HALIFAX -- Nova Scotia's public school teachers walked off the job en masse Friday and staged a noisy protest outside the provincial legislature, where politicians continued a marathon debate on legislation to impose a contract on them.

Hundreds of teachers and their supporters filled a city block, chanting, clanging bells and waving placards as members of the legislature discussed Bill 75, the disputed government bill many educators say does little to address deteriorating classroom conditions.

Angela Scott, a Halifax high school teacher, said she wanted to join the protest on the planned, one-day strike to send a message to Premier Stephen McNeil and Education Minister Karen Casey.

"We're not happy with the way our schools are being run today and we're not happy with the way students are being treated," she said on a clear, but crisp day. "I came here to try to have a voice because Stephen McNeil and Karen Casey are not listening to us."

Inside the legislature, McNeil said in an interview that it is a "challenging day" for him personally, in part because he has relatives who are teachers and retired teachers.

He said the spectacle of hundreds of teachers on strike outside the house of assembly is the fallout of failed efforts on the part of his and prior governments to properly target investments to improve classroom teaching conditions.

"We've missed the mark on those investments," he said.

McNeil said after the legislation is passed his government will focus on a committee for classroom improvement that will have an initial $20 million to spend on improving classroom teaching conditions.

"We need to listen to teachers about investments we need to make in classrooms. The one place I was investing every budget was in classrooms. And obviously it didn't work. The frustration here is real."

Sherry Johnston Sperry, who teaches high school family studies, said teachers are so overburdened and given limited resources that they can't properly instruct students, particularly those with special needs.

Sperry, who has been teaching for 13 years, said in one year she has had up to 15 students with so-called individual program plans that require more attention, and classes with 30 students. She says that means she cannot provide students with the proper attention, even working extra hours.

"I have two young children and I feel I'm either neglecting them or my students," she said. "I struggle with that and it's gotten a lot worse over the last five years."

The union has said council's composition of four government representatives, one union co-chair and nine classroom teachers selected by school board superintendents doesn't give the NSTU enough say.

NDP Leader Gary Burrill said the Liberal government's handling of teachers' grievances ultimately led to the strike -- the first for the province's 9,300 teachers since their union was formed 122 years ago.

"The McNeil government's treatment of the people who teach our children, and who often serve as the backbone and life blood of our communities, is unjustifiable," he said in a statement.

"Today's historic strike is another cry from teachers that they are drowning."

The Liberal government is expected to continue pushing the bill through the legislature after the law amendments committee heard testimony from teachers and members of the public Thursday.

Teachers described scenes of violence, neglect and crammed classrooms as they spoke out against the bill.

High school teacher Tim MacLeod said the rise in student mental illness issues is overwhelming teachers, while other educators said they can no longer cope with classrooms where students with learning disabilities aren't receiving enough support.

"Our members have never faced a more anti-education government, which is why we are taking this stand," union president Liette Doucet said about the strike. "At a time when badly needed reforms are required to improve our public education system, Stephen McNeil would rather pick fights with unions than fix problems."

The law -- which the government is hoping will be passed by Tuesday -- will bring an end to the teachers' work-to-rule campaign, which began Dec. 5. The NSTU has told teachers they should only report for work 20 minutes before class starts and leave 20 minutes after the school day ends.

The four-year contract contains a three per cent salary increase and incorporates many of the elements contained in the first two tentative agreements rejected by union members.