Ten years ago, Bob Main was hard-pressed to get a full week of substitute teaching work in the Delta school district. That’s not a problem anymore.
"Now if you turn down one job, the phone rings again. There’s always a job," said Main, who has worked as a teacher on call in the district for over a decade.
Both the education ministry and the BC Teachers’ Federation agree there is a shortage of both teachers and teachers on call. (Or teachers temporarily teaching on call — TTOC — in the jargon of the education system.) But they disagree on how serious the problem is, what’s causing it and whether it affects students’ learning.
Substitute teachers are part of the system. Teachers get sick, take maternity or bereavement leave or are off work for other reasons. They’re replaced by substitute teachers drawn from on-call lists in school districts.
They’re also called on when full-time teaching jobs can’t be filled. As of January, there were 400 open teacher positions out of about 35,000 full-time equivalent positions in the province’s public schools, held by approximately 44,000 teachers. (Some jobs are only part-time, which explains the discrepancy.)
Both the union and the education ministry agree it is difficult and sometimes impossible to fill every teacher absence.
And the shortage of teachers on call is due in part to a hiring spree that started in 2017, after a 2016 Supreme Court of Canada ruling restored limits on class size and composition and the ratio of particular teacher positions to students, illegally stripped from union contracts by the former BC Liberal government.
About 3,700 teachers were hired as a result, providing permanent jobs for teachers who had been on substitute lists. The ministry says an additional 500 teachers were hired by districts on their own accord, bringing the total up to 4,200 positions filled over three years.
How severe is the shortage?
BC Teachers’ Federation president Teri Mooring said the current situation is "one of the most severe teacher shortages I’ve seen." The union is bargaining for a new contract, and arguing wage increases are required to attract more teachers to B.C.
Education Minister Rob Fleming told The Tyee the shortage is not that serious.
Fleming said the majority of the shortages are in 10 out of the 60 public school districts but would not say which ones.
The 400 open teacher positions represent just one per cent of the 44,000 teachers in public schools today, he added.
"As a profession at large, it’s doing much better in terms of its recruitment and retention rate than a number of others," Fleming said, adding the province’s nursing shortage is three to four per cent of the workforce.
Fleming says the 400 open teacher jobs aren’t linked to the court case.
"The majority are specialist positions that have been under some hiring stress for a lot longer than the post-Supreme Court period of time," he said, particularly French immersion and special education teachers.
Getting accurate information on teacher shortages across the province is difficult.
Relying on areas the teachers’ union said are hardest hit by the shortage, The Tyee contacted the Delta; Prince Rupert; Peace River North; Peace River South; Surrey; Vancouver; and Coast Mountains school districts and teachers’ union locals for data on open teaching positions, uncertified teachers, out-of-province recruitment and teachers on call.
The answers were incomplete and sometimes included conflicting information from school districts and the union local. Some districts did not track the information we sought.
And some, like the Prince Rupert district, just didn’t respond at all.
What’s this mean for students?
The impacts of the shortages differ depending on the district.
For example, the shortage in northern districts has resulted in more uncertified teachers in permanent and contract positions, as well as on the teacher-on-call list.
Provincial legislation requires teachers in all public and most independent schools to be certified.
But exceptions can be made through what’s known as a Letter of Permission, granting a one-year exemption for teachers who may be waiting to be certified after graduation or relocating from another province. Uncertified teachers with special skills, like a car mechanic teaching an auto class or an Elder teaching a First Nations language, are also allowed to teach.
Currently there are 159 public school teachers on letters of permission across the province: Peace River South has 26; Peace River North has 15; and Coast Mountains has 19 — 10 of whom are working at Hazelton Secondary School.
Kathy Murphy, Prince Rupert’s union local president, said students can be shortchanged.
"Students aren’t getting the same experience that they would with a certified person," she said. "The person who’s doing the job needs support to do that job, because they’re not trained in the planning, the assessing, the management of children in that situation."
Fleming said the education ministry is looking at ways to reduce the number of uncertified teachers, including introducing a teacher education program that combines online and in-person classes in rural B.C. communities.
This would mean teachers working on letters of permission could earn their education degree "without leaving their community for a year and having no income," said Fleming.
He didn’t say when the program would be introduced. The ministry is engaging the BC Teachers Council and teachers’ union on the idea.
"We want people to have a pathway to becoming certified professionals. Because often these people are very talented teachers," he said, "they just don’t have a formal teaching credential."
In the Lower Mainland, uncertified teachers are a rarity: there are none in Vancouver and only five in Surrey, the province’s largest school district with 74,000 students.
Instead, the shortage of teachers on call is reducing students’ access to resource teachers, like teacher librarians, special needs teachers and English Language Learning teachers. They must leave their specialized roles and fill in for absent classroom teachers when there are no teachers on call available, a situation referred to as a "failure to fill."
Resource teachers are not replaced until they have been gone for two consecutive days.
