Houston, we have a problem…

October is always a pivotal month for those of us in public education. By this time, teachers have learned student names, have at least one or two assessments under their collective belts, and are starting to determine who can easily handle the curriculum, and who may need some extra help.

It is also that time when the impact of the past few years of whipping-post politics begins to create havoc in the hallways and chaos in the classrooms. It may be a time of stunning beauty, to be sure, but in recent years, October also marks a time when the Nova Scotia public education system, quite simply, runs out of substitute teachers.

The education sector is far from the only one currently experiencing a staffing shortage. COVID-19 has been nothing if not consistent in its capacity to leave everything from the service industries to health care scrambling to find warm bodies to fill vacancies. However, where the staffing crises in both those industries has received considerable public attention, when it comes to the education sector, the airways have been oddly silent.

This could simply be because the problem, although undoubtedly exacerbated by COVID-19, predates the pandemic. Teachers attempted to call the attention of McNeil Liberals to the situation back in 2017, but received little in the way of government assurance that the issue would be addressed in any meaningful way. Instead, we saw an expansion of the “permits to teach” program, which essentially allowed anyone with a university degree to apply as a sub, even if they had not completed their B.Ed. 

It seems that there was little uptake on that particular program, because by 2019, we had another band-aid solution. This time the number of days retired teachers could work as substitutes increased from 69.5 to 99.5. Although I certainly  applauded that move, there was little doubt that the solution was anything but short term. Considering the current state of COVID-19 spread in schools, I wouldn’t imagine that the number of retired sixty-year-oldish teachers lining up to enter our buildings has increased in recent months.

So here we are in 2021, and, if social media is any gauge, schools are already finding it difficult, if not impossible, to hire substitute teachers.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this issue for me has been how the employer has responded to what is so obviously a widespread problem. Certainly the former Liberal government’s approach to addressing teacher shortages was, shall we say, questionable. Inciting the first teacher’s strike in this Province’s history in the midst of a staffing crisis did little to increase the allure of the profession for young Nova Scotians.With apologies to American educator Diane Ravitch, Stephen McNeil’s particular “Reign of Error” could not have come at a worse time. 

Even at the regional level, there seems to be an almost purposeful obliviousness surrounding the teacher shortage. As an example, a decision was made somewhere along the educational bureaucracy last May that saw the workload of many high school teachers in the Halifax region increase by as much as 12.5%. Although defended at the time as a way to make the system more consistent and to bring Halifax area high schools in line with others in the province, there seemed to be little consideration of how this might impact the overall teaching workforce. 

The math is simple, really. If you make people work harder, you will exhaust them and they will need to access sick time. That will require replacement workers. Replacement workers will follow the work. As more replacement teachers move to urban centres (where the majority of teachers are employed), there will be fewer in the rural areas. This will require rural teachers to work harder, which will exhaust them causing them to access more sick time…

I’m not really sure how that particular point was lost on the educational bureaucracy when the topic of increasing teacher workload came up last May, but I digress.

For my money, there are several possible solutions to the current shortage which I would like to see at least attempted. 

The first would be some sort of bursary program set up whereby tuition for any Nova Scotian student pursuing a B.Ed would be waived so long as they agreed to work here. The minutiae of that would require some tweaking of course, but I believe that would be a good place to start.

Another option would be to pay those who substitute what they are actually worth from the get-go. If my memory serves me correctly, there was a time that a substitute’s daily rate of pay was 1/195th of what they would earn as a full time teacher. Reinstating that particular pay scale might help incentivize the job.

Neither of these, however, get to the root of the problem. 

Increasing the supply of substitute teachers is very much a management based solution. As long as the employer has an overabundance of replacement workers, systemic issues around working conditions never get addressed. Although I certainly support the aforementioned ideas, I only do so as a stop-gap measure. 

The reasons why restaurants are not getting workers back seem fairly obvious. Ask any Jane-on-the-street and they will be able to tell you why health care professionals are at the end of their collective ropes. 

But ask about teaching, and the general public will point to pensions and summers off.

Based on this line of thinking, young Nova Scotians should be lined up around the block to work in our schools, accessing good paying jobs in their home communities.The simple reality is that they are not. The obvious question is “Why”? 

Without some sort of long term plan, we may not be far from experiencing school closures due to lack of substitutes.

(Premier) Houston, we have a problem. It is well past time we get serious about finding a solution.


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Filed under Education Policy, Public education, Teacher shortage

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