementing change, they should be active participants at the decision stage. They are also worried that the government's motivation may be more financial than educational -- that the desire to save money will inspire changes that may be more fiscally than academically sound.
4. The denominational system may be cumbersome, but it is NOT the biggest educational issue which the Province confronts. Of course, we could argue and debate about what the most important or biggest issue is. One way of determining that is to determine which problem, if solved, would have the greatest impact on solving the others. Having identified a score of problems (retention rates, low literacy rates, low test scores, overcrowded classes, small schools which cannot afford specialty programs, too few program coordinators, too few counsellors, etc.), can we then pick one which, if solved, would "fix" all the others? Would crushing the denominational system, for example, solve the "problem" of low test scores? Probably not, unless there were hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars saved that could be reallocated to intervention programs. On the other hand, it seems that if we could solve the literacy problem, then a lot of the others would solve themselves. The denominationalism issue might not go away, but I've seen abundant evidence that it is in the process of solving itself anyway, or rather, that schools and school districts are well on the way to making significant changes themselves.
The past four months have provided me with a short course in education and in geography (and in linguistics, but that's another story). We all know that geography has a profound impact on education in Newfoundland, but there are certain impacts of geography which I believe have special professional development requirements. Attracting good teachers is not as difficult now, when there is a national and provincial oversupply of teachers, but if projections are correct and we face a shortage in a few years, there will have to be some sort of incentives to attract teachers to small, relatively isolated communities. Providing financial inducements for teachers to work in small or remote schools is not our job, of course, but we can provide another kind of incentive. By encouraging student interns to locate outside the metropolitan area, we take an important first step toward supplying the teachers who will be required within a few years.
Our principal job, of course, is to prepare new teachers to meet the social and educational demands of those communities when they get there, but perhaps more importantly, it is to help them to maintain professional currency. Professional development for all teachers in the Province, but concentrating our attention on those locations distant from St. John's, should be our service priority if we are to create and sustain a productive partnership with our colleagues in the profession. I believe passionately in that partnership and its potential for making Newfoundland a Canadian leader in education. Partnerships are, of course, very easy to talk about; they are much harder to create and to sustain. They depend upon mutual respect and trust and they require hard work. Travelling the Province, I have been extremely impressed with the willingness of the profession to enter into a working partnership. The dedication that members of the profession demonstrate by their hard work in an increasingly uncertain and sometimes hostile environment bodes well for a productive partnership. To risk being trite, though, the ball is in our court. The Faculty now must demonstrate that we are willing and able to establish and maintain the kinds of alliances that will further our goal of excellence in education, a goal which already bonds us. I undertook to visit all the school districts in the Province to begin to negotiate the alliance. I now look forward to working with the Faculty and with the profession to realize our goals through research, teaching and professional development that meet the needs of and are accessible to the teachers of Newfoundland and Labrador and that set us well on our course into the twenty-first century.