Costs and Benefits…

helen and anne s 2
Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan

Did you know that the BC government now considers learning supports for students with special needs in public education a “wage benefit” for teachers that is “too expensive” for taxpayers to afford?

Better read that again… I know it’s a bit of a mindtwist.  It would make sense though if you remember that this is the same group of people who have redefined what “essential” means… but I digress.

Back to benefits. Now you and I may expect employee benefits to be about medical coverage or a dental plan or a car or travel expenses. We’d be wrong, according to Premier Christy Clark. Benefits now include having other workers around you to do the work that must be done. By this definition, a nurse is a salary benefit to a doctor; a secretary is a salary benefit to an executive, and a dental assistant is a salary benefit to a dentist.

So, according this framing of our proposals for a wage increase in an attempt to decrease the blow our salaries have taken over the past 8 years due to the increase in the cost of living, if an Education Assistant helps a student in our classrooms, or if our school has learning specialist teachers, their work in the school is costed as a benefit to our salaries.

I wonder if the Premier counts the cost of her assistants in the same way, or are they just considered the perks of the job like dining out and iTunes purchases?

But what if we looked at the whole concept of benefits in a different way. Who actually benefits when we support students whose brains work differently?

We all do…

In fact people who ‘think differently’ have completely changed the world in the past. They are also presently changing the world and, if we give the students in our classrooms now the support they need, they will change the world of the future.

Take Michael Faraday for example. As a child he stuttered and struggled in school at a time when the very concept of support for students with special needs was unheard of. Luckily for us, his mother took him out of school and provided what she could in spite of their poverty.  When he grew up, even with an incomplete formal education, he discovered electromagnetism.

Now I’m not a scientist, but this much I know thanks to the television series “Cosmos”, that without Faraday’s discovery the very act of reading this blog post via the internet would not be possible.

Just sit with that fact for a moment…

Imagine what more Faraday might have given us if he had had support at school?

Here’s another example.  I’d never heard of Dean Kamen, the inventor of the iBot wheelchair and the Segway, before I watched an interview with him.  In it he explained how he struggled in school because, he said, as soon as the teacher opened her mouth he felt like a fire hose was coming at him. His  mind would be still processing the first thing the teacher said while she kept moving on, and he felt flooded with information. I imagine that this is how the mind of an incredible inventor works – taking a tiny bit of information and seeing infinite possibilities.

Thomas Edison’s inventions provide another example of how much we have gained from creative thinkers. The way Edison learned in school was so different to what other students did that his teacher said his mind was “addled”.  Despite only three months of formal schooling, he gave us the light bulb, the phonograph and the moving picture camera.  All inventions that radically changed the world.

We are very lucky when people who think differently have mentors or people who support them.   How much poorer in ideas would our world have been without the mind of Helen Keller, who although deaf and blind contributed so much through her writing and talks.  Her success due in no small way to the support she received from her teacher, Anne Sullivan.

Temple Grandin is another example of someone who has contributed much to the world after having lots of support as a child for her autism and speech difficulties.  What she has done is so amazing, Hollywood made a movie of her life. In fact Hollywood seems to have more interest than politicians do in special thinkers, given movies such as Radio,  A Beautiful Mind, Little Man Tate, Rain Man….

In this century, when all our chickens are coming home to roost in the form of dramatic climate change sparking the rapid spread of diseases once limited to small areas of the planet, we are going to need out-of-the-box kinds of  thinking that students with special needs do naturally all the time.  We are going to need special solutions to the special challenges we all face. Students with special needs may grow up to be the very people who will help us solve our most intractable problems.

So I guess in some sense, the BC government is right when they say that support for students with special needs is a benefit.

The part they got wrong however is that it’s a benefit for us all, not just to teachers. Supporting students with special needs will benefit humankind in ways we can’t even imagine yet.

But what about the costs if we don’t support these students? Well, apart from never knowing what the inventions or discoveries of students with special needs could have been, we will also continue to spend billions of dollars on a population of incarcerated people, many of whom are illiterate or have learning disabilities.

Since 2002  the number of Learning Specialists in BC schools has been cut by 20% and the cuts will increase again in 2014/15, a direct result of chronic underfunding. I’m not sure how much our Premier believes she is saving and for what purpose when she continues to cut approximately $250 million per year from the education budget, but that money is not really a savings if it has to be spent dealing with the costs of the consequences of those cuts.

