It seems the adage of “leave no stone unturned” is once again being applied to our schools’ staffing problems.
On Tuesday, March 1st, Nova Scotia announced the latest in what has been a series of attempts to solve its near crisis level staffing shortages in schools. Citing a wish for “soon-to-be teachers to feel excited about starting their careers and staying here in Nova Scotia”, Education and Early Childhood Development Minister Becky Druhan announced that student teachers can now work as substitutes within the system.
In order to understand how this will work, folks should know that in Nova Scotia, aspiring teachers must complete an unpaid internship during their B.Ed. program. This “practicum” allows the student to experience life in the classroom under the guidance of a qualified and licensed teacher. This mentor helps the student teacher plan and prepare, and provides feedback to them along the way. At the end of the practicum they evaluate the student teacher, and that evaluation becomes part of their overall grade.
In this new model, these student teachers can choose to take time away from their training to go into a classroom and teach.
One has to be inside the system to really understand why this may prove problematic. One conundrum is that during their practicum, student teachers are not supposed to be left unsupervised with the students. That same rule obviously does not apply to substitutes. Thus, an individual who must be directly supervised on Monday while student teaching does not need to be supervised on Tuesday while working as a substitute.
That rather begs the question of what happens to that individual on Tuesday should things in the classroom go sideways, but I will leave it there.
The idea that the sector would consider hiring workers who are not completely trained should strike us as somewhat concerning, if nothing else. However, this is markedly better than allowing people with absolutely no training to do the job; a strategy that has been employed in schools since at least 2017. The 2019 decision to allow retired teachers to work 99.5 days instead of the previous limit of 69.5 held more promise, but even that has not done enough to fill the gaps.
The reason why these attempts have failed, and why I believe this latest effort will as well, is as obvious as it is challenging. These solutions work for the employer, not the employees.
Management in any sector thrives when there is an abundance of employees to choose from. The more potential employees one has, the more choice one has in hiring. The difficulty with approaching any staffing shortage by simply increasing the number of available candidates, however, comes down to quality. The simplest way to increase numbers is to lower credentials. A carpentry company that advertises for a red-seal qualified individual will receive far fewer applications than one who declares that potential hires need not know one end of a hammer from the other.
A much more difficult path for employers is to ask themselves why they are having problems recruiting (and indeed retaining) quality candidates in the first place. How can they make the job more enticing to potential employees? What benefits can they offer? What are their compensation rates? How can they help employees strike a better work-life balance?
For my money, this is what is at the heart of teacher shortages, not just here in Nova Scotia, but globally. In many ways, the push of the past few decades to corporatize educational management systems has led to the viewing of teachers, and indeed all education workers, as simple employees. Factory workers, if you will, who should show up each morning, cap in hand, grateful to have a job.
Well, in this day and age of self managed pensions, increasingly flexible working hours, and where a good salary is attainable without multiple university degrees and at least a decade of work experience, it is understandable why people are no longer lined up at the factory door.
There are many who have a great deal to say about teachers in general, and about the great benefits they believe come with the job. However, even the most toxic of key-board warriors must realize at some level that if the job was as good as it appears, we would not be having this conversation.
There are a few tricks left in the tickle-trunk that may yet help balance the scales. Increasing pay for substitutes or offering tuition forgiveness are two possibilities that spring to mind. However, these measures again only serve to increase supply, as opposed to addressing the reasons why there is such a shortage in the first place.
The problem that our current government has with the supply of teachers is certainly not unique. And, with a respectful nod to Minister Druhan, Tim Houston’s Tories have the added burden of coming in behind a decidedly anti-teacher government.
Regardless of its origins or its extent, however, the problem is now his.
My fear is that these Band-Aid-on-a-bullet-hole solutions are simply not going to be enough to get the job done.