Perspectives is an opportunity for Fellows and others to share their ideas in short, accessible essays. IPE/BC Fellows hold a range of views and interests relative to public education.
Attention to Staffing Shortages Urgently Needed
June 3, 2023
By Larry Kuehn
Teachers are frontline workers in the creation of the future. A teacher shortage is a hazard in developing that future and we are facing a teacher shortage in BC public schools.
The early warning indicators are already here. Community members without teacher qualifications are placed in some classrooms. A lack of teachers on call are available to fill in behind teachers away because of illness. Staff lose their planning time as they are pulled in to cover thousands of classes without their regular faculty member. Students with disabilities are sent home, deprived of their right to education because their specialist teachers are required to cover classes for missing colleagues.
Demand for teachers will only increase with a growing population and expanding expectations of the schools. The problems are already here and will explode into a crisis unless we act now. We need both immediate action and long-term planning and commitments.
How did we create this dilemma? It sometimes helps to look at how a problem starts to see how to get out of it.
A reduced demand for teachers in early years of the 21st Century gave a false sense of the real need. School enrolments did decline for a few years. More significantly, the BC Liberal government in 2002 cut about 3000 teachers, eliminating by legislation staffing provisions in the teachers’ collective agreement. This contract stripping created a sudden teacher “surplus.”
This left a pool of qualified teachers as precarious workers. Part-time, moving from one school to another, being laid off every year, hoping to find a position for the next term. Even those with full-time positions worked for lower pay scales than teachers in most other provinces. Not surprisingly, some gave teaching up as a career while others who might have become educators looked elsewhere than teacher education.
The situation changed just as suddenly in 2016. The Supreme Court of Canada affirmed a lower court decision that the government in 2002 had violated the Charter rights of teachers in arbitrarily cancelling conditions that had been negotiated by the BC Teachers’ Federation. The class size and other staffing provisions were restored, returning education services that students had been deprived of.
With some 3000 teaching positions restored, all those precarious workers now had job offers—and there were not enough to fill the demand, let alone prepare for future needs.
The teacher shortage might have already received significant public attention except that it has had to compete with another crisis—the shortage of people in the health care system, as well as other areas crying about the need for workers.
The BC government has recognized these other demands and has provided funding for increased training positions in health care, technology, and trades. However, education has been an afterthought, if a thought at all.
What can be done to address this teacher shortage?
In the short term, we can look to the same place as is health care—immigrants who have been trained and, in some cases, have experience in the countries they have come from. This does not mean going to recruit elsewhere—that has its own shortages—but people who have already immigrated, often with their education and training being a major factor in why they were accepted as immigrants. When they arrived, they discovered that their qualifications aren’t accepted and there is a long and expensive road to getting recognized. Reducing the red tape would help a bit and some progress is being made in that.
The longer term solution is clear—train more teachers and make the job more attractive to retain those who join the profession.
Some progress in making the profession more attractive has been made with the pay increases recently negotiated by the BCTF. Many of the problems, though, will not be solved until there are enough teachers so that everyone can count on a replacement by a qualified substitute when they are away ill. They will not be solved until we stop grabbing the special needs teacher away from their students or the librarian from the library to cover the classroom teacher who is away. And the teacher shortage will not be over until every student has a qualified teacher—not someone with no training–meeting their educational needs.
It is past time for the government to recognize that public education, like health care, requires urgent attention to staffing shortages.
To meet current demands, and to be prepared for increased demands for teachers in the future, the BC government must place a priority on increasing the number of places in universities for teacher education candidates. And it must provide financial support so that future teachers don’t have to add on to student debt in order to make their contributions as front-line workers in the creation of the future.
Larry Kuehn is a member of the IPE/BC Board of Directors and chair of the Research and Programs Committee. He is a research associate for the CCPA and retired BCTF Director of Research and Technology. He has written extensively on education matters including funding, globalization, technology and privacy.