Representatives from the BC Teachers’ Federation shared the realities of working in a teacher shortage with Rachna Singh, Minister of Education and Child Care, during a productive meeting on Thursday, May 4, 2023.
The Minister heard from specialist teachers about the toll that chronic understaffing has in schools, where educators like school counsellors and teacher-librarians are too often pulled from their core duties to cover the absences of classroom teachers.
Dave MacKenzie, President of the BC School Counsellors Association, said school counsellors are concerned that the redeployments send a message to some students that their needs are less important than those of their classmates.
There’s a common sentiment from those students: “I needed to talk to you, and you weren’t there,” MacKenzie said, adding it could lead some students to seek less healthy coping strategies.
For many school counsellors, it can be deeply discouraging to feel like you don’t have the opportunity to do your job and are letting down students and their families due to factors outside your control.
BCTF First Vice-President Carole Gordon told the Minister that the problem exists across the province, while BCTF Second Vice-President Robin Tosczak added that it affects all designations of specialist teachers, not just counsellors. Classroom teachers also find themselves being pulled out of their preparation time to cover absences.
They both pointed to examples of things the Ministry could do to support the retention of teachers, including providing training and mentorship opportunities. Retention strategies must go hand-in-hand with increasing the supply of teachers through recruitment, they said.
“You can increase the supply, but that can be depleted very quickly if it’s not supported on the other end,” Gordon said.
Collecting more data would also help identify a baseline for measuring the issue, Tosczak added.
Tammy Le, President of the BC Teacher-Librarians’ Association, had a similar message to MacKenzie’s.
The teacher-librarian position is unique in the school system, and there’s usually only one per school, she said.
“It’s hard to get into this position, and when you’re in it, you fall in love,” she said.
Teacher-librarians have a different, collaborative relationship with other teachers, she said. They also have a particular relationship with students, as staff members who don’t give them tests, but instead provide them with a chance to fall in love with reading, develop research skills, and find a safe space in the school.
“That’s what makes my job so wonderful and why I love it so much,” Le said.
However, Le said the job is becoming harder and harder. When redeployments become more of the norm than the exception, it takes a toll.
“All of these situations have caused a lot of burnout. I have had teacher-librarians who have been in these roles for a long time, who are now saying, ‘I don’t know if I want to come back to this position next year.’ And they’re teacher-librarians who have done great work,” she said.
“It’s heartbreaking because they don’t feel they are respected, appreciated for the work that they do, and they’re working tirelessly.”
The teacher shortage predates the COVID-19 pandemic, and the labour shortfall has since been amplified. Solving the problem will take a multipronged approach.
The Federation representatives indicated to the Minister their commitment to working with the government and other stakeholders to find sustainable solutions to address the teacher shortage and ensure all schools are adequately staffed.
Following the meeting, MacKenzie said he appreciated the chance to share stories and experiences from his colleagues.
“I felt heard,” he said. “I am optimistic and excited to see how we can work together.”