Supporting all our students in all ways possible is not a cost when seen in this light. It’s an investment in benefits that we will all share.

13 thoughts on “Costs and Benefits…”

  1. Supporting all our students in all ways possible is not a cost when seen in this light. It’s an INVESTMENT in benefits that we will all share.” I know someone who is a ‘special needs’teacher. Her ward is often 15 in diapers,strapped in a wheel chair, cannot walk, has to be fed, cannot speak and only grunt. Our government has deemed that no one can be denied an education, so this kid and others like him are accepted in a regular class, where disruptions are common. Stories of kids taking their pants off and chasing girls down the hallways are common. She gets to spoon feed this kid and change his diapers several times a day. Sometimes these kids attack other kids and their caregivers.
    When she teaches these kids something that a 6 year old will be taught, the memory retention is often ten minutes. Then forgotten. Should these kids be denied education? Should they be integrated in the school system, where their behavior at best, inhibits the learning of other kids? And if it is dangerous to other children or their teachers, then what?


  2. This is a very well-written article and absolutely needed. What we do have to keep in mind whilst advocating for the special needs of our children is that because ALL children learn differently, the educators around them have to also be responsive to those needs. (I am not referring to the experiences of teachers such as the one shared above by Bruce).
    As a teacher myself (from ON), and mother to a child with special needs (a child who can work at grade level with technology in place), who has attended schools in the largest district in BC for past few years, I am beyond disappointed. When a Principal sees nothing wrong with a classroom teacher having unqualified parent volunteers “teach” the entire Guided Reading program, run Math workshop, and the Spelling program is sent home for homework for the whole year, I see huge red flags. When there is no question of competency even after I request any form of formative/summative assessment for the year and only receive photocopied worksheets, I see huge red flags.
    As a teacher myself, I know that this is absolutely NOT a reflection of the many outstanding teachers who go above and beyond their teaching day to ensure students are engaged in 21st century learning but this has not been the case for our family. It seems easy to say that an IEP will be created and an assistant designated to him and all will be well because the classroom teacher will receive all the support she needs. What happens when neither the IEP is responsive to the needs of the child, nor the assistant is even remotely trained to meet the needs of the child? Extra funding and pay increases may well support certain classrooms but will extra money truly produce culturally responsive teachers who can meet the needs of 21st century learners?


  3. I’m a trained, qualified special education teacher, and have been for 35 years. I hold a masters degree in my field.

    Bruce, you are correct, that the term, “special needs” encompasses a vast range of children. Some students are indeed diapered and non-verbal, while others are bright, even gifted, but have the divergent thinking patterns that Lizanne describes.

    So let’s talk about that for a minute. I think Lizanne has made an outstanding case for why we need to provide the necessary *trained* specialists to work with those whose abilities will allow them to potentially contribute to our future. There is no question that many of the world’s great thinkers have been poorly served by a rigid school system, and that the flexibility that modern education can allow, will potentially greatly improve their contributions to our world.

    But let’s take a look at the student you describe. First of all, the individual you mention, by the description you give, is an Educational Assistant, or EA. Teachers are not assigned to single students, and the diaper changing and feeding are generally tasks performed by EAs. And, you see, this brings us to a massive problem currently created by the underfunding situation in BC schools.

    Teachers are trained to teach typical children. They are provided with some overview material on the implications of various disabilities, but they aren’t trained in how to work with these kids beyond a very rudimentary level. Educational Assistants, on the other hand, are in place to provide for the personal care needs of the one or two children they work with, and to ***implement an educational program under the guidance of a special educator.*** When such a specialist is available, s/he will set up a carefully thought out program including training in communication, behaviour skills, skills for independence and various other things in consultation with medical specialists, such as physio or occupational therapy. With this kind of targeted, individualized program, a child such as you describe, Bruce, can learn a very great many things that make life much easier for him, his parents, and his community. And yes, with a specialist involved, there will be carefully managed and skillful integration into some specifically chosen regular classes. Depending upon the needs of the child, this integration may be quite limited, or it may be full time, but again, this is worked through specifically with the individual needs of the child in mind. This is why we originally introduced Individual Education Plans, or IEP.s

    But what is happening in the school system right now, Bruce, is that there are very, very few trained, experienced specialist teachers left. I am one of a disappearing group. Since the government has been axing funding for Special Ed positions over the past twelve years, teachers have not elected the field, because there are fewer and fewer jobs. The scarcity is now so severe, that people in the positions are often brand new, first year teachers, who have never before had a classroom, never mind a special needs child. Because of my own background, I often mentor such new teachers, and they are frequently very compassionate, caring individuals. Unfortunately, even with training, the work is demanding, and currently, in my own position, I am doing a job that would have been at least the jobs of two and a half people in other districts or other times. Even I succumbed to the intensity of trying to do so much this year, with a nasty, two month long bout of pneumonia requiring hospitalisation, so you can only imagine the burnout rate for new, beginning teachers without special ed bacgrounds.

