Complaints about teacher misconduct in B.C. are almost twice as likely to involve a special needs student, according to the man once in charge of disciplining B.C. teachers – and he says inadequate teacher preparation is to blame.
In his final annual report as commissioner for teacher regulation, retired B.C. Supreme Court judge Bruce Preston said the inappropriate treatment of special needs students is an issue behind a disproportionate number of reports and complaints about teachers made to the Teacher Regulation Branch.
He pointed to a June 2017 study he commissioned that looked at 1,037 teachers who had been the subject of a report or complaint of misconduct.
The study concluded teachers are almost twice as likely to run into disciplinary complaints because of interactions with special needs students as students generally.
Preston, whose five-year term as commissioner ended in November, also cited a 2015 survey of new teachers in their first four years of holding a teaching certificate.
It found between 62 to 70 per cent didn’t believe their teacher education program had prepared them to work effectively with students with physical disabilities or emotional or behavioural disorders.
“These empirical results accord with my observations that interactions between teachers and special needs students are much more likely to lead to disciplinary complaints and that the source of the problem is inadequate teacher preparation,” Preston wrote in his report, which was submitted to Education Minister Rob Fleming at the end of October and recently made public. “Instances of complaints and reports of teacher misconduct typically result from a reaction to student behaviour without any apparent regard to the special needs student’s particular vulnerabilities. In many cases, the teacher has not read or considered the student’s Individual Education Plan (IEP) before proceeding to address behaviour.”
Of 110 student-related complaints against teachers between January and September 2017, nearly 20 per cent involved complaints of teachers failing to properly follow Individual Education Plans, engaging in rude or taunting behaviour toward special needs students or disciplining special needs students inappropriately.
To address the problem, Preston said the Ministry of Education should move “quickly” to develop an online course for teachers who lack skills teaching specials needs students.
“…The course should be developed with remedial as well as continuing professional development use in mind,” he wrote.
Under Preston’s watch, the TRB, the Ministry of Education and the Justice Institute of B.C. in New Westminster, have already partnered to develop three other remedial courses for teachers to address professional boundaries, classroom management or conflict resolution problems.
The special needs course proposed by Preston would be the first to be offered online.
Education Minister Rob Fleming was not made available to speak on the former commissioner’s report, but public affairs officer Craig Sorochan said the education ministry is aware of Preston’s recommendations calling for more special needs specific teacher training.
“We believe in inclusive education and that all students should have equitable access to learning opportunities,” he wrote in an emailed statement. “The ministry is currently determining the best avenues for ensuring teachers are equipped to meet the needs of all students.”
Suzanne Perrault, a parent of three children on the autism spectrum and a volunteer with B.C. Parents of Special Needs Children, said she had mixed feelings about Preston’s findings.
“It’s a very sad commentary on the state that we’re in right now trying to create fair and equitable education; however, the fact that we’re having the discussion is very positive,” she said.
As an advocate for parents of students with special needs, Perrault said she too has encountered classroom teachers who aren’t as aware of their students’ IEPs or the details of their diagnoses as they should be.
She said classroom teachers need support to make sure students with special needs get fair and equal access to education.
“It really falls on the Ministry of Advanced Education to ensure that the universities are providing this kind of training in the universities to ensure teachers are coming out post-grad going into the schools and having the tools they need with enough exposure to different diagnoses and what kind of supports could benefit the children at that time once they hit the classroom.”
Since September 2012, teacher education programs in B.C. have been required to include a mandatory “three credits or the equivalent” on teaching students with special needs, including diagnosis, planning for instruction and assessment and evaluation.
Sandra Bruneau, the executive director of the Association of B.C. Deans of Education, isn’t surprised some teachers straight out of university don’t feel adequately prepared to teach all special needs students after just one course.
“It could be the case that in certain cases not everything is completely covered; moreover, people have grandiose ideas about what a course in special ed enables the teacher to do,” she said. “They need practical experience too, and in a teacher ed program of one year, they don’t get it. They have lots of practicum weeks, but those could be in classrooms with very few special ed students.”
Bruneau agrees the issue needs more attention but said she wasn’t sure what more universities can do since there are already “a great many calls upon teacher ed programs to include everything under the sun.”
Layers of support
In Burnaby, new teachers – or experienced teachers facing an unfamiliar class makeup – have “many layers” of support at the ready to help them meet the needs of special needs students, according to Elizabeth Gardner, district principal of learning support services.
She said the district has about 60 school-based learning support teachers with specialized university training in supporting students with special needs. The district also has four district-level learning support teachers and two district board certified behaviour analysts who provide professional development for teachers as well as “side-by-side” support.
Asked to comment on Preston’s findings that teacher misconduct complaints in B.C. are almost twice as likely to involve a special needs student, Gardner said it comes down to teachers accessing the support that’s there for them.
“It goes back to, do teachers understand who’s there to support them and do they access that help,” she told the NOW. “Those are questions I would have. Do you access the help when you’re having some challenges and is that help readily available to you?”
Burnaby Teachers' Association president Frank Bonvino declined to comment on Preston's report.