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By Kip Wood, teacher, Nanaimo

We have contacted all 60 school districts and there is no overall teacher shortage in BC.

– Ministry of Education statement, September 2018

In the late 1990s, teachers were talking about a looming teacher shortage. Enrolment was up and baby boomers were going to start retiring in the next decade. Teacher shortage conversations ended when new legislation suddenly created a teacher surplus. This engineered “surplus” lasted for 15 school years.

In 2002 and 2003, the BC K–12 system cut about 3,500 teachers. After the Supreme Court of Canada judgment (November 2016) restored teachers’ working conditions provisions, about 3,700 teachers were added back to the system.

Northern and remote districts in BC have had teacher shortages for decades. But now, most districts in the province are dealing with (or not dealing with) teacher shortages. The nature of teacher’s work—large class sizes, poor working conditions, lack of autonomy, and lack of support—has historically contributed to high rates of attrition. A perfect storm of baby boomer retirements, the pandemic, the court judgment, increasing enrolment, rising societal expectations, and the high cost of living, has resulted in a massive teacher shortage. We’re now in year six of that shortage.

In California, some districts are offering new hires $7,000 to cover moving expenses. The state of Nevada is spending $20.7 million to help prospective teachers finish their education and student-teaching requirements. These efforts indicate a desire to fix the situation.

In 2018, a Ministry of Education task force studied the issues of recruiting and retaining teachers and made six recommendations. The task force report was released in year two of the shortage and provided some hope that the government would act. Instead, the “budget and fiscal plan” prevailed, and all the recommendations of the task force were shelved.

In BC, it’s becoming clear that employers, and more importantly the government, are interested in perpetuating the teacher shortage. Which begs the question, how is the teacher shortage benefiting the employer?

Labour shortages, in some cases, lead to higher salaries. Indeed, recruiting workers is more effective when the compensation is attractive. But retaining teachers is not just about salary. Other matters—working conditions, health benefits, a pension plan, affordable housing, student loan payments, and many others—determine whether a teacher remains a teacher or does something else. It costs money to recruit and retain teachers. Dealing with the teacher shortage will cost the government millions of dollars.

The 15 cutback years meant there were fewer contract teachers and more “on-call” teachers. For teachers starting out during the cutback years, steady work was hard to find, and many left the profession. From a short-sighted employer perspective, two things were accomplished in these years. The obvious is that costs were reduced. The less obvious “benefit” is that the employer had more power in the workplace.

The five years following the court decision should have seen more investment in education and more stable and satisfying work for teachers. This has not been the reality. Thousands of “failure to fill” situations (when a teacher is not replaced when absent) have led to daily triage in schools where counsellors, librarians, and support teachers are directed to leave their assigned work and cover another teacher’s class.

Arizona reported that last year more than half of teaching vacancies were filled with educators who were not certified. The state of Washington currently has almost 2,000 “limited teaching certificate” holders working in schools. Here in BC, “non-certified teacher replacements” are being employed because certified teachers are not available.

It’s been four years since the Ministry made the statement quoted at the beginning of this article. The government can take immediate steps to address the teacher shortage, or it can facilitate a continuation of the teacher shortage. Sadly, that too could have been stated four years ago.

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Category/Topic: Teacher Magazine