The Iceberg Melteth

You know, sometimes I have to wonder how governments determine priorities.

A few weeks ago, I penned a piece about the possibility of an impending teacher shortage in Nova Scotia. At the time, I mentioned having some concerns that, seeing as how the Province’s largest board was struggling to find teachers to fill positions, our Province may very well find itself in a bit of a pickle before much longer.

Fast forward a month or so, and, as the annual Nova Scotia ‘flu season approaches, I would have to say that what was initially a mild concern has increased to ‘nigh on full blown panic.

Just a few days ago, the  CBC explored the issue of the current dearth of substitutes teachers in a story featuring commentary from a number of sources, including NSTU President Liette Doucet, educator Richard MacLean, and Education Minister Zach Churchill. In response to the questions posed by reporters, the minister indicated that he was working with the boards on “expanding recruitment efforts” as well as “hiring competent people without education degrees to act as substitutes”.

Now, there is a temptation on my part to make at least a bit of hay on the irony of this particular government working to recruit teachers. However, I truly feel there are much larger concerns here that surpass the politics of the thing. The idea of having “competent” rather than “qualified” people handling the education of our children should be disconcerting for all Nova Scotians, regardless of affiliation. Given a similar workforce shortage in, say, health care, I, for one, would very much like to know the nurse who was caring for my child was classified with a moniker a bit North of competent.

To be fair, however, a lack of teachers is not a uniquely Nova Scotian problem. In fact, the issue of teacher supply and demand has been debated nationally for years. And, in some cases, the cure has only served to exacerbate the disease.

Ontario, for example, only just emerged from beneath a reported glut of folks looking to gain employment in the sector. A story in the Globe and Mail from June stated that province had produced 26,000 more teachers than it required between 2006 and 2011. This trend eventually drove unemployment rates for teachers to as high as 20% in 2013. To combat this problem, the Ontario government decided to increase the length of teacher education programs from one year to two.

There were, however, consequences. With job prospects low, many young people, certainly not surprisingly, moved on to greener pastures. Around the same time period, education programs in Ontario began to experience a decrease in enrolment. So even though there was certainly a historic “time of plenty” when it came to teacher supply, the efforts to deal with the issue may have actually been implemented at exactly the wrong time.

There is another facet to the decreased enrolment numbers that may be even more concerning. Recently, a group of researchers out of the US looked at 2006 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey data, and discovered only a few instances where high achieving students aspired to be teachers. In essence, although approximately half of the students surveyed expected to work in a career that required a university degree, only about 5% felt that profession would be teaching.

Teaching, it seems, just isn’t as attractive as it once was.

We are certainly not immune to such trends here in Nova Scotia. Many of us remember the amalgamation of teacher education programs that happened in the mid 90’s due to a particularly tight job market. That move seemed to have the intended result, at least in the short term. As recently as 2012, a government study on teacher supply and demand concluded that there would be no aggregate shortage of teachers up to and including the 2017-18 school year.

Yet, here we are.

It could be that this shortage of supply teachers is merely a blip on the radar, and that we are simply at the extreme edge of a pendulum swing. And, it is easy, perhaps, for Minister Churchill to call this situation an “unintended consequence” of his government’s hiring practices. This is, in my view, a dangerously shortsighted approach.

As the year progresses, an already heavily burdened teacher workforce will undoubtedly begin to sag under the yet-to-be-decreased pressures of the modern classroom. Incidents of teachers being asked to cover for colleagues because no sub can be found have become commonplace across the province. If the teachers left standing succumb to illness, we could very well see buildings close this year due to a lack of teachers.

Just this past Friday, the DoEECD wrapped up (yet another) public opinion survey created to “…review the administrative and governance system that supports our students, schools, teachers, parents, and community.” They hired the well respected (and rather expensive) Dr. Avis Glaze to look at the issue, and have dedicated considerable time and energy to finding efficiencies.

I would respectfully submit that such resources could perhaps have been more wisely spent elsewhere. Finding efficiencies is one thing. Recruiting, retaining, and maintaining a healthy teaching force is, quite another.

When it comes to education, it may be time for this government to embark upon a rather abrupt readjustment of priorities.

Originally published in edited form in The Chronicle Herald on November 6th, 2017.

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Filed under Education Policy, Public education, Teacher shortage

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