CRAIG M. MOONEY
J. M. BRAITHWAITE
Saskatchewan's education system cracks under the 10-year strain
Editor's Note: The authors of this article have been
teaching in Saskatchewan for six years. Mr. Mooney is now a principal and Mr. Braithwaite a vice-principal. They declare that all statements in the article have been verified by the records of The Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation.
IN 1936 Ontario teachers gave a sum of money to relieve poverty-stricken Saskatchewan teachers. This generous act served to focus public attention on the plight of education in Saskatchewan. The teachers of Ontario and those of Saskatchewan regret that for the latter straight charity has become necessary. Indeed, much more than charity is necessary—nothing short of a drastic revision of the Saskatchewan school system.
There are two droughts in the province. With the climatic drought all are familiar; but while sun, wind, and lack of rain desolate the fields, the lack of a modern efficient school system is working a spiritual and aesthetic drought in the lives of Saskatchewan youth.
According to our Constitution, education is no concern of the Dominion Government but rests with the Provincial Government. In reality, the Saskatchewan Government shoves practically the whole burden onto the shoulders of t he local authorities—municipal councils and school boards. The Department of Education is chiefly concerned with curricula, inspectors, examinations, and the provision of small money grants to the school boards. The school boards build and maintain schools, hire teachers, and raise locally the greater portion of the money required.
This Canada-wide system of education is a relic of the earlier days, when the speedy and irregular settlement of vast areas required the establishment of schools before a unified system of education was possible. Individual towns and rural disrricts exercised ingenuity and haste in erecting schools for their children, and were later facilitated bygoverning bodies which provided a wide, unco-ordinated system of local control. Thus at present in Saskatchewan we have over 5,000 purchasing and employing agencies, 5,000 paid secretaries, paid auditors, separate bank accounts, 5,000 non-correlating, nonco-operating units. The system is now' cumbersome and expensive, and many evils are apparent.
The rigors of the last ten years have tried the system. The harshest tests have been applied in Saskatchewan. The consequent rapid and distressing collapse of the system in this province is appalling. The conditions actually prevalent in the majority of our rural schools will scarcely bear the light of investigation—children, undernourished and unhealthy, in dim, cold, poorly ventilated school buildings; teachers, also undernourished, poorly clothed, inadequately trained, overworked, broken in spirit and in health, living on a starvation v'age; slum schools and beggar teachers.
This is not true of all the schools and all the teachers, nevertheless it accurately describes hundreds of schools and hundreds of teachersall except those in a few populous urban centres. The grossest inequalities exist.
Where the rains fall, the children are better educated and the teachers better paid than where the rains do not fall.
On tricks of climate and geography depend the child’s opportunities.
THE GREATEST indictment of the system is that it permits beautiful, luxurious schools, well equipped and well looked after on the one hand, and slum schools on the other hand, with the latter far outnumbering the former. A province-wide system which permits such an outrageous unbalance is, actually, not a system at all. The following excerpts from letters and reports, available to any parties interested, reveal a shocking state of affairs in the rural and village schools:
(1) “At present I have been paid $12 on account of salary for this term. I have $11 board to pay. I have no suitable winter clothing such as overshoes, woollen hose, gloves. I have not even a winter coat. Last term I received $38 cash. My board, which the school board had agreed to pay. was left unpaid . . . During the period from Christmas to June (six months) I received approximately $45 in cash . . . After teaching three and onehalf years, arrears of salary owdng me approximate $787. In the spring of 1935 I worked for my board during May and June while teaching a heavy school, and received no salary for April, May and June of that term.”
(2) “At the present time I am in ill health, brought on by deplorable conditions under which we must work. Our school is an old-timer; the west side of the building contains four windows which are so draughty the window blinds are kept in constant motion by the wind. The school is warmed by an old heater, the grates of which are destroyed. To keep the fire in it, the janitor, an eleven-year-old boy. has placed the lid of a lard pail over the bottom. In cold weather we pull all the seats around the stove and try to study. Some days I have not taken off my outer coat or overshoes all day . . I entered the hospital as a patient December 15th, and at the present writing it is doubtful if my doctor will give me permission to return to my school March 1st.”
