As teachers across Saskatchewan press for renewed funding and resources in contract talks with the province, a former special needs educator is speaking up about the role government cuts played in her decision to leave the profession.

Juliane Bell was a teacher at John Dolan School, a school within the Saskatoon Public School division for special needs individuals ages five through 21.

“My experience at John Dolan was just a small piece of my teaching experience, but a major reason why I left the teaching profession,” she told Global News.

Bell received her teaching degree from the University of Alberta and taught in a general classroom in Calgary and filled in as a substitute teacher for two years before she and her partner moved to Saskatoon in 2017.

Click to play video: 'Saskatchewan teachers call for more in-classroom support'

Saskatchewan teachers call for more in-classroom support

“When I first moved to Saskatchewan, I was absolutely blown away because the supports and services available in Saskatoon Public Schools were beyond anything I could have ever imagined,” she said.

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However, she said her first year of teaching in the city also coincided with a year of major budget cuts.

“I saw, over time, the English language support shrink, educational assistant support shrink, community support worker support shrink. You know, having a chef employed by the school to do the nutrition program, that programming shrinking. So, I really saw this increased stress associated with the budget cuts every year and the uncertainty that came along with that.”

Bell’s special education certificate brought her to John Dolan School in 2021.

Sixty students currently attend the school, most of whom have waited years for a spot in the classroom.

“It’s a school for students with multiple complex disabilities,” Bell explained. “The majority, but not all, of students use wheelchairs or other mobility devices. Some students require feeding through a tube. Many of the students require feeding support and supervision. Many of the students at the school require toileting and personal care support.”

Bell said many students also require routine medication and wear diapers.

John Dolan School principal Darlene Schultz said the school staff includes occupational and physical therapists, full-time nurses and specialized support staff. All teachers and staff also undergo specialized training to keep students safe.

Although Bell was hired teach the students, she said she was pushed into many roles she didn’t expect.

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“I was very surprised to learn that there was an expectation for teachers to be participating in personal care, lifts and transfers, feeding duties, and occasionally, administration of medication,”
she said.

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Bell said that while it would be acceptable to step into the role of therapists and nurses occasionally, she was asked to do their tasks almost daily.

“I was not comfortable with that because I just know the ins and outs of the ethics,” she said. “What if they pocket (their medication) and don’t take it? What are the implications for me as a teacher who’s not supposed to be administering medication if something goes wrong?”

Being a teacher who was performing nursing and full-time care duties, Bell said she was also shocked to learn about procedures that differed from her own beliefs.

“I remember being struck when a nursing friend of mine said that if a patient falls, you have to let them fall if it’s going to risk injuring yourself. Whereas in teaching, that’s not the attitude that they have. The attitude was you do everything you can to keep this student safe and protected, even if it’s at the risk of your own health.”

She said she was afraid she might liable if an accident happened while she was performing a task she was asked to do, but wasn’t the most qualified.

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“If you are doing someone else’s job, and something happens, like, if you’re doing a shift or transfer and (students) fall and injure themselves, what does that mean for you as a teacher when you’re not trained or it’s not part of your scope of practice to be doing these duties?”

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Sask. budget announces new schools, record funding during strikes

Several months into her experience at John Dolan, Bell brought her concerns to the administration.

She was told the lack of supports were tied to the lack of funding.

“We are underfunded for students of this type of need,” said Daniel Burke, chief financial officer at Saskatoon Public Schools.

He said the school, which is funded solely by Saskatoon Public Schools, spends about $3.8 million annually on students, student supports and nurses.

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“The way that we fund that is that we just spend less everywhere else,” Burke said. “So our other 27,000, 28,000 students get a bit less supports, whether that’s in the classroom, caretaking, indirectly, transportation… Somehow we have to make that up, but that’s a choice that we have to make.”

He said the $3.8 million spent each year doesn’t include building supports such as caretakers and utilities.

The school’s financial deficit is about $2.5 million every year.

“We definitely believe this school requires more funding,” Burke said. “We are very efficient and we do our very best to fill this school as much as we can with the students that need these supports. The issue, of course, is that we just don’t get enough dollars.”

He added that he expects the demand for the school is going to increase over the next few years.

“We have the children’s hospital here. We have other supports. This is where medical appointments are. This is where specialists are. This is where I would be, if I needed those supports.”

Bell said the school couldn’t access more funding without taking even more supports from other schools in the division.

“It they were to pull educational assistance to come support in our classroom so teachers don’t do those duties, there would be other teachers in the division struggling because they would be losing their support.”

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Despite the lack of resources, one parent of a John Dolan School student said the current staff goes above and beyond to ensure quality education and care for their students.

Luke Robson, father of nine-year-old student, Sadie, said his daughter has attended four schools in the last four years. She finally found the perfect fit at John Dolan.

“Sadie loves school. It’s her favourite thing in the world. She gets upset on the weekends because she doesn’t get to go to school. It’s really amazing to get glimpses of her interacting with the teachers and the staff here at school.”

Robson said he also recognizes the need for more funding to help others like his daughter.

“The staff is doing amazing things with the funding that they have, but there really are so many kids that could benefit from a program like this.”

Saskatchewan teachers are currently taking part in the longest job action by educators in the province’s history in an attempt to put the issues of class size and complexity on the bargaining table. Teachers have cut extracurriculars around the province, removed noon-hour supervisions and participated in one-day strikes on rotation in an attempt to sway the government.

The Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation’s (STF) most recent move has been to call on the government to agree to binding arbitration. The move would bring a neutral third party to the bargaining table who would provide recommendations to the province and the union.

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The government’s bargaining committee has refused binding arbitration and remains adamant that addressing the issues of classroom size and complexity should remain with local school boards.

Bell said she hopes the government steps up and addresses the needs of students and teachers in the province.

“I really hope that we’re seeing that there are supports in place to ensure that every student can have their needs met,” Bell said. “I think that we’re seeing a greater degree of classroom complexity than we ever have before, and that teachers deserve these supports. But most importantly, students deserve these supports.”

Without an agreement between the STF and provincial government, Bell said she sees the province’s education system falling into a deeper crisis.

She said she already knows that Saskatoon Public Schools is dealing with a substitute teacher shortage, and teachers are leaving the province because they don’t see a future here for their careers.

Bell said that within a few months at John Dolan School, she took a leave of absence due to the level of pressure, stress, and unexpected responsibility. She returned to teach at another school and left the profession entirely in June 2022.

“Because I experienced that level of burn out, I needed to take some time away from the profession once the school year was done to really reflect on if it was something that I could continue doing.”

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