Schools' hands tied on hiring decisions due to new collective agreement

The latest collective agreement reached by the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers' Association will see candidates automatically offered permanent jobs teaching subjects in which they have little or no training, according to numerous people familiar with the deal consulted by CBC/Radio-Canada. 

Under the new collective agreement, ratified in March, seniority is now the determining factor in all permanent teacher hiring positions — and school principals will be unable to do anything about it.

Noel Hurley, an education professor at Memorial University, says that since the new collective agreement was inked, if a permanent teacher applies for a new permanent teaching position and responds to the "minimum requirements" set by the deal, they automatically get the job.

"The danger is is that you can now no longer hire somebody based on them being the most qualified and most excellent person for this position," Hurley said. "And it encourages people to just punch the clock, if you like."

"I hear a lot from teachers, and it's best to say that there's not much happiness either with principals or with teachers with this new collective agreement clause.… Principals have stated that it ties their hands completely. They're really upset about it."

More transparent process: NLTA president

The NLTA said the changes negotiated in the most recent collective agreement sought to make the permanent teacher hiring process more transparent.

"Seniority hiring puts a level of transparency in the process and removes perceived nepotism, sometimes real nepotism, from the system," said NLTA president Dean Ingram.

"It provides a level of objectivity to the process that was previously lacking."

Ingram said according to the new deal, any permanent teacher who received a new permanent position based on seniority must still prove they are "competent, suitable and qualified" for the job.

But Hurley said the bar for "competent, suitable and qualified" isn't all that high.

According to Hurley, if a teacher can demonstrate they've taught a given subject before, they would likely be considered competent enough to qualify for a position in that subject area, even if they'd never received formal university-level training in the field.

The previous collective agreement also contained rules related to seniority. Under the former deal, permanent teachers were considered for permanent positions prior to replacement or temporary employees.

But final hiring decisions were not so uniquely based on time served. For example, a permanent teacher with three years' experience could still be chosen for a job even if a teacher with 25 years' experience also applied.

Under the new rules, it's seniority or bust.

Frustration from students

Several current and retired teachers declined formal interviews with Radio-Canada. One teacher said the NLTA suggested she not answer Radio-Canada's questions.

But some students, such as Aaron Beswick, of Memorial University's faculty of education, chose to speak out.

"The latest collective agreement went from, as far as I understand, [being] very seniority based to almost exclusively seniority based in terms of hiring practices," said Beswick, who graduates from MUN in August and hopes to become an English teacher.

Beswick said a number of education students completed work terms in schools at the same time teachers in the province voted to accept the new collective agreement. He said he witnessed how the decision created stark divides between older and younger teachers at his school.

Stephanie Tobin/CBC

Beswick said he knows several classmates who, since the latest agreement's ratification, became worried about finding jobs in Newfoundland and Labrador and decided to take teaching positions outside the province.

He recently accepted a job teaching in the U.K., even though he'd much rather work full-time closer to home.

"The teachers who are staying here understand that it's going to be a long fight to get a job," Beswick said.

"They're willing to do that because they love this province, right? But it's very difficult."

Noel Hurley said he fears the new collective agreement rewards longevity rather than excellence in teaching.

Beswick agrees and adds that the agreement's provisions related to seniority-based hiring could lead to a lack of diversity in teaching staffs, especially at urban schools, where permanent positions can be much more competitive.

"We have [new] teachers who are willing to push the ball forward on new methods of pedagogy, new ideas, new methods of social justice, things that are shown to benefit our students," Beswick said.

"We talk about diversity and inclusion and that's one of the biggest things in our education system right now. So why shouldn't our staffs be a model for that?"

Echoes from Ontario?

In 2012, Ontario's former Liberal government introduced Regulation 274, a teacher hiring policy similarly based on seniority and similarly intended to make the teacher recruitment process more transparent.

Over the following years, however, it was harshly criticized by parents, teachers and principals for its rigidity.

In April, Ontario's Progressive Conservative government said it would axe the regulation, but no changes have yet to be made. Lisa Thompson, then the province's education minister, called the rules "outdated" and said they "did not recognize teachers who were excelling at their jobs."

The Newfoundland and Labrador English School District said it "cannot speak to the particulars of the Ontario situation or how they may compare to Newfoundland and Labrador. The district is focused on the correct implementation of the new collective agreement in this jurisdiction."

It confirmed, however, that in scenarios where permanent teachers apply for a new permanent position, "interviews may not necessarily be used in the recruitment process."

NLESD also confirmed "some concerns" related the new seniority-based hiring rules "have been expressed to the district, but the provisions in the clause must be adhered to as part of a negotiated collective agreement."

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