(3) “My contract calls for a salary of $350 per annum, but I have only been successful in obtaining the grant ($20 a month), out of which I pay $15 per month for board. The school is badly in need of repairs. There are several panes of glass needed. Here we have placed cardboard and paper patches, but these are not adequate in below zero weather . . . The brick work of the school needs repairing, the floor is extremely cold, and neither teacher nor pupil can do efficient work at a temperature two degrees above freezing. This is not the janitor’s fault —the child certainly does his best.”
(4) “ 4.bout a month ago the school was closed because there was no money to run it. There was no place for me to board, so I was obliged to stay in an empty house belonging to the municipality. I secured a cheque from the municipality for $15. hut it was returned by the bank N.S.F. I was recommended by my inspector for my permanent certificate, but the Government would not
grant it until my Normal School fee had been paid, nor would they accept school notes as payment. While in the district I had to board in every home regardless of inconveniences or sickness in the homes at the time. The home owners received $7 per month relief, and while 1 boarded with them no extra relief was allowed, although $18 per month was deducted from my salary and applied on their taxes.”
Health Not Protected
THESE ARE but a few' excerpts from hundreds of reports, all authentic and equally distressing. What can be said to justify a system of education which permits dirty schools, brokendown school buildings with fly-infested, stinking toilets, broken desks and seats, hazardous stoves and furnaces, dirt-encrusted water fountains and v'ash basins; which permits diseased children to mingle with their playfellows, careless of quarantine; which demands a high standard of academic success, yet puts into the classroom neither maps, pianos, encyclopedia, books, pictures, science equipment, games, nor toys; which makes the teacher’s work an abomination, his life lonely and despairing; which makes the child’s studies a suffering monotony and jeopardizes his health?
Perhaps the greatest shortcoming of the system is its failure to protect the child’s health. School health inspections are irregular and cursory. Commonly, nurses visit schools as rarely as once in three years. Their reports reveal shocking conditions of bad teeth, defective vision, diseased tonsils and adenoids. Nothing can be done for these unfortunate children.
The municipalities cannot afford medical treatment. The Department of Health is apparently not bound to provide treatment for school children. Morons, epileptics, and diseased children associate daily with their comrades at some schools, wash in the same basins and suck at the same water faucets.
We have seen these conditions not only in rural schools but also in village schools. In these drought years many of our elders are expiating their sins, but must our blameless children suffer? There is danger that our educational system is permitting the development of a generation of mumbling, ignorant, unhealthy peasants. Aside from their own suffering, thousands of teachers and citizens of this province protest that this evil phase of education is unnecessary.
The Department of Education, with an eye to flourishing urban centres, propounds the myth that “our educational system is second to none.” In one obvious respect, this is quite true.
Teachers as Community Slaves
ÍET US now look at the local school board. At once we J make the sweeping statement that the local board system is a vicious one.
There are two kinds of school boards, the good and the bad. Like the little girl with the curl, when they are good they are very good, but when they are bad they are horrid. Unfortunately, the bad outnumber the good. Probably this has become true only in these recent years for, of course, some citizens of these prairies, because of continual crop failures, are undergoing a rapid degeneration of morale. The desperate dog-eat-dog philosophy to which they have come has led them to handle their schools callously.
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Some villages and rural areas are prone to demand stuffy conformity of their teachers; are inclined to regard them as community slaves rather than skilled professionals imported to do a specific work which they, themselves, cannot do. They tend to destroy the teachers’ very work— selling the “better life”—by this unreasonable demand for conformity.
