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.

Reflections on the teacher shortage: how teachers are paid reinforces the problem.

By John Malcolmson

March 16, 2024

BC continues to struggle with efforts to improve class size and composition standards in our schools. Years ago, Canada’s Supreme Court opened the door to restoring protections in these areas after Gordon Campbell’s Liberals took an axe to negotiated provisions in teacher contracts.

BC is not unique in this regard as other jurisdictions – both in Canada and abroad – face similar challenges in finding and holding onto staff. However, what makes BC stand out is that it was Campbell’s legislative assault in the 2000s that dug the crater we find ourselves in. Its sheer depth complicates efforts to find a way out. That plus the fact that most efforts aimed at addressing recruitment and retention challenges for teachers – forgivable loans, locational incentives, dispersed learning opportunities, etc. – are not working the way we hoped they might.

This note focuses on the way we pay educators. Its basic argument is that how we pay teachers is anachronistic and needs to be changed. Why is this? A few reasons stand out.

  • The current system, developed many decades ago, assumes that new teachers require formative periods lasting up to 10 years to reach a point where they are fully qualified to do their work, and that it is appropriate to deny full pay until that point is reached.
  • The current system incentivizes the acquisition of university credentials, something which is no longer an issue as the latter are not currently in short supply.
  • The current system also embeds cultural biases regarding using these credentials to further stratify how teachers doing the same work are paid.

The current model makes sense if you believe that people in teaching positions don’t fully know what they’re doing for the first decade and this warrants the withholding of full pay. The approach is also a good one if you accept the idea that having five years of post-secondary education automatically makes you a better educator than someone with four but not as good as someone with six. The problem is that no one argues like this anymore because the arguments are not credible.  So why pay people differently on the basis of these approaches?

The bigger problem here comes down to the teacher increment ladder. Educators are underpaid for the nine to ten years it takes to reach full salary – the regular rate for the job. This encourages implementation of an extractivist approach to the use of educator labour. Extractivism is a concept developed by David Harvey, Veronica Gago, Nancy Fraser and others to describe power relationships which afford those in control the ability to confiscate or extract rising shares of value from their subordinates.[1]  It can apply to trading blocs, countries, regions or sectors of work.  In the case of K-12 education, it comes down to the people we rely on to run our public schools.

Young and inexperienced educators are placed in particularly challenging classroom environments for the early parts of their careers. Their teaching labour is exploited by virtue of substandard pay for this period. Their affective labour and emotional commitment to the work they perform is likewise exploited. Mental and emotional energy is extracted piecemeal by the demands of the job.

Replenishment of this energy is the responsibility of the individual. The system is tailor-made for frustration, resentment, feelings of isolation and failure, leading ultimately to burnout.

This translates directly to increased educator attrition and there is plenty of data out there that affirms this. Many young people entering the profession aren’t prepared for the twin pressures of dealing with the professional and emotional pressures of a new job while having to subsist on compressed pay levels for lengthy periods of time. Data from other jurisdictions shows that a rising percentage of teacher graduates elect not even to go into the public school system when graduating. Many young teachers also carry with them transferable skills which allow for the migration to other areas of work.  Less stress?  Better pay? Reduced feeling that your commitment to work is being used against you?  Hey, why not make that move?

Our public K-12 system relies implicitly on an extractivist dynamic to function with the limited financial resources it is afforded. For some time the model has not been sustainable.  What has made the problem critical is the pandemic-induced breakdowns of supply chains fueling price inflation. The influx of cash by governments to stall the slide into depression did work as intended but at the cost of building asset bubbles in areas like real estate. The knock-on effect has been deepened financialization of housing assets whether for purchase or for rent.  It used to be relatively straightforward to find a place to live within your means.  Not anymore. Not for young educators nor anyone else.  And not just in the Lower Mainland or South Island.

What to do?

We need to look at paying and supporting educators differently because the current model is dysfunctional.  Specifically,

  • Phase out the current increment system. Most other occupations, professions included, will have increments recognizing the movement to maximum career proficiency that last three or four years at most.  Why is teacher pay stuck at nine or ten years?
  • Raise the entry-level wage/salary so that it no more than 10% lower that the maximum rate. Anything more perpetuates financial and emotional extractivism and frustrates efforts to build system sustainability.
  • Give a serious look at the teacher qualification system that rewards people for academic degrees. If this doesn’t automatically make for better educators then why structure rewards as if it does? Perhaps we might build in pay recognition for other professional development activities not so closely aligned with acquiring formal academic qualifications?
  • Develop an apprenticeship model drawing on international examples that financially rewards experienced educators for mentoring and supporting their junior colleagues through the difficult early years of a career. This isn’t new or hugely innovative – the trades have been doing this for decades and, while they face their own recruitment issues, they are typically not ones related to burning out new people struggling to get a foothold on compressed incomes.

It’s time to think “outside the box” and look for innovative ideas to deal with a problem that is likely only to get worse. We can all support the call for more funding resources for public education but there is also a need to look at practical options for making better use of whatever resources are provided to support public schooling.

[1] David Harvey, Spaces of Global Capitalism (2019), Veronica Gago, Feminist International: How to Change Everything (2020), and Nancy Fraser, Cannibal Capitalism (2022).


Sidebar: Comparing teacher’s and nurse’s pay

How does teacher pay compare with that provided another female-dominated profession in BC’s public sector – nurses?

In 2023 a starting Category 5 Vancouver teacher (the most common designation) can expect to earn $65,176 for 10 months of annual employment. It takes that teacher 10 years to reach salary maximum and, when she gets there, she can expect to make $96,959 at current rates.  At almost 49%, the gap between these levels is high, so much so the new teacher starts off making only about 2/3 the full rate.

A starting Licensed Practice Nurse 1 in BC Health care makes $62,184 out of the gate (12-month employment) and maxes out 10 years later at $78,293 which is significantly lower than the teacher.


The more appropriate comparison would be with a Registered Nurse 3 (the most commonly paid nursing rate). An RN3 starts at $78,408 and reaches maximum after 10 years at $105,846. Both rates are considerably higher than those afforded Vancouver teachers.  And the gap separating min and max rates here is about 35%, considerably lower than teachers.

LPNs and RNs also benefit from long-term “Recognition Pay” if they stick it out in their jobs over the long haul.  In the case of an RN3, this can add up to $6,720 more at the top end of the pay scale.

Both teachers and nurses face serious recruitment and attrition challenges. The pay system for nurses isn’t perfect but it is better suited to addressing these challenges than that used with teachers.

What’s needed is a focus on the long and drawn-out increment path for both groups.

John D. Malcolmson, Ph.D, is an IPE/BC board member and a consulting sociologist providing research advice to unions on matters relating to compensation.