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Nathan Whalen touts the benefits of a strong education system

I had the pleasure of bringing forth our perspective on issues in education to Finance Minister Charlene Johnson during a recent pre-budget consultation.

Nathan Whalen

While I volunteer with education, my work life is business. However, I always found the budget process to be unpleasant.

We often have to make decisions about numbers, and unfortunately those same numbers normally affect people. Whenever we discuss spending in education we disguise the human element of our budgetary process by calling resources “units.”

Teaching units. Needs-based resources allocations, regular classroom and service delivery units.

All of this jargon is used to disguise the fact that when we have less teaching units, we really mean we have fewer teachers. When we say we have fewer resources to service the needs of our students, we really mean that we are not willing to spend the money so that students don’t fall through the cracks.

This year during our pitch to the Department of Finance, we summarized our seven financial priorities for education. We want to ensure we close the achievement gap for students by supporting our new education service delivery model called “inclusion.”

No resources

This really hit home for me when an 18-year-old — I’ll call him John — contacted me on Facebook to tell me his story. John was in Level I and was in a math class of 38 students.

The thing that made John different is that he has dyslexia. Despite his family working with the school to obtain additional learning supports from the school district, he was told that there were no longer resources available to help him with reading, writing, or math (among other subject areas).

With a stressed teacher juggling the learning needs of 37 other students, John was failing and soon dropped out of school.

There are many similar stories out there of children with needs who the school system simply cannot support with our model of education, coupled with a lack of teachers.

Second, we want to make sure our students are not falling through the cracks.

Increasing numbers of youth have mental health, addictions, relationships, or family challenges and we need to make sure that trained adults are accessible to our children.

Not enough counsellors

Our children need adults to be there in their time of need. The only permanent staff that is trained to the level necessary in a school is the school guidance counsellor.

Schools are given one guidance counsellor for every 500 students. This individual is normally responsible for student counselling, scholarships, career guidance, family/living issues, overseeing student support services, crisis intervention, and completing comprehensive assessments for students with exceptionalities.

One of these comprehensive assessments takes an average of 20 hours to complete.

Some schools have assessment waitlists of 30 to 40 students. In many of our schools, guidance personnel are completely stretched and are frankly unable to develop and maintain the kind of relationships necessary with students.  Students often have to wait several days for an appointment with their guidance counsellor, unless they disclose that it is a crisis or emergency, such as with Jessica, a Level II student who was trying to deal with a sexual assault but was initially informed that her guidance counsellor was booked up for several days. 

There is something wrong with this. Our counsellors often have too many tasks on their plates and are not able to be available for student mental health and other counselling issues like they want and need to be.

Far behind other provinces

Bullying is an ever-growing problem and one of the key messages to students is to talk to a trusted adult when a bullying problem arises. With heavy demands for teacher time and many teachers who aren’t confident in dealing with student conflict resolution, the guidance counsellor in the school should be accessible.

With the majority of other Canadian provinces that boast one guidance counsellor for every 250-350 students, we are very behind and we are placing our children at risk.

In fact, the 2007 report titled “Education and Our Future: A Road Map to Innovation and Excellence” recommended that, “guidance counsellors be allocated at a level of one per 333 students for kindergarten to Level III.” This was very clear to me when I heard the story of a Grade 8 student named Michael. Coming from some personal issues in his home life, upon arriving at his new junior high school, he didn’t fit in and was severely bullied.

After receiving death threats and no supportive environment at home, he decided he wouldn’t return to school because there was nobody he felt connected to or could approach. It is no good for us to tell our young people to talk to someone if there is no one available or accessible with which to talk.

A wise investment

The bottom line is that schools are about building relationships with students so they can learn and succeed.

I am not a parent. I volunteer my time in this role because I know what it’s like to come from a disadvantaged background and I know what it’s like to go through our non-denominational school system.

I understand what education can do to provide opportunity and I want my little sister, who is in Grade 9, and the other children that come after her to be successful.

Not only do I know that every dollar we invest in education is another dollar we won’t have to put into building more prisons and more hospital rooms, but I believe in the future of Newfoundland and Labrador and investing in our children is simply the right thing to do. 

— Nathan Whalen is president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of School Council. He can be reached at

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