If you want to know what is happening in schools, ask people who work there.

Well, that was disappointing.

Last Saturday evening, I found myself contentedly sitting in my favourite chair in front of my crackling hearth, cup of tea in one hand and the modern-day version of the newspaper in the other. Honest to goodness, I feel I only need have adorned myself with a shawl, a pipe and a pair of slippers to complete the cliché. The respite, I felt, was well deserved after what had been a rather hellish week at school, and stood in stark contrast to the report-card-completion, pressure-laden Saturday evening of the weekend before.

It was it the midst of this quiet moment, however, that I came across a piece from the CBC on the national post-pandemic substitute teacher crises, and my mood, rather suddenly, soured.

As someone who follows such things, I was initially quite excited by the prospect of reading an in-depth exposé on the current near state-of-emergency that exists in our public education system. Upon opening the article, however, my enthusiasm waned when I saw that the reporter, one Jessica Wong out of Toronto, had relied heavily on media-anointed education expert Paul Bennett as a key source for the story.

So much for in-depth exposé.

I will spend little energy explaining yet again why I have a beef with reporters relying on pseudo-sources when it comes to education. I have written hundreds of words on the subject, and rather feel I have done my part on that one. If the past few years of “Fake News” and COVID-19 conspiracy theories have taught the media nothing about the dangers of haphazardly ascribing expertise, my few words on the subject will have little effect

However, the piece did get my mind turning, as it so often has of late, to the current staffing crises being faced by schools. As someone who actually works in public education, I can attest firsthand to the impact the lack of replacement workers is having on the system. Ask any teacher in this province, for sure, and they will point to any number of days when vacancies have gone unfilled, and when they have been called upon to cover for absent colleagues.

This, of course, has a cumulative effect. The more teachers are asked to cover for colleagues, the less time they have during the day to prepare their own lessons, mark assignments or, heaven forbid, run to the washroom. This leads to them tapping into their energy reserves, which of course impacts their own health, not to mention their capacity to serve their own students. Throw the added pressures of COVID into the mix and you have a recipe for disaster. As teachers crash, and no subs are available, more of them are asked to cover for colleagues, and the cycle continues.

One of the most interesting elements of this current dilemma is how only a few short years ago, governments were singing the exact opposite tune. Back in 2013, many provinces, including ours, found themselves in a situation of having too many teachers. In response, some jurisdictions moved to actually reduce the supply. Ontario, for example, announced plans to decrease the number of seats available in teacher training programs, and increase the length of time required to attain certification from one year to two.

At the time, pundits like myself urged caution.

Canadians should take note. As the goal of landing that elusive permanent contract becomes less attainable, more and more young people will shy away from the profession…Can it be long before young teachers begin to decide that it simply is not worth the grind?…we must be very, very aware that other sectors are crying for young, vibrant and engaged young people to fill their ranks…If would-be teachers start to answer that call, this country may find itself in a very sorry state indeed.

So here we are, a mere few years later, in that precise and somewhat predictable, sorry state.

Governments across the country are again responding, albeit from a reactive standpoint as opposed to a proactive one. Many are using non-certified teachers to plug the holes. Others are increasing the number of days that retired teachers can work before their pensions are impacted. Undoubtedly, should the shortages continue, there will be calls for more seats to open in teacher education courses.

The concerns I have about this line of thinking is that it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. Increasing the supply of teachers is one solution, to be sure, but this is a very “employer friendly” approach. What it doesn’t address is why teachers are crashing in the first place.

Instead of focusing on how to increase the number of teachers (and education workers in general, for that matter), we should be focusing on the workers themselves. What are the key stressors of the job as it exists today? What would teachers like taken off their plates? What are they undertaking that is a demand of an insatiably data driven system as opposed to of legitimate educational value?

It’s not like teacher organizations have not compiled lists like this before. Certainly, surveying the membership on current and pressing issues is rather “par-for-the-course” for unions and organizations like the Canadian Teachers Federation. However, governments tend to be dismissive of such efforts, and when news organizations like the CBC actually speak directly to teachers, well the consternation that causes can become the stuff of legend.

The public education system in this country is not run on the backs of politicians. It is not sustained by bureaucrats, or policy makers, or easy-to-find, pseudo-experts, or even unions for that matter. It is sustained by teachers and secretaries and librarians and educational assistants and a whole host of other frontline workers. Living, breathing individuals, many of whom are finding themselves, on a daily basis, pushed to the brink of crises and beyond.

If you want to find a solution to the current staffing shortages in our schools, I would suggest speaking to those self same individuals would be a good place to start.

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Filed under Education Policy, Educational Change, Educational commentary, Public education, Teacher shortage