Classroom composition is a thing. And I don’t know why.

I’m a product of the BC Public Education System.

In my thirteen years as a student, I attended three elementary schools and two secondary schools. I took part in three “choice” programs (alternative programs offered within the public school system, such as French Immersion), but ultimately graduated from “mainstream” public schooling (that is, an ordinary high school).

Switching to a mainstream public school was my decision. To me, it was a choice program. I wanted to have the same kind of high school experience that I saw on TV and in the movies. I was done with alternative programs. And I’m glad that I made that choice, not for my own education, but for the perspective that it’s provided me as a teacher.

You see, I had the opportunity to teach at the same secondary school from which I graduated. Ten years after I said my final farewells as a student, I walked back through those doors as a teacher.

And it was weird.

Have you ever had a job interview while sitting in the same office that you spent years of your life trying to avoid? It was more than a little surreal. But I got the job. And I was ecstatic.

It was the best-case scenario for a new teacher. I was in familiar surroundings. I’d grown up in the same area. I understood the kids. I knew this school.

Only I didn’t. Not really. Not anymore.

Sometime in the decade since I’d been a student there, things had changed. These kids weren’t having the same educational experience that I’d had. And it’s not that the quality of education had fallen. It’s that the typical class composition – that is, the mix of students in a class – had changed.

When I went to this school, we had four students in my class of nearly three hundred who we, as students, could recognize as “different.” These are students who I’m certain would be designated as special needs and would have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) if they were in my class today. However, none of these students ever had a special education assistant (SEA) in any classes that we had together, nor did they appear to particularly need one.

Skip forward a decade. At the same school as a teacher, I had that many IEPs in just one class of twenty-eight – including two students on the Autism spectrum, one with no verbal or written comprehension skills, one with severe behavioural issues, plus six other students with some form of learning difficulty not requiring a full IEP. In another class I had a nearly non-verbal autistic student. In yet another I had two ELL (or ESL) students whose language abilities weren’t near the level required to understand the content. As a student, I would have been able to figure out that there was something “different” about all of these classmates.

In short, I was teaching classes that I don’t remember ever seeing as a student.

And I don’t know why.

Is it because classroom integration was still a work in progress in the late 90s? Were some students who are now in our mainstream classes still in segregated classes or schools when I was a student?

Are ELL students being placed in classes that they can’t handle because there’s no funding for skill level appropriate classes?

With the increased expectation of graduation, does it mean that struggling students who would have dropped out when I was a student are now choosing to stay?

Are students who would have been labeled as “slackers” or “lazy” when I was in school now being diagnosed with learning difficulties and being provided with individualized educational goals or adapted assignments? (“Adapted” assignments refer to tasks that are altered according to the needs of the students but still assess the same skills as the assignment given to the rest of the class. For instance, they may have fewer test questions, or present a verbal essay instead of a written one.)

If so, while it may have been understood that some students would fail classes when I was a student, is the teacher now shouldering more responsibility for their success where said responsibility used to fall on the student?

Are we seeing higher rates of learning disabilities than we have in years past? Or are we just seeing more instances of diagnosis?

Is it a combination of all these things? None of them? Others entirely?

I graduated from BC’s public schools thirteen years ago. But I attended schools that were very different from those in which I teach. The buildings haven’t changed, but the students have. The classroom dynamics have changed. The typical class composition has changed. And I don’t know why.