Illustration: Amy Chen

You could hardly be blamed for saying that the Ford government is hellbent on destroying public education—that is, if we assume (and perhaps in doing so, we give him too much credit) that Ford and his Minister of Education took time to consider the rational consequences of their cuts. Their victims are, inter alia, $100 million in school repair funds, affecting thirty-six repairs in schools across the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) [1]; a curriculum revision that would incorporate Indigenous perspectives in a manner consistent with Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission [2]; $25 million in funding for specialized programs that provide tutors for struggling students and support for Indigenous students [3]; an autism program [4]; and even full-day kindergarten by 2020 [5]. And, of course, there will be more to come.

At the end of February, Deputy Minister of Education Nancy Naylor advised a hiring freeze in a memo to school board chairs that read, “I am writing to you today to recommend that school boards exercise prudence in making hiring decisions in light of the upcoming Ontario budget and the recent consultation on class size and hiring practices.” [6] The hiring freeze was some indication that the ministry was preparing to raise average class sizes, a cold overture to a symphony of significant loss.

Education Minister Lisa Thompson did not disappoint. On 15 March, she announced the Ontario government plans to implement  increased class sizes for high school and some elementary grades, a “back-to-basics” approach to math, and changes to the sex-ed curriculum. These changes are to occur over the course of four years. With regard to the class sizes, you may have heard people throwing around the numbers 22 and 28 and thought, well, a high school class size cap of 28 seems fair. Oh, but ‘22’ and ‘28’ do not denote class size caps. The government is actually lifting class size caps for high school and elementary schools, which returns the size cap to a system of averages. The average class size is increasing by one student in Grades 4 to 8, and increasing from 22 to 28 for high school classes [7], which means that high school classes can have more than forty students after the changes are implemented.

What does this mean for teachers? According to Ontario secondary enrollment in 2017/2018, there are about 600 000 secondary students in Ontario [8]. Supposing one full-time teacher is needed to teach one class, the number of full-time teachers currently needed is approximately 27 273. Once the increase is implemented, the approximate number of full-time teachers needed will be 21 429, rendering five thousand teachers’ jobs unnecessary. Unless five thousand teachers are retiring or resigning in the next four years, this means job losses, despite Thompson’s confident claims to the contrary. In any case, these changes do not bode well for occasional teachers, especially in addition to the government’s threats to Regulation 274 [9]—but that’s a different issue entirely.

More important, however, is the impact the increase will have on the students crammed into Ontario’s classrooms. Michelle Woodley, a law teacher at Marc Garneau CI, notes that “the real and irreparable damage is the now limited amount of time that teachers can dedicate to individual students in their classes. Increasing class size averages means less time.” Indeed, many critics of Thompson’s proposal are concerned that larger class sizes reduce meaningful one-on-one time. Many students need this time to learn, whether for detailed feedback on an assignment, or a review of the concepts they did not grasp in the lesson, or even for modifying assignments to better match their ability. The loss of this time is the loss of individualized care. And herein lies the problem: when class sizes are so enormous that teachers cannot focus on individual students, learning becomes one-size-fits-all. Thompson cannot reasonably expect teachers to provide one-on-one time for each of their forty students, nor can she expect teachers to tailor every lesson to complement forty diverse learning styles. Thus, the education students receive will not be “responsive”, “high quality”, or “accessible”, as the Ontario Ministry of Education’s mission statement states [10].

The loss of individualized care will almost have the effect of replacing the teacher with a YouTube playlist of Khan Academy videos. Not to worry—that’s already scheduled for 2020. Minister Thompson proposed that of the thirty compulsory credits required to graduate, four must now be e-learning courses. These tend to be “very impersonal, demotivating, and often lack communication and any teacher or peer involvement,” says Mya Wong, a TDSB student who took Canadian history online. According to the government, these online classes will average thirty-five students per class [11]. Like larger class sizes, e-learning courses force a general one-size-fits-all approach, but with even less opportunity for teacher contact. The logistics, too, present numerous challenges. Will schools just schedule classes averaging thirty-five kids to be stuffed into a computer lab? And if not, will students be expected to complete these courses at home regardless of their access to technology? The expectation that all students have equal access to technology would impede the many students who do not have access to the Internet or a computer at home.

Larger class sizes also mean fewer courses and programs. “When you lose one teacher from a school, you lose six courses from that school,” says John Malloy, the director of education for the TDSB. “When they lose six courses, it’s been my experience as a former secondary principal, that you lose the electives.” [12] Courses that do not meet the class size averages required by the province could also be cut. That means no more World History or Cooking or Families in Canada or Geography of Food—effectively, students will have far less control over central aspects of their education. Students will have fewer opportunities to formally explore areas of interest to them, the subjects they might one day pursue as their careers.

But high school teachers are much more than just educators. They’re coaches, they’re mentors, and they’re confidants to countless secondary students in Ontario. We ask them about happiness, about finding motivation, about the future, for them to ramble amiably about the things that bring them happiness, their own experiences, their own mentors. Yes—believe it or not, your teachers actually care. Every day, they stand at the front of the classroom, somehow willing to do everything they can for our learning and for us as individuals. Every day, their eyes inquire our faces for the unusually furrowed brow, for those distant glassy eyes that betray desolation. There is a clear trend of declining mental health in students: the TDSB’s 2017 Student and Parent Census indicated that over time, fewer and fewer students feel connected and like they belong [13]. And as the number of high school students facing mental health issues rockets, the care that teachers provide is especially important. These changes are not just detrimental to the quality of education that secondary students receive—they also compromise real human relationships and the degree of care that teachers are able to provide.

So get angry. Contact your MPP, Lisa Thompson, Doug Ford, even Sam Oosterhoff (see for more). Because none of this is about students or meaningful learning or what students need, especially in terms of mental health. We don’t need to be made more resilient—we need small classes and caring staff to teach them.