No one to fill in: Number of substitute teachers in N.L. has sunk

When teachers get sick or have to be away from a classroom for other reasons, we all assume there'll be someone to fill in.

But schools across Newfoundland and Labrador are facing a shortage of substitute teachers.

The province's English School District put out a call on social media earlier this month to say they're looking for extra substitutes in all regions.

Dean Ingram, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers' Association, said the shortage is worse than it's been in a long time and it's no longer limited to smaller schools in rural areas.

"We're getting it happening more and more in urban and semi-urban areas," Ingram said.

Currently, there are about 1,300 registered substitutes across the province, according to the N.L. English School District: 680 in Avalon region, 290 in central, 230 in western and 41 in Labrador. 

Not just in small schools

Ingram said he's had reports in this school year from the Stephenville area and even St. John's about the challenge of finding substitutes.

He said he has a copy of a recent email from a St. John's area school that indicated no substitutes were available for a given day.

The email outlined what would have to happen if more teachers needed to be out of the classroom, he said.

"When those teachers aren't available, there's changes and modifications that have to happen in the school schedule," said Ingram.

"And that creates a ripple effect throughout the entire system."

A few years ago, Ingram said, such a shortage of substitutes in the St. John's area would be unheard of.

Double trouble

When a teacher is absent and no replacement can be found, Ingram said classes sometimes have to be doubled up so that all students have someone responsible to supervise them.

He said instructional resource teachers, school counsellors, or even school principals or vice-principals may be called on to lead a class, taking them away from their regular duties.

Eddy Kennedy/CBC

And Ingram said a lack of substitutes can mean teachers have to take time away from their own preparatory work to supervise students whose regular teacher is absent.

The shortage is most acute in teaching specialities such as French Immersion, said Ingram, in an interview with CBC Newfoundland Morning.

The bottom line for Ingram is that the experience of students is compromised when replacement teachers aren't available.

No rest for the retired

Ingram said calling back retired teachers to work as substitutes is part of the solution for some schools, but he cautions that's not really a long-term fix.

He said retired teachers are definitely being used as substitutes more than a decade ago and, even then, schools are still struggling to find replacements when needed.

In more remote locations, some schools have even had to rely on emergency supply personnel who don't have teaching degrees at all but who are called in to supervise classes because they're the only option.

Ingram said he thinks the district could better streamline the process of getting substitute teachers approved for work in the province.

District making an effort 

The English school district acknowledges that the substitute shortage is now happening in larger centres, whereas it was traditionally confined to rural and remote regions.

But, in an emailed statement, the district said the need for substitute teachers often fluctuates throughout any given year, and can be attributed to things like flu season, professional development schedules, and substitutes getting work on contract.

The statement goes on to say that last week's call for substitute teachers was successful in identifying some possible candidates. About 20 new registrants came forward after the district's social media post, including four in the Western region of the province.

The NLESD also clarified that there has been no change in the guidelines surrounding booking substitute teachers. For example, if a school needs a math teacher, it will look to hire a substitute teacher with a math background. If no math substitutes are available, schools will move on to other substitutes with other areas of training in order to fill the need, said the school district. 

Goodbye teachers

Ingram says the recent effort is a good start, but he believes the root of the problem is a lack of emphasis on overall recruitment and retention.

As a result, some teachers have been lured away to jobs in places such as Alberta and B.C., which have had big recruitment drives in recent years.

And Ingram said some teachers have left the career behind altogether out of frustration.

"Teaching is becoming more and more challenging and it's becoming less attractive as a profession for a number of individuals and recruitment and retention is a real concern," said Ingram.

He said greater attention to issues of workload, compensation, and job satisfaction could go a long way to making the province more attractive for teachers generally, and he said he believes that would mean more substitutes would stick around, too.

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