Last spring, Peace River North School District 60 struggled to hire teachers to fill two full-time vacancies at a small, rural kindergarten to Grade 6 school.
With no viable applications from B.C. or Canada, they hired a teacher couple from South Africa to start at the school in September 2022. But almost a year later, both teachers are still in South Africa due to bureaucratic holdups with their visas.
The school, which has three classrooms and four teacher positions, has combined classes to cover the shortage. They’ve also relied on the school’s education assistant and its principal, who is also an administrator at another district school, to fill in for the absent teachers. Substitute teachers haven’t been a viable solution — the district is facing a shortage there, too.
“The principal has had to leave her admin duties and step in to teach the classes,” said Stephen Petrucci, Peace River North’s district superintendent. “She actually is supposed to be covering another school as well and she can’t really do that.”
The students at the school are all English language learners, Petrucci added. “That means you need more support, they’re a vulnerable population in that regard.”
This situation is not unique to the school, Petrucci says. (Which is part of the reason The Tyee isn’t naming the school; Petrucci would prefer not to single it out.)
Nor is it unique to School District 60. All 14 northern school districts in B.C. have been dealing with a shortage of both teachers and teachers teaching on-call, or TTOCs — the industry term for substitute teachers — for over a decade, said Petrucci, who is also the northern chapter director for the BC School Superintendents Association.*
To cover teacher vacancies, northern districts have been hiring uncertified teachers, meaning they have not been certified to teach in British Columbia by the BC Teacher Regulation Branch and often lack teacher education degrees.
Districts must receive letters of permission from the Education Ministry for each uncertified teacher they hire. According to the ministry, as of Dec. 5, 2022, there were 83 uncertified teachers in public B.C. classrooms, less than 0.3 per cent of the public teaching workforce.
Sometimes districts hire uncertified teachers to deliver lessons most teachers can’t, like hiring an Elder to teach an Indigenous language or cultural class, or a mechanic to teach Automotive Technology 11.
Historically, Petrucci said, Peace River North had one to two uncertified teachers for positions like these, typically in rural schools. But over the last decade that number has grown to about 30 uncertified teachers working in the district today.
School District 60 has needed to hire 20 to 30 teachers every year due to retirements, job turnover and the fact teachers' positions in the district don’t become permanent until their third year of work. Uncertified teachers account for about five per cent of district teaching staff.
There are about 80 TTOCs working in the district, half of whom are not certified.
“While 80 might sound like a decent amount, most of those are only part-time or will only do certain days, or maybe they’re retired teachers and they’re only available at certain times of the year,” Petrucci said.
While certification for TTOCs is not required, the School Act says an uncertified substitute teacher cannot be in a classroom for more than 20 consecutive days.
The lack of TTOCs has meant teachers are not consistently able to take advantage of professional development opportunities, Petrucci said.
In more urban districts, like the 11 districts in the Metro Vancouver region, a shortage of TTOCs has led to resource teachers, such as teacher librarians, special needs teachers, English language learner teachers and teacher psychologists covering a classroom teacher’s absence when a TTOC is not available.
This leaves no one covering the work the resource teachers do with kids with disabilities, kids learning English, those with mental health issues or who need extra assistance.
“It’s a cumulative effect, but what it looks like is a loss of services to students, higher workload for teachers and likely a higher burnout rate for those teachers as they don’t have the balance of work that they should,” said Clint Johnston, president of the BC Teachers’ Federation.
There is also a specific provincewide shortage of Indigenous teachers, physics, technology, home economics, French and French immersion teachers.
Petrucci stresses the teachers and administrators in his district are “making it work” for their students, who are “having a positive school experience in every way that we can provide.”
But Petrucci believes northern districts are suffering under the strain.
“Part of this for us in the north is a question on equity in terms of ensuring that there’s the same kind of standard of staffing and quality that every district wants to have,” he said.
Where have all the teachers gone?
The reasons for the ongoing B.C. teacher shortage are varied. One is the 2016 Supreme Court of Canada ruling that reinstated BC Teachers' Federation contracts stripped by the then-Liberal provincial government in 2002.
This required hiring 2,600 more teachers provincewide to fulfil restored language on class sizes, composition and the ratio of resource teachers to students.
Many newly hired teachers had been on districts’ TTOC lists, thereby drastically reducing the number of substitute teachers available.
