When a classroom of French immersion kindergarten students arrived at the elementary school in 100 Mile House, B.C., in September, 2017, they should have enjoyed the best learning environment in a generation. The Supreme Court of Canada had issued a ruling restoring contract language that requires smaller classes and greater supports for students with special needs, forcing the province to hire 3,700 new teachers.
But the provincewide recruitment rush meant the school could not find a qualified teacher, and instead the students were greeted by a teacher who had just graduated from high school months earlier.
“It was clear she was in over her head,” said Murray Helmer, president of the Cariboo-Chilcotin Teachers’ Association. The young woman, without teaching experience or formal training, served until a qualified replacement was finally persuaded to take the job, in January, 2018.
The circumstances in 100 Mile House are not unique. To fill the thousands of new positions, school districts have been competing fiercely for recruits. And now that many teachers on call have moved into the new full-time positions, B.C. schools find themselves with an acute shortage of substitute teachers.
The unintended consequences of the court ruling have been, in some cases, cuts to French immersion and special-needs supports; a five-fold increase in the number of unqualified teachers in B.C. schools; and, in many classrooms, teachers spending less time with their pupils.
The hiring spree began in the summer of 2017, following the hard-won court victory of the BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF). The union said that teachers would once again have the time to give students the individual care and attention they need and deserve.
Scaling back up in the classroom after more than a decade of austerity, however, has proven to be difficult.
The new money – roughly $1-billion over the past two years – was intended, in part, to restore specialist teachers such as counsellors and special-needs resource educators. But because of the shortage of teachers on call, those specialists are now frequently required to fill in for classroom teachers.
To make matters worse, the demand for substitute teachers has spiked, because many classrooms still don’t meet the terms of the restored contract language. In those cases, teachers are offered “remedy” – a formula that offers extra preparation time during school hours to make up for the inability of the employer to actually reduce the teacher’s work load. What that means for students is less time with their regular classroom teacher.
Across the board, Education Minister Rob Fleming says things are better.
“For the second year in a row, we have the smallest class sizes in a generation. We have about half the classes reduced that used to be over 30 students,” he said in an interview. “We had the largest hiring spree in generations, all at once, and school districts did remarkably well."
But he could not say how many classes remain outside the class size and composition language, which varies between the province’s 60 school districts.
Remedy has had far-reaching impacts
The remedy is a formula, negotiated between the teachers’ union and the BC Public School Employers’ Association, to provide workload relief to individual teachers when the restored contract language can’t be met. Teachers may be offered additional preparation time, cash or a second teacher to help with the class. Most have opted for prep time. That means teachers spend less time in their classrooms.
There are 11 school districts – including some of the province’s largest – that haven’t been able to fully restore class size and composition. The Vancouver School Board alone calculated a total of 3,429 classroom days of remedy last year. That’s the equivalent of taking 18 full-time teachers out of the classroom. (That amount of remedy proved so disruptive that many teachers did not take their full allotment, and 2,604 days’ worth is still owed in that district alone.)
In Coquitlam, the province’s third-largest school district, almost half the public-school teachers were owed remedy last year. Some class sizes can’t be reduced because of the physical limitations of school facilities, but recruitment and retention challenges are also problem.
Special-needs students sent home
Ken Christensen, president of the Coquitlam Teachers Association, said the hiring of new teachers has improved learning conditions for some students, but he is blunt about who has not come out ahead.
“It came at a cost," he said. “We have a decrease in support for kids with special needs.”
Every day in the school district, he said, there is a system of triage to replace classroom teachers. If a substitute teacher is not available, specialist teachers are assigned to classroom work, which means they are not assisting students with special needs or those in elective programs.
The volunteer organization BCEdAccess Society, which works on behalf of families of students with disabilities and complex learning needs, is tracking a disturbing trend of children being excluded from classes because the school could not provide for them.
“There are so many of our kids not in school – that’s our biggest crisis right now,” said Nicole Kaler, an activist with the society. And the teacher shortage is making it worse. “Our kids have been struggling with having resources teachers, and that support is the first to go when there a teacher shortage."
At the start of the current school year, the group asked parents to report whenever their child was sent home from school because of a lack of support – for a full day, a partial day or a field trip. Even though it is a limited survey, shared among the group’s members, they calculated there had been roughly 2,600 incidents by early February.
Smaller class sizes have to date not delivered for such students. “That has become normalized for our families," Ms. Kaler said.
Non-certified teachers on the rise
BCTF president Glen Hansman says these issues show the government has not completed the investments needed to improve B.C. education.
“I get the sense that they look at the 3,700 teacher positions that have been restored by the language and maybe think that is all they need to do,” he said.
One particular concern is the increase in the number of non-certified teachers who have been hired across the province to fill in when a certified teacher cannot be found.
According to the province, school districts can hire qualified instructors who do not have a teaching certificate, but this usually happens in rural districts where recruitment is especially challenging or when specialized skills are needed.
However, the number of unlicensed teachers in schools with a “letter of permission” from the Teachers Regulation Branch has increased five-fold over the past two years. (The majority are in private schools, which are facing an acute shortage of teachers as well due to the hiring demand in public schools.)
Within the public system, the practice is at an all-time high, and Mr. Hansman blames the current teacher shortage. He argues B.C. needs to put more on the table to recruit teachers from outside the province.
“We need to make sure those kids in Fort St. John and Nechako have actual trained teachers working with them,” he said.
Smaller classes mean fewer opportunities for French immersion.
Glyn Lewis, executive director of the regional chapter of Canadian Parents for French, said it is clear that there are fewer options for students to study French in B.C. now.
“After the changes to class size and composition, things got worse. Overnight, we needed more French teachers and we didn’t have them," he said.
“We estimate we are short 150 to 250 teachers for this school year,” he added, but no one seems to be tracking it provincewide. "I don’t know, and the government doesn’t know.”
He said the quality of instruction may have degenerated, as well. “Unfortunately, some schools have had to put French teachers in the classroom even when they don’t feel entirely comfortable teaching French.”
The Vancouver School District, with chronic wait lists for French immersion classes, cut 135 classroom seats because of the restoration of the contract language.
Before the court ruling, Vancouver had expanded the French immersion program every year over 15 years, according to Adrian Keough, director of instruction for learning services for the district.
Mr. Keough was part of a government-funded delegation that travelled to Europe last spring to recruit French-language teachers to help address the shortage in B.C. That recruitment effort is a work in progress.
Bargaining is now under way for the first new teachers’ contract since the Supreme Court ruling. This next contract will be key to smoothing out the bumps that have emerged in the process of fixing the illegal contract stripping of 17 years ago.