    Because of this phenomenon, you have two factors adding to the problem of the child you described. One is that, the chances are extremely high that he will only have access to a brand new person without the background to effectively guide the EA in strategies and tools to help the child. This leads to frustrated staff, frustrated kids, and little if any learning. Such children will sometimes become violent, because without a way to communicate, they cannot express their needs and their distress. When I have had the type of position in which I could truly support kids at that level, amazing things have happened. There are a great many things that can be done.

    The other issue that arises, is that even when you DO have a qualified person, that person is overscheduled and unable to do the work that needs to be done. This past year I was expected to teach classes to my moderately to severely disabled students, while ALSO providing all of the consultative services, and all of the mountain of paperwork just to deal with other, external professionals. There was simply not enough time in the day to do that, and even with confining my research on new materials and equipment to my own time, and doing a fair bit of the paperwork at home as well, there wasn’t any hope at all that I could do what needed to be done for MY students who share some of the characteristics of your described child.

    So what does a teacher do in these circumstances? Well, most of us pack a lot of guilt. We know how to do a good job, but physically cannot do it, so we feel chronically guilty. But we also make decisions. We triage; we focus on some kids, whom we think we can help under the existing circumstances. It’s a bit like a doctor being brought two patients simultaneously; one needs open heart surgery and the other needs a vein tied off or he’ll bleed to death. The doc is probably going to tie that vein first, because he knows he can do it quickly, while open heart surgery takes hours. And if, while that vein is being tied off, the cardiac patient dies, that doctor will probably feel miserably guilty, and stressed, even though he could not possibly have operated on both patients simultaneously.

    What is happening in your scenario, I would guess, is that either there is no specialist teacher for much of the time (many schools have them only part time and they travel from school to school), or the specialist is untrained and/or overworked to the point that they simply cannot meet all of the needs. And so the EA ends up with the child full time, trying to contain him, with little direction from support staff. This means the EA feels justifiably frustrated, and questions the point of what they’re doing, and I don’t blame them. It’s deeply distressing for all concerned.

    I really hope that helps you to see what some of the problems are. Lizanne is entirely correct, that the majority of students with special needs can, given the right support, go on to achieve and contribute amazing things. But for those who will never have that kind of life, there are still many amazing things that can be done. But somebody has to do them, and there aren’t many of us left.


  4. Cecella, I too, am a learning support teacher who is packing a lot of guilt and frustration at not having the time to do my job properly. Two years ago, I was supporting 6 classrooms in my school. Last year, I was assigned to 10! There was no way I could do enough to meet the needs of all the students on my caseload or help support the teachers of those students. I, too, ended up very ill with bronchitis, which after several rounds of antibiotics, led to a case of C. Difficile. Something has to give, and I am afraid it is going to be me. And then where will our struggling students be? If I am off on medical leave, the person who takes over will very likely be a new teacher with little or no background or experience in special education.


  5. This is a great article. Is there a link to additional information about this “re-framing” of the understanding of benefits? I am not surprised by this convenient interpretation by the Gov’t, and I would like to verify it with some more information before I add it to my list of reasons to continue to mis-trust the Gov’t.


    1. Todd,
      It was in information sent out by the bargaining team:

      Bargaining myth busting—Benefit edition
      Government likes to throw around references to “benefits” when discussing the items that are presently on the bargaining table. But when government uses that term, it’s referring to much more than extended health or dental benefits. Basically, when the minister or government PR people refer to “benefits,” they mean everything except for salary. So, class size and composition language is a “benefit,” using government’s definition. Specialist teacher ratios are “benefits.” Preparation time is a “benefit,” too, it seems. This is one of the ways that government has been using to try to deflect from the fact that government has been refusing to bring any new resources to the table to address working conditions.


      1. Thank you for getting back to me. I had heard about prep time being considered “benefit”. It is pretty frustrating to hear it, and the general public never seem to learn about these manipulative interpretations.


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