Another reason is the global workforce shortage in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“What we’re seeing reflected in the education system is what we’re seeing at your local Starbucks or your local restaurant. There just seems to be a shortage of people,” said Carolyn Broady, president of the BC School Trustees Association and a school trustee in West Vancouver School District 54.
“When we’re talking about teachers and education assistants, they’re skilled people that take time to train and get into place,” Broady added.
There are nine universities in the province offering teacher education programs, but most require students to attend classes at an urban campus. And once they travel for school, new teachers may not want to return to their home community.
With the teacher shortage impacting the whole province, teacher candidates have their pick of districts to move to and, according to Petrucci, they are not choosing northern districts.
“This combination of things, where it was always challenging for us, have now exacerbated it to the point that we’re often getting no applicants for some of our regular teaching positions,” Petrucci said, adding that other northern districts experience the same.
But even when they did, the vast majority of applicants were from outside of B.C., Petrucci said, who must jump through certification hoops before teaching here.
“In B.C. we don’t just accept on face value the teaching certificate of someone trained in Alberta, Saskatchewan or any other province. There’s always a bureaucratic process needed to qualify them,” he said, adding this is not the case for nurses or Red Seal trades people in Canada.
That’s because, with the exception of teachers in some private schools, all teachers working in B.C. must be certified by the ministry’s Teacher Regulation Branch. Teachers coming from outside the province must apply for and receive certification before starting a job.
It’s even more difficult for internationally educated teachers to have their education recognized in B.C., a process that often sends them back to school before being certified.
There is a teacher education program in Fort St. John, the Alaska Highway Consortium on Teacher Education, a collaboration between Northern Lights College and Simon Fraser University’s teacher education program.
But Petrucci estimates the 15 to 20 students graduating every two years aren’t enough to fill the 20 to 30 new teacher hires Peace River North needs annually, let alone the vacancies in the other 13 northern districts.
What’s needed, says Petrucci, Broady and Johnston agree, is for teacher education programs in B.C. to offer online or hybrid in-person and remote learning options so students all over B.C. can study and complete their practicums in their home communities.
“We’re excited about some of the potential of growing our own, in terms of having post-secondary offer more creative and accessible hybrid teacher education programs,” Petrucci said, adding the district would need 30 to 35 more classroom teachers to end their ongoing shortage, in addition to hiring more resource teachers.
The University of British Columbia started its own rural and remote hybrid teacher education program last year, while Simon Fraser University’s professional linking program to help certify teachers is starting a new hybrid program in the Peace Region this fall.
In an emailed statement sent to The Tyee, the BC Public School Employers' Association said it is working with all districts to help attract and retain new teachers through the teacher job board Make a Future.
“We are running various recruitment campaigns, including general marketing campaigns and targeted national and international campaigns to recruit French teachers. We are also working on a northern recruitment pilot project to identify and implement innovative recruitment and retention strategies,” the statement reads.
Petrucci suggests student loan forgiveness for teachers who move to northern districts, much like what the province is offering to attract more doctors; cutting bureaucratic red tape for certifying Canadian and international teachers; and offering student teachers bursaries in exchange for working a certain number of years in a northern school district.
The Tyee contacted the nine universities running teacher education programs in the province about their enrolment, and heard back from all except Trinity Western University. All said they consistently met overall student enrolment targets, but some programs for French and technology teachers were not filled.
The Tyee asked for an interview with Minister of Education and Child Care Rachna Singh, but she was not made available. Instead she sent an emailed statement.
“The newly ratified agreement reached between the BC Teachers’ Federation and BC Public School Employers’ Association provides significant wage increases over the next three years and additional benefits that will help with recruitment and retention,” Singh wrote, adding the ministry continues to work with the BC Public School Employers' Association, Indigenous organizations and the Ministry of Post-Secondary Education and Future Skills on solutions.
Like all workers in the province, Johnston said, teachers need affordable housing close to work. They also need improved working conditions: the new contract added 10 minutes of additional prep time for elementary teachers only.
This has to change if you want to attract and retain teachers over the long term, Johnston said.
“People not getting the times they deserve and contractually are supposed to get to prepare for their work and to assess in a way that doesn’t overload them and make them take excessive work home, that can really be difficult for people and can burn them out that much more quickly.”
* Story updated on Feb. 21 at 3:09 p.m. to correct the number of northern B.C. school districts noted by Stephen Petrucci, the northern representative of the BC School Superintendents Association.