Look after current teachers before looking for new ones.

“…the need for a solid recruitment and retention plan for teachers has never been more pressing. However, if the warning signs are ignored, it may not just be a lack of doctors that we, as a province, have to worry about.”

As someone who follows the ebbs and flows of educational policy with considerable interest, I do, from time to time, take some small satisfaction in being able to crow about being right.

That opening quote was from one of several articles I penned back in 2017 warning about what was even then a fairly alarming trend in the education sector. All across the globe, pre-pandemic jurisdictions were running out of teachers. Just a few days ago, the inevitable arrival of that trend on our shores was the focus of a meeting of the Nova Scotia legislature’s standing committee on human resources.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the committee was presented with two very different views of the situation. On one side you had NSTU President Ryan Lutes (who hears directly from teachers) explaining that schools are in dire straits and due to staffing shortages are at the breaking point. On the other side, you had newly minted Associate Deputy Director of Education, Elwin Leroux (who hears directly from management) explaining that things are not as bad as all that. “I can assure everyone today there is a teacher in every classroom,” he told the committee, “So our efforts to date have assured that learning is happening.”

I’m not sure I can completely agree with Mr. Leroux on his summation. There may indeed be a teacher in every room, but in many instances guidance counselors, specialists and school based administrators are called upon to plug the holes at the last minute when substitute teachers can not be found. If that doesn’t work, teachers from other grade levels are often brought in to cover on a period by period basis. In extreme cases, classes of students are broken up and sent to other rooms for the day. Such patchwork solutions may ensure “learning is happening”, but the quality of said learning is perhaps another matter entirely.

There have been several attempts over the past few years to increase the supply of teacher replacement workers. These efforts have included allowing retired teachers to work more days, allowing student teachers (who have not yet qualified as teachers) to work as substitutes, and allowing individuals who have a university degree (and who will probably never get qualified as teachers) to pick up the occasional day in the classroom.

The fact that we are allowing the education of our children to be directed by individuals who are not actually qualified to do so should give us all pause, for sure. But what I find most fascinating about these attempts to rectify the issue is that they are solely focussed on increasing supply. As long as we have ample replacement workers, or so the theory seems to go, educational jurisdictions will never need concern themselves with the much more bothersome issue of decreasing demand.

For me, that is the real issue at play not just here, but right across our country. When it comes to staffing shortages, the typical approach seems to focus on recruitment as opposed to on retention; a focus that invariably results in a compromising of standards. Entry requirements for education degrees are lowered, the length of time for training is reduced, and qualification standards are removed, all in the name of increasing the labour pool.

That these efforts are having little impact on staffing shortages should come as a surprise to no one. Teaching, in general, has increasingly become less attractive as a career choice over the past few decades. In fact, a recent research paper out of Brown University in the US looked at four separate factors connected to the overall state of the teaching profession: Professional prestige, interest of students in choosing teaching as a career, preparation for entry into the profession and, finally, job satisfaction among teachers. The study concluded “The current state of the teaching profession is at or near its lowest levels in 50 years.”

That’s really what Mr. Leroux and those of his ilk are up against. Teaching was once a pretty decent way to make a living, but much of the shine is gone, thanks to decades of teacher-bashing and austerity budgets (see: Stephen McNeil, John Savage, Mike Harris, Doug Ford, Christy Clark…). Those moves may have been politically popular at the time, but politicians sometimes forget that teachers are ultimately their employees. And if your employees do not feel valued, if they feel like you don’t appreciate their contributions, if every time they turn on the radio or watch the news they see their bosses complaining about the poor job they are doing…

Well, let’s just say that’s not exactly a recipe for having potential workers lined up around the block.

Schools in Nova Scotia are, indeed, hanging on, albeit by the finest of threads. That is very much due to the herculean efforts of the individuals who work within their walls. But without a serious change of focus by governments, these individuals will continue to become a dying breed.

Until we learn how to do a better job of caring for the teachers we currently have it makes zero sense, to me at least, to look for new ones.

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Filed under Absenteeism, Public education, Sick days, Teacher shortage