‘Slipping through the cracks’: Teacher shortage mars first weeks in some B.C. schools

Click to play video: 'Teacher shortage impacting B.C. students'
Teacher shortage impacting B.C. students
It's nearly the end of the first month of school, and many B.C. students are still without a full-time teacher. A staffing shortage has meant some classes are being covered by teachers-on-call. And as Janet Brown reports, the situation is particularly troublesome in fast growing districts like Coquitlam – Sep 25, 2023

Some Lower Mainland parents are worried their children have been disadvantaged this school year, without a full-time teacher assigned to the classroom for the first few weeks of September.

Danielle Plaza said her 10-year-old daughter read books, did word searches and solved crossword puzzles for the first three weeks of school, as a rotating group of teachers-on-call (TOCs) spearheaded lessons. It’s a far cry from the normalcy and routine she said she and her daughter had hoped for after the disruption of the pandemic.

“One day she had three different teachers come in between helping teachers, school counsellors, TOCs,” Plaza told Global News. “She’s behind the eight ball.

“It’s a crucial time for her to learn, the last year of elementary school before transitioning into that middle school program out here. I just feel like it’s slipping through the cracks. There’s only so much I can do at home with her.”

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A full-time teacher was hired and assigned to the Port Coquitlam classroom Monday, Plaza added. The mother of two said other parents in the school district have reported similar challenges in their kids’ classrooms, and she has raised the issue with school trustees and the principal.

Click to play video: 'B.C. interior school district offers new teachers cash incentives'
B.C. interior school district offers new teachers cash incentives

The B.C. government has acknowledged a widespread teacher shortage.

Both Premier David Eby and Education Minister Rachna Singh have said the province added more than 250 teacher training seats in universities to help address it, and is considering recognizing international teaching credentials as well. The province also boosted wages for teachers in its December 2022 deal with the BC Teachers’ Federation.

In September, the Gold Trail School District in B.C.’s Interior offered a cash incentive to new teachers to combat the shortage, thanks to $200,000 from an anonymous donor. At least 13 teachers took the district up on the offer, receiving a $10,000 or $15,000-bonus.

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The district, encompassing Ashcroft, Cache Creek, Lillooet and Lytton, was short 22 teachers out of just over 100 last year.

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No more letter grades for most B.C. students

Ken Christensen, president of the Coquitlam Teachers’ Association, said the Coquitlam School District — where Plaza’s child is enrolled — had about 650 more new students than projected this year, contributing to the staffing challenge.

“It looks like things are settling down now, it looks like the employer is getting to the point where they’re able to fully staff, but that’s taken a little more time than expected this year because of these additional students that had shown up,” he said.

The TOCs are capable educators, Christensen added, and while he’s not sure it’s fair to suggest any student has missed out on three weeks of instruction, he said other important things certainly take place in the first three weeks of school.

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“A lot of what happens in September is setting expectations, making sure that the culture of the classroom is solid for the rest of the year. It’s important work — there’s no question — because this is a social enterprise what we do here,” he said.

“That is a loss if those things are not handled because the rest of the school year needs to go smoothly and it sometimes doesn’t go smoothly if you don’t have those initial things set up in the beginning of the school year by the teacher.”

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Education minister talks about back to school

Both Plaza and Christensen agreed, however, they would like to see more collaboration and work towards a long-term solution for recruitment and retention.

Christensen said reducing workloads for teachers would be a big step forward, as would improving salaries beyond what was agreed to in the 2022 agreement.

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Clint Johnston, president of the BC Teachers’ Federation, has repeatedly called on the province to track teacher shortages, as it relies on internal surveys to gauge the scale of the problem.

“There’s not a district or local that I hear from that doesn’t have concerns about the effect the shortage is having. I’d say it’s got to be at least in the thousands, easily,” he told Global News on Monday.

He also thought insufficient pay compared to other professions and the rising cost of living, as well as burnout were primary challenges in retention. Staff in B.C.’s Kindergarten to Grade 12 sector are set to have a meeting to discuss the shortage and possible solutions, he added.

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