The most vicious aspect of this situation is the absolute power exercised by school boards over their teachers. In many cases, this power amounts to tyranny. The study of dozens of legal cases and of hundreds of written complaints made by teachers against school boards, reveals that many boards have unscrupulously, narrowly and meanly coerced, threatened, and bullied teachers for the most trivial and nonsensical reasons. Here are some common “reasons” boards offer for releasing teachers:
1. Going home for week-ends.
2. Not going to church, and refusing to teach Sunday School.
3. Entertaining friends of the opposite sex and going to parties.
4. Working for one political party or another.
5. Refusing to take further salary cuts during the current year.
6. Reprimanding parents for allowing children to miss school.
7. Being sarcastic.
8. Scorning the advances of the chairman’s son.
9. Having too advanced ideas.
10. Refusing to promote stupid children.
This local enslavement of teachers is a wretched and absurd condition. The Department of Education in Saskatchewan offers scant protection to the teachers in these times when protection is most essential, because, according to their regulations, a teacher may be released without cause once a year.
IIow Some Teachers Are Hired
ILLUSTRATIONS of gross abuse are A abundant. Recently a curious advertisement appeared in one of our papers. A certain school district wanted a teacher. Applicants were to be young women, unmarried, and were asked to enclose photographs of themselves. Investigation revealed that in eight months three teachers had been hired by this particular school board. It seems that the “big shot” on the board (school boards are usually “oneman” boards) yearned for a wife. But his overtures had been scorned by girls of his own sect, so he was proposing marriage to the teacher. Three teachers spurned him, hence the advertisement calling for a fourth hope.
Just as absurd are several other instances where school boards have insisted that a teacher “must be baseball catcher” and “must be goal-tender.” Another instance is recorded where an official trustee, on relieving an incompetent school board, found that a school district in the good-crop area had a deposit in the local bank over
$1,200. This district had been paying the teacher a net salary of $200.
Again, the iniquitous practice of requiring experienced teachers to resign and reapply for the position in competition with desperate unemployed teachers and newly graduated Normalités, is illustrated by the following copies of letters forwarded
to Miss H-by the secretary of a certain
November 17, 1936.
Take notice that a resolution is passed by the board that your agreement is terminated for the year 1936, and you are obliged to put in your application for 1937. Yours truly,
November 27, 1936,
Dear Miss H:
Received your letter of November 23, and the board wishes to let you know that your application cannot be considered at the present time, as we are going to compare your application of the amount of wages according to other applications which may be sent in by other teachers. So please watch for our advertisement in a month’s time.
Compare the thorough training of lawyers, doctors and other professional people with the short, haphazard training of our teachers. They are subjected to nine months training at one of our provincial schools. If there is anything in this training that prepares one for teaching children, we have yet to find anyone who has detected it.
His training completed, our graduate finds himself, if he is lucky, in full charge of a one-room rural school composed of ten grades, and any number of children from ten to sixty.
Here he is left entirely to his own devices to deal with problems that would tax the ability of an expert psychiatrist or psychologist. He is supposed to teach some seventeen subjects to these ten grades and complete all the work in 200 days— an impossible task. About twice during the year he is visited by an inspector of schools who usually spends a half-day trying to find out how much of the curriculum the children have absorbed, and then sends a report to the school board, based largely on his instinctive like or dislike for the teacher. These reports, which are hardly a fair estimate of the teacher’s ability, play an important part in determining his success or failure.
Our teacher very soon loses any illusions he had about his work and realizes that he is nothing more than the “local goat.” He finds that he is at the mercy of every taxpayer in the district and must at all times court their favor, regardless of what he personally thinks of them. He finds that he has no assurance of a job for longer than a year, that his actions and words are carefully noted and may be used as evidence to deprive him of his job; that any advancement he may look for depends on the amount of “pull” he can muster; that his ! ability and experience count for little. He learns also that, apart from his heavy teaching duties, he is expected to teach Sunday School, play baseball, lead the Boy Scouts, sing in the choir, in fact be at all times at the beck and call of any taxpayer desiring his services. He finds, too, that he I has little chance of marrying and living a I normal life; Iris chosen profession, for all its nobility, does not permit that. Theoretically the teacher is “the most respected citizen in the community,” actually, he is the most scorned and abused.
