As a former full-time high school teacher who now leads her local union in Kamloops,
Darcy Martin knows the critical role that teachers teaching on call (TTOCs) play in schools.
TTOCs, more commonly known by the public as substitute teachers, provided last-minute relief when she needed to call in sick and continuity for her classrooms when she needed to step away for professional development or union work.
But Martin said it wasn’t just staff who appreciated TTOCs—her students loved them too.
“I fooled them one day and heard them say, ‘Yes, a TTOC!’ But I had just dyed my hair; it wasn’t anyone else,” said Martin, President of the Kamloops Thompson Teachers’ Association.
TTOCs have always played an important role in school communities, but union leaders say the acute teacher shortage has only amplified their value.
As part of a campaign to fix the teacher shortage, the BC Teachers’ Federation is calling on school districts across BC to ensure there is sufficient supply and retention of TTOCs in all specialist areas—from counselling to technology—and that they are available at all times throughout the year.
During TTOC Appreciation Week, several members of local executives also took some time to talk about their vital role in schools.
“You are an essential part of the K–12 system, and an essential colleague,” said Matthew Cooke, President of the Bulkley Valley Teachers’ Union. “It’s more obvious as the pool shrinks.”
As several union leaders pointed out, TTOCs face unique challenges in the way they pivot from subject to subject, grade to grade, and school to school with little notice. They can face challenging classroom dynamics, as all teachers do, but without the benefit of having pre-existing relationships with the students or knowledge of what they’re getting into.
“They need to be able to work on the fly and be flexible and jump into any situation on a given day,” said Matthew Coulson, TTOC representative for the Saanich Teachers’ Association.
“That’s a very difficult job. We know the needs of our students are ever increasing.”
In northern and rural school districts, some TTOCs also make personal sacrifices to cover sprawling regions.
Martin said some will drive 1.5 hours each way between Kamloops and Clearwater, sometimes driving in difficult conditions and staying overnight in communities to make sure classrooms are covered.
“We have a vast geographic area and we really appreciate that they do that—it’s a big ask,” Martin said.
In the Lower Mainland, Burnaby Teachers’ Association President Shanee Prasad said TTOCs have played a key role as temporary foreign workers and other newcomers moved in, pushing student numbers up in schools across the district.
“Our TTOCs were pivotal in making sure these kids had classroom teachers who were present with them and helping them integrate into a new culture and society,” Prasad said.
They are skilled in building new relationships with staff and students quickly, and they provide important stability to students, she said.
“There’s something that kids feel, but also that your colleagues feel, which is a sense of support.”
In Burnaby, like many other school districts, some TTOCs are teachers who are just starting their careers, while others are retirees who have put their name forward because they know how dire the staffing shortage is, she said.
Prasad and Cooke both pointed to the value that each of those perspectives bring to schools. While retiree TTOCs offer mentorship and support to staff, new teachers bring fresh energy and new ways of thinking to classrooms, they said.
TTOCs’ shared interest in being there for their colleagues and keeping the public education system on track is moving, Prasad added.
“To see that at the beginning of your career and the end, it’s such a powerful representation of who TTOCs are,” she said.
Speaking directly to TTOCs, BCTF President Clint Johnston shared a message on behalf of the Federation.
“We know how difficult it can be for you stepping into different classrooms and environments every day. The support you give colleagues and students is vital to the success of education in BC. We want to say thank you.”