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Why There’s a Teacher Shortage. And How to Fix It

A longtime teacher speaks out on how to support BC educators and families.

Tina Anderson, as told to Katie Hyslop 30 Mar 2023TheTyee.ca

Katie Hyslop is a reporter for The Tyee. Reach them by email.

[Editor’s note: In this special ‘as told to’ interview, longtime education reporter Katie Hyslop follows Tina Anderson through a typical day in her life as an elementary school teacher in the Burnaby school district. She shares her thoughts on the origins of the provincewide teacher shortage, and how to fix it.]

British Columbia has been struggling with a teacher shortage for years — a decade or more in the north, and elsewhere in B.C. since at least 2017. That was the year when provincial funding restored teacher contracts, class size and composition language (the number of disabled students in each public school classroom). The funding measures also resulted in hiring more teachers from the teachers teaching on call list, which created a shortage of substitute teachers that hasn't been fixed.

As I approach my retirement at the end of this school year, after 30 years in public education — first as an education assistant, then a teacher — I have thoughts on the teacher shortage’s origin, and how to solve it.

My time as a teacher has included working closely with the BC Teachers’ Federation provincially and locally in Burnaby, but I only speak for myself here.

Before we get to the solutions, the public needs to understand what impact the decades of education underfunding and teacher shortage is having on our schools.

Northern B.C. has long suffered a teacher shortage that has resulted in uncertified teachers — individuals who do not meet the required standards for a B.C. teaching certificate and typically lack an education degree — filling teaching jobs and working as a “teachers teaching on call,” or TTOCs, the industry term for substitute teachers.

But it is only in recent months that districts in southern B.C. like Chilliwack, Langley and Nicola-Similkameen have been hiring uncertified TTOCs to deal with their teacher shortage.

Students aren't getting a quality education if you don't have a qualified teacher.

Does an unqualified teacher know the scaffolding that must occur to teach math properly? Do they know the pedagogy behind adequate reading instruction? No.

‘Behaviour issues have skyrocketed’

For the past four years, I have been working as a certified TTOC in the Burnaby district. Burnaby has a lot of poverty, including but not limited to a significant population of resettled refugee families starting over in Canada.

Seven of Burnaby’s elementary schools and one secondary school are designated as community schools with additional services — StrongStartBC breakfast and lunch programs, after-school programs, adult education — to support kids and their families.

I substitute in many of these schools, mainly in the primary years of kindergarten to Grade 3. That’s what I loved to teach, but also primary often doesn't get TTOC coverage because it is such a stressful, exhausting kind of a non-teaching day: you spend 80 to 90 per cent of your day dealing with students’ behaviour. This is not a Burnaby issue, but a problem across B.C.

At one school I worked in weekly last semester, the daily morning announcements listed the teachers absent without a substitute teacher to replace them as well as education assistants, who are rarely replaced when absent.

Instead resource teachers, like teacher librarians, English Language Learning teachers and special needs teachers are pulled from their jobs to cover classroom teachers. Which means kids who need extra support with English or their disability get no help that day.

I usually start every school day optimistic and looking forward to seeing the kids. But when I arrive there's already students having temper tantrums and anxiety about leaving their parents.

Behaviour issues among students have skyrocketed since I started teaching in the public school system in 1999. There have always been students with additional learning needs and neurodivergencies like autism. But this is different. When you sit kids down in a circle to teach a lesson, you can't really speak for more than a minute, sometimes 30 seconds, before you have to start addressing behaviours.

When I started teaching, children didn’t have the same level of access to tablets, smartphones, YouTube and video games they have today. They also didn’t have the behaviour issues. I and many other teachers believe screens are destroying children’s ability to concentrate.

You strategically have to place kids so that this child is not sitting beside that child, because you know they won’t pay attention. Several kids need to be right at your feet so you can gently put a hand on a shoulder to encourage them to listen. There are kids who are tired because they’ve been up late staring at screens. Some kids go to the breakfast program before they come into your classroom. Others cannot sit still for even 30 seconds before they start fidgeting and touching other kids. You're constantly interrupted. There's never a fluid flow through of a lesson.

All B.C. school districts offer psychological assessments for kids with suspected learning disabilities and/or neurodivergence. But thanks to funding cuts for school psychologists across the province, the waitlist in some areas is years long and students are generally not provided support, without a designation of some kind, after significant testing.

So it is possible some of these kids causing disruptions will later receive a diagnosis, although even diagnosed students don’t necessarily get the support they need because of an ongoing shortage of education assistants.

