Nova Scotia Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development Zach Churchill.

TRURO – During a recent visit to Colchester County, Zach Churchill, minister of Education and Early Childhood Development, sat down with Hub Now editor Raissa Tetanish to answer some questions about the education system in the province. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Hub Now: Currently some students have been removed from class and doubled up with another student to have EPA support in the province. Why aren’t there enough EPAs to cover the children that need that support?

Zach Churchill: That’s been a challenge. Every year, we’ve actually increased the amount of TAs or EPAs into the system, and we’re still hearing reports like this that parents and students don’t feel they’re getting the supports they need. That tells me there’s a systemic challenge there. We need to focus on changing the system so that it better operates to meet the needs of our kids. We’re looking at the model of inclusion right now. I think there’s a broad base consensus that the way inclusion has been implemented has created a number of challenges, this being one of them.

We’ve got a really bright group of experts that have come together that are very passionate about this and will be providing us a final report in March that I’m very excited about. I think we can chart a course to achieve some transformative system changes that will better improve our education system ability to provide for and meet the needs for our kids.

HN: Are there plans in the works right now to hire those extra supports?

ZC: Many boards have hired EPAs on their own budget as well. We’ve increased supports for mental health in the system every year since we’ve been in government. We have hired more speech pathologists, student psychologists, so there is a real focus on providing supports for special needs and mental health in the system. But it is still a challenge to keep up with the amount of individual needs that there are, so that’s why we’re really focusing heavily on making some system changes that I think will better improve the working conditions for teachers and better improve the education system for our children.

HN: What supports are in the school system right now for those who need mental health support?

ZC: One of the big projects we’ve been moving forward with is the Schools Plus program, so that provides mental health support to our students. It’s also about not just putting the burden or the responsibility for this on teachers or administrators who might not have the specific expertise or training to deal with some of these complex cases, it’s about linking kids to supports that are outside of the education system as well – health department, community services, or justice depending on what the situation is.

We’re going to be expanding that program every year and there will be over 50 mental health clinicians that will be in the system once this is fully implemented.

HN: How many hours have you actually spent observing classes – actually physically in the classes – and at what grade level?

ZC: I don’t know how many hours, that’s not something I’ve been tracking. But I’ve been in a number of classes since first taking office in 2010 actually. I’ve spent a lot of time locally in Yarmouth classes at all grade levels. It’s clear once you’re in the classroom that you see some of the challenges teachers are faced with from a behavioural perspective, from a class management perspective, and I think we make some transformative changes in the system that will support them and allow them to focus on what’s most important, which is teaching.

HN: Do you think it’s important for you as education minister, or anybody else that has that role, to actually spend time in those classrooms first hand?

ZC: Yes, of course. I’m encouraged because we get invitations from teachers to do that. It’s important. We want to be able to communicate to the frontlines of our education system – the principals, the teachers – and get feedback directly from them on what’s working, what’s not working so we can better inform our decision making process.

HN: When you do spend time in a classroom, have you spent an entire day with just one classroom?

ZC: I haven’t done that, no. I think that’s an interesting idea to consider for sure. If we get an invitation to do that, I’d be happy to oblige.

HN: Do you know how many teachers are retiring early due to excessive workload?

ZC: I have the number of how many replacements there have been for fulltime work. We have the substitute pressure now and that’s a direct result of us hiring over 1,300 teachers fulltime into the system over the course of our previous mandate and this mandate. I remember when I first started as an MLA and young people coming out of school – BEd grads my age not being able to find fulltime employment in the province and they were leaving, so one of the things I’ve been encouraged about is the fact that we’ve hired over 1,300 new people in the system. I think that will go a long way in terms of giving our kids what they need.

HN: Is there anything you can say to those teachers that may not be ready to retire yet but may actually be looking to change careers because of the excessive workloads they’re facing?

ZC: There’s four areas of focus for myself as minister. Looking at the model of inclusion – that has been the elephant in the room for a long time. I think the complexity of the classroom and the responsibilities and burdens that have been put on teachers to manage these classrooms has been a real challenge to them in certain respects and taking away from them in their ability to focus on teaching.

We’re very focused on classroom conditions – we have a group of teachers providing us feedback on what needs to happen to improve that. They’ve tackled attendance, they’ve implemented a class cap for P-12 in every single school – those are things teachers have been looking for.

Next, they’ll be tackling evaluations, reporting and data collection, and coming up with some suggestions to help relieve some of that administrative burden on our teachers. They just want to teach and we want to help them focus on teaching, because that’s the most important thing that they do.

HN: There’s a lot of breakfast programs in place at schools across the province. Is there a plan in the works to implement some sort of inexpensive lunch program as well?

ZC: Not that I’m aware of right now but we are looking at expanding the breakfast program. We know that, because of certain situations at home, there are some kids that are showing up hungry and that impacts their ability to learn and participate. We want to make sure our kids have full bellies when they start their days. We work with private partners and community partners to make sure we have those breakfast programs in place.