Women Teachers’ Predicament
THE WOMAN TEACHER’S predicament is in some respects worse than the man’s. Exposed to the rigors of the Saskatchewan climate, living in cold, draughty boarding houses or alone in solitary teacherages, often walking a mile or more to school and working all day in a poorly heated schoolroom, she suffers physical and nervous breakdown and not infrequently consumption. She is expected to be the willing and congenial escort of any local swain desiring her company, and must on no account show any personal ■preference. She cannot choose her friends freely or she will be accused of being “stuck up.” She, like the man teacher, is completely at the mercy of the local authorities.
Should the man or woman teacher attempt to better Iris or her condition, the classified advertisements of the daily newspapers carry long lists of golden opportunities such as the following:
“First-class experienced Protestant teacher with musical ability, grades one to ten. Enrollment about 42. Duties to commence Aug. 16. Cottage beside school may be rented. Salary $500. Apply not later than July 23.
“First-class, experienced. Salary $1.25 per day and board. Duties to commence July 19. Apply giving references and experience to Sec.-Treas.”
“Wanted—Teacher for . . .S.D. Teach grades one to eleven. Duties commence August 3. Salary $300 per annum.”
“Wanted experienced teacher for . , . S.D. Salary $300 per annum, board $15 per month.”
“Wanted Teacher for . . . S.D. Teach grades one to eleven inclusive. Duties commence August 3. Salary $300 per annum.”
THE DEPARTMENT of Education recently brought about legislation requiring every school principal to have a B. A. degree and restricting the field for all teachers. Such regulations at this time are working a tremendous hardship. Tried and proven teachers with years of successful experience and service are penalized. They are denied those positions which by right are theirs, and see them given to inexperienced university graduates who may or may not develop into teachers.
Stated bluntly, the experienced teacher’s dilemma is this: Without a degree he
cannot get a position offering a reasonable salary; without such a salary he cannot afford university training.
It is driving many of our best teachers out of the profession. The teaching standard is now higher in Saskatchewan than elsewhere in Canada, while the teacher’s standard of living is far below that of other provinces.
Should a teacher for these reasons decide to teach in another province, he finds that the rights given to any European immigrant are denied to him. As a teacher he is an alien in any of the other provinces, and cannot live and work there without special training.
Under such conditions teachers are expected to educate and guide the youth of the province, fostering in them ideals of co-operation and good citizenship and I impressing them with the greatness of their ‘ country. •
In Saskatchewan the burden of finance rests largely on the local school districts. The Government grant is inconsiderable, but in the past few years many schools have been financed on the Government grant alone. This has meant to the rural school, $200 to pay the teacher, provide equipment, heat the school, pay the janitor, and pay off indebtedness. Only the few schools in good-crop areas have been able to pay anything like a fair salary.
In many Saskatchewan school districts, teachers have been working for a lower wage than that guaranteed by law to the humblest female help in restaurants and beauty parlors. In hundreds of these cases even the poor pittance for which they contracted to teach has not been paid, and today teachers in this province hold notes for probably over $1.000,000. The tragedy of it is that the teachers who hold the notes are the ones receiving the lowest salaries, and these notes are not negotiable, or are negotiable only at tremendous discount to people who do not scruple to make profit out of human misery. Instances are not lacking where teachers’ notes have been taken at forty or fifty per cent discount and used to pay taxes in the same municipality at par value. Any system of public administration that permits abuses like this is ripe for a change.
According to the statement of Right Hon. Ernest Lapointe, Minister of Justice, the annual cost of maintaining a convict in our penitentiaries is $813. Our Provincial Government pays less than $7 for each child enrolled in our rural schools. In 1936, out of a total of 8,591 teachers’ contracts signed in Saskatchewan, 2,311 called for a salary of $400 or less, and 6,160 for $600 or less. The average salaries for rural teachers in the various provinces have been approximately as follows: B.C.
$1,300. Alberta $970, Manitoba $685, Ontario $1,235, Saskatchewan $618. True, for 1937 the Government has promised to increase the grant from $200 to $300 and has named a minimum wage of $600. However, the latter is not being enforced for the simple reason that local school boards cannot raise their $300; and the former will improve conditions slightly if at all, for, instead of the extra $100 going on the teacher’s salary, it is being used in a great many cases by boards as part of their revenue.
A Better Plan
WE HAVE presented a gloomy picture and an accurate one. However, the situation is not as hopeless as it appears. The solution is simple and well known to educational reformers. Although the Government has given no lead, applying soporific remedies in place of vital reforms, it would doubtless act if public opinion demanded action. So far, the general public have been quite apathetic. It might well realize that the whole problem is theirs, and that without their active cooperation, teachers’ organizations and departments of education are helpless.
For Saskatchewan the plan, as repeatedly proposed by the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation, is similar to the systems used in England, Wales, Scotland, New Zealand, Australia, North Carolina, Sweden and F'rance. The proposed plan for Saskatchewan provides for larger units of administration. It provides for:
1. The grouping of the schools of the province into units made up of from four to six municipalities.
2. One board of control for a unit elected by ratepayers, with the power to determine the money needed and to requisition the municipal council for this money; to appoint a superintendent of schools whose duty will be to furnish educational leadership and to assist teachers; to exercise all the powers enjoyed by boards in cities; to provide qualified teachers for all schools in the unit, and to promote, transfer, and dismiss when advisable.
3. A board for each school to look after the building, offer criticisms to the superintendent, and suggest improvements in their school. (They would be relieved of the two major problems of hiring teachers and finding the money to pay them.)
4. Secondary education in whatever ways are most feasible for the unit. (The rural elementary schools would be relieved of the burden of secondary education.)
Some of the advantages of the larger unit plan are;
1. An approximately equal distribution throughout the province of the cost of education.
2. Equalization of educational opportunities for elementary school pupils throughout the province.
3. The administration of education would be placed in more capable hands.
4. The superintendent would be in closer touch with the schools and could offer real help to the trustees and constant direction to his teachers in a way now impossible to the inspector.
5. For the teacher, security of tenure, sensible allocation, a professional wage, opportunity for advancement, and relief from the petty tyranny of the present small unit.
6. The system of levying and collecting taxes would be greatly simplified because of a reduction in the number of taxing authorities.
7. Considerable savings would be effected by reducing the number of secretaries, lessening expenses of annual audits, saving on the purchase of supplies. (These savings would offset the additional cost of the greater number of superintendents.)
8. Vocational and technical schools would be possible in rural areas.
9. Slum schools would be unnecessary.
10. All property would be brought under taxation.
11. Adaptation of the curriculum to the special needs of communities and individuals. and proper care of mentally retarded children, would be possible.
12. Patronage and local favoritism would be done away with.
13. Through closer supervision teacher failures would be eliminated.
14. Economy would be possible through the centralized placing of insurance and through the standardization of school buildings.
15. Regular health inspections and satisfactory medical service for children would be possible.
The estimated minimum cost of the above program is $12,000,000. Here is one suggested way by which the money could be raised:
(a) The province would raise 75 per cent ($9.000,000) of the money required in the following ways:
1. Interest on school lands
(Dominion Bonds)....... $ 800,000
2. Interest on school lands... 350,000
3. Provincial property tax of four mills on an estimated assessment of $1,040,000,-
4. General sales tax of 2 per
5. Dominion subsidy to the
(b) A property tax of 3 mills in larger areas would raise the remaining 25 per cent..... 3,000,000
What Must be Done
THIS IS just one of many plans. It is probably not perfect, but it is workable and certainly a vast improvement over the present means of financing. However, our aim is not to solve here tírese various educational problems but to leave them on the doorsteps of the Provincial and Dominion Governments. It is the public’s problem. If the public can see that common-sense solutions are at hand and can be applied at once, it is their duty and within their power to insist on reforms which are humane and good.