‘A magnet that sucks the joy out of you’

My first ever teaching job was as a kindergarten teacher, and back then children started school with the skills equivalent of a Grade 2 student today. Many students entering kindergarten now have never held a pencil, let alone drawn a picture. They don’t know how to write their name or letters, sing the alphabet song or sit down with you to read a book.

Not every child is struggling. There [are] always kids in class who are going to thrive because they've had a wonderful parental start: parents who've spent dedicated time preparing them to come to school and giving them every opportunity to get ready to succeed when they leave them at the door.

At recess and lunch some teachers do supervision duty when kids go outside and play. I do it if the teacher I’m substituting for has supervision duty. There's a few issues on the playground, but usually it's quite nice: you're talking to kids in an unstructured, fun, loving way, where you get to know them as people and they tell you the special things happening in their lives.

If I’m not supervising, often I'm prepping for the next lesson. At recess sometimes a student stays behind for help with a problem. If you're really lucky, you get to sneak to the bathroom — although primary teachers have very strong bladders — or grab a coffee or hot water for your tea. At lunch break you get to eat, but still spend 20 minutes prepping for the afternoon lessons.

Often immediately when recess and lunch are finished, I am dealing with crises and conflicts that happened during the break. Kids come in and some of them are in trouble and have to go to the office; some are hurt; some are crying or screaming at the top of their lungs about this other student that did something to them.

I prefer to schedule harder lessons like math and writing in the mornings, because after lunch kids are more tired. That's when you do more of the fun engaging stuff, the art, the music. If there are still kids acting out, many teachers take their kids outside to lose a little bit more of that energy. Sometimes lessons get cancelled for this reason.

But sometimes a student is being so disruptive it’s dangerous, like throwing chairs and other objects. That’s when you need to evacuate the class, taking students to another classroom or the gym for their safety, while school staff try to calm the child down. In my early career, I'd never heard of evacuating a classroom. Now it happens more than monthly.

I come home from school exhausted, stressed and not feeling like I accomplished very much or experienced very much joy during the day.

A lot of teachers go into teaching for very altruistic reasons. It's a way, one class at a time, one kid at a time, to make the world a better place.

If you can't do that, it's like a magnet that sucks the joy out of you.

Parents are doing their best, but they need more support

Some of the issues come down to parenting. But kids’ behaviour and school readiness is not always in the parents’ control. Lots of refugee families come from trauma. And lots of low-income parents are working two and three jobs to pay the rent, limiting their time to parent. They don't necessarily have the time or energy to read a book with their kids.

I think every parent loves their kids and does their best. But lots of parents need additional support to be able to do that, and they're not getting it. And poverty is definitely growing in our community.

The teacher shortage, like many of the issues facing public education today, comes back to inadequate funding. We used to say so many kids fall through the cracks. Now we say so many kids fall through the crevasses, because education underfunding has widened the cracks.

The Education Ministry says funding is the highest it has ever been, and at $7.3 billion for public school operations next year, they are right. Of course, expenses are also the highest they have ever been.

According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Education Ministry funding —which includes public and private schools, as well as early childhood education — has been decreasing as a share of the province’s gross domestic product, from 3.2 per cent in 1999 to just 2.1 per cent today.

B.C. teachers signed a contract last fall that gave teachers a significant pay bump. But teacher salaries have never kept up with the cost of living, and this pay increase won’t change that. The starting salary for teachers has increased, but after six years of university, you still only start at around $55,000, which is not great.

Not to mention the deteriorating working conditions and the increased workload for teachers — we're expected to teach way more in the curriculum than when I first became a teacher. Elementary teachers still lag behind secondary teachers in terms of preparation time, the new contract giving us just an additional 10 minutes of prep time per week.

There are way too many kids with too many needs and behaviours in every class for one teacher to handle. That's taken the joy out of teaching. It's why we have a teacher shortage today, and why I’m retiring at the end of this school year — even though it will mean a smaller pension for me.

If the province is serious about ending the teacher shortage, we need to increase education funding to the point that we can halve class sizes so teachers can meet the needs of every child.

All children with special needs designations need one-on-one access to an education assistant, whose salaries must significantly increase to keep up with the cost of living. And teacher salaries must increase to top — and stay on top — of the cost of living.

This would involve significant capital funding: we would need more schools to have smaller classes. But in the last two decades, over 200 public schools were closed in this province. How many of those could be reopened with renovations?

The philosophy behind education used to be that education was the great equalizer. It's no longer the great equalizer: kids who struggle aren't getting their needs met because there isn't the personnel, the resources and the drastically needed funding required to pull it all off successfully. It all comes down to funding.

*Story updated on March 31 at 2:40 p.m. to correct which districts have been hiring “teachers teaching on call” or substitute teachers.  [Tyee]

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