"Who pays the biggest cost for that is going to be the students, because they don’t get that service that day," said Matt Westphal, president of the Surrey union local.
"Some of our most vulnerable learners can be without service for much of a week."
Fleming acknowledges the negative impact on students.
"It’s unfortunate when it does happen, for sure. We want to minimize and eliminate that from happening," he said, adding the ministry has supplied districts with money for hiring both more resource teachers and teachers on call.
"It’s not a shortage of money from the ministry. We have provided record amounts of funding to the districts to do the hiring that needs to be done but isn’t completed yet."
Lost prep time, disrupted schedules
In secondary schools across the province, teachers receive a block of prep time every second day, a chance to mark student work, plan classes, do administrative work or just take a break. Elementary teachers receive 110 minutes of prep per week.
But when teachers are absent and teachers on call or resource teachers aren’t available, teachers are pressed into service to take over their absent colleagues’ classes. They lose their prep time.
This can snowball into more absences when teachers take extra time off to make up for lost prep blocks.
The scramble to cover absences can also mean a teacher on call arrives at a school prepared to cover a specific class and be shifted to a different one.
"It’s not always fun," said Main, the Delta teacher on call. "I try my best, but I don’t have the routines and the timing to go to teach a French immersion Kindergarten class, or something like that. It can be a very, very stressful day, because Kindergarten teachers are magical. I don’t know how they do it."
Sometimes no teachers on call with special skills — like teaching a shop class — are available. Then it’s a paperwork day for students.
Sometimes even school administrators fill in for absent teachers.
There are no province-wide numbers on failures to fill. But Surrey’s BC Teachers’ Federation local estimated the district had 9,800 full-time equivalent failures to fill in 2018/19, or an average of 50 per day.
The Surrey school district reported an average 43 daily failures to fill in 2018/19.
The Vancouver school board did not answer questions on failures to fill.
Peace River North District acknowledged they happened "periodically," while Peace River South district said they had none. Coast Mountains School District reported 6.9 failures to fill so far this school year.
Teacher on call shortages happen in both northern and southern school districts. And the number of teachers on call on districts’ lists can be misleading, as some have other commitments and aren’t available every day.
In many districts, retired and uncertified teachers play a large role.
Out of 911 teachers on the call list in Surrey, almost one in five are uncertified. The district says most are recent graduates awaiting their certification.
The district reports 211 retired teachers have worked on call since 2016.
"We had our retirement ceremony, and a joke made was ‘On your way out, if you guys want to pick up an application form…’" said Ritinder Matthew, the Surrey school district’s manager of communication services.
Prince Rupert has 44 active teachers on call, the union local reports, with more than half uncertified and the rest retired.
Of the 129 teachers on call in Peace River North, 39 — including the recently retired superintendent — are retired, while another 55 are uncertified.
Peace River South has 61 certified teachers — including 40 retired educators — on its on-call lists. (Only nine are available for full-time work to cover longer absences.) It also has 36 uncertified teachers on a call list.
Coast Mountains reported 82 teachers on call, the vast majority uncertified. All but one of the certified teachers on call are retired educators, who often work less than their non-retired counterparts because they no longer need full-time jobs.
A cascading series of effects
Without a guarantee their absence will be covered — or that it will be covered without disrupting their colleagues — teachers in Surrey are going to work sick, says union local president Westphal.
"They get worn down, they may get sicker and have to be off longer, or forced to go off, or they make other people sick," he said. Some disciplinary cases against teachers have been based on things that happened when they came to work sick, he said.
"They lost their temper with a student, for example. But really they were quite sick, and they shouldn’t have been there."
Union local presidents agree with Mooring that open teacher positions won’t be filled unless starting wages increase. The union maintains they are the second lowest starting wages in Canada. Although wage grids vary by district, the starting salary for most districts is less than $50,000 per year.
It’s a key bargaining issue for the union, which is in mediation with the government over contract negotiations.
"The salary is important because we need to be able to attract teachers from other districts, because we just don’t have enough teachers in B.C. right now," Mooring said.
But Fleming is confident the ministry is on top of the teacher and teacher on call shortage.
"Our universities combined in British Columbia continue to graduate 1,500 new certificate holders annually," he said, almost all of whom find teaching positions in the province.
Out-of-province teacher applications are up 80 per cent from 2013-14 numbers, Fleming added. But the province does not track how many out-of-province teachers have been hired, nor whether they stay in B.C.
It isn’t just about money. Union local presidents had other recommendations for the province and their districts, including establishing a mentorship program pairing new teachers with more experienced ones; providing more in-service training for new or uncertified teachers; and social events and programs to help new teachers acclimatize to both their job and a new community.
This would help not only attract new teachers, said Murphy, president of Prince Rupert’s union local, but retain them, too.
"People need connections to a place, and they need to feel supported and valued in their work in order to stay in a community."