Permits to teach not a long term solution.

Ok, this is getting ridiculous.

About two weeks ago, the Provincial Executive of the NSTU voted (reportedly with some reluctance) to accept a recommendation by staff to enter into a tripartite agreement with the DoEECD and the Halifax Regional School Board. In essence, this agreement would allow people without teaching degrees to work as substitute teachers in the region’s largest board.

Now, to be clear, this agreement is seen by some as a necessary evil. Considering how few subs there are currently available, and how often teachers are being asked to fill in for absent colleagues, something had to be done.

It should also be noted that this is meant to be a temporary measure, and comes with some fairly heavy restrictions which are still being hammered out. Finally, there is precedence, particularly in rural Nova Scotia, where similar arrangements have been in place for some time now.

However, none of these qualifiers negate the seriousness of the situation. Even here, in the region’s most populous area, we are now confronted with the necessity of placing unqualified, untrained people in classrooms as a stop-gap measure.

This is called “babysitting”.

Now Education Minister Zach Churchill has been on record since October  indicating that hiring “competent people without education degrees” to act as substitutes was OK with him. He was also quick to claim that this shortage was an unintended consequence of his government’s hiring of  “761 full-time teachers” since taking power. (During an interview with Metro News in November, that number had ballooned to “over 1300”, but I digress.) Thus, the agreement should really not come as a major surprise.

However, what has me scratching my head is why we, as Nova Scotians, are not blindly angry that we have gotten here in the first place.

The issue of teacher supply and demand is a complex one, and it is one to which we used to pay some attention. Back in 1994, University of Toronto Professor Bernard Shapiro authored a document entitled Teacher Education in Nova Scotia: An Honourable Past, an Alternative Future to deal with what was then an oversupply of teachers, which led to several teacher education programs closing. In 2000, we had the somewhat unimaginatively named  Post-Shapiro Review, which made 32 recommendations around teacher training numbers. By 2002, we had another report on teacher supply and demand, with 53 recommendations. In 2007, another report, this time with 19 recommendations…

As far as I can ascertain, the last report on teacher supply and demand was issued in 2012, when it was determined that Nova Scotia would have a sufficient supply of teachers to meet the demand up to and including this school year.

Yet, after almost twenty-five years of successive governments looking at the issue, we find ourselves in 2017 essentially hiring people off the street to plug the holes.

Teacher supply is certainly not a uniquely Nova Scotian problem. Jurisdictions all across Canada, indeed, across the world, are struggling to find teachers. Reports out of Toronto talk of French Immersion programs possibly being cancelled due to lack of qualified staff. News stories out of the U.K. talk of drastic drops in B.Ed. applicants. In BC, the reported teacher shortage has led some to question the impact the situation is having on special education, as student support teachers are pulled away from their caseloads to fill in when subs can’t be found.

However, even though this is not a localized problem, the burden for finding solutions falls directly on local shoulders. Governments may have studied this issue to death over the past 25 years, but have yet to pin down any viable solution. Minister Churchill has been quick to point out that individual boards are working on increasing recruitment efforts, but let’s not kid ourselves. I doubt many come-from-away teachers will be beating down our doors any time soon, drawn by the allure of stagnating wages and a hostile government.

This could be a blip on the supply/ demand radar; merely an unintended consequence of such things as the implementation of class caps (which, by the way, were long overdue.) However, it is this type of bury-our-heads-in-the-sand thinking that has been applied to our health care system for years, and we can see how far that has taken us.

So many of the concerns that are currently being voiced by physicians in this province should have been dealt with ages ago, but were ignored. That situation is approaching full-blown disaster proportions, as we simply can not seem to attract new doctors, nor can we figure out ways to keep the ones we have.

It is the height of hubris to think something similar could not happen to our education system.

When I take my car to the shop, I like to know that the technician who is fixing my brakes is qualified. I believe most Nova Scotians have similar expectations when they send their children to school. And, as much as I recognize this may be a necessary measure, I would like some assurances that our government is working on a comprehensive plan to ensure it remain temporary.

Houston, we have a problem. And I, for one, would like to know precisely what the plan is for getting it fixed.

Originally published in The Chronicle Herald, December 